Saturday, November 16, 2013



The Anthropocene is not the kind of world we want to live in. Is this not at the core of much Green rhetoric and supposed values? We want our bodies, already contaminated by over 80 chemicals, to be pure, and thus to eat organically raised foods. We want to preserve Nature, its viewsheds as well as watersheds. We want the predictability of slow evolution, though we are in the midst of accelerating cultural evolution that causes us great anxiety. We want a world that preserves enough habitat to be recognizable as the one our grandparents were born into. And we definitely don't want to be a “planetary power” (Brian Swimme), a geological force so powerful that the world's geologists are about to affix our name to the era.

Dear reader, do you not see that we Greens are also falling into the trap of hubris? In our case, are we not prescribing nineteenth century (or Medieval, or paleolithic – though this is more true of Earth Firsters than the curious case of the paleo-dieter,) values for the vastly more complex and challenging Anthropocene? Would not the greatest hubris be condemning much of the present world population to starvation, because we prefer a world with less humans? This could be the case if we prescribed organic farming for all the world's farmers, if that would indeed require twice the land to make up for producing half the yield of industrial farming. To be honest, I have found myself rather moralistically accepting the necessity of a huge die-off, primarily from starvation, because I prefer a world with fewer humans, feeling the world is too much with us. But until I read Lynas' book I did not place myself in a Third World father's sandals, watching my kids die, one by one. What about you?

“Can we not have peaceful coexistence?” Lynas asks in terms of the conflicting values of small organic farmers and industrial farming. There is plenty of room for the wonderful growth of organic produce in this country and others. But if we applied our strictest organic values to the world's cereal crops, we would not only condemn the world's poor to starvation, but threaten to make the current extinction wave, via habitat encroachment, much worse. On the other hand, GM seeds have already escaped into non GM fields (and Monsanto has sued the hapless farmers who did not plant them), and current proposed federal regulations would set up the same scenario for salmon. Peaceful coexistence, mediated by markets, might well be impossible without much more careful regulation of industrial farming, with human error reduced virtually to zero.

Of course, it is highly likely that, as we work to correct the excesses of technological overreach, we will end up creating a situation of such complexity that it must crash. But reading Lynas has caused me to at least ponder the wager that we can buy more time, as Borlaug put it. We are not going to change our species' imperative, deeply bred into us, to keep trying to maximize our own growth, by resorting to moralism. And, short of collapse, there will be no revolution of the kind that Naomi Klein suggests could come with the union of socialist and Green causes. Might it just be possible that careful crafting of the present industrial agriculture and global capital system could create conditions for a barely tolerable (to the Earth) sustainability?

Once, teaching a humanities class where we read Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, I was surprised when a young man, who had just discovered his Quaker roots and was attending our meeting in Fargo, stood up to the entire class to argue against Quinn and his telepathic ape. Tavis passionately spoke for our evolutionary imperative, alarmed that the rest of us would give up on our intelligent problem-solving prematurely. As a teacher who encouraged democratic discussion, I was pleased for another point of view to emerge, and respectful of his position as the discussion proceeded. Though I have continued to hold the other view, I must say that Tavis's defense of modernity stayed with me, now rekindled by reading Lynas. I agree with the population biologists and the ecologists that we are subject to the same laws as all other species, and with the consensus figure of 1.5 – 2 billion figure for maximum sustainable population – after all, it is in line with my own figure. But I am open to Lynas' (and Donella Meadows) argument that we could use our ingenuity, with safeguards in place for all the physico-chemical boundaries we face, to continue to make agronomic breakthroughs sufficient to feed 9-10 billion.

I am increasingly encountering Tavis' position from the more rational among my spiritually-oriented ecofriends. Slowly, they are coming out of the closet, academics and engineers and writers who still feel that, if we could just muster the political will, we could use the recommendations of policy analysts so create a soft-enough landing to muddle through. Of course, political will is at the crux of all approaches. Nobody in the environmental movement, whether they be back-to-the-land types or think-tank denizens who don't understand Greens' fear of technology, believes that unfettered capitalism and the resultant acceleration of the BAU curve (RCP8.5 – see note at bottom of current post) will bring us anything but catastrophic collapse. The point of the policy wonks is that we have a system that, with a few key adjustments (carbon tax, commiditization of all biosystem services), could bring us to the Promised Land of good enough. Doubters on the left will point out that this can't happen, won't happen without a more fundamental revolution, both in terms of the financial and world trade system and the related conditions of social (in)equality.

If we do crash, and it is the likeliest scenario, our remnant will continue to develop, working to do the best they can from the reduced level of complexity and comfort, at least as long as we haven't totally shot all the boundaries Lynas outlines. But the same problem that bedevils us now will continue to challenge us. Though we have been able to engineer materials, and now, for better or worse, the very germ material of life, we have yet been able to engineer human behavior, try as we might. We are still wired for tribal life with limbic patterns that trump reason almost every time they are in conflict. Individual human beings can achieve transformation, but this happening on a a societal scale appears to be a California pipe dream.

Yet once, in what Lynas calls “humanity's finest hour,” we were able to use international diplomacy to engineer the Montreal Protocol, which protected one of our boundaries (ozone), buying time until the next crisis. Now those crises are coming thick and fast. We are not genetically prepared for this, but instead of asking the world to stop and let us get off at the next organic farm, we might put faith in the U.N., and the continuing, patient work it will take to get us to the next international protocol, leap-frogging past the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen. Expectations are low, but our hearts and wills need to be with the challenged delegates at Warsaw, praying that they will hear the passionate plea from the Philippine delegate Naderev Sano in the wake of the most powerful storm ever to make landfall (a second annual event for the beleaguered Philippinos), to “stop this [climate] madness.” Sano has initiated a hunger strike until the UN climate delegates achieve “meaningful progress” - and scores in Warsaw have joined him.

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“Dear reader, do you not see that we Greens are also falling into the trap of hubris? ... Would not the greatest hubris be condemning much of the present world population to starvation, because we prefer a world with less humans?”

No, the greatest hubris is to assume that, at this point, the human race can avoid payment for its ecological sins.

Or if you disagree with me on this, let’s see you explain how the seven billion humans now on the planet can avoid mass starvation as the cheap petroleum (for industrial farming and shipping), the cheap phosphorus and natural gas (for nitrate and phosphate fertilizer production) and the healthy topsoils all run out, as pesticides lose their effectiveness, as climate change accelerates, the rivers dry up, and the soils dry out, as the aquifers run out, and as the oceans finish dying.

I think the mark of hubris is all over the techno-diddle mind-set, which it sounds from this essay that you have decided to subscribe to.

You do not want to see Third World children die, and I sure don’t blame you. But exclaiming, “We, we with our mighty brains, can techno-diddle our way out of this fate we have made for ourselves!”, won’t make that tragedy go away. Not at this late point, when we are irremediably dependent on resources and stabilities that are fast disappearing.

No amount of Monsanto-GMO advocacy will make the GMO-destroying superweeds and superpests stop evolving, or the GMOs less dependent on tar-sands-based agrifuels, or the climate stop shifting from under the feet of monoculture-dependent agribiz.

At this point the far-seeing question is not, “How can we escape this?”, but, “How will we go through it?”
Thank you, Marshall, for both comments. As for "subscribing" to the neo-enviro mindset, I think it is fairer to say that I have seriously tried to think through it, mainly because I read Lynas book (many Greens thought 6 Degrees was great - and it foresees the likelihood of the world you allude to above). As a blogger, I am thinking outloud, and I appreciate others responding, especially those who I respect. My next posts will move back in the direction of my intuition and lifelong values, and address your key question, "How will we go through it?" It does bother me how closed most enviros are to looking at uncomfortable data, and the general lack of scientific literacy (or worse, folks who know better throwing away their own tools). WE could talk a lot more about that, including the lack of shared understanding about what's going on at Fukushima right now (dangerous, but not an end-of-the-world scenario), the disconnects about what the facts are between the industry spokespeople, the policy community, and the anti-nuke crowd.
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