Sustainability and Complexity: Are We Doomed to Repeat History? by William Ophuls

The more complex a society, the more difficult it is to solve problems and avoid catastrophe. Sustainability advocates need to take a fresh look at the challenges if they are to plan effectively for real-world outcomes.

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Sustainability as usually understood is an oxymoron. Using the found wealth of the New World and the geological legacy of fossil hydrocarbons, we modern humans have created an anti-ecological Titanic. Every effort to “green” this monstrous vessel—making the deck chairs recyclable, feeding the boilers with biofuels, installing hybrid winches and windlasses, and the like—is doomed to fail in the long run, because what is required is a radical change in our thinking and way of life. There are many obstacles to such a transformation, but one in particular is under-appreciated: the challenge of complexity.

Civilization’s Vicious Circle

Civilizations are trapped in vicious circles. They must keep solving the problems of complexity, for that is the sine qua non of civilized existence; but every solution creates new, ever more difficult problems, which then require new, ever more demanding solutions.

Thus complexity breeds more of the same, and each increase in complexity makes it harder to cope, while at the same time escalating the penalty for failure. Breakdown becomes unavoidable in the long run. In effect, civilizations enact a tragedy in which their raison d’être –the use of energy to foster the complexity that raises them above the hunter-gatherer level of subsistence—becomes the agent of their ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately, beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems. Specifically, it leads to what scientists call “chaos,” meaning a system is characterized by so many feedback loops operating in a nonlinear fashion that its behavior becomes more and more impenetrable and unpredictable and therefore less and less manageable, because neither the timing nor the severity of specific events is foreseeable.

Complexity Leads to Unpredictability and Crisis

Complex adaptive systems can be more or less stable and robust, but in general, the greater the complexity, the greater the criticality. Thus increasing the complexity of a civilization inexorably pushes it toward the critical end of the spectrum, meaning that both the challenges and the risks of managing its systems begin to compound.

In fact, complex adaptive systems cannot be managed in the usual sense of that word. Just understanding system behavior, let alone controlling it, challenges the human mind. Our minds and language are linear and sequential, but in systems many causes routinely come together to produce many effects.

Thus systems tend to overwhelm us both intellectually and practically. Even highly sophisticated models are no match for the irreducible uncertainty characteristic of complex adaptive systems. In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing such systems. What they can neither fully understand nor precisely predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure of some sort is inevitable at some point.

The tedious repetition of financial crises provides a perfect illustration. The financial system is the epitome of a chaotic system. Generation after generation of highly motivated, talented and well-capitalized individuals in both the public and private sectors have time and again failed to prevent intoxicating booms from becoming devastating busts—and this despite the lessons of economic history, which are quite well understood.

Efficiency, Connectivity Erode Resilience

Societies struggling with the dilemmas of complexity are vulnerable from two directions. First, systems that are too tightly coupled or too efficient are fragile; they lack resilience. Thus they risk being toppled by a cascade of failure. That is how region-wide electrical outages propagate. The failure of one sector brings down another and another until the grid itself fails, and once down it takes heroic effort to get it up and running again.

Second, they are exposed to simultaneous failure. When formerly separate problems coalesce into a problematique, a nexus of interlocking problems, the society does not face one or two discrete challenges, as in simpler times, but instead a swarm of simultaneous challenges that can overwhelm its capacity to respond, thereby provoking a general collapse.

Take climate change as a current example. To address this overall problem will require us to surmount a host of challenges in many different sectors (e.g., agriculture, forestry, public health, energy production, infrastructure and so on) not only in one country or economy but in every country—to varying degrees.

Can Civilization Be Reformed?

Dire implications follow directly from seeing civilizations as chaotic in the scientific sense. Complex adaptive systems are stable until they are overstressed. Then one perturbation too many, or one that arrives at the wrong moment, can tip the system into instability virtually overnight, with unpredictable and frequently distressing consequences.

The second implication is even more distressing to contemplate: there may be no way to reform an advanced civilization. Complex adaptive systems operate according to their own inner dynamic, which can only be imperfectly understood by the human mind or influenced by human conduct.

Once a civilization is plagued by numerous intractable problems, most attempts at reform will therefore either fail or make matters worse. Indeed, ironically, it may be the very effort to reform that precipitates a collapse. It was perestroika and glasnost that precipitated the implosion of the USSR. Similarly, it was Louis XVI’s convening of the Estates-General that triggered the revolution and regicide that liquidated the ancient régime.

As these examples suggest, planning to avoid breakdown or to make a gradual and controlled transition from one stable state to another may be next to impossible. In effect, chaos sets at naught the human pretension to mastery of the historical process.

That does not mean that planning and reform are useless. However, it does mean that our overdeveloped industrial civilization seems unlikely to achieve a gentle, painless and orderly transition to a state in which humanity peacefully coexists with nature.

About the author: “For decades, William Ophuls has been among the world’s most original thinkers about the implications of our global ecological crisis for freedom, democracy, and political order. In Plato’s Revenge, he goes to the essence of this crisis: the deep, tacit, and widespread beliefs that nature and society are nothing more than machines, that the state should play no role in cultivating citizens’ virtue, and that self-interested individuals should rely solely on reason to guide their lives. Ophuls weaves together the ideas of some of history’s greatest thinkers to argue that humankind’s future lies in small, simple republics that cultivate their citizens’ virtue through natural law. In doing so, he shreds conventional wisdom and invigorates our conversation about the kind of world we intend our grandchildren to inherit.”

—Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.

Source: http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1116-sustainability-and-complexity-are-we-doomed-to-repeat-history

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Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge by James Magnus-Johnston

 

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

If human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, that would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.

What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?

A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.

Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.

But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.

The Survivalists among us are easiest to spot. We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined ‘$h!t’ hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.

Then there are the Hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather than heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?

And finally, the Denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe—just maybe—human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.

I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn Spaceship Earth around.

Source: The Daly News, Posted: 27 Nov 2014, from CASSE <http://steadystate.org/&gt;

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Climate Change and World Population: Still Avoiding Each Other by Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin 

Over the last four decades—despite rapid population growth, the addition of three billion people, increased global warming and international conferences on these issues—actions to address world population growth and climate change continued to run along parallel paths. [image by Eric Moore]

Over the last four decades—despite rapid population growth, the addition of three billion people, increased global warming and international conferences on these issues—actions to address world population growth and climate change continued to run along parallel paths. [image by Eric Moore]

Despite their intimate relationship, climate change and world population are still not talking to each other. The lack of meaningful dialogue has persisted for decades, with both seeming to deliberately ignore the significance, relevance and impact of the other.

With the simultaneous convening on Sept. 22 of a special session of the United Nations General Assembly marking the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development and the UN Climate Summit on Sept. 23, this estranged relationship is now more glaring. Both gatherings are taking place within shouting distance of one another at UN headquarters in New York.

With growing concerns and uncertainties about the extent of the detrimental consequences of rapid population growth and climate change, the international community of nations convened the first World Population Conference in 1974 and the first World Climate Conference in 1979. Growing at 2% annually, global population increases reached a record high, doubling the world population in just 38 years. At the same time, rising amounts of carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere pointed to a gradual warming of the Earth. The recommendations for action emanating from these groundbreaking conferences, however, essentially ignored each other.

Over the last four decades—despite rapid population growth, the addition of three billion people, increased global warming and international conferences on these issues—actions to address world population growth and climate change continued to run along parallel paths.

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In Praise of Wilderness and Moving Beyond Self by Howie Wolke 

Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.

Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.

A few years ago, I led a group through the wilds of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range during the early autumn caribou migration. I think that if I had fourteen lifetimes I’d never again experience anything quite so primeval, so simple and rudimentary, and so utterly and uncompromisingly wild. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this beheld my eye above all else. Maybe that trek—in one of the ultimate terrestrial wildernesses remaining on Earth—is my personal quintessence of what constitutes real wilderness among a lifetime of wilderness experience. The tundra was a rainbow of autumn pelage. Fresh snow engulfed the peaks and periodically the valleys, too. Animals were everywhere, thousands of them, moving across valleys, through passes, over divides, atop ridges. Wolves chased caribou. A grizzly on a carcass temporarily blocked our route through a narrow pass. It was a week I’ll never forget, a week of an ancient world that elsewhere is rapidly receding into the frightening nature-deficit technophilia of the twenty-first century.

Some claim that wilderness is defined by our perception, which is shaped by our circumstance and experience. For example, one who has never been to the Brooks Range but instead has spent most of her life confined to big cities with little exposure to wild nature might consider a farm woodlot to be “wilderness.” Or a small state park laced with dirt roads. Or, for that matter, a cornfield, though this seems to stretch this theory of wilderness relativity to the point of obvious absurdity. According to this line of thought, wilderness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet those who believe that perception defines wilderness are dead wrong. In our culture, wilderness is a very distinct and definable entity, and it can be viewed on two complementary levels. First, from a legal standpoint, the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness quite clearly. A designated wilderness area is defined as “untrammeled,” which means “unconfined” or “unrestricted.” It further says wilderness is “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent human improvements or habitation.” The law also generally prohibits road building and resource extraction such as logging and mining. Plus, it sets a general guideline of 5,000 acres as a minimum size for a wilderness.  Furthermore, it banishes to non-wilderness lands all mechanized conveniences, from mountain bikes and game carts to noisy fume-belching all-terrain vehicles and snow machines.

In addition to wilderness as a legal entity, we also have a closely related cultural view, steeped in mystery and romance and influenced by our history, which yes, includes the hostile view of wilderness that was particularly prevalent during the early days of settlement. Today, our cultural view of wilderness is generally positive. This view is greatly influenced by the Wilderness Act, which means when people speak of wilderness in lieu of legal definitions, they speak of country that’s big, wild, and undeveloped, where nature rules. And that certainly isn’t a woodlot or cornfield. In summary, then, wilderness is wild nature with all her magic and unpredictability. It lacks roads, motors, pavement and structures, but comes loaded with unknown wonders and challenges that at least some humans increasingly crave in today’s increasingly controlled and confined world.

Untrammeled wilderness by definition comes with fire and insects, predator and prey, and the dynamic unpredictability of wild nature, existing in its own way in its own right, with utter disregard for human preference, convenience, and comfort. And perception. As the word’s etymological roots connote, wilderness is “self-willed land,” and the “home of wild beasts.”

It is also the ancestral home of all that we know in this world, and it spawned civilization, although I’m not convinced this is a good thing.  So wilderness isn’t just any old unpaved undeveloped landscape. It isn’t merely a blank space on the map. For within that blank space might be all sorts of human malfeasance that have long since destroyed the essence of real wilderness: pipelines, power-lines, water diversions, overgrazed wastelands, and off-road vehicle scars, for example. No, wilderness isn’t merely a place that lacks development. It is unspoiled and primeval, a sacred place in its own right. Wilderness designation is a statement to all who would otherwise keep the industrial juggernaut rolling: Hands off! This place is special! Designated wilderness is supposed to be different “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape.” (Wilderness Act, section 2c)

Wilderness provides us with some defense against the collective disease of “landscape amnesia.” I began to use this term in the early 1990s while writing an educational tabloid on wilderness and roadless areas. It had begun to occur to me that, as we continue to tame nature, each ensuing generation becomes less aware of what constitutes a healthy landscape because so many components of the landscape gradually disappear. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly brought to a boil, society simply fails to notice until it’s too late, if it notices at all. For example, few alive today remember when extensive cottonwood floodplain forests were healthy and common throughout the West. So today’s generations view our currently depleted floodplains as “normal.” Thus there’s no impetus to restore the ecosystem. This principle applies to wilderness. Wilderness keeps at least some areas intact, wild and natural, for people to see. We don’t forget what we can still see with our own eyes. Moreover, when we keep wilderness wild, there is less danger that as a society we’ll succumb to wilderness amnesia, and forget what real wilderness is.

Perhaps the most important thing that sets wilderness apart is that real wilderness is dynamic, always in flux, never the same from one year or decade or century to the next, never stagnant, and entirely unconstrained despite unrelenting human efforts to control nearly everything. Natural processes such as wildfire, flood, predation, and native insects are (or should be) allowed to shape the wilderness landscape as they have throughout the eons. Remember, wilderness areas are wild and untrammeled, in contrast with areas dominated by humankind. That domination includes our interference with the natural forces and processes that shape a true wilderness landscape.

It has been said that wilderness cannot be created; it can only be protected where it still persists. There is some truth here, but there’s a big gray area too. Even though most new wilderness units are carved out of relatively unspoiled roadless areas, Congress is free to designate any area of federal land as wilderness, even lands that have been impacted by past human actions, such as logging and road building. In fact, Congress has designated such lands as wilderness on numerous occasions. Once designated, agencies are legally required by the Wilderness Act to manage such lands as wilderness. Time and the elements usually do the rest. For example, most wildernesses in the eastern U.S. were once heavily logged and laced with roads and skid trails. Today, they have re-attained a good measure of their former wildness.

Wilderness is about humility. It’s a statement that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves. It moves us beyond self, and that, I think, can lead only to good things.

Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that non-human life forms and the landscapes that support them have intrinsic value, just because they exist, independent of their multiple benefits to the human species.  Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily about recreation, although that’s certainly one of its many values. Nor is it about the “me first” attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups. It’s about selflessness, about setting our egos aside and doing what’s best for the land. It’s about wholeness, not fragments. After all, wilderness areas—despite their problems—are still our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters, and they tend to support our healthiest wildlife populations, particularly for many species that have become rare or extirpated in places that are less wild.

Having made a living primarily as a wilderness guide/outfitter for over three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many wild places throughout western North America and occasionally far beyond. Were I to boil what I’ve learned down to one succinct statement, it’d probably be this: Wilderness is about restraint. As Howard Zahniser stated, wilderness managers must be “guardians, not gardeners.” When in doubt, leave it alone. For if we fail to restrain our manipulative impulses in wilderness, where on Earth might we ever find untrammeled lands?

Finally, when we fail to protect, maintain, and restore real wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children and grandchildren—and to future generations of non-human life—the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is too quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time. Luckily, we still have the opportunity to both designate and properly protect a considerable chunk of the once enormous American wilderness. Let’s not squander that opportunity. We need to protect as much as possible. And let’s keep wilderness truly wild, for that, by definition, is what wilderness is, and no substitute will suffice.

Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is a past president and current board member of Wilderness Watch. This piece was first published in “Wilderness: Reclaiming the Legacy” ©2011.  Source: Keeping Wilderness WILD! The blog of Wilderness Watch http://wildernesswatch.wordpress.com

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The Myth of Human Progress by Chris Hedges

We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers.

MythofHumanProgress

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.” ~ Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress

Clive Hamilton in his Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year [2012] in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies, Charles L. Redman in Human Impact on Ancient Environments, and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet may go with us. There will, with this collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding,  overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in A Short History of Progress the ‘progress trap’. We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Wright, who in his dystopian novel A Scientific Romance paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.

Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.

“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the  constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to Earth and save us.

“Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away,” Wright said. “There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.”

“We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring,” Wright said. “It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.”

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea,” Wright said.

Chris Hedges, a columnist for Truthdig, began his career reporting the war in El Salvador. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Reprinted with permission from TRUTHDIG, January 14, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_myth_of_human_progress_20130113/.

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The New Economy versus Today’s Flat Earthers: Time to Change the Discourse by Eric Zencey

Only madmen and economists, Kenneth Boulding once said, believe exponential growth can go on forever.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more.

Beyond all reason and evidence, standard economics remains dedicated to the idea of perpetual increase in our species’ stock of wealth, income, and material wellbeing. Their infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th  century to Adam Smith in in the middle of the 18th. They thought the planet was obviously capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by the extraordinary energies of coal and oil.

But the more than seven billion of us who are alive today live on a substantially different planet. It doesn’t have supposedly infinite tracts of untramelled, virgin land, ripe for being ravished by swaggering, overconfident exploiters. We need a new, steady state economy suited to the planet we have, not the one that economists thought we had two hundred years ago. We need a post-infinite-growth economy (and new breed of economist) respectful of the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity. Absent that, our civilization is set to destroy its root in nature.

But the New Economy Movement is about more than ecological sanity. It seeks other practical and desirable solutions, like:

  • a living wage for workers;
  • a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
  • sharp limits to the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich; and
  • a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors, and the planet.

We seek, in a word, economic justice.

That can seem a very different goal than sustainability, but it isn’t. Ironically enough, mainstream economists recognize the two goals are related. The remedy they offer for the injustice of poverty is the same remedy they offer for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental quality or solve the problem of poverty.

The New Economy Movement must show–must insist–that this is mistaken. It must show that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change, and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.

In the Infinite Planet Thinking of mainstream economics, human population growth is always a good thing: humans are “The Ultimate Resource,” capable of infinite imagination, infinite invention. But in the world as it is, human invention is limited by physical law: you’ll never have a car that you can push backwards and fill the gas tank.

Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or the human economy:

  • degrades our quality of life,
  • further increases our ecological footprint, and
  • leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy–rule and ignore ecological constraints, and thereby
  • condemn our civilization to collapse.

Meanwhile, population growth produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class and dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs. Sounds familiar.

Economic growth and human population growth proceed as if the planet were infinite–and those who express concern are challenged with being anti-human, pessimistic, or “neo-Malthusian.” It’s time to change the discourse. With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “Infinite Planet Thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “Flat Earth Theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that CASSE and the New Economy Movement seek to advance will be on their way to general acceptance. I think that when they see it framed this way, most people will choose the new, steady state economy.

Imagining the possible, and working to make it real, is more realistic than continuing to assume the planet is impossibly infinite.

Source: Our friends at the Center for A Steady State Economy (CASSE) The Daly News, 16 October 2014.

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Mourn for Martha by Richard Grossman

“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone” — Joni Mitchell

The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.

The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.

Although the Ebola epidemic is terrible, there is an invisible epidemic that might end up being even worse for humanity. We depend on the great web of life, but paradoxically we are constantly weakening that web.

We receive services from many different biological species and communities. Plants remove carbon dioxide and harmful chemicals, purifying the air we breathe and liberating oxygen. Various invertebrate animals cleanse both salt and fresh water. Bees pollinate a quarter of our crops.  The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, we humans are causing animals and plants to go extinct at a terrible rate. There have been five prior eras of mass extinction—the most recent was 65 million years ago when a huge meteor plunged to Earth. The resulting explosion threw up dust that altered the climate for centuries, and ended most of then current life—including dinosaurs.

Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction of species is about 1000 times normal. The causes of this epidemic include loss of habitat, climate change, introduction of exotic species and pollution. What do these have in common? They are all human-caused. The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.

The dodo is a classic example. It was a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius. In the 17th century sailors stopped there to replenish food and water supplies. The dodo had no fear of humans and was an easy target—sailors could walk right up and club them for fresh meat. The last of these innocent animals was slaughtered before 1700.

Closer to home, the passenger pigeon filled the skies of North America in the 19th century. Their annual migrations were estimated to encompass several billion birds! They were easy prey for hunters; sometimes people brought them down simply by throwing sticks or rocks in the air. It was thought that the supply of this delicious meat would never end.

You probably already know the end of this story. The last passenger pigeon, “Martha”, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago. Attempts to find a mate for Martha had been unsuccessful. Causes of the extinction were overhunting and loss of habitat, since much of the North American forest was being cut down and plowed. We now know that even if an amorous male had been found, the species still wouldn’t have been saved. Some species have complex social systems and require large numbers to survive. Passenger pigeons were gregarious—they needed huge flocks to breed successfully. Furthermore, from a genetic standpoint, diversity is important to prevent lethal mutations from gaining sway.

We are incredibly fortunate that two other species of birds—the California condor and the whooping crane—were saved from extinction before their numbers reached a critical low figure. There were just 23 whoopers alive in 1941 when protection and a captive breeding program saved the tallest of all American birds. Luckily, this small number of individuals must have had adequate genetic diversity to keep the species healthy, because now there are about 600 of these magnificent birds.

Why not splice some of Martha’s genetic material into the DNA of a related pigeon so the passenger pigeon species can be resurrected? Theoretically, “de-extinction” might be possible using modern genetics, but the concept has problems. Remember they need a huge flock to be sustainable. The major problem, however, is that de-extinction is a diversion from saving species from extermination in the first place. What we really need is the humility to share resources with other species.

To commemorate the centennial of Martha’s final flight, the Smithsonian has established the multimedia program “Once There Were Billions”. Striking statues of passenger pigeons, part of The Lost Bird Project (www.lostbirdproject.org), are on display in Washington.

Bees are in trouble. Colony Collapse Disorder has devastated almost a third of honeybee colonies worldwide. Many native bees species are also being ravaged. What is causing this collapse?  Research points to climate change (some flowers bloom before the insects are ready), harmful mites and a virus. In addition, omnipresent neonicotinoid insecticides—used by us—are killing bees.

Biological diversity is essential for human survival, yet, unthinkingly, we are rapidly destroying species in unprecedented numbers. We should safeguard the web of life, for our own species’ sake.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2014. Dr. Grossman practices obstetrics and gynecology in Durango, CO. For years he has written an award-winning column for the Durango Herald newspaper.

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Filed under Environment, Population, Sustainability, Wildlife