Tuesday, October 26, 2010


New Map for the Planetary Era (For the Children, Part Two)

In a key chapter, “A New Map for the Planetary Era,” Dumanoski anchors the discussion with the ecological anthropologist Roy Rappaport's observation that all cultures face the same critical problem, “the discrepancy between cultural images of nature and the actual organization of nature.” She goes on to sum up his argument, “Whether a culture's explanation of the world is correct in a scientific sense may not be important... what matters is whether its cultural rituals and beliefs guide behavior in ways that allow the group to survive in its partucular circumstances.”

The planetary emergency we face is a crisis of context. According to the cultural map that global modernism has been following, nature is not an actor, but simply an object, merely a stage for the human enterprise. Tellingly, she points out that even those protesting exploitation frequently portray the Earth as the passive fragile victim, ignoring that we act from within a natural system that is a formidable force that may well strike back. We are not masters, nor stewards, but a cancerous part of the earth organism that sees the body only from its own peculiarly virulent perspective.

She notes that the cultural historian Thomas Berry characterized this potentially fatal disregard of perspective as cultural autism; the behavioral norms of global capitalism are in fact pathological when seen from the Gaian perspective. But unlike moralists and prophets, she does not take our current self-destructive path as evidence of a “fundamental deficiency in human nature.” From the broad sweep of anthropological perspective, our present global monoculture, mass civilization predicated upon unsustainable material growth, is not fundamental. Bill Clinton was dead wrong when he said that global trade and concomitant growth was a “force of nature.” This mass culture, homo economicus, only emerged after WWII. For most of human history, culture has been predicated upon gift-giving, which was even a form of conflict resolution for the Eskimos in the form of the ceremonial potlach.

Those Eskimo tribes, and other First Peoples, lived in a world where the inputs and outputs were readily observed. Their gods and means of livelihood were all local. Place and intimately understanding it was everything. In a world where God is one, but conveniently distant, and the means of livelihood are spread throughout the globe, with a system that makes harvesting, mining, and fabricating them dizzyingly efficient, it is critical that “global citizens” be educated in the new context. Dumanoski gets this, and cites James Lovelock's collaborator Lynn Margulis' insistence that we learn natural systems theory, the elaboration in the last quarter century of Lovelock's paradigmatic shift, the Gaia theory. If we are to understand the new planetary map, natural systems theory is the key to reading it. “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking” (Margulis). Unfortunately, it is still a tiny elite who have learned to see from a global perspective what elders from the First Peoples know without the theory: the earth is one, with exquisite interconnections and feedback loops. We live in it, not on it, and owe our existence to it, not to our fabrications of it.

Without an accurate map of the world we live in, attempts to change our behavior based on notions such as stewardship have only local or regional efficacy. We need to understand the perspective and proper scale of the current global crisis. It is a planetary one. Seen from this perspective, Dumanoski suggests Rachel Carson's “reasonable accommodation with Nature” is more appropriate. I would add, addressing what Dumanoski laments as the “taboo” of discussing economic growth, Lovelock's notion of a “dignified retreat” from the manic quest to make 7 billion human beings kings rather than subsistent coevolutionists with the rest of creation.

Dumanoski ends her book with a chapter entitled 'Honest Hope.” Hope without clear knowledge of the situation we are in is sentimental, rooted in denial. But honesty without hope is disempowering. Recognizing that we are in a planetary crisis – Carter's “moral equivalent of war” - can galvanize us, bringing out the best in our evolutionary heritage. But I fear that honest hope has a sunset somewhere between 2012 (expiry of Kyoto, not as effective instrument, but as token of the possibility of a binding international treaty) and 2017 - the end of Hansen's 2007 warning, since echoed by other climate scientists, that we had “10 years” to make a serious start in curbing carbon emissions. As Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power and Light, said last week, “My hope is hanging by a thread.” Now that's honest hope. May the thread be a strong one.

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For the Children: Abrupt Climate Change, Cultural Autism, and the Thread of Hope

To My Children, Fearing for Them

Terrors are to come. The earth
is poisoned with narrow lives.
I think of you. What you will

live through, or perish by, eats
at my heart. What have I done? I
need better answers than there are

to the pain of coming to see
what was done in blindness,
loving what I cannot save. Nor,

your eyes turning towards me,
can I wish your lives unmade
though the pain of them is on me.

Wendell Berry published this poem in 1968. I know the children he speaks of through the poignant National Geographic photoessay focused on a Siberian farm family he imaginatively linked with his own, farming tobacco with horses in Kentucky. We had survived the McCarthy era, but Soviets were still demonized. And we had narrowly missed a nuclear exchange over the Cuban missile crisis. But here it was: the Siberian Woodsman (another poem) loved his children just as much as the poet loved his. Opposing nuclear arsenals arrayed against the demonized other, we were the same underneath.

Terrors are to come. The earth is poisoned with narrow lives. Forty years later, the theme remains. The earth is poisoned far beyond Berry's or anyone else's imagining, even as reactionaries chortle at Paul Ehrlich's failed projections of population doom. In 1986, two events signaled the coming terror, the Malthusian curse amplified by climate change. That was the year when we first exceeded the earth's annual biocapacity. In addition to rapidly burning the stores of ancient sunlight, our energy capital, we started eating into annual income. The other fact about that year was that it was the peak in grain production per capita (376 kilos), steadily declining ever since. Last year, one billion people were at risk of starvation. This year, we exceeded biocapacity on August 19, effectively employing 1.627 earths to maintain our current population of close to 7 billion.

Okay you say, but terror? Key Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in favor of the new START treaty negotiated by the Obama administration, and the midnight clock of nuclear armageddon is poised to be set back once again (if we can keep Pakistan and Iran's hawks, and a few others closer at hand at bay). The answer lies in the Defense Department study under the last Bush administration comparing the threat of terrorism (the word is now a systematic part of both our vocabulary and government, with over a hundred new agencies dedicated to countering it) to that of “rapid climate change.” The study concludes that the latter threat far outweighs political terror.

Dianne Dumanoski's The End of the Long Summer (Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth) is an intelligent book cooly surveying the Damoclean sword of abrupt climate change and what we must do to avoid it, at least partially, and survive it (partially). I have read several books on climate change, including Bill McKibbens' recently released Eaarth, and Dumanoski's is the most comprehensive. She combines the geological and historical perspective of Tim Flannery's Weathermakers with McKibben's recital of the earth's current crisis through the lens of climate science, adding the valuable perspective of human evolutionary history and cultural biology.

Recasting McKibben's touchstone, The End of Nature (1989), Dumanoski speaks of the Return of Nature. McKibben took the historical perspective of a romantic, proclaiming the end of nature as we knew and loved her, recognizing the awesome ability of our species to dominate natural systems as a planetary power. From Dumanoski's perspective twenty years later, nature's return is the return of the repressed. The entire earth system is rising up to restore balance, and climate change is the main vehicle via which we will be chastened to our pre-agricultural and pre-industrial size, or else removed entirely from the system.

But while she acknowledges the huge challenge of our planetary emergency, Dumanoski cautiously affirms the history of our species in surviving some pretty harrowing moments of past climate change, including abrupt ones where climatic patterns shifted rapidly within a brief decade. We have already survived 700,000 years of climate variability, having evolved both a brain and cultural extensions of biological adaptation that have equipped us with the flexibility to deal with such crises – up to now. Clearly we have had a pretty easy time of it during the mild holocene, the last 12,000 years, tempting the species to overexpand as it triumphed over rivals - especially Neanderthalis - by being so remarkably adaptable and flexible. Yet we are now like a bacterial bloom that has eaten up all the fuel in the petri dish, and have nowhere else to go.

Given our precarious situation, we have the choice of changing the global industrial order, encouraged by international treaty to live sustainably in a carbon-neutral world averaging zero net economic growth, or continuing our clever manipulation of nature, “playing Prospero” with huge geoengineering technofix projects. She outlines both choices, and cautions against the latter, arguing that in effect we would be postponing the harder path of reining in our industrial excesses, placing an intolerable burden on future generations. And of course, we don't really know if these huge manipulations (like seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to simulate the effect of volcanoes, partially blocking incoming solar radiation) will even work, much as the scientists observing the first detonation of an atomic bomb in the desert at Alamogordo did not really know if unleashing this powerful toy would destroy the atmosphere. (CONTINUED)

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