Category Archives: Climate

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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From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles: The Great Turning by David W. Orr

FrameWorld

We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

“Only connect” – E. M. Forster

Implications for education and the educated

Vicious Gyres

Fifteen-hundred miles west of Seattle, in the middle of the North Pacific, a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge is caught in ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. It is estimated to be the size of the lower 48 states at a depth of 100-1000 feet. But no one knows for certain how large or how deep, only that it is massive and growing. Some of the most amazing things humans have ever made float in what has been renamed the “North Pacific Garbage Gyre.” They are made primarily of oil extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth, which is another remarkable story. The impact on marine organisms and sea life is poorly documented but it is between disastrous and catastrophic. Some of the debris is ingested by birds and fish who mistake floating plastic doo-dads for food. Some of it breaks down into long-lived toxic compounds. Despite its size and ecological effects the North Pacific Garbage Gyre is distant enough to be out of sight and out of mind.

Another gyre of gases circulates around the Earth six miles above our heads, the result of our annual combustion of four cubic miles of primeval goo—ancient sunlight congealed in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, shale oil, and tar sands. The atmospheric residues, chiefly CO2 reached 400 ppm in May of 2013—the highest concentration in hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps several million years. The atmospheric CO2 gyre is changing the thermal balance of Earth in an instant of geologic time and locking us into a future of extreme heat, drought, larger storms, rising sea levels, and changing ecologies that will increasingly imperil economies, public health, and social and political stability, that is to say, civilization itself.

A third gyre of long-lived chemicals cycles through our bloodstream, and some are stored permanently in our fatty tissues. They are in our air, water, food, everyday products, and many toys. In the words of the President’s Cancer Panel babies are born “pre-polluted,” poisoned by toxic substances that pass through their mother’s umbilical cords. A typical sample of chemicals in the average body would include 200 or more that are suspected or known to cause cancer and cell mutations and disrupt the endocrine system. It is possible that, singly or in combination, invasive chemicals also cause behavioral abnormalities. Since the Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects of chemicals one by one, we don’t know much about the possible combined effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed or the several hundred that we’ve ingested, absorbed, and inhaled.

We Knew Better

The three gyres have many things in common. They are vicious cycles or “wicked problems” that are complex, long-term, and non-linear—a fancy way to say they are unpredictable with lots of unknowns. They involve virtually every discipline listed in a college catalog and much outside the conventional curriculum as well. But they are not so much problems that can be solved with enough money and effort as they are dilemmas that could not and cannot be solved. With foresight, however, each could have been avoided.

The effects of each gyre will last for a long time. Toxic and radioactive trash will threaten human health and ecologies for centuries to come. The loss of biodiversity driven by climate change, pollution, and over-development is permanent. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect climate for thousands of years, requiring a level of public and private vigilance for which we have no good historical precedents. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals last a lifetime in the human body, and some are passed on to our offspring.

The causes of each gyre were known a long time ago. It required no great prescience to see that our mountains of trash would someday rise up to haunt us. Similarly, the first warning of impending climate change was given to Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But a half-century later we still have no de jure climate policy and CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever before. And the adverse health effects of the promiscuous use of chemicals were suspected at least from 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

The consequences of pollution gyres were not understood except in hindsight. In Wendell Berry’s words, “we did not know what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing.” Even so, we knew better. And long ago we knew we had good alternatives such as recycling, energy efficiency, solar technology, and natural systems agriculture that have improved greatly in the years since. But widespread adoption was blocked by money, by political dysfunction, and often by the lack of imagination. As a result, it has been profitable for some to create a throwaway economy. It is highly profitable to extract, sell, and burn fossil fuels that are diminishing the human future by the day. It is profitable to pollute our air, food, and water and undermine human health. The three gyres, in other words, are neither accidents nor anomalies, but the logical results of a system of ideas and philosophy deeply embedded in our culture, politics, economy, technology, and educational system.

The causes of the three gyres were once thought to be evidence of prosperity measured as economic growth. But a large part of our wealth is fraudulent. We are simply offloading costs of pollution and environmental damages onto people living somewhere else or at some later time. We are beneficiaries of self-deception and conveniently bad bookkeeping.

By undermining ecological balance, climate stability, and our reproductive potential the three gyres are the primary causes of the “6th Great Extinction” now underway. This time, however, it is not about dinosaurs and pterodactyls, but us. The approach path to oblivion, in Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s words, is a “system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes . . . feeding on one another and growing in strength . . . [leading to] an age of unprecedented violence.” The stakes in other words, are total, but there are no effective legal sanctions for the destruction of oceans, ecosystems, climate stability, human health, or actions that risk civilization for a few more years of corporate profits. We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.” Neither do we acknowledge the right to life of our co-passengers on spaceship Earth. Our courts are blind to the plight of those who are suffering and many more who will assuredly suffer because of our dereliction. Indeed, there is no national or international legal regime commensurate with the depth of the human predicament or the requirements for ecological justice across generations.

Most important if one traces the causes of each gyre back far enough there are students in classrooms acquiring the skills and mindset necessary to work unperturbed in the extractive economy that drives each gyre. They are the dutiful acolytes of Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and all of those in our time who share the dream of total human mastery over nature. We educators have equipped our graduates with the tools and technology necessary “to affect all things possible” in Frances Bacon’s words, but not the wherewithal to understand the consequences of doing so. Accordingly, generations of students have learned how to dismantle the world and concoct all manner of things—but not why that was often a bad idea—or how to repair the damage. We taught them how to manipulate, make, conjure, communicate worldwide, and sell everything under the sun but not how to think about the effects of doing such things. They learn how to grow an economy beyond the limits of Earth but almost nothing about physical, ecological, and moral limits to the scale of the human estate or the concepts of enough and sufficiency.

The epitaph for Western culture could be an educational system in which students learn more than they can comprehend in ethical or ecological terms. Learning is a fast process but comprehending the limits and proper uses of knowledge, which is to say acquiring wisdom, takes much longer.

My point is that the gyres of disintegration are not the work of the uneducated but rather that of those certified with Ph.Ds, MBAs, LLBs, Master’s degrees, BA and BS degrees. In other words, the ecological and climate disorder we see around us reflects a prior disorder in how we think and what we think about. That makes it the business of all of us in the “education industry” who purport to improve thinking. But to improve thinking we must address problems of education not merely those in education and so transcend the industrial-technological model of learning. Tinkering at the margins won’t do.

The irony, of course, is that the same education, science, and technology that threatens life on Earth also gave us the capacity to discern the effects of our actions. We can measure our pollution down to parts per billion. We can chart the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere with great precision. We understand in detail many of the biological effects of long-term exposure to toxic substances. And since we know what we are doing we can also decide to change our course and do much better.

Transformative Education 

In the long view of history, however, we do not know yet whether the Western model of formal education will prove—on balance—to be a positive force in the evolution of a humane and sustainable civilization, or simply a training ground for advanced cleverness serving ever more powerful and destructive domination of Earth. If education is to play a positive role in a “Great Turning” toward a sustainable global civilization, our goal must be to enable coming generations to connect learning with a reverence for life and equip them with the analytical, practical, and emotional skills to be competent and caring stewards of the ecosphere.

This is hard to do in the blizzard of euphoria about our technological prowess and “breakthroughs” in everything but those things that matter. It is harder to do when ideas and communication are being compressed into 140-character tweets that exist like flotsam in a flood of meaningless, de-contextualized information. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the rising generation spends on average nine hours a day in front of one kind of screen or another, in danger, as Hannah Arendt once said, of becoming “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible.”

The condition of our children has deep cultural roots including the pathology that Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Since the dawn of the age of television young people have increasingly lived indoors marinating in an entirely human-made world. The resulting damages are many: to the growth of intellect, to their sense of reality, to their basic affiliations, and to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls the “psychic thread” that connects us to nature. Louv argues that “the re-naturing of everyday life can be an important component of strengthening physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness . . . and relations between parents, children, and grandparents.” Experience and mountains of data show that the emotional disposition to learn is enhanced by time spent out of doors and the acquisition of practical skills.

The deep challenge is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation—as best we are able—for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them to see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will need to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalisms of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us— a variant of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.”

They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will need to rediscover old truths and forgotten knowledge. They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. We must educate them to be the designers of a another kind of gyre that turns vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that might someday transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, and technologies, as well as our hearts and minds. We need a generation that rises above despair or fantastical thinking and sees the world as systems, patterns, and possibilities that give hope an authentic foundation.

In other words, if education is to serve the interests of humankind and life in the long emergency ahead it must be transformed beginning with a transformation in our thinking about education and the purposes that ideas serve. Samuel Johnson once said that the assurance of the gallows in a fortnight could concentrate the mind wonderfully. Similarly, the prospect of a civilizational collapse ought to concentrate our thinking about the substance and process of education in what could otherwise be “our final hour.” We cannot continue to equip students for success in an economy that is driving civilization to the brink of collapse. Rather, we must enable students to help build bridges to something better than what is in prospect.

Critics, predictably, will argue that saving the Earth, or humans for that matter, is not the business of educators while refusing to say exactly whose business it is. Purists will argue that doing so involves making value judgments and education ought to be value free, which is itself a value and conveniently obeisant to the forces driving us toward oblivion. Pessimists will argue that transforming the academy is a good idea, but is not feasible and so should not be tried. Trustees will wish not to offend the powerful and wealthy and thereby risk one form of insolvency while presumably avoiding another. Incrementalists will recommend caution and piecemeal change and hope that it doesn’t come up a day late and a dollar short. Traditionalists, eyes to the rear, will want no change whatsoever.

But we no longer have the luxury of preserving the status quo whatever we might otherwise wish. The landscape of education, including that wrought by the avalanche of television and electronic media, is rapidly changing and with it the mindscape of our civilization.

Many questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the “anthropocene”? What is the proper balance between intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in ways commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality?

There are also practical questions having to do with our responsibilities to the communities in which we exist. What do we know that could be put to good use in developing durable economies based on renewable energy and local farm and food systems. What do we know about nurturing decent and fair communities? How should we spend and invest institutional assets locally to promote sustainable development?

From such ongoing conversations many results are possible. I will suggest only the most obvious. The first is a requirement that no one should graduate from any college or university without a firm grasp of how the world works as physical system and why that is important for their lives. For comparison, we would be justifiably embarrassed to graduate students who could neither read nor count. We should be even more so to graduate students who are ecologically illiterate—clueless about the basics of ecology, energetics, and systems dynamics—the bedrock conditions for civilization and human life. They should also be taught the social, political, economic, and philosophical causes of our predicament and master the ethical, analytical, and practical tools necessary to build a durable, resilient, and decent world. In short, we should equip them with the capacity to integrate disparate subjects and disciplines into a coherent and ecologically grounded worldview.

And we should do these things in the spirit that Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now:”

There is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’ 

Connection and Affection – The Great Turning

E. M. Forster’s admonition “only connect,” belies the fact that we are already connected. The greatest discoveries of the 20th century revealed that we are stitched together in more ways than we can possibly know.

  • Despite all of the things that divide us, we humans share 99.5% of our genes,
  • We share 98% of our genes with our nearest kin, the large apes and bonobos;
  • 90% of our dry body weight isn’t us but a rowdy congress of bacteria, viruses, and other hitchhikers living in and on our bodies;
  • Our minds evolved to mirror each other’s feelings and to empathize with each other;
  • Every breath we take includes molecules once breathed by Socrates, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth, or Idi Amin for that matter;
  • We have an innate affinity for life, that Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls “Biophilia;”
  • All of us are made of stuff that was once in stars;
  • Plants are linked in networks, communicate by chemical signals, and help each other in ways that resemble altruism;
  • And we are now connected globally as never before by social media, emails and smart phones in a thickening web of communication and intelligence as predicted long-ago by theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

In short, we are connected over time as a small part of the vast enterprise of life that stretches back 3.8 billion years and as far forward as the Angels of our better nature, luck, and sunlight allow. The problem is not to connect, but to recognize and act on the reality of our connectedness.

Forster’s further observation—that our capacity to connect “all turns on affection” sounds quaintly irrelevant. Affection is the antithesis of the calculating mind that we associate with rational economic behavior, shrewd career decisions, and the self-referential narcissism that infects the teenage “I” generation. Affection is complicated and paradoxical. It thrives, however, at the crossroads where enlightened self-interest, altruism, and foresight meet. Affection is born in compassion, empathy, and an enlarged sense of self. It acknowledges that nothing and no one is an island complete in itself. Everything and everyone is connected to the mainland.

Affection changes what we think is important, what is trivial, and what is dangerous. It changes the substance and process of learning. Affection would help us acquire the patience to see learning as a lifelong process not to be confused with formal schooling. Informed by affection we would not so easily confuse information with knowledge or rationality with reasonableness. It would help us understand that thinking is often overrated and intuition under-appreciated and that true learning cannot be certified by grades and degrees. A dose of affection might even help us comprehend and mediate the evolutionary divisions between the right and left hemispheres of our own minds.

Affection deals in wholes, including the parts that are inexplicable and mysterious. It connects us to the creative, artistic, musical, humorous, intuitive, empathic sides of ourselves. Albert Einstein put it this way “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Affection, then, causes us to celebrate mystery and opens us to the sense of wonder. Beyond the facts, data, theories, and analysis that permeate education, the inexplicable remains. What we know is like a drop in an ocean. What we don’t know is the ocean. Deep knowledge is elusive, rather like “studying darkness with a flashlight.” The fact is that we are infinitely more ignorant than we are smart and always will be. And that is OK. D. H. Lawrence captured the essence of the matter by observing that “Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen but there is a third thing that makes it water, and no one knows what that is.” And no one ever will.

Affection permits us to be compassionate with our own imperfect selves and the imperfections of others. Affection isn’t reserved just for the easy times. In a world of paradox, irony, and tragedy, affection moderates pretensions and punctures illusions. It is kind and forgiving. Clear-eyed affection helps us acquire what Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno once called “the tragic sense of life” which is neither resigned nor gloomy. To the contrary, it is a realistic perspective that permits us to laugh at ourselves and each other. It is the quality by which we have triumphed over tragedy before and it has equipped us to do so again.

Finally, affection helps us to see what could be, without losing sight of how things are. Affection causes us to hope for improvement. And hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up rooted in daily practice as something we do, not just what we wish for. It is a discipline requiring skill, competence, steadiness, and courage. It is practical. It bonds us to each other, and to real places, animals, trees, waters, and landscapes. The hopeful are patient not passive. They are creators of the gyres of positive change that could, in time, redeem the human prospect. They are people who will know how to connect us to a better world struggling to be born.

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. He is a well-known environmentalist and author. His many books include Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. He holds a B.A. from Westminster College, an M.A. from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. He has a Bioneers Award, a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, a Lyndhurst Prize awarded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the Benton Box Award from Clemson University for his work in Environmental Education. 

David Orr barnstorms the country for the environment. Every year, three or four dozen colleges and universities invite him to lecture, often as keynote speaker for conferences and symposia. One might ask if the man ever sleeps. But more to the point: Who is David Orr to preach? “I come from a long line of preachers,” he says laughing. “My daddy was a preacher, I have uncles who are preachers, my grandfather was a preacher . . . .” For Orr, religion connects to ecology in ways far more compelling than coincidence. And his take on religion has less to do with doctrine or dogma than with the fact that “we are all meaning-seeking creatures—a small part of a much larger pattern.”

“It is no accident,” Orr states, “that connectedness is central to the meaning of both the Greek root word for ecology, oikos, and the Latin root word for religion, religio.” Orr wrote “most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors . . . because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural world and ourselves.” He puts connectedness at the center of his philosophy. His vocation—our responsibility and relationship to the Earth we’ve inherited and the Earth we will bequeath—has an ancestry that runs as deep as any bloodline.

It is no surprise that he views education as the door out of the maze. But he wants to take the door off its hinges and re-frame it. Institutional reform is perhaps his greatest cause—he advocates nothing less than a new paradigm for education—if, that is, we are brave enough to take the “long-term human future seriously.” Source: Oberlin’s Presidential Lecture, November 8, 2013.

Reprinted with permission.

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Why the Earth is Farting by Alan Weisman

WhyEarthFartingAfter two consecutive summers averaging 5 degrees Celsius hotter than normal, frozen methane is not merely thawing, it’s exploding.

Every day, you have a close personal encounter with methane, a key ingredient of something we don’t usually mention in polite company: farts.

Perhaps that’s why methane is also called “natural gas.” Unfortunately, neither propriety nor intestinal discipline can suppress its unpleasantness lately, because now not just us, but the Earth itself is farting.

Recently, three new craters, one of which measured approximately 100 feet wide and over 200 feet deep, were discovered in the Siberian permafrost. The explanation for them is even more alarming than asteroid strikes: Apparently, after two consecutive summers averaging 5 degrees Celsius hotter than normal, frozen methane is not merely thawing, it’s exploding. Scientists fear that, like chronic bad digestion, this phenomenon could be ongoing. Methane in the air surrounding these craters already measures 53,000 times the normal concentration.

Then, just a week into a research trip, a team from Stockholm University found “vast methane plumes” shooting from the sea floor off the Siberian coast. Columns of gas bubbles, they reported, were surfacing around their icebreaker in waters saturated with 10 to 50 times more methane than usual.

This was the marine equivalent of melting permafrost, the undoing of frozen crystals called methane hydrates, locked solid for millennia by the pressure and temperature of deep oceans.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research calculates that methane hydrates hold trillions of tons of hydrocarbons, from two to 10 times the amount as all conventional deposits of fossil fuels, but they’re probably too costly or unsafe to harvest. Now, as ocean temperatures rise, they’ve begun collapsing, spewing as much gas skyward as the thawing tundra.

Airborne methane produces 86 times the heat-trapping greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Although CO2 remains in the atmosphere far longer, after 100 years methane is still 30 times more potent. With sea level increases from 3 to 6 feet already predicted by the century’s end, such stunning global flatulence isn’t merely embarrassing, but devastating for civilization.

So what do we do? First, we recognize that the reason this is happening involves a misleading term: positive feedback loop. It’s misleading because for us there’s nothing positive about it. It means that as temperatures rise, warming land and seas fart (belch, if you prefer) more methane — which then warms things further, so dangerous eruptions accelerate. Feeding back on itself, warming begets more warming.

Second, we admit that this loop began with us. By now, the link between fuel that jet-propels our industrialized civilization and excess CO2 and methane in the atmosphere is challenged only by those who profit obscenely from it.

Third, we stop compounding the problem by ceasing to pretend that energy derived by shattering our bedrock to squeeze even more natural gas from it is somehow “clean.” Not only does burning methane crank planetary heat higher, but fracking wells also inevitably leak. At least 2% of their methane output, the EPA conservatively estimates, seeps into the atmosphere, thickening the gas layer that’s already turning Earth into a hothouse.

Nor will the other 98% go to heat our homes. Enormous pipelines are now proposed to transport fracked methane through New England’s conservation lands and orchards, through northern Minnesota’s prime tourism and wild rice lake districts, and across the Ogallala Aquifer-fed farms of our nation’s heartland. Each will terminate at a port, where its gas will be exported, not used domestically.

What will remain is scarred land and the methane that escapes or explodes (most recently on June 26, in East Bernard, Texas, into 150-foot flames). Such pipelines will be subsidized by rate-payers, not by vastly wealthy corporations that own them — unless we refuse to let them be built, and instead commit our energy funding henceforth to truly cleaner options, like wind and solar.

The last time there was this much atmospheric CO2 was 3 million years ago, when seas were 80 to 100 feet higher. Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric methane has more than doubled, and the amount now gushing from the seas alone is 34 times what we thought just seven years ago.

Until we stop putting more carbon dioxide and methane overhead, prepare for more rude farts to foul your air, and our future. With coastal cities, fertile deltas and much of the world’s rice crops threatened by floods or salination from encroaching seas. And with grain harvests predicted to fall 10% for each added 1 degree C of average temperature, farting greenhouse gases isn’t merely vulgar — it’s deadly.

See: http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/12/opinion/weisman-craters-methane/index.html?iref=allsearch

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Population Growth Increases Climate Fear by Carolyn Lochhead

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“What many of us really worry about is that there will be this crash landing, from a planet with 9 billion, rapidly down to 5 or so,” said ecologist Harte.

What many of us really worry about is that there will be a crash landing.

California has 157 endangered or threatened species, looming water shortages, eight of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the country and 725 metric tons of trash washing up on its coast each year. California also has 38 million people, up 10% in the last decade, including 10 million immigrants. They own 32 million registered vehicles and 14 million houses. By 2050, projections show 51 million people living in the state, more than twice as many as in 1980.

In the public arena, almost no one connects these plainly visible dots.

For various reasons, linking the world’s rapid population growth to its deepening environmental crisis, including climate change, is politically taboo. In the United States, Europe and Japan, there has been public hand wringing over falling birthrates and government policies to encourage childbearing.

But those declining birthrates mask explosive growth elsewhere in the world. In less than a lifetime, the world population has tripled, to 7.1+ billion, and continues to climb by more than 1.5 million people a week.

A consensus statement issued by scientists at Stanford University and signed by more than 1,000 scientists warned, “Earth is reaching a tipping point.” An array of events under way—including what scientists have identified as the sixth mass extinction in the earth’s 540 million-year history—suggest that human activity already exceeds Earth’s capacity.

Climate change is but one of many signs of environmental stress. “The big connector is how many people are on Earth,” said Anthony Barnosky, a UC Berkeley integrative biologist. The world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century. The addition alone will be greater than the global population of 1950. “The combination of climate change and 9 billion people to me is one that is just fraught with potential catastrophes,” said John Harte, a UC Berkeley ecosystem scientist.

The United States is expected to grow from 313 million people to 400 million. Economies have expanded many times faster, vastly increasing consumption of goods and services in rich and developing countries.

“We’re changing the ability of the planet to provide food and water,” Harte said.

Even scientists who doubt ecological collapse, such as Michele Marvier, chair of environmental studies at Santa Clara University, acknowledge, “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry.”

Population Momentum

Plummeting fertility rates, from 4.9 births per woman in the 1960s to the current 2.6, led to the belief that worries about population were overblown. The drop surprised demographers. Half the world—including Japan and Western Europe but also China, Vietnam, Brazil and other emerging economies—is below the 2.1 fertility rate needed for zero growth. The United States, the world’s third-largest country behind China and India, and the only rich country still growing rapidly, recently saw its birth rate fall to 1.9. [US growth is mainly due to high levels of immigration.]

But population momentum ensures that absolute numbers will keep rising for decades despite falling birth rates. That’s because the exponential growth that took just 12 years to add the last billion in 2011—and will take just 14 more years to add the next billion—means growth is building from a large base of children and teenagers, many intering their child-bearing years.

Falling birth rates have lulled people into complacency, said Joseph Speidel, a professor at UCSF’s Bixby Center on Global Reproductive Health. “The annual increment is rising quite dramatically,” he said. “We are still adding about 84 million people a year to the planet.” 

Unintended Births

More than 40% of the world’s 208 million pregnancies each year are unplanned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a family planning research group. Half of U.S. pregnancies, about 3 million a year, are unintended, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington advocacy group. About half of them end in abortion.

Across cultures, from Iran to Thailand to California, voluntary access to contraception has slashed fertility rates, Speidel said. But discussion of population growth remains taboo in the US. “Many young people on university campuses have been taught over the past 15 years that the connection between population growth and the environment is not an acceptable subject for discussion,” said Martha Campbell, director of International Population Dialogue at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, in a recent essay. Campbell argued that voluntary contraception is not coercive, but blocking women from controlling how many children they have is coercive. When given a chance, she said, women across cultures choose to provide a better life for fewer children.

The Guttmacher Institute said it would cost an extra $4.1 billion a year, little more than a rounding error in the $3.8 trillion U.S. budget, to provide birth control to all 222 million women in the world who want to limit their pregnancies but lack access to contraception.

“What many of us really worry about is that there will be this crash landing, from a planet with 9 billion, rapidly down to 5 or so,” said ecologist Harte. “The landing will result from methods of population reduction that none of us want to see, like famine, disease and war,” he added. “I don’t think anybody has described a workable trajectory that gets us up to 9 and then softly back down to 5.”

Sources for statistics: United Nations; Stuart Basten, Wolfgang Lutz, Sergei Scherbov, “Very long range global population scenarios to 2300 and the implications of sustained low fertility” in Demographic Research, Vol. 28, Article 39, May 30.

Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. This article first appeared September 2, 2013, see: <http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Population-growth-increases-climate-fear-4781833.php>.

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Climate Change: Pacific Ocean Acidity Dissolving Shells of Key Species by Paul Rogers 

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

In a troubling new discovery, scientists studying ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington have found the first evidence that increasing acidity in the ocean is dissolving the shells of a key species of tiny sea creature at the base of the food chain. The animals, a type of free-floating marine snail known as pteropods, are an important food source for salmon, herring, mackerel and other fish in the Pacific Ocean. Those fish are eaten not only by millions of people every year, but also by a wide variety of other sea creatures, from whales to dolphins to sea lions.

If the trend continues, climate change scientists say, it will imperil the entire ocean environment.

“These are alarm bells,” said Nina Bednarsek, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle who helped lead the research. “This study makes us understand that we have made an impact on the ocean environment to the extent where we can actually see the shells dissolving right now.”

Scientists from NOAA and Oregon State University found that in waters near the West Coast shoreline, 53 percent of the tiny floating snails had shells that were severely dissolving—double the estimate from 200 years ago. Until now, the impact on marine species from increasing ocean acidity because of climate change has been something that was tested in tanks in labs, but which was not considered an immediate concern such as forest fires and droughts.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a scientific journal based in England, changes that. “The pteropods are like the canary in the coal mine. If this is affecting them, it is affecting everything in the ocean at some level,” said one of the nation’s top marine biologists, Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove.

The vast majority of the world’s scientists—including those at NOAA, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Meteorological Organization—say the Earth’s temperature is rising because of humans burning fossil fuels like oil and coal.

But what many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

Over the past 200 years, the ocean’s acidity has risen by roughly 30 percent. At the present rate, it is on track to rise by 70 percent by 2050 from preindustrial levels. More acidic water can harm oysters, clams, corals and other species that have calcium carbonate shells. Generally speaking, increasing the acidity by 50 percent from current levels is enough to kill some marine species, tests in labs have shown.

If people reduce emissions of fossil fuels, cutting carbon dioxide levels in the decades ahead, the damage to the oceans can still be limited. “But if we keep on the emissions profile we have now, by 2100 the oceans will be so harmed it’s hard to imagine them coming back from that in anything less than thousands of years,” Palumbi said.

“We are in a century of choice,” he said. “We can choose the way we want it to go.”

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25664175/climate-change-pacific-ocean-acidity-dissolving-shells-key

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Climate Change: The Least We Can Do by Robert Walker, Population Institute

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

As the IPCC’s (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report makes clear, we are long past the point of avoiding climate change. The best we can do now is to avoid the worst effects. The situation is more dire than previously projected and the consequences of inaction more starkly drawn than ever before:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased…. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)…. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a perfect world, the IPCC’s report would summon forth our best efforts at mitigating climate change and its effects. We would be doing whatever is necessary and prudent to avoid a human and environmental catastrophe. By now, however, it is evident that governments—and the people they represent—are shrinking from the challenge. Hope for concerted global action on any kind of meaningful scale has largely evaporated.

Instead of asking what is the most that can be done to mitigate climate change and alleviate its consequences, perhaps we should be asking, “What is the least that can be done?”

The “least” we can do is to mitigate the scale of human suffering and displacement, and the single most cost-effective means of doing so is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the world are unwanted or unintended, and preventing them would make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Giving every woman the power to avoid unwanted pregnancies would dramatically lower projected population growth rates. According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child, world population would rise to only 8.3 billion and gradually decline during the second half of the 21st century.

It’s particularly important to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the United States, where our carbon footprints are, on average, nearly twice as high as they are in many European countries and twenty or more times higher than many developing countries. A study released five years ago found that the average “carbon legacy” of a child born in the U.S. would produce about 20 times more greenhouse gases than the mother or father would save by adopting a lower carbon lifestyle (i.e. driving a highly fuel efficient vehicle, using energy efficient appliances, etc.).

But even where carbon footprints are relatively small, no one should discount the contribution that birth control could make to lowering projected greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study of energy use and demographics by Brian C. O’Neill concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” That is not insignificant.

Even if preventing unplanned pregnancies in developing countries contributed absolutely nothing to reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, there is a compelling moral case to be made for expanding international family planning services and information. That’s because women and children in countries like Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Subsistence farmers, in particular, are vulnerable to the crop damage that will be inflicted by heat, drought, flooding, and rising seas. Some of the most vulnerable and food insecure countries in the world—countries that are already in a struggle for survival—could likely see their populations double or even triple in the next half century. Denying women in these countries the ability to space and limit their pregnancies will compound the suffering that is likely to be caused by climate change. Large families in environmentally-stressed communities will be less resilient and inevitably suffer more from disease, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

Access to reproductive health services is recognized by the United Nations as a universal right, but in many parts of the developing world it is far from being a reality. Making that right a reality for women everywhere may not save the world from climate change, but it would go a substantial way toward alleviating the human suffering that will accompany it. The costs of empowering women and providing family planning services are trivial compared to the benefits that would result from giving women reproductive choice. It really is the least we can do—for climate change—and for the women and their families who will endure some of its worst effects.

 

Robert Walker is the President of the Population Institute in Washington, DC. 

Prior to joining the Population Institute, Mr. Walker was President of the Population Resource Center. He formerly was the Executive Director of the Common Cause Education Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to promote open, honest and accountable government.

He also served for three years as President of Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

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Assume the Worst When it Comes to Climate Change and Population, General King tells Kansas Farmers Union by Tom Parker

Dr. W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College.

Dr. W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College.

History has a way of repeating itself, which means that if military historians and strategists peer back far enough, certain precedents can be found to illustrate patterns and models useful for the prediction of the near-term future.

Unfortunately, as retired Brigidier General W. Chris King told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka on Jan. 4, there is no historical precedence for what the nation and the world face in the future from the combined forces of climate change, overpopulation and resource depletion. “We have nothing on which to base projections,” he said. “We have to assume climate change is going to make everything worse. And there’s no easy, immediate fix. It’s a really, really hard problem.”

King, chief academic officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, said that while the idea of climate change seems addressed to our times, it was already being discussed back in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem was, nobody was listening, least of all the U.S. military. Nor did the military consider them worthy of study.

“These subjects were not well received because [the authors] had patches on their sleeves and they didn’t get along with the military,” King said.

That began to change when one of the leading environmental scholars of the time, Norman Myers, characterized the impending shortage of resources as a national security issue on par with hostile nations. “It relates to watersheds, croplands, forests, genetic resources, climate and other factors that rarely figure in the minds of military experts and political leaders,” he wrote in The Environmentalist.

That assessment was mirrored in the latest National Security Strategy of the United States, dated May 2010, which declared “the danger from climate change is real, urgent and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.”

The bottom line, King said, will be more failed states, more tension and conflict, and higher demand for military forces. “So now it’s my business,” he said. “Everything I do in the Department of Defense has been to address the threats identified in the National Securities Strategy, to protect the nation against all enemies.”

The primary culprit is climate change, he said, but it’s driven by population. Since 1950 the world’s population almost tripled from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion, and projections estimate an additional billion people every decade and a half.

Space is already at a premium, he said, and many parts of the world have already reached or exceeded their carrying capacity. “Where do you put all those people?” King asked. “All the good spots are already taken.”

Much the world’s population lives along coastlines and many others live by necessity on marginal lands susceptible to flooding or weather extremes.

With sea levels rising, the Alaskan town of Newtok is predicted to be underwater by 2017, earning residents the unfortunate status as the first climate refugees in America. The loss of living space and freshwater salination hold potential catastrophic outcomes, as would the collapse of estuarine fisheries. The loss of ice and snow in the arctic poses additional security problems of an open, unregulated and unguarded northern border. Rising temperatures will trigger fluctuations in extreme weather by increasing intensity and frequency as well as expanding areas at risk. Precipitation patterns will also change, impacting water, sanitation and food sources.

The military needs to adapt to changing climate and its associated global threats, and to develop strategies for action, King said. “When you dial 911 on a national level,” he said, “you call the military. Nobody else has the logistics capacity to move people and supplies on so vast a scale.”

Already worldwide 780 million people lack access to clean water, he said. More than three million people die each year from causes related to water or sanitation. Basic sanitation is lacking for two and a half billion people, and more than one billion people suffer from chronic hunger; most are children.

Compounding the problems, he said, is that many of these countries have the highest birth rates.

“Even if climate change didn’t exist, the 7.2 billion people and the limited resources to produce food and clean water to meet basic human needs is a disaster that’s coming at some rate which we don’t know yet,” he said. “And climate change is going to make it worse.”

The military response must be in less emphasis on force-on-force and more on humanitarian assistance, developing strategies for handling huge refugee and migration populations and to provide massive amounts of water when needed during emergencies, King said.

The solution, he added, isn’t up to the military. “We have to partner with the State department, economics, agriculture and other parts of the government that are going to have to adapt and develop,” he said.

The key is education. Kansas State University is now helping developing countries to move to sustainable systems rather than resource mining, he said. Overall, government agencies and organizations are trying to initiate a basic sustainable-needs model that will guide them into the uncertain future.

“This is our biggest threat,” King said. “But we’re not managing the planet that way.”

W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. This article reports on a talk King gave to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka on Jan. 4, 2014. King retired from active duty at the rank of Brigadier General in August 2006—after more than 32 years of active service—and is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal. Source: the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal, February 17, 2014.  http://www.hpj.com/archives/2014/feb14/feb17/0203KFUConference1PIXsr.cfm

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