resource depletion

Ecocide is Omnicide

the road

Movie still from The Road (2009), adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. (Photo courtesy of Boomtron.)

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”

—Joseph Campbell

I really don’t know where to go with this one. Suffice it to say I’m feeling quite scatterbrained lately, what with the horrifying events unfolding in our tumultuous world, and the lack of recognition they receive.

Let me just start by saying that this will be a bit of a more detailed rant, though one of a kind I think is needed.

I am increasingly at odds with the route global civilization has taken. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the fruits of civilization—penicillin, microwave ovens, tequila, curry, the Internet, and movies, etc. etc.—but rather that the direction it has moved has become increasingly more and more dangerous as time goes on. Perhaps in order to bear those fruits.

Does that make me a hypocrite? That I see the problem rooted in mass-production (among other things), yet buy into coporatocracy?

I will be frank: We are on death’s doorstep as a society. The human enterprise called civilization is, in retrospect, beginning to look little more than a fever dream, a lot less than anything one might call “civilized.” Guy McPherson, often considered one of the most pessimistic climate researchers—McPherson spearheads the “near-term human extinction” (NTHE) movement—calls industrial civilization a “death cult.” I hate to agree with him on that, but it really does seem to be the case nowadays. Even Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, warns that current consumption patterns constitute a “global suicide pact.”

Yes, we have many luxuries and conveniences, all born of the cooperative efforts civilization has won us—but at what cost?

We live with the delusion that these “hard-won” luxuries are everlasting, or at least long-lasting, but neither is true. The fact is that today’s society steals from the future, and exists at the expense of many future generations. (If they should live to see what has become of the world.) This is evidenced by an annual global resource overshoot, which occurs earlier and earlier each passing year.

In the process of extending our ecological footprint, we also destroy the very bedrock of our global civilization. All wealth ultimately comes from “ecosystem services” provided by a healthy environment, and a stable climate. We have natural capital there. We have the food and water and shelter on which we all depend. Yet deforestation, for instance, now occurs on an unprecedented scale. Not to mention the dire state of the world’s oceans, now being acidified by atmospheric carbon uptake on a level never before witnessed.

We all, in our own ways, pursue freedom. And I think we should. The law of liberty is all-encompassing. Humans are hardwired to pursue happiness. But what kind of happiness would it be, should we not be allowed to fail every once in a while?

Problems arise, however, when so very many people make so very many bad decisions on such a regular basis that their pursuit of freedom, individually—in their own lives—is consistently irresponsible, and destroys the opportunities that would otherwise be afforded to future generations. The kind of food and water insecurity that unabated climate change will reap, for instance, will all but make sure that future generations do not have the time or resources to pursue their passions with the same level of opportunity, the same range of options (or “luxuries”) that we now have.

Let’s be clear about this, once and for all: Anthropogenic climate change, especially when compounded with other types of environmental destruction (overpopulation, resource mis-allocation and over-consumption, land degradation, pollution, etc.) represents the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. The problem is so vast and multifaceted. It is one precipitated by both personal and societal choices, by stubbornness on the part of politicians, greed on the part of stockholders and investors, selfishness on the part of individuals, willful ignorance on the part of corporations, and so on.

circle of life

The Circle of Life (date unknown), by Steve Cutts.

Anyway, in the spirit of brutal honesty and existential dread, here’s a little more data:

The United Nations’ UNFCCC’s COP21, a pivotal meeting to take place in Paris later this year (from November 30 to December 11), is intended to rein in humanity’s carbon emissions so as to keep the world under 2C warming (above the pre-industrial average) this century. However, current pledges by the world’s countries (INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) fall incredibly short of an adequate goal, perhaps by 19 or more gigatons of CO2. While all the world’s countries are expected to submit some kind of binding pledge, only a fraction (as of 9/11/2015) have stepped up to the plate, even though little more than 2 months remain before the conference gets underway. Current pledges (which aren’t even guaranteed to be carried out) only account for about 59.4% of global carbon emissions.

Science writer David Auerbach called the UN’s work on climate change “a nice gesture, but hardly a meaningful one.” I would tend to agree. He also concludes, echoing the notion of Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner, that humanity will be extinct by 2100 due to climate change and dwindling resources.

It’s also worth mentioning that 2 degrees of global warming may itself be considered quite dangerous, according to a number of scientists, including James Hansen (one of the world’s greatest authorities on climate science, known for raising awareness of dangerous climate change in the 1980s). It certainly wouldn’t bode well for Pacific island nations, many of which prefer a 1.5C goal—one that is essentially impossible to achieve without some kind of miraculous technology, or an unimaginable shift in global trends. Some of the world’s biggest emitters (including Brazil and India) have yet to submit an INDC.

As it stands, a 4C or greater warming scenario is the most likely for this century. That kind of change in temperature will lead to a world that is unrecognizable by today’s standards, and one in which civilization may itself find no quarter. The Earth’s atmosphere currently contains above 400ppm of CO2, and about 2000 ppb of methane. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising by about 2ppm per annum. The last time the Earth saw 400ppm CO2, sea levels were between 15 meters and 25 meters higher than they are today. (~50-~82 feet.) 350ppm (ideally less) is often regarded as a “safe operating space” for humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. We are on track for far more greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere. We need to go “negative,” and yet residual CO2 (that which is not absorbed by the oceans—itself the cause of ocean acidification) continues to build up in the air, remaining there for potentially hundreds of thousands of years.

Couple climate change with other forms of environmental devastation and resource wastage, and you have a “perfect storm” of future holocausts. Nearly 10 billion people are projected to live on this planet in 2050, consuming ever more resources at an ever-more unsustainable rate. (Consider that India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, are consuming more and more resources in a more hedonistic “Western” fashion.) Of course, with the effect climate change may very well have on crops (not to mention water availability), I think we will likely see a massive cull of the human population over the course of this century. According to a co-national, government-funded study (developed by Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute), global catastrophe may plausibly occur over the next 30 years if humans don’t change their ways.

All this being noted (though it’s ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to the larger reality of what we’re doing to ourselves and the planet’s ecosystems and climate—and I could continue on muchmuch longer), it is high time—it has been high time for quite a while—that the human race consciously shifts its patterns of consumption and pollution in a dramatic fashion. Environmental destruction can only continue so long. Our species is in the business of fouling its own nest, and frankly it’s damning to ourselves and all future generations. It’s reprehensible, dastardly, evil on an unimaginable scale. It’s us running up against the edge of our Petri dish, and only then wondering where the agar went. And this at the expense of almost everything we know and care for.

The horrifying reality of our situation comes down to this: ECOCIDE IS OMNICIDE. That is, you cannot plunder and squander away the very basis of your life, the source of all that sustains you, without destroying yourself in the process. There’s really no other way to put it. Yachts and McMansions just don’t cut it, especially on a planet carrying what will soon be 10 billion people, already stripped of many of its finite resources.

So, considering that humanity seems less than inclined to change its course, I think the best advice we can take—in these most insane and soon-to-be-awful of times—is to “participate joyfully,” as it were.

Of course, life has never been peachy perfect. We all suffer in our own way. But we also have the option to make the very best of our circumstances, come what may. If we cannot change our destructive habits, and will ultimately destroy ourselves in the process, we ought to at least do what makes us happy. Hell, we ought to be doing that anyway. That’s always been, if anything, the perennial truth. To again invoke Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss.” Cliché, yes—I’m sure you’ve all seen an image macro, or side of a hippie Volkswagen, featuring that line—but as meaningful as ever. It has always been crap out there in some form or another, but that doesn’t mean we can’t carry a great light on our journey through the darkness. It doesn’t mean we can’t, at the very least, smile before the end—untimely or not.

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Taking a Hint From the Georgia Guidestones

The U.S. state of Georgia has something of a personal Stonehenge. And, while I’ve never been to Georgia—and, really, I’ve never been inclined to go—I think I can assume that these stones are a bit… heterodox… for their place below the Mason–Dixie line.

When I think of large tablets being erected in some southern state, I imagine a marble copy of the 10 Commandments making an awkward addition to a courthouse or State Capitol. But the Georgia Guidestones, nestled in the earth in the state’s Elbert County, are anything but religious strictures. They are, rather, suggestions and “guidelines” on how humanity can conduct its affairs on this planet, rather than please a celestial being beyond the Earth. Having derided the Guidestones as artifacts of the “New World Order,” tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorists have desecrated them a number of times now. But the message of the Guidestones still stands strong. It reads:

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.
The Georgia Guidestones. (Source unknown.)

The Georgia Guidestones. (Source unknown.)

I can pretty much agree with all of this. But the most important guidelines, I would say—especially considering humanity’s current predicament on a fragile planet of finite resources—have to be 1, 2, 9, and 10. Let’s look at the current state of world affairs, and dissect the importance of the first and last two guidelines:

1. “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.

Current population levels, clocking in at about 7.2 billion (as of 2015), are wildly unsustainable. We have committed ourselves to serious overshoot. With this many people on the planet, and the population expected to rise to between 9-11 billion by the end of the century (if our species can even make it that far without wiping itself out, and much of the Earth’s biodiversity with it!), we are barreling toward catastrophe. Couple this with climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and pollution, and it becomes clear that we are leaving ourselves, and our decedents (if they even manage to survive), a hell on earth. I don’t think that 500,000,000 needs to be a strict number which we should follow, but in general we should aspire to have a much lower number of humans living on the planet. This would free up a huge amount of resources for both humans and other lifeforms to reap and share. When we look at the dramatic loss of fresh water, as well as mineral depletion and the fast-approaching “peak everything,” it becomes clear that this is a better course of action. The loss of half the world’s wildlife should serve as a wake-up call.

2. “Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.

I will say that I’m not to keen on the “fitness and diversity” bit. (It sort of smacks of eugenics.) But, in any case, we most certainly should guide our reproduction wisely. To begin with, isn’t it morally questionable to bring a child into a world whose future looks as grim as ours? Secondly, if we do bring children into this world, why are we bringing so many of them into nations where poverty, war, instability, and food and water scarcity run rampant? The explosive population growth of developing countries shows that many parents are not considering their children’s futures, nor the future of the planet. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that, on a planet quickly entering the opposite of an ice age, and one of finite resources, having a bunch of kids is not only bad for oneself and one’s country, but for society, the world’s ecosystems, and the future as a whole. People should consider where and when they have children, and how many they are going to have. Granted, many pregnancies are unwanted, and a lack of access to birth control thus imperils many societies. Sadly, for cultural and religious reasons, many countries still ban contraception. My contention is that they only do so to the detriment of their own national stability.

9. “Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.

Before you pass this off as some cliché hippie platitude, I would suggest that you take into account the fine points of this statement. The operative phrases in this passage—”truth,” “beauty,” “love,” “harmony,” and “infinite”—are some of the most important aspects of the human experience, and well represent the goals and aspirations of many people the world over! The personal and spiritual achievement of self-actualization (though implicitly indescribable), could be very well expressed using these phrases. And what does this world need more, if not a change of heart—a collective heart that embraces opportunity, infinity, harmony, and love—that leads to prosperity for all living beings? As comedian Russell Brand has stated, “The fusion of spirituality and activism feels like it is emerging for the first time since the Sixties.” I hope he’s right.

10. “Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

We seem to be doing a terrible job on this last one. All of the aforementioned issues add up to this: humans are currently a disease to the biosphere. In our current predicament it seems that humanity, and the biodiversity of the planet, will be destroyed by selfishness, greed, and ignorance. (Buddha was on to something!) Perhaps we would like to save ourselves, our children, and future generations from the calamity of climate change and ecological destruction? We must dramatically change course if we want that better future, and, as of right now, it has been decided that extra yachts are more important.

We can change our practices and policies in order to live more harmoniously with the Earth’s ecosystems, thus ensuring not only the survival of many plant and animals species, but also our own.