2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Ecology: Developing Ecological Consciousness

003In the last three posts we have heard from some of the most articulate spokespersons for shifting human consciousness from a preoccupation with human-centred economic and social development on planet Earth to understanding that human well-being is possible only if we live in harmony with the natural world.  When economists excluded the biosphere from their economic models, and industrialized society came to see itself as separate from nature, a new direction for humanity was set in motion.  It has brought us into conflict with the life systems on which we depend.  It is as if we lost our minds.  We have to find them again.

The great work of the 21st century is to re-discover our lost connection to nature; to see ourselves as biological beings and part of an intricate web of life; to understand more fully than any generation before us how we emerged along with all other living creatures out of the fabric of the universe, and to know that we remain woven into that fabric here on Earth in a bond that can never be separated, because it is who we are.

In short, we must nurture in all of the diverse cultures in our world a shift of consciousness anchored in one fundamental and eternal reality: humanity and nature are inseparable.  When we damage and destroy any part of any ecosystem in the natural world, we just as certainly damage and hurt ourselves.  The shift of consciousness required of us is away from notions that human wealth extracted out of nature is the ultimate human objective, to understanding and appreciating that human well-being enjoyed in a participatory relationship with nature is the highest possible good.

Ecological Consciousness

We are being challenged to develop ecological consciousness.  All of the authors encountered in the preceding three posts have been writing about this.  But what does it really mean to look at the world in this way—through an ecological lens, as it were?

Each of us, wherever we live on Earth, is brought up to see reality through the lens of our culture—to value what our culture values.  That will never change.  Human beings are social creatures who absorb like sponges the norms and values of the society in which we are born.  Our cultures are rich and diverse—a grand mosaic created over millennia in every part of the world.  The richness and diversity are to be treasured; but we have to appreciate that our cultures have developed and endured only because the conditions on our planet enabled them to do so.  When our cultures become so extensive and active that they work against those life-supporting conditions, we know we have lost our way.  And so it is.  In the 21st century we have reached the point of conflict with the life-support systems of the planet such that our industrial way of life is facing potential breakdown.

 So we are being challenged to create a new and different way of being on the planet.  It is a transformation of lifestyles and values as great as anything ever experienced in human history.  This time we must get it right, because there is little slack left in the system for trial and error.  And this shift will grow out of a change in our minds, as they embrace ecological consciousness—a way of looking at the world so that we design everything we do to be in harmony with the rhythms of nature: from the way we build our homes, how we grow our food, how we travel and communicate, and above all, how we use energy that enables us to do everything we do.

However, it is one thing to understand what needs to be done, but quite another to know how to do it.  This was the awareness that developed for Christopher Uhl, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University.  His answer is contained in his 2004 book, Developing Ecological Consciousness: Path to a Sustainable World.  I am including a review of Professor Uhl’s teaching, for I believe it captures the essence of the challenges we face and the hope and means for meeting them.

Sustained in the Web of Life

In the Preface to his book Uhl confesses that he had fallen into the trap of feeling so depressed about what he saw in his scientific life as a professor of biology that he was transferring his own despair onto his students.  He decided to get out of his office and take a week-long hike in Penn’s woods.  He says: “During my walkabout, I remembered what had attracted me to ecology in the first place.  It was my love for the natural world, the diversity of life forms on the land and in the sea, the fascinating life cycles of Earth’s creatures, the spaciousness and splendor of the night sky. . .”

He realized that his teaching and his life needed to be grounded in “awe and empowerment, not doom and gloom.”  He asked himself what his students—and indeed all of us—need to know “to become more environmentally literate and ecologically conscious . . . What do we need to awaken to?  The answer came quickly: first, to the awe and wonder of the living earth; second to the dreadful beating we are inflicting on Earth and one another; and, third to our collective capacity to reverse present trends and to create a life-sustaining and just world.”

We have heard much already in this blog about item two: the adverse impact we are having on the Earth.  With respect to item three, I will be reserving comment on what we can do collectively to change things for later in the blog.  For the purpose of this post, my intent is to capture the spirit and intent of what Professor Uhl says about item one of his list: “the awe and wonder of the living earth”—how we might experience it for ourselves and teach it to others.

This post, then, is about what it means to be sustained in the web of life.

Awakening the Heart

Christopher Uhl makes some further important points in the Preface to his book.  He tells how he was dissatisfied after writing the first draft and was ready to abandon the project because it lacked vitality.  After going on a retreat he realized that what was missing were “practices” that would enable a reader “to fully and deeply explore the essence of the ecological teaching” he was presenting as foundational concepts.  So the finished book contains practices that are designed to go beyond intellectual understanding and awaken the heart.  “As such,” says Uhl, “they are invitations to care –to care for ourselves, to care for each other, to care for the entire community of life. . . In the end, it is not new laws or more efficient solar cells that will play the leading role in solving humankind’s environmental and social problems, it is our awakened and caring hearts.” (Emphasis added)

With those words Uhl has gone to the essence of what is meant by developing ecological consciousness.  Scientific and intellectual understanding can take us only so far.  We are spirit beings searching for meaning as well as understanding.  Science does well in serving our need to understand, but it does not resonate in our hearts.  To touch the spirit dimension of our being, we need deep meditative practices and experiential opportunities that lift our spirits to soar.  Uhl has done well in incorporating both aspects in his book.  Let me share some examples.

Earth, Our Home

He begins with the cosmos, with the truly mind-blowing story revealed by science of how the universe came to be and where our tiny planetary home fits into that vast and awesome totality.  He invites us to set out on a moonless summer night with blanket and thermos and a group of friends and head off into the country.  We spread our blanket and lie down to gaze at the night sky far away from the glare of city lights.  He invites us to let our imaginations drift away from the Earth into “those yawning depths where galaxies whirl like snowflakes in a storm.”

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If we narrow our perspective to our own Milky Way  galaxy (shown above), we see it in our mind’s eye as a flattened wheel of stars, billions of them, spread out across 100,000 light years of space, with our own solar system—so tiny by comparison, but so vast to our comprehension—spinning and travelling in its own ordered progression through space.  Here our own mighty Sun hurls its heat energy across space where a tiny fraction is intercepted by Earth, but that fraction is sufficient to support all life on our planet.  He invites us to find a quiet place to watch the Sun as it sets, recalling that it is a million times the size of the Earth.  As the sky darkens, if we know where to look we can find our sister planets, and realize that our Earth is in the middle of a family of planets being whipped around by the Sun’s gravitational pull, and we suddenly experience ourselves “inside” the solar system.

He invites us to wake our children just before dawn and bring them yawning into contemplation of the great cosmic experience that unwinds each day as the Earth gathers up the sunlight to enliven all the creatures of the ocean and the land—and for us to know as we stand there rubbing the sleep from our eyes that coursing through our bodies the molecules of our blood are energized by the Sun.

And we are invited to reflect on how the myriad of life forms we know to exist on Earth came to be; how the universal elixir we call water served as a planetary womb that somehow gave birth to the first primeval forms of life that miraculously learned to replicate and eventually became us and every other creature living today and sharing the Earth with us.

Looking outward again, we are invited to reflect once more on our Milky Way galaxy and consider its roughly fifty billion stars like our Sun, each with its own circling planets, and know that there are probably a hundred billion planets in our galaxy alone with the potential to support life—and beyond that in deep space billions more galaxies with their many more billions of stars and planets too numerous to comprehend.

If we allow ourselves to stand in awe and wonder of this immense reality, we are humbled but also exhilarated to know that we are part of a continuing unfolding epic story—what Thomas Berry called “our own sacred story, the epic of evolution.”  Modern cosmology provides a wondrous revelation—but to truly know it in our hearts  we have to pack our blanket and our thermos and go out on that starry night and gaze into the heavens; and sit at dawn and sunset and reflect on the life-giving Sun.  We need to celebrate the solstices and the equinoxes and wander in our minds through the immensity of time—and if we do, if we allow ourselves to truly experience the wonder of it all, then we will know what it means to call the Earth our home.

Earth: A Living Planet

Earth is, indeed, our home, and the home of a vast multitude of plants and animals.  It is teaming with life.  We know this, but do we really appreciate that the Earth itself is “alive” in its own right.  Scientific evidence reveals a rhythmic breathing pattern of the Earth.  Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing throughout the rest of the 20th century and up to the present, research begun by Roger Revell and Charles David Keeling has measured the long-term concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The result of this work produced the iconic Keeling Curve shown below, which Christopher Uhl says is “arguably the most important graph produced in the history of environmental science.”

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Besides showing that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are increasing dramatically (a concern we will discuss in great detail when we come to examine global warming), the graph literally shows the Earth breathing.  The regular up and down motion captured on the graph shows how the carbon-based life absorbs (breathes in) carbon dioxide in the summer and releases (breathes out) carbon dioxide in the winter.  Because this occurs mostly on land, and because there is more land in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes down in the Northern summer and up in the Northern winter.  This is captured on the graph, which shows this regular breathing in and out of the Earth, one cycle per year.

Equally important is the understanding coming from the work of James Lovelock who posited the Gaia Hypothesis (discussed previously in post #29) that the totality of the Earth’s living organisms, its biota, working together, has regulated the conditions on Earth to keep it tolerable for life, despite the fact that the Sun’s output of light (and therefore heat) has increased by an estimated 33 percent over the past four billion years.  All of us along with our family of other life forms are part of one huge living organism travelling through space as we orbit our Sun.

Uhl urges us to reflect on all this by closing our eyes and imagining ourselves breathing in and out with the Earth; taking up into our bodies with each breath the “earth” elements that support us; feeling the water element in all our tissues; noticing the fire element that comes from the warmth of the Sun; breathing in the air element that fills our lungs and courses through all the spaces of our bodies leaving us cleansed and refreshed—repeating this over and over, until we feel ourselves one with all of life and the Earth in one inseparable whole.

We can become conscious, too, of the Earth’s metabolism as its plants take in the sunlight through the wondrous chlorophyll molecule, which, in the end, nourishes all life, because animals take in plant material to nourish their bodies.  We feel ourselves as participants in this great life-sustaining process, conscious, too, of the Earth’s innumerable cycles of which we are an integral part.  We are invited to awaken to the interconnected, not fragmented, nature of life on Earth so we never again feel ourselves as separate, but one with the dynamic, ongoing symphony of life.

Earth’s Web of Life

And nowhere is the awe and wonder of life displayed more completely than through the way species find their niches, while at the same time maintaining links through both cooperation and competition—held together in a vast self-organizing network we call the web of life.

Uhl tells us that each species is a string in that web, and he invites us to experience the wonder of it all by following a single species, the monarch butterfly, through one individual moth’s life cycle. Then we follow the amazing migratory pattern of the monarch as a vast collective, flying in brilliantly coloured clouds across thousands of miles on the North American continent.

monarch-butterfly

You might be surprised to know that everything in this story depends on a single plant species—the milkweed—for the monarch will lay its eggs only on milkweeds.  The butterfly has scent receptors on her antennae that allow her to zero in on milkweeds.  She spreads her eggs around, sometimes only one on a single plant so that the caterpillars when they hatch will have sufficient food to enter the pupae stage from which the next generation will come.

If we imagine ourselves riding on the back of a monarch, we will see that she places the eggs on the underside of the leaves so they will not dry out.  We will note, too, that the milkweed leaf is filled with a sticky milky latex, which is full of toxins that would cause severe vomiting if we ate a leaf.  But not the caterpillars.  They love it and have evolved to thrive in their own ecological niche.  Moreover, they store the toxins in their tissues so that birds have learned not to eat a monarch caterpillar or butterfly, or they will die a horrible death, because as vertebrates the milkweed latex is poisonous to them.  Presumably, that is why the butterfly is brightly coloured, so the birds will not mistake them—another way that nature preserves both butterfly and bird species.

Our butterfly has laid her eggs, tires and dies.  We slide from our perch on her back so that we can follow the life cycle of a new butterfly from egg to small caterpillar that goes through five molts over three weeks feeding on milkweed leaves, until suddenly it stops feeding, slides to the ground and attaches itself to the branch of a honeysuckle bush, where a remarkable thing happens.  The caterpillar forms a mummy-like crucible within which its body is deconstructed into a kind of soupy mush from which a new magnificent monarch butterfly forms.  It takes about a week, then we can fly away again on the back of the new butterfly as she spirals high into the sky in a courtship flight to meet her mate.  He arrives, places a packet of sperm complete with nutrient supplements into a special receptacle in her reproductive tract.  The next day we fly along with our female as she begins to lay eggs on milkweed plants, releasing sperm to fertilize each egg, just before it is laid. While she is doing this, she is also feeding on the nectar of flowers from other plants, and in doing so carries out an important role as a pollinator.

 

The life cycle is repeated several times during the summer, and then the weather begins to turn cold.  The adult butterflies flee the cold and start to head south for winter, flying thousands of miles from Canada and the northern United States along several migratory routes to one single destination in a mountainous region sixty miles west of Mexico City.  How do they do it, flying as far as fifty miles a day?  The answer is that they manage very well, feeding along the way on rich flower nectar and, surprisingly, gain weight.  They store enough fat to sustain them through three months of the Mexican winter before they head north again at the end of March.

 

Along the way they mate, find milkweeds on which to lay their eggs, then die.  This means that it is the next generation that continues north, where the life cycles spin out over the summer.  All of which leads to one mother of a question: “How do the monarchs that hatch in the fall in North America find their way, year after year, to the same winter roosting sites in Mexico, given that these monarchs have never been there before? Similarly, how do the monarchs, born along the way north after winter, find their way to the same summer breeding sites that their ancestors have used for countless generations?”  One great mystery among thousands of others we will find throughout the marvellous web of life!

A Web of Relationships

The monarch butterfly account is the story of a single species as a strand in the web of life.  But there are also countless stories about relationships.  Let me share one told by Christopher Uhl as he turns his students loose in a field of goldenrods and asks them to observe, then report what they see.  The story is shown in the figure below.

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First the students notice only the butterflies and bumble bees going about their work as pollinators.  However, if they look more closely, they will find tiny predators in the form of ambush bugs that can dismember a bee or butterfly, as well as tiny yellow crab spiders that lie in wait camouflaged amongst the blossoms, ready to immobilize an unwary pollinator and suck it dry.

Who would have thought such drama would be in play on a goldenrod stalk?  But wait, there’s more.  Below the flowers a bunch of aphids are sucking out sugar-rich fluids, gorging themselves to excess, such that surplus sugars drip form their anuses where eager ants lie in wait to drink the sugary fluid, while keeping away ladybugs and other predators who might feed on the aphids.  The ants are actually tending the aphids as a shepherd would tend his flock of sheep!

But there’s more still to this merry story of the goldenrod party.  Further down the stem a strange marble-sized glob of tissue might be observed—a goldenrod gall, containing a writhing larva inside, which has tunneled down the stem of the flower from where it emerged from an egg laid earlier by a goldenrod gall fly. The larvae are feeding inside the galls with the intent of turning again into flies.  But the lives of gall fly larvae are sometimes cut short by a wasp species, which deposits eggs inside the galls.  The wasp larvae, developing from these eggs, devour the gall flies as they are born.  If the gall fly larvae manage to escape attack by wasps, they might still get gobbled up by chickadees or woodpeckers, which sometimes peck open galls in winter.

Needless to say, this is one fascinating outdoor classroom episode for Professor Uhl’s students.  He reports that “even after I tell them we are done for the day, they often linger in twos or threes by patches of goldenrod, looking at this mini-ecosystem with new eyes.”

Conclusion

And well might all of us look at the web of life with new eyes.  If we did—in great numbers of us around the world—I wonder if we would be so ready to tear into the earth with our bulldozers, or to tunnel with our great machines into what we believe are rich hordes of metals, destroying existing wildlife habitats and spreading toxic waste across the surrounding landscape.

Would we be as willing to unthinkingly destroy in countless other ways the habitat of our sister species who have evolved so elegantly like the monarch butterfly to fill their niche in the web of life?  Would we take more care of our wild salmon stocks by leaving their spawning grounds undisturbed so that the new fingerlings might be born and head out to sea, then in due course return to lay their eggs again, while the bears and eagles might feast their fill on the dying fish who have fulfilled their life’s purpose after travelling for thousands of miles through the oceans?

When we think of all of this, and truly understand it in our hearts, can we not be touched in our minds to be more thoughtful about how we act as stewards of the one natural creation we know, and of which we are an integral part?

If we don’t and we can’t, how can we expect there to be a life in the future for our species?  There is only one web of life that evolved over billions of years before our species arrived.  Surely with our big intelligent brains, we will not take it down.  Can we open our warm and loving hearts and find a place in there for the rest of our fellow Earth creatures?  Surely we can do that, can’t we?

 

 

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Ecology: What on Earth Are We Doing?

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Readers of this blog have been on a journey with me through the literature about future prospects for our grandchildren.  We began with a review of how industrial society was built by the intensive use of energy, mainly from fossil fuels. Then we saw how economic and political leaders designed industrial economies to depend on pricing energy consumption as low as possible, neglecting to account for external costs such as impact on the environment and the consumption of non-renewable natural capital.  In recent decades the new science of ecology  has begun to explain the consequences of continuing to do what we have been doing—essentially creating a non-sustainable way of life on a planet with finite resources where a minority of  people live well while billions of others live at marginal levels or in abject poverty.  For the less economically privileged to reach the levels of the more fortunate is utterly impossible without exhausting the resource limits of the planet.  The pressures on the Earth due to population growth, energy-intensive industrialism, and a flawed economic model based on continuous growth are now such that the physical laws of nature will not permit a continuation of business as usual for many more years into the future.  If changes are not made by design, they will be enforced by shock during the lifetimes of many millions now living.  That is the story of this blog so far.

 The story will continue into more hopeful territory when we begin to consider the enormous potential humanity has to turn things around.  However, before we can approach that potential realistically, we must first appreciate the severity of the greatest threat now facing human civilization.  This is the issue that, above all others, will define what conditions will prevail on Earth by the end of this century.  Though it has been a factor on Earth for millions of years, as an issue of human survival it has come upon us quite recently—no more than two or three decades ago.  In fact, so recent and so sudden has been its onslaught, that its reality is still by no means fully appreciated by most people on the planet, and is flat out ignored and denied by many who are contributing most to its development.  It is an issue above all others that will determine how our grandchildren and those who follow them will live.  It is the issue of human-induced global warming leading to disruption of climatic conditions that have prevailed through the several millennia during which human civilization developed.

Understanding the Science

What makes the issue of climate change difficult for ordinary citizens without a strong scientific background to understand, is the complexity of the science underlying it.  No one appreciates this more than the man who has arguably done the most to bring the significance of this issue to the forefront of public debate.  This is Dr. James Hansen.

 In 2009 when Hansen was adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he published a climate-science book for the public.  He called it Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.  The title could not be more clear; Hansen’s intent in writing the book could not be more explicit: Governments are in the hands of “special interests” who want things to continue into the future in ways that will be to their advantage. But citizens also have special interests–their loved ones.  “Citizens with a special interest—in their loved ones—need to become familiar with the science, exercise their democratic rights, and pay attention to politicians’ decisions.”

Hansen confirms that he became more concerned about the issue of global warming and climate change with the passing years as he, himself, came to understand the science better.  In particular, he is concerned about what he calls “climate forcings”—something going on that is likely to alter global temperature.  One such forcing would be a human-made change of atmospheric composition.

In 2001 Hansen thought that the climate impacts might be tolerable if the atmospheric carbon dioxide amount was kept at a level not exceeding 450 parts per million (ppm).  In 2009, when his book was published,  the level was 387 ppm, up from 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. But by 2009 Hansen had changed his mind.  He had come to realize that 387 ppm was already in the “dangerous range.”  In May of 2013 the level just passed 400 ppm and is continuing to rise at the rate of about 2 ppm per year.  Hansen contends that it is crucial that we need to recognize the need to get the level back down to 350 ppm “in order to avoid disaster for coming generations.”  But we are still going rapidly in the wrong direction.

One other thing that happened for Hansen between 2001 and 2009 that influenced his view is that his first grandchild was born.  He realized that he could no longer just be an “expert witness” to what was going on.  “I did not want my grandchildren, some day in the future, to look back and say, ‘Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”  Since then he has done more than try to make it clear.  In 2011 he was one of the first people to be arrested for protesting outside the White House against the Keystone Pipeline that would bring Canadian bitumen to be refined in the United States. 

Explaining the Science

In his book Hansen recounts how he had tried to explain the science behind climate change to then Vice-President Dick Chaney’s Climate Task Force in 2001.  He focused on the forcing agents underlying climate change, and distinguished between “natural forcings” and “man-made forcings.”  Hansen points out that there are many natural forcings which have affected the climate on Earth in the past, but the gist of what he is saying is that man-made forcings during the past few decades have been overwhelming the natural forcings and are beginning to tip the scales toward a hotter world.  Forcings that would cause climate cooling, such as volcanic eruptions that spew particles into the air that can cause solar dimming are no match for the concentration of greenhouse gases combined with feedbacks, like less solar reflection from melting ice, that are forcing a rise in global temperature.

Some of the science Hansen discusses takes an effort for the lay reader to follow.  It includes the effect, for example, of small changes to Earth’s tilt on its axis and to its orbit around the sun.  Again, the gist of what Hansen is saying is that a variety of natural focings should have been moving Earth towards another ice age, but instead the ice is melting rapidly.  Hansen’s conclusion is that “man-made forcings are now in total dominance over natural forcings. . . Humans by rapidly burning fossil fuels have caused global warming that overrides the natural tendency toward cooling. . . Global temperatures will continue to rise for decades and millennia unless we reduce human-made climate forcings.”  In addition, “sea-level rise is beginning to accelerate.  Sea level is now rising more than three centimetres per decade—double the rate that occurred in the twentieth century.”

Hansen says that the Bush-Chaney Administration did not want to hear this kind of evidence and took the position of distrusting the scientific community.  Though the President had initially asked the National Academy of Sciences to advise him about global warming in 2001, when he and other members of his administration heard what the scientists had to say, he “did not ask the Academy for advice about global warming again during the remainder of his eight years in power.”

Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope

In a chapter in his book entitled “Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope” Hansen deals head on with probably the most difficult aspect of communicating concern about climate change: Nothing much seems to be happening right now, but the changes that will almost certainly occur in our grandchildren’s lifetimes are enormous.  Moreover, scientists are talking about only a few degrees of temperature change.  How can that amount to a large change in climate?  “How can warming of several degrees destroy civilization?”  It is hard to explain such things to the public.

But the reason to be concerned, says Hansen, is that two phenomena—inertia and feedbacks—can result in large scale change.  Hansen says that when he realized this, that is when he concluded: “We really do have a planet in peril.”

The main sources of natural inertia with respect to climate change are the oceans and the ice-sheets.    Scientists at first thought that these sources of inertia would mean that change in climate would be slow, but suddenly “amplifying feedbacks that were expected to occur only slowly have come into play in the past few years.”  Examples are: significant reduction in ice-sheets and release of greenhouse gases from permafrost.  Inertia had lulled scientists to sleep.  “Now we have a situation with big impacts on the horizon.”  What to do?  Hansen says that the strategy must be to stabilize Earth’s climate by reducing the planet’s energy imbalance to near zero, which would at least stabilize the climate at its present state (not the more favourable conditions of pre-industrialization).  But that would be much better than letting the disaster unfold. “It borders on insanity to suggest that humans should work to ‘adapt’ to climate change, as opposed to taking actions needed to stabilize climate,” says Hansen.

Hansen sums up our predicament as follows: “Climate inertia and climate amplifying feedbacks, as humans rapidly increase atmospheric greenhouse gases, spell danger for future generations—big danger.  Yet the public is largely unaware of an impending crisis.  The obliviousness of the public is not surprising—global warming, as yet, is slight compared to day-to-day weather fluctuations.   “How in the world,” Hansen asks, “can a situation like this be communicated credibly?”

A Fork in the Road

Humanity does not have any control over the inertia of the oceans or the ice-sheets—how much and how quickly the one will warm and the other will melt.  However, what we do theoretically control, is how much carbon we pump into the air. Reducing this, says Hansen, is one clear strategy for slowing climate change—even though we know that present levels in the atmosphere will stay there for centuries.  We must do whatever we can to not make it worse.

Hansen sums it up concisely: “It follows that the world, humanity, has reached a fork in the road, we are faced with a choice of potential paths into the future.  One path has global fossil fuels declining at a pace, dictated by what science is telling us, that defuses amplifying feedbacks and stabilizes climate.  The other path is more or less business as usual, in which case amplifying feedbacks are expected to come into play and climate change will begin to spin out of control”  (I have added the emphasis in the hope that readers will pause to think about what it would mean for our grandchildren if climate change was “to spin out of control.”)

Target Carbon Dioxide: Where Should Humanity Aim?

In trying to arrive at a conclusion about how to act to try to stabilize climate, Hansen says there are two numbers in the carbon cycle we must pay attention to: 1) the rate at which carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air by fossil fuel burning; 2) the annual growth of carbon dioxide in the air.

Both of these numbers relate to a third number: the actual concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.  This gives rise to the question: What is a safe level? 

As mentioned earlier, Hansen at one time thought that 450 ppm would be safe.  Where did that number come from?  He says it came from looking at Earth’s history.  Fifty million years ago when Earth was much hotter than it is today, Hansen and his teams of researchers have estimated maximum carbon dioxide levels to have been 1400 ppm, with an uncertainty of about 500 ppm.  Then Earth cooled over several million years such that an ice-sheet formed over Antarctica.  This was about 34 million years ago.  Hansen’s estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at that time was 450 ppm with an uncertainty of about 100 ppm.  This led him to conclude that 450 ppm would be the highest concentration that might be considered “safe” for civilization.  However, carbon dioxide is the dominant climate forcing and you can’t turn it on and off like a tap, “so it would obviously be extremely foolish and dangerous to allow carbon dioxide to approach 450 ppm.  At that level the temperature rise would be sufficient to cause the melting of frozen methane and the release of methane gas, which is about 25 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun on the Earth and prevents if from radiating into space.

Hansen warns that following global cooling over tens of millions of years “the methane hydrate reservoir is fully charged,” with an estimated inventory of 5000 gigatons of carbon.  If this were to be released, it would trigger conditions similar to 55 million years ago when sea levels were 250 feet higher than they are today.  How long would it take?  We don’t even want to ask the question.  Surely we don’t want conditions like that for our descendants if there is something we can do now to avoid them.

This brings us to Hansen’s estimate of 350 ppm as being the target we should not go beyond.  Remember, we are already beyond this target and have just crossed the threshold of 400 ppm and still going up at 2 ppm per year.

Given that pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the air were 280 ppm, Hansen now believes a target of 350 ppm is a reasonable objective for us to aim for.  He also warns us that we should not focus too much on temperature as it is easy to confuse weather with climate when you do that.  Some years are warmer or cooler than others for a variety of reasons not related to carbon dioxide concentrations.  The point is to focus on the actual carbon dioxide levels and institute policies to bring the level back to 350 ppm.

An Honest Effective Path

Hansen opens this chapter of his book with a blunt, clear statement: “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty.”  He goes on to say: “Most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground.  That is the explicit message that the science provides.”  (Emphasis added).  He says we could continue to burn coal if we could safely store the carbon emissions in the ground, but that makes coal use more expensive and does not eliminate other pollutants from coal.”  “Clean coal is an oxymoron.  The point is that for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we cannot allow our government [US government] to continue to connive with the coal industry in subterfuge that allows dirty-coal use to continue.”

With respect to limiting emissions, Hansen is no fan of the Kyoto accord: “It was doomed before it started because it does not attack the basic problem. . . Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil-fuel emissions. . . Most governments say they recognize these imperatives.  And they say they will meet these objectives with a Kyoto-like approach.  Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. . . The problem is that our governments, under the heavy thumb of special interests, are not pursuing policies that would restrict our fossil fuel use. . . Quite the contrary, they are pursuing policies to get every last drop of fossil fuel, including coal, by whatever means necessary, regardless of environmental damage.”

Hansen proposes that today’s political leaders should write a letter to be left for future generations.  “The letter should explain that the leaders realized their failure to take appropriate actions would cause our descendants to inherit a planet with a warming ocean, disintegrating ice-sheets, rising sea level, increasing climate extremes, and vanishing species, but it would have been too much trouble to make changes to our energy systems and to oppose the business interests who insisted on burning every last bit of fossil fuels.  By composing this letter, the leaders will at least achieve an accurate view of their place in history.”

So, What to Do?

Hansen now considers what to do, given the need to phase out coal, and he immediately gets into controversial territory for those who would otherwise support him.  “The bottom line seems to be that it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to phase out coal unless nuclear power is included in the energy mix. . . Efficiency and renewables are not going to be sufficient for energy needs [particularly for countries like China and India] during the next several decades.”

He deals with the objections to the nuclear option as follows: “All experts agree that coal is responsible for far more than 1 percent of air pollution deaths, [and conservatively of 10 percent of such deaths]:  that’s a hundred thousand deaths per year every year.”  Yet there are no rallies against coal use.  “Death by coal is probably not as sexy as death by nuclear accident.”

With regard to the problem of nuclear waste, he agrees it is a serious issue, but there is a solution.  He discusses “fast” nuclear reactors that burn about 99 percent of the uranium mined compared with less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors.  He describes the sad story of how technological development of this alternative was derailed in the US.  Now, he says, that “at the very least we should build a fast-reactor nuclear power plant.”  If the US used these reactors, Hansen says, there is already enough nuclear waste stockpiled that would provide fuel for them for a thousand years.

Hansen reports that when he began to speak publicly about this, he was bombarded with messages from environmentalists and anti-nuclear people.  “That’s what began to make me a bit angry.  Do these people have the right to, in effect, make a decision that may determine the fate of my grandchildren? . .” The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change. Can this kind of strategy be effective in the timeframe required? Hansen says: “If you do not believe that such rapid development is feasible, you should read some of the stories about the Manhattan Project.” [to build the first atomic bomb under enormous time pressures to end World War II).

The Main Story

Whether or not—or to what extent—energy from nuclear technology plays an important role in meeting the energy needs of tomorrow, Hansen is clear about one thing: governments have to place a significant tax on carbon.  For Hansen, this is the “main story.”  A rising carbon price driven by a carbon tax will make it economically sensless to go after every last drop of oil and gas.  In Hansen’s opinion, even an improved Kyoto Protocol approach with more ambitious targets of higher emissions reductions, “does not have a prayer of achieving that result.”  Countries, even with the best of intentions, will miss their targets and resort to another device called “offsets” to make up the difference.

But Hansen is no fan of offsets, which he says “are like the indulgences that were sold by the Church in the Middle Ages” to assist souls on their path through purgatory into Heaven.  Offsets provide a form of penance, he says, for energy sinners without doing anything significant to reduce the amount of carbon being burned.  Nor does he support the “cap and trade” approach now being pushed as a policy option in Washington and elsewhere. “It’s the kind of smoke and mirrors game that government bureaucrats love to play—but it won’t get the job done.”

For Hansen the backbone and framework for a solution to human-caused climate change is “ a rising fee (tax) on carbon-based fuels, uniform across the board.  No exceptions.  The money must be returned to the public in a way that is direct [as a dividend], so they realize and trust that (averaged over the public) the money is being returned in full.”  Hansen estimates that in the US a family with two or more children will receive in the range of $8000 to $9000 per year as a carbon dividend.

The carbon tax must rise at a rate that is economically sound.  The funds must be distributed back to the citizens (not to special interests)—otherwise the tax rate will never be high enough to lead to a cleaner energy future.  That is Hansen’s proposal: a simple straightforward approach of increasing the price of carbon and rewarding people for doing so.

But what happens if governments “continue to deceive us, setting goals and targets for emission reductions?”  In that case, sys Hansen “we had better start thinking about the Venus syndrome.”  By that he means a runaway greenhouse effect leading to ever increasing temperatures that finally become too high for life to survive (as on Venus).  Could it happen on Earth?  Hansen says, “If we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse.  If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a clear certainty”  One is reminded here of the Disney cartoon of the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” when the young boy cast a spell to help him bring buckets of water from the well, but when everything began to flood with too much water, he did not know how to turn the spell off.  For us humans, there is no master Sorcerer to come to our aid and cast a spell to save us.  We have to do it on our own.

Last Words

Hansen’s last words and thoughts are for his grandchildren and young people generally.  Our politicians are hanging back from protecting our grandchildren because they (the governments) are under the sway of special interests and other ideologies.

“Therefore it is up to you,” Hansen says to all of us.  “You will need to be a protector of your children and grandchildren on this matter. . . It may be necessary to take to the streets to draw attention to injustice. . . Civil resistance may be our last hope.  It is crucial for all of us, especially young people, to get involved. . . this will be the most urgent fight of our lives.  It is our last chance.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ecology: Breaking Free from Economic Mind to Eco-Mind

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Humanity in the industrialized world of the 21st century is held fast by the dominant and destructive paradigm of the economic mind.  We can expect no possibility for sustainability if we don’t break free from it.  But what to replace it with?  Frances Moore Lappé suggests the eco-mind.  What is that?  This post will explain.

In the previous post Richard Louv gave us the “nature principle”—seeing ourselves and nature as inseparable.  That’s similar to Lappé’s eco-mind.  She says that humanity’s only path to a prosperous future for all is to break free from our current “mental map.”  That’s what Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, calls the destructive mindframe “locked inside our skulls.”  We shall hear more from Suzuki later.  Let’s begin with Lappé.

You may know of Frances Moore Lappé from her 1971 bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet with its transformational message about how to think about food.  Her new book, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want, published forty years later in 2011, offers us hope that we can break free from the “thought traps” that keep us locked in the destructive ways of the economic paradigm.  We must look at our lives through “an ecological lens” and take “thought leaps” that can unleash our hidden power as we embrace an eco-mind.

Developing an Eco-Mind

Lappé is writing mainly for a US audience.  She begins with the conviction, backed up by evidence, that Americans do care about the environment and that it is deteriorating in front of their eyes.  They “yearn to be part of the solution.”  But things don’t seem to change for the better.  Why? Because “too many of us feel powerless,” says Lappé.  This paralyzing mindframe comes in part from the sense that the problem is too big for the individual to even think about, let alone influence. But it also comes from something deeper in the American psyche—“the premise of lack, the notion that there just isn’t enough—of anything.”

Lappé argues that this sense of lack comes from an upbringing filled with the message from modern economics, now become the equivalent of a dominant world religion, which defines itself as the science of allocating scarce resources. People grow up feeling they are in a struggle against scarcity—and not just scarcity of the things needed to live well, but also scarcity of “goodness.”  People define themselves as a caricature: “We are selfish, materialistic, and competitive. . . The worldview we absorb every day is driven by a fear of being without. . . Within this Western, mechanical worldview that we absorb unconsciously, we are each separate from one another, and reality consists of quantities of distinct, limited and fixed things.”  Lappé calls it “the three S’s: separateness, scarcity, and stasis.  That’s our world.”

For Lappé that’s the reason why so many Americans say that “government is the problem.”  They are encouraged to see themselves in “endless competitive struggle,” so they turn against the “essential tool that we have in common to meet our common needs.”  Americans accept policies that hurt them, like “massive cutbacks in services and the refusal to tackle the environmental crisis,” says Lappé, because they are locked into limiting “thought traps,” which are preventing them from finding a different sense of meaning in their lives.  “We must see a new path in order to leave the old.”  Lappé’s book and the movement she is encouraging through it are imbued with the hope—indeed, the conviction—that human beings are capable of “gigantic shifts of perception. . . By probing the thought traps that disempower us, we will realize the most stunning implication of an ecological way of seeing: endless possibility.”

Thought Traps and Thought Leaps

Lappé describes seven thought traps and seven thought leaps to get out of the traps.  Change the mental map.  Embrace the eco-mind.

Trap number one is an improper framing of our major problem as growth versus no-growth.  What we need to recognize, says Lappé, is that what we’ve been calling “growth” leads to waste—and that’s our problem: wasting energy, water, food, just about everything—it’s a nightmare of excess.  We are deathly afraid of scarcity, but everywhere we turn we see nothing but waste.  That’s our problem.  If we call it for what it is, then we can see—and here’s the “thought leap”—that the way out is to focus on limiting waste and addressing the positive question: What does it mean to flourish?  As we answer that question, we must then look for ways to measure what we are seeking in a successful society.  The Genuine Progress Indicator is one such existing measure.  Growth is good, but it has to be the right kind of growth.  Not wasteful excess, but qualitative growth in relationships, education, health, social harmony, etc.

Thought trap number two is related to number one.  Lappé says we are confusing symptom with cause.  We say consumerism, too much stuff, is our problem, but in reality it’s just a symptom of forces in the economy that deny us choice.  The thought leap is to imagine and create the things that will give us true enjoyment—“rich, stimulating, and beautiful lives honoring the laws of nature.

Focusing on limits, thought trap number three, is not helpful, says Lappé, because it falls flat in the minds of people who feel that they were never invited to the “Too Good” party in the first place.  Again, the way out of this trap is to focus on “what brings health, ease, joy, creativity—more life,” which means aligning the way our societies operate with the laws of nature.

This leads us to the next trap, number four: believing that we have to overcome human nature to save the planet.  Sure, we know that people can be selfish and fixated on material gain, but “we’ve also evolved deep capacities for cooperation, empathy, fairness, efficacy, meaning and creativity.”  So let’s focus on those qualities and change the norms and rules of our societies to bring out the best in us.

But people don’t like rules.  This is thought trap number five.  It’s not that people don’t like rules, it’s just that they don’t like rules forced on them that they had no participation in shaping.  Knowing this, says Lappé, “we can go beyond rules that limit harm and establish rules that avoid harm to begin with.”  If people are engaged in this kind of decision-making, our societies will flourish within the laws of nature.

But isn’t that the problem?—thought trap number six: We have lost our sense of connection to nature.  Not true, says Lappé.  People are engaged in a multitude of activities all around the world that show their appreciation for nature.  What we have to do is acknowledge this and focus on nourishing it, rather than throw up our hands in despair at the abuses that some human activities impose on nature.

But it’s too late—thought trap number seven.  Too late for what? asks Lappé.  “It’s never too late for life.”  What people need is a sense that they have a real voice. Most of us want to contribute to solutions that turn our planet towards life.  So “the mother of all issues” is removing the power of concentrated wealth  from public decision-making and infusing citizens’ voices instead.

Thinking Like an Ecosystem

Essentially, what Lappé is asking us to do is to break free from limiting thoughts about how big and difficult the problems are, and how small and insignificant each one of us is—to break out of that mindset and focus on questions of what we need to do to make life rich and enjoyable.

She is encouraged that our understanding of life’s rich complexity and human nature itself is expanding exponentially as the concept of ecology gains traction in our culture: “it is a new way of understanding life that frees us from the failing mechanical worldview’s assumptions of separation and scarcity.”

Thinking like an ecosystem means understanding that everything is connected and each organism comes to life with the potential to flourish through its vibrant connection to everything else.  So our question to ourselves and each other is, “What conditions enhance life?. . . What specific conditions bring out the best in our species?”  The answer, from the perspective of an eco-mind, is that we create the essential context for our thriving by ensuring the well-being of all other species, and seeing that the “key dimensions of our wider ecology remain conducive to life.”

Thinking in this way leads us to see the contradictions and absurdities that go on in industrial society.  She takes the American food industry as an example.  Beginning with the rule that all corporate activity must bring the highest return to the shareholders and executives, the industry degrades its products, stripping them of nutrition, selling them as junk food through convenience stores, and maintaining the process through effective lobbying on government to get huge tax subsidies for corn so that ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup shows up everywhere, contributing to the obesity epidemic in the American population.

Lappé’s main point in citing this example is to say that the issue for Americans is thinking about how they can “reclaim democratic decision-making to shape smarter rules, rules that align the food corporation’s and the farmer’s incentives with our well-being.”

But people to a large degree are afraid to act, so Lappé says that “among all the human traits we need to cultivate, we must place first what I now call ‘civil courage’. . . Humans are plenty good enough, but we do need to work on one thing: more backbone.”  This means cultivating passion so that it trumps fear, and aligning our sense of power with the experience of co-creating with nature.

If we reframe our thinking, boost our passion for life, strengthen our backbones to act with courage, and, above all, see ourselves as part of nature, not separate from it, Lappé is confident that we can rise to the great challenges facing us.  We will know “that we’ve evolved precisely the capacities we need now, along with our greater clarity on the conditions essential to set them free.”

In conclusion, she urges her readers to put their eco-minds into action by banding together, forming their own “eco-mind thought-to-action” discussion groups.  In doing so, she assures them that they will by no means be alone, for there are already thousands of great organizations in place ready to help—and she concludes her book with an impressive list of organizations, books, magazines, and websites that people can turn to for help and encouragement.

The Most Important Conversation of Our Time

Frances Moore Lappé’s hope for the future is essentially grounded in people power—a belief that Americns can reclaim their democracy and break the control of concentrated wealth over public decion making.  History tells us if they are going to do that, they need to be prepared for a very tough fight, and a lot of sacrifice along the way.  Replacing economic mind with eco-mind is not going to come easily.

No one knows that better than Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki.  Now 75 years old, he has spent half a century on the front lines of the environmental movement as a scientist, author and broadcaster.  He still despairs that his message is not being heard.

Suzuki is the author of more than fifty books.  His latest, written with Ian Hanington, communication specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation, recaps many of the issues Suzuki has spent a lifetime elaborating.  This time he frames the message as a conversation, which is still not properly engaged.  It is the same topic that Frances Moore Lappé agonizes over: how to cultivate the eco-mind so that things really do begin to change.  The title of Suzuki’s book is Everything Under the Sun: Toward a Brighter Future on a Small Blue Planet (2012).

In the Preface Suzuki repeats a warning he has given countless times before: “With pollution and climate change, species extinction, and destruction of ocean and land ecosystems, we are nearing catastrophe . . . We have been blessed with a beautiful planet that has everything we need to survive and be healthy.  It is up to all of us to care for it and to keep it liveable for ourselves and all the living things that share it with us.”

How to do that, says Suzuki, is the subject matter of “the most important conversation of our time.”  Yet, where do we hear that conversation engaged?  Certainly not on the front pages of our newspapers (unless there is a new catastrophe to report), or in prime time on television, or as the main topic in political debate.  It won’t come up either as a popular topic of conversation in our coffee shops, unless someone boldly introduces it, at risk of upsetting the chatter about things less formidable.  No, we are still a vey long way in our culture from talking about the issues that will have the greatest impact on our grandchildren.  But David Suzuki is still there, pushing the envelope.

The perspective that he is urging us to adopt he calls “biocentrism.”  It is Lappé’s eco-mind with a different label.  “In this view,” says Suzuki, “life’s diversity encompasses everything, and we humans are a part of it, ultimately deriving everything we need from it.  Viewed in this way, our well-being, indeed our survival, depends on the health and well-being of the natural world . . . The most pernicious aspect of our anthropocentrism, has been the elevation of economics to the highest priority.”  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on economics—as long as the discussion is about how to run the human economy so that the natural world continues to flourish.  That’s what it would mean to have a “biocentric” perspective.

But that is not the perspective of the dominant economic paradigm.  Suzuki describes it as a “global economy that exploits the entire planet as a source of raw materials and a dumping ground for toxic emissions and waste . . . We have become a new kind of biological force that is altering the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale.  Indeed, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Paul Crutzen, has suggested that the current geologic period should be called the Anthropocene epoch to reflect our new status as a global force—and a lot of scientists agree.”

So how do we come to grips with the overarching existential crisis that we ourselves have created?  Suzuki’s answer is clear: “Understand that we are biological creatures with an absolute need for clean air, clean water, clean food and soil, clean energy and biodiversity . . . The truth is that the only factor or species we can manage is us.  We have no choice but to address the challenge of bringing our cities, energy needs, agriculture, fishing fleets, mines and so on into balance with the factors that support all life.  This crisis can become an opportunity, if we seize it and get on with finding solutions.

A Grumpy Old Man Ponders the Past

Suzuki wonders if he has just become a grumpy old man, but, if so, he makes no apologies.  Is the world a better place than when he was born in 1936? he asks.  He answers his own question.  “Reflecting on what we leave to our grandchildren, I have to answer with a resounding no! . . Yes, we leave to our children and grandchildren a world of technological marvels and personal hyperconsumption, but at the expense of community, species diversity, and clean air, water, and soil.”

Suzuki laments the negative changes that have occurred to the natural world in his lifetime, but still argues at the end of his book that “together we can create a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.  We know where the problems lie, and science offers many solutions.  Now it’s time for action.  If I’ve learned one lesson in my seventy-five years, it’s that everyone, including those in government and business, must pitch in if we want to change things for the better.”  His hope is that his latest book will help stimulate the conversation that now needs to be fully engaged.

The Problem of Denial

Both Frances Moore Lappé and David Suzuki are right when they argue that humanity has to shift perspective to biocentrism and the eco-mind.  Nature demands that we do so or suffer severe consequences.  So why don’t we see more action on the biocentric objective?  There is no simple answer, but another well-respected scholar and outspoken critic of the industrikla paradigm points to a large part of the problem.  Dr. Bill Rees from the University of British Columbia is the originator of the concept of the ecological footprint as a way for an individual or community to measure their impact on the environment.  In a recent article entitled “Big Picture: The Jeckyll and Hyde of ‘Resilience’” appearing in Resiliency: Cool Ideas for Locally Elected Leaders (2011), edited by the Columbia Institute Centre for Civic Governance, Rees points to the problem of denial caused by the psychological difficulty of cognitive dissonance.

“Evidence of our plight abounds,” he says, “but we live in deep denial—indeed, it seems that denial is a universal human trait.”  Rees cites research that suggests that social conditioning creates brain patterns that reflect and imbed the experiences people have had over their lives.  “When faced with information that does not agree with [preformed] internal structures they deny, discredit, reinterpret, or forget that information.”  This may have been a good thing when people were born and died in societies that did not change much.  They needed to follow what had always worked.  The problem now, however,  is that “today both our socio-cultural and biophysical environments are changing rapidly because of humn interventions. . . We need to change our ways dramatically yet we are stuck with our Cro-Magnon brains and inherently conservative group behaviours.”  Even worse, “we’re training a whole new generation to think exactly the same way as the present generation.  We can’t afford that.”  No doubt in terms of the last comment Rees is speaking from the perspective of what he sees going on in universities.

Scripting a New Cultural Narrative

So interventions have to be made with conscious, deliberate determination, realizing that what we have to overcome are preformed internal structures in our brains.  In Rees’s words, “We must learn to override our innate expansionist tendencies and abandon our perpetual growth myth.  Instead of forcing the environment to conform to our demands, we must learn to adapt our expectations to ecological reality.  A good start would be a new global cultural narrative that shifts the values of society from competitive individualism, greed and narrow self-interest toward community, cooperation, and our collective interest in repairing the earth for survival.”

This is a call for a new story about who we are and why we are here—a story so powerful and compelling that it will fire up our determination to succeed in the face of the greatest challenge to existence in the history of human settlement on the planet.  It is the new story that Thomas Berry called for in The Dream of the Earth (1988), forged from a “deeper understanding of the spiritual dynamics of the universe.”  Berry correctly saw that much of humanity is now caught in a vacuum between the certainty of an old story about human purpose that is now falling away, and the dim glimmerings of a new story yet to crystallize into a compelling narrative to guide us in the years ahead.

The old story was born in ancient religious creation myths, then transformed into belief in limitless human progress through the philosophy of the Enlightenment period in the 18th century.  The trauma of two World Wars in the 20th century followed by a Cold War underlain by the possibility of nuclear devastation has shaken human confidence.  In response we have fired up a juggernaut of material consumption and technological innovation to assure ourselves that we can enjoy limitless expansion of material benefits.  Now the new science of ecology is calling all of that into question, and demanding that we see ourselves as participants in a different kind of story, where the highest good is to live in harmony with the natural world.

We comprehend only dimly that the new story for humanity is to see ourselves as the conscious expression of the physical universe.  We are the way the universe becomes conscious of itself.  What we are discovering is a creation story much grander than anything the old myths could encompass.  Science is revealing the  vastness and complexity of the physical universe at such an astonishing rate that our cultural capacity to interpret it through literature, poetry, song, drama and every form of cultural expression is failing to keep pace.  We are struggling to see, as Thomas Berry so clearly understood, that it is the human presence on this one small planet that is activating the process for the universe to experience self-awareness.  Consciousness elsewhere in the universe might be accomplishing a similar task, but we have as yet no evidence of that, which makes the experience on Earth all the more precious.

Without human consciousness the universe would be a grand, but unknown physical phenomenon.  The fact that it is known, that its truths are being revealed daily in astonishing detail by human consciousness is the most marvelous story of all.  We are stilll struggling to tell that story.  But if we can do so, and proclaim it broadly above the din and despair of other things that distract us, then we can indeed envision a great future for our grandchildren whose own fertile imaginations will enliven it more in ways that we can barely anticipate.

How we shape and tell the bold new story is the underlying deep purpose of this blog.  I feel privileged to be on this journey with you.  It is a participatory adventure on which we know that together we can achieve more than any of us can achieve alone.

 

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Ecology: How Should We Live Here on Earth?

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In the previous post I drew on the work of Thomas Berry and Osprey Orielle Lake to help answer the question: Which way do we go from here?  Their answer was to revitalize our industrial lives so that we see ourselves in nature rather than as an outside force seeking to control it.  If this is so, a new question follows: How then shall we live?

Here on Earth

Australian environmentalist, Tim Flannery, sought to answer this question in his 2011 book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet.  In his own words, he tried to avoid a myopic vision of a few short generations by taking “a wider view, one that encompasses humanity over the millennia and the world over the aeons.”  Though only too well aware of the serious predicament facing current generations, Flannery is encouraged at the end of his enquiry to say: “I feel optimistic—for ourselves, our children and our planet.  If we are to prosper, we must have hope, goodwill and understanding.”

Flannery begins his enquiry with Charles Darwin whose theory of evolution forever changed forever the way humanity would see itself in relation to the natural world.  Even today the theory remains controversial, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, not just because many people for religious and other reasons resist the idea that human beings could have evolved out of “lesser” species, but also because Darwin’s theory has been twisted into a belief called Social Darwinism that justifies the elimination of the “less fit” among us in order to strengthen the larger society.

More recently a science called Neo-Darwinism has emerged with the discovery of the mechanism of inheritance through genes, the structure of DNA and genomes.  One of the most outspoken proponents of Neo-Darwinism is Richard Dawkins, who, in essence, has argued that “we and other animals are mere ‘survival mechanisms’ whose sole purpose is to ensure the perpetuation of the genes we carry.”  In 1976 Dawkins published The Selfish Gene whose central thesis received wide acclaim during the 1980s—“the era when greed was seen as good, and when the free market was worshipped.”

What Flannery is cautioning us about is relying on the reductionist kind of thinking of scientists like Richard Dawkins who have a mechanistic view of the world that does not capture the full complexity of who we are as human beings.  Dawkins coined the term “memes” for transmitted ideas and beliefs and argued that memes of self-interest are living structures within ourselves and society.  From that it is a short step to the proposal of paleontologist Peter Ward of the “Medea Hypothesis,” named after the terrifying Medea of Greek mythology, who murdered her own children as an act of revenge against her husband, Jason. “Ward thinks that life is equally bloody and self-destructive,” says Flannery, “arguing that species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of ecosystem collapse.”  It is a deeply dismaying hypothesis, for it implies that “we must either thrive by destroying others, or be destroyed ourselves in turn.”

However, there is another worldview that replaces ideas of survival of the fittest, Medean catastrophism, and winner-take-all with a view that sees “the evolutionary process as a series of win-win outcomes that has created a productive, stable and co-operative Earth.”  It is to that more hopeful worldview that we now turn.

With some sense of irony, Tim Flannery points out that it was another 19th century scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace—who simultaneous with Darwin hit on the theory of evolution—whose worldview was more hopeful and, therefore, for us today more important as a way of looking to the future.  Wallace recognized that “while evolution by natural selection is a fearsome mechanism, it has nevertheless created a living working planet, which includes us, with our love for each other, and our society.”  Alfred Russell Wallace, Flannery believes, “was the first modern scientist to comprehend how essential cooperation is to our survival.”

The Gaia Hypothesis

However Wallace’s “deepest ideas could not prosper in the brutal, imperial age in which he lived.”  It was not until the 1970s that a new “more powerfully explicatory theory of the type Wallace was groping at emerged” at a time when the world was a little more willing to listen.

The person who developed that theory was James Lovelock, a British scientist of working class origins with Quaker pacifist beliefs.  In September 1965 when Lovelock was visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California he was shown evidence that Venus and Mars were dead planets with atmospheres composed mostly of carbon dioxide.  He had the insight that Earth was different because living things had reduced its atmospheric carbon dioxide and replaced it with oxygen.  Lovelock’s own words summarize the essence of his insight: “The image of the Earth as a living organism able to regulate its temperature and chemistry at a comfortable steady state emerged in my mind.”

The Gaia Hypothesis, as it came to be known (named for Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth), received a less than enthusiastic reception from most other contemporary scientists.  Lovelock published his book Gaia in 1979 and Richard Dawkins described it as part of “the pop-ecology literature” of the time. 

In part, this vilification of Lovelock’s theory comes from misconstruing what he meant by saying the Earth is a living organism.  In essence, the Gaia Hypothesis, as summarized by Flannery, “describes cooperation at the highest level . . . It’s not that living things chose to cooperate, but that evolution has shaped them to do so.”

“Lovelock’s hypothesis is at least as controversial today as Darwin’s theory of evolution was 150 years ago,” says Flannery.  This is partly because it smacks of paganism, which is offensive to many religious beliefs, and the deep interconnectedness central to its thesis “presents a profound challenge to our current economic model, for it explains that there are both limits to growth, and no ‘away’ to throw anything to.”

However, ecological science is gradually gaining more influence in the 21st century as we struggle with issues of climate change and toxic contamination of the environment, and the concept of “Gaia’s housekeeping” over eons of time that has put everything in its place to sustain life, is gaining more credibility among people everywhere.  But what we still don’t fully appreciate is the extent to which human activity is disrupting what the Earth has done over billions of years in drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering elements like iron, mercury, lead, zinc and uranium deep below in its rocks.  “But now the human burrowers in the Earth have arrived, and, as we tunnel into the buried troves, we undo the work of aeons.”

Discounting the Future

The remainder of Flannery’s book is a sorry account of how we have despoiled our planet in an ongoing war against nature, because the concept of Gaia as a precious living organism has come late in the history of industrial exploitation, and is still heavily resisted by those who stand to benefit most in the short term from ravaging the planet.

The tendency to discount the future is one of our most serious failures.  Most worrisome is that the tendency increases as people lose their prospects.  “And people without prospects are created in a number of ways—through grinding poverty, through greatly unequal societies, and through war, famine or other misfortunes.  If you’re concerned about our future,” says Flannery, “it’s not just desirable that we eradicate poverty in the developing world, create more equal societies and never let ourselves fight another war; it’s imperative, for the discount factor tells us that failure to do so may cost us the Earth.”

Clearly, what this implies for grandparents and all who care about children, is that we encourage in them a sense of purpose to create a sustainable future, even though this means downsizing material aspirations from our own generations’ levels and spreading economic development more equally around the world without contributing to larger overall growth on a planet whose finite resources and ability to sustain life are already highly compromised.  Moreover, if we hope to see that ethic in our descendants, we must begin to live it ourselves, now.

Flannery sees the climate crisis as the first test of humanity’s ability to work cooperatively to save the planet.  “We stand just a few steps away from the global cooperation required. . .How will we know if we’ve turned the corner in our battle for a sustainable future?  When profiteering at Gaia’s expense is regarded and punished as the gravest of crimes . . . Such a moment, if it ever comes, will close a chapter in human history—that of the frontier—which has characterized our species for fifty thousand years.”

This, then, is Flannery’s answer to the question of how we are to live here on Earth.  If we are to avoid the Medean hypothesis of destroying ourselves through greed and self-interest, we must embrace the memes of cooperation and interconnectedness contained in the Gaia hypothesis.  From our present vantage point, says Flannery, we cannot know the outcome, “but I am certain of one thing—if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on Earth.”

Nature-Deficit Disorder

Loving the planet begins with feeling connected to nature.  You can’t love what you don’t know.  Alienation from nature of countless millions of people in current generations throughout the industrialized world is perhaps the chief reason for us to be concerned that Flannery’s fears for the curtailment of human progress may be realized in the course of the 21st century.  No one has written more emphatically about this than American environmentalist Richard Louv.

In his widely acclaimed book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008), Louv focuses on the issue of how the education given to young children today deprives them of experiencing the natural world.  He coined a new term for the problem our children face, calling it “nature-deficit disorder.”  He cites research linking alienation from nature to a multitude of human costs including “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”  The research, he says, “focuses not so much on what is lost when nature fades, but on what is gained in the presence of the natural world . . . just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature . . . There’s a great need to educate parents about this research . . . Such knowledge may inspire us to choose a different path, one that leads to a nature-child reunion . . . The health of the earth is at stake as well.  How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configuration and conditions of our cities and homes—our daily lives.”  People living in congested, polluted cities working in de-natured office towers and factories, and pursuing long hours of stressful work with little or no thought for the natural world that supports them are certainly not going to know how to love their planet.

In support of the intrinsic value of contact with the natural world for positive human development, Louv cites the research of Harvard University scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edward O. Wilson, who developed the biophilia hypothesis.  “Wilson defines biophilia as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.’  He and his colleagues argue that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals.”  A related concept is “eco-psychology” presented by historian and social critic, Theodore Rozak, who argues “that we have repressed our ‘ecological unconscious’ that provides ‘our connection to our evolution on earth.’”  There is little doubt that humanity’s existential problems in the 21st century, though manifested through excessive energy use and flawed economics, stems at a deeper level from our denial of our biological and psychological connection to the Earth.

So, what to do about it?  Louv cites Professor David Orr’s conviction that “a sane civilization ‘would have more parks and fewer shopping malls; more small towns and smaller cities; more solar collectors and fewer strip mines; more bicycle trails and fewer freeways; more trains and fewer cars; more celebration and less hurry.’ . . He [Orr] calls for a movement of ‘hundreds of thousands of young people equipped with the vision, moral stamina, and intellectual depth necessary to rebuild neighbourhoods, towns, and communities around the planet.’”

But such a vision can be realized only if the kind of education presently available to children is radically shifted towards ecological values at least as comparable as values for the humanities and sciences.  In fact, the school curriculum needs to be re-oriented so that the human presence on Earth with all of our wonderful achievements (as well as our failures) is understood  in terms of our required role to be stewards of the natural world.

Such a shift of focus in education would, in Richard Louv’s words, encourage “those children and young people who now hunger to find a cause worth a lifetime commitment [to] become the architects and designers and political force of the fourth frontier, connecting their own children and future generations to nature—and delight.”  This is a long way from the current reality of what Louv calls “the first de-natured generation” coming out of our schools and colleges.  But it’s a great vision, and surely that is what is needed to inspire both educators and students to break away from the conditions of nature-deficit disorder.

The Nature Principle

In Last Child in the Woods Richard Louv sent out a clarion call for educational reform that would reconnect the youth of the world to nature.  But we can’t wait for next generations to bring about transformational change.  The stresses of climate change and a degraded environment are already upon us.  Civilization needs a new ethic to live by.  In his latest book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (2011) Louv sets out the new ethic and describes in great detail what it will mean for the world to live that way.

Recognizing that humanity is not going to turn away from a technological future, Louv argues that for our own salvation we must find an accommodation in nature for our technological way of life.  Two fundamental questions guide the arguments in The Nature Principle: “What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?  How can each of us help create that life-enhancing world, not only in a hypothetical future, but right now, for our families and ourselves?”

The Nature Principle “holds that a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival.”  Louv acknowledges that the world is currently on the opposite course—the destruction of nature, which is all the more reason for pressing his argument as forcefully as he can.  Destruction of nature is assured without a human reconnection to our origins.  “This is why the Nature Principle is about conservation, but also about restoring nature while we restore ourselves, about creating new natural habitats where they once were or never were, in our homes, workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, cities, suburbs, and farms.  It’s about the power of living in nature—not with it, but in it.  The twenty-first century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world.”

The last statement is a bold claim far different from the forecast for the 21st century made by Jorgen Randers in his book, 2052, and previously described in this blog in post #26.  Randers sees the century steadily running out of hope for humanity as intransigent populations and governments follow the same industrial practices that brought us to our present place.  He begs us in the end to make his forecast wrong.  In The Nature Principle Louv is making a valiant effort to do just that.

He begins his book with some philosophical underpinnings before turning to practical applications.  In order to live in nature in a digital age he says that we will need to develop a “hybrid mind” so that we “combine the ‘primitive’ powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers . . . a balance of high-tech and natural knowledge.”

Louv introduces the concept of an “ecological unconscious,” which he says “hovers above the crossroads of science, philosophy and theology—the notion that all of nature is connected in ways that we do not fully understand,” similar to the concept of the “Over-Soul” described by Ralph Waldo Emmerson “within which everyman’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.”  Though this concept may be a bit of a stretch for science and even offensive to some religious faiths, as Louv acknowledges,  there is no doubt that most of us experience a sense of pain when we come upon a forest ripped apart by clearcuts or see a pristine marine environment contaminated by oil.  There is a clear sense of connection felt by all but the most insensitive among us.

With that sense of an ecological unconscious Louv argues that many urban dwellers feel “a desire to be part of a community that extends beyond human neighbours to the fellow creatures among us.”  He refers to the concept of “social capital” developed by Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam in his 1995 book, Bowling Alone, in which Putnam argues that people need to be part of a community to lead fulfilled lives.  Louv extends the concept to “human/nature social capital, whereby we are made stronger, richer, through our experiences not only with humans, but with our other neighbours—animals and plants, and the wilder and more native, the better.”

Creating Everyday Eden

Having established the importance of the human-nature connection, Louv turns to examples of how it is being put into practice in a kind of “Everyday Eden.”  He describes Karen Harwell’s home and garden in the San Francisco Bay area: The yard “is only six hundred square feet, yet it harbors ducks, a beehive, eighteen semi-dwarf fruit trees, an organic vegetable garden, calming places to sit and read and think, and neighborhood teenagers.”  It is a model for what Louv calls “restorative homes and gardens.”  “For individuals and a few developers an emerging high-tech/high-nature housing design philosophy includes conserving energy, using earth-friendly materials, and also applying biophilic design principles to promote health, human energy, and beauty.”

Another leader in the movement to restore the urban environment is Professor Doug Tallamy from the University of Delaware, who states: “My central thesis is that unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems, the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim . . . our native insect fauna cannot, or will not, use urban plants for food . . . insect populations in areas with many alien plants will be smaller than insect populations in areas with all natives. . . a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life.”  Richard Louv cites Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens as among the best resources on this topic.  This surely is an enterprise in which grandparents and grandchildren could work together in fostering the human-nature connection.

Biomimicry is another important practice in the restoration of nature.  It ‘encompasses the view that nature is not an enemy to be vanquished, but our design partner; not the problem, but the solution.”  Louv cites design examples from traffic flow based on the way fish move in schools, to office tower design based on termite mounds.  Most significantly, research shows the use of trees and plants in urban settings influences the behaviour and perceptions of shoppers and others.  Even big-box stores could be made more attractive with green roofs. “All things being equal, when the public is given a choice between a generic, marginal strip mall and a pleasant tree-lined shopping area, the smart money would be on the trees.”

Louv refers to New York City as the ultimate example where restorative homes and gardens could work wonders.  “In New York City, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of green places, even green roofs, that could be stitched together politically and protected. . . New Yorkers could make urban history by creating a park comprised of thousands of small play areas landscaped with native plants, a galaxy of urban emeralds on the ground and on the roofs.  Perhaps call it by one name: New York City’s De-Central Park.”

Rediscovering Gaia

In the concluding section of his book Louv brings back the work and wisdom of people we have met before in this and previous posts.  There is James Lovelock with his Gaia Hypothesis that the Earth is a complex self-correcting superorganism and we humans are ill-advised to interrupt the mechanism.  We meet again Thomas Berry calling for a new story for the 21st century—“a reunion between humans and nature” and reminding us that “a degraded habitat will produce degraded humans.”  Paul Hawken warns us that “the world and its minutiae are diverse beyond our comprehension and highly organized for their own ends, and that all facets connect in ways which are sometimes obvious and at other times mysterious and complex.”  Humanity in the 21st century could have no greater objective than seeking to understand how we are part of that great connected whole and designing our lives and work to fit within its embrace.

I will give Richard Louv the last word: “We can truly care for nature and ourselves only if we see ourselves and nature as inseparable, only if we believe that human beings have a right to the gift of nature, undestroyed.” (Italics in the original).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ecology: Which Way Do We Go from Here?

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The story of this blog so far tells how humanity strove to become a controlling force over nature.  It is not a noble story; but neither can it be said to be an ignoble story.  It is a mixed blessing.  The despoiling of nature can be seen as a consequence of something greater—a seemingly pre-destined unfolding of the quest for consciousness to explain reality.  In time it spans about three centuries, beginning when philosopher René Descartes in France and scientist/mathematician Isaac Newton in England opened up a vision of an Earth understandable by human reason.  From there it was but a short step for entrepreneurial minds to assert that nature could be made to serve human purpose.  Of course, we know now that this was wrong, but the course was set and followed.  When seemingly unlimited sources of energy were discovered and combined with human ingenuity, a powerful new civilization spread around the world.  We called it industrialism and today it denominates everything.

Industrialism became a new way of being on the Earth—one that could more fully exploit the bounty of nature.  Sustained and accelerated by new concepts of specialized productive labour producing goods for sale in free markets, it came to be known as capitalism.  A new discipline, economics, developed.  It aimed to explain and manage this new form of human organization.  And by and large the system worked well for many millions of people in many countries over many generations—but only if enterprise was disconnected from the limiting constraints of nature.  The idea of limits was not compatible with a newfound sense of progress.

The new discipline of economics was embraced by politicians, industrialists and business leaders.  Their minds were bemused into believing that civilization could defy the cycles and constraints of nature and surge forward into the future as a flood of never ending growth.  Again, it seemed, except for periodic setbacks, to work well.  Until we reached the 21st century.

Now evidence abounds that industrialism as we have known it is not sustainable very much further into the future.  For those of us who lived the majority of our lives in the 20th century this is not a serious issue.  The familiar trappings of material abundance will see us out.  But for those of us who have a mind to care about what lies in store for our grandchildren the question is, “Which way do we go from here?”

The Dream of the Earth

Increasingly, the answer to that question is being sought in the science of ecology—in the context of how human activity is to be accommodated within the natural systems of the planet, including all other life forms that depend, along with us, on the healthy functioning of those ecosystems.  Which brings me to the third E in the framework of this blog: Ecology as a determinant of human destiny.

We should understand from the outset that our consideration of ecology needs to go deeper than treating it as an objective science.  A science it certainly is, and therefore amenable to the process of empirical investigation.  As such, it is yielding valuable understanding about how ecosystems work and what that means for human settlement and activity.  However, at a deeper level, underlying the collection and interpretation of scientific data, there is a profound sense that in this inquiry we are venturing into the realm of the sacred—the place where human reflection reaches to connect to something larger than itself.  This is the place where I wish to begin.

To guide us into this reflection I can think of no better source than Thomas Berry, who was described by Newsweek as “the most provocative figure among this new breed of eco-theologians. . . a solitary American monk whose essays have aroused environmentalists like a voice crying for the wilderness.”

In 1988 a collection of Berry’s essays was published under the title, The Dream of the Earth.  In the essay from which the book takes its title he sets out both the despair and hope for humanity.  He begins gently then builds forcefully to his central argument.

“In this late twentieth century we are somewhat confused about our human situation.  We need guidance.  Our immediate tendency is to seek guidance from our cultural traditions. . . [But] our cultural traditions, it seems, are themselves a major source of our difficulty.  It appears necessary that we go beyond our cultural coding. . . we need to go to the earth, as the source whence we came, and ask for its guidance, for the earth carries the psychic structure as well as the physical form of every living being upon the planet. . . The human is less a being on the earth or in the universe than a dimension of the earth indeed of the universe itself.”

In these few short sentences Berry has established the central argument of the ecological as opposed to the industrial view of humanity.  The human being is not just physically but psychically connected to the earth.  Then he goes on to describe the consequences of ignoring that bond.

“Our secular, rational, industrial society, with its amazing scientific insights and technological skills, has established the first radically anthropocentric society and has therefore broken the primary law of the universe, the law of the integrity of the universe. . . The immediate advantages of this new way of life for its prime beneficiaries have been evident throughout these past two centuries.  But, now, suddenly, we begin to experience disaster on a scale never before thought possible.”

From there Berry goes on to catalogue what we thought were our great achievements “to re-engineer the planet” all in the name of “this magical word progress!”  But what we did not understand was that this sense of achievement was grounded in illusion.

“What we seem unwilling or unable to recognize,” says Berry, “is that our entire modern world is itself inspired not by any rational process, but by a distorted dream experience, perhaps by the most powerful dream that has taken possession of the human imagination.  Our sense of progress, our entire technological society, however rational in its functioning, is a pure dream vision in its origin and in its objectives. . . The story of this dream vision. . . has become the central story of the human community. . . The difficulty of our times is our inability to awaken out of this cultural pathology.”

And what are the physical manifestations of this cultural pathology?  Berry asserts their gravity in short, sharp, stabs of acid prose.

“We are changing the chemistry of the planet.  We are altering the great hydrological cycles.  We are weakening the ozone layer that shields us from cosmic rays.  We are saturating the air, the water, and the soil with toxic substances so that we can never bring them back to their original purity.  We are upsetting the entire earth system that has, over some billions of years and through an endless sequence of experiments, produced such a magnificent array of living forms, forms capable of seasonal self-renewal over an indefinite period of time.”

Strong words, but Berry is just warming to his subject!

“The disastrous consequences [of our attitude and behaviour] on the integral functioning of the earth [and] on our human destiny. . . are now becoming manifest.  The day of reckoning has come.  In this disintegrating phase of our industrial society, we now see ourselves not as the splendour of creation but as the most pernicious mode of earthly being.  We are the termination not the fulfillment of the earth process. . . We are the affliction of the world, its demonic presence.  We are the violation of earth’s most sacred aspects.”

However, as deep as Berry’s despair of the human impact on the planet might be, he is not without hope.  He turns next to considering the way out.

“In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances.  We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our beings. . . The supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community.  To achieve this mode of presence, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other life forms might flourish.”

Now he has come to it.  Human survival depends on our rethinking of the intrinsic values of the natural world, as well as the value we might accord to our own human culture. 

“Two radical positions—the industrial and the ecological—confront each other, with survival at stake: survival of the human at an acceptable level of fulfillment on a planet capable of providing the psychic as well as the physical nourishment that is needed.  No prior struggle in the course of human affairs ever involved such issues at this order of magnitude.  If some degree of reconciliation has taken place, it remains minimal in relation to the changes that are needed to restore a viable mode of human presence to the earth.”

That was said in 1988.  Some progress has been made since then in understanding our predicament, but not a lot in correcting it as Berry would have us do.  The last paragraph of his essay resonates with his still unanswered challenge.

“In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries.  Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe.”

The Great Work

Writing a decade later at the turn of the new millennium, Berry published his manifesto for what we must do, and called it The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999).  Reflecting on the great work of previous periods in human history—like “the Great Work of the classical Greek World” that created the Western humanist tradition, and “the Great Work of Israel in articulating a new experience of the divine in human affairs”—Berry sets out the challenge for our own time in clear unambiguous terms:  “The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet as in a mutually beneficent manner.”

Berry has an epochal view of this moment in time: “The Great Work before us. . . is not a role we have chosen.  It is a role given to us, beyond any consultation with ourselves.  We did not choose.  We were chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historical task.”  In Berry’s sense of history civilization moves forward through epochal moments, when conditions have regressed into a “Dark Age” of ignorance and new generations step forward to lead humanity out of its impasse.  At these times the generations alive must see themselves not only as chosen to participate in the great work to be done, but as sustained “and cared for and guided by these same powers that bring us into being. . . We cannot doubt that we too have been given the intellectual vision, the spiritual insight, and even the physical resources we need for carrying out the transition that is demanded of these times.”

What an inspiration these words of Thomas Berry are to those who read this blog and to the countless thousands of others worldwide who are stepping forward to halt the “industrial assault” on the natural world!  In such an inspired vision lies the best hope for our grandchildren.  Every one of us has a role to play—and we are never acting alone, but in unison, in a “capacity for relatedness,” which is woven into the fabric of the universe in a wondrous dance of participation.

Berry’s contribution to the transcendent change for which he argues is much greater than his foundational concepts about the human-nature continuity.  He has much to say in The Great Work about the specific transformations required in industrially acculturated institutions: reforms in education, jurisprudence, ethics, governance and corporate activity.  These specifics will be covered in later posts as we explore initiatives to be undertaken in the E of enterprise in the framework of this blog.  For now we need to understand the foundational insights articulated so passionately by Berry that must underlie the actions we need to take.

Commenting on Berry’s great contribution to transformational ecological thinking, environmentalist Richard Louv in The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (2011) cites an interview with Berry in the journal Parabola in 1999 in which he spoke about the inner core of his belief: “If we don’t have certain outer experiences, we don’t have certain inner experiences, or at least, we don’t have them in a profound way.  We need the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers and the mountains and the birds, the fish in the sea, to evoke a world of mystery, to evoke the sacred.  It gives us a sense of awe.  There is a response to the cosmic liturgy, since the universe itself is a sacred liturgy.”

What does he mean, “the universe itself is a sacred liturgy?” We must remember that Thomas Berry was a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist order, and as such liturgy—the prescribed order for public worship—was important to him.  But Berry, the cosmologist, saw beyond the confines of his Christian tradition, to the great new creation story of the universe revealed by modern science.  And his interpretation of the scientific account of the Big Bang and the formation of the galaxies carries with it the mystical insights of the spiritual mind.

Not only, he says, was ”the flaring forth of the primordial energy” the beginning of the Earth story, it was also “the beginning of the personal story of each of us, since the story of the universe is the story of each individual being in the universe.”  The sacred liturgy of the universe is the revelation over eons of time that “inherent in the original flaring forth” were the “shaping forces” that “brought forth the galaxies, the Earth, the multitude of living species” and also the human intelligence that now reveals the new creation story as the universe becomes conscious of itself.  We, humans, are the consciousness of the universe fully invested with all of its transcendent magnificence, and we are not about to compromise our sacred part in this new creation story by allowing the lesser aspects of our intelligence that support the “assault of industrialism” to triumph over our sacred heritage.

If you understood all that, then you will know why Thomas Berry, though he was filled with despair at what he saw happening to the natural world during his lifetime, was optimistic at the end of his life about prospects for the future.  Richard Louv, whom I mentioned above as the author of The Nature Principle, first met Berry in 2005 when Berry was ninety-one years old.  Right away, Louv reports, the old man began to talk about the future: “Everything we discuss now should be about the twenty-first century. . . The great work of the twenty-first century will be to reconnect to the natural world as a source of meaning.”  A few years later in 2009 Louv visited Berry for the last time, shortly before his death.  Even at that great age, the grand old eco-theologian said that he felt an urgency to “go out into the natural world every day, no matter what the conditions are” because “the giftedness continues.”

Uprisings for the Earth

I have devoted so much space in this post to the teaching of Thomas Berry because his insights go to the heart of what we must do in the decades ahead to preserve a viable future for humanity in the natural world.  Berry sensed an “inner rage” in human beings of the industrial age against nature because we want to escape the limits that nature imposes.  We want to be better than nature.  But what we must be is in nature: to accept the earthquakes, the hurricanes, the pestilences and the privations along with the awe and wonder and the marvellous nutritional abundance of the land and the oceans.  Indeed, “the giftedness continues.”  Our task is to learn again how to receive and use the gifts.

Another voice to add resonance to Berry’s message is that of artist/sculptor and environmentalist Osprey Orielle Lake, who brings her feminine sensitivity to the call for humanity’s reconnection to the natural world in Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature (2010).  Taking off from Berry’s distinction between our inner and outer worlds, she says simply: “My thesis is this: whether we seek to renew our inner world or search for solutions to meet our human needs in the outer world, the potential for living in a state of natural good conduct with the Earth is greatly magnified through contemplative reflection and thoughtful encounters with nature.  I like to call this special presence with the natural world ‘listening to the Big Quiet’.” 

Lake describes the ways in which we may encounter the Big Quiet: “In the tapping and thrumming of raindrops gently falling on the lake. . . when we listen to leaves purling in the wind. . . as we watch a sunset over the ocean.”  What she is describing are encounters with nature with space and time for reflection—to remind us of the great celestial collage of which we are a part; to ask ourselves when did we stop remembering the sun’s gift to us each day and where our food and water come from?

“The Big Quiet invites us to be present with ourselves and with our place, wherever we are, and to include the entire Earth community, down to the smallest of plants and animals, in our conversation.  This is not a ‘romantic’ concept; on the contrary it is one of vital importance to our survival as a species.”

Quoting scientist Stephen Jay Gould, Lake identifies the nub of the problem for those of us whose lives are consumed by the industrial culture: “ ‘We cannot win the battle to save the species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love’. . . Without an emotional connection, we will not be motivated to care.  Without knowledge of how we are connected. . . to nature and the larger cosmos, we will not easily find our way forward.  A culture deprived of its origins and place in nature ultimately will not be sustainable.”  (Emphasis added).

Around the Fire

Lake invites her readers to sit with her around a campfire she has nursed into life from wood shavings she has prepared with a well-worn knife given to her by a friend.  Since the beginning of human time people have gathered around such fires to tell tales, to dialogue and dream.  In her imagination she invites distinguished leaders and elders to join us and share their wisdom and knowledge.

The great Buckminster Fuller with his extraordinary encyclopedic grasp of design in nature is here and asks the question: “If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on how I am and what I do, how would I be? What would I do?”

Dr. Joanna Macey, a general systems theorist and proponent of Deep Ecology, reminds us that we need to “recognize that denial itself is the greatest danger we face.  We have the technology to make sweeping and effective changes.  But not much can be done until we’re ready to acknowledge the situation we’re in.”

Nobel Prize winner Al Gore joins the circle and says: “Not too many years from now, a new generation will look back at us in this hour of choosing and ask one of two questions.  Either they will ask, ‘What were you thinking?  Didn’t you see the entire North Polar ice cap melting before your eyes? . . . Or they will ask instead, ‘How did you find the moral courage to rise up and solve a crisis so many said was impossible to solve?’”  To this Lake adds: “Across the fire, I imagine the grandchildren of our generation looking at us with these questions in their eyes.”

Finally, she brings in Haudenasaunee Chief Oren Lyons who says, “We are the generation with the responsibility and the option to choose the Path of Life for the future of our children, or the life and path which defies the Laws of Regeneration.”

And with that warning in our ears and hearts we stare into the fire and let it slowly burn down.  In the embers we see the question with which we began still glowing defiantly: Which way do we go from here?  The insights and passion of Thomas Berry and Osprey Orielle Lake have shown clearly that the path is back along a return to reverence for nature.  But how, exactly, is a confused industrial culture going to find that path?

The story continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

The story of this blog so far tells how humanity strove to become a controlling force over nature.  It is not a noble story; but neither can it be said to be an ignoble story.  It is a mixed blessing.  The despoiling of nature can be seen as a consequence of something greater—a seemingly pre-destined unfolding of the quest for consciousness to explain reality.  In time it spans about three centuries, beginning when philosopher René Descartes in France and scientist/mathematician Isaac Newton in England opened up a vision of an Earth understandable by human reason.  From there it was but a short step for entrepreneurial minds to assert that nature could be made to serve human purpose.  Of course, we know now that this was wrong, but the course was set and followed.  When seemingly unlimited sources of energy were discovered and combined with human ingenuity, a powerful new civilization spread around the world.  We called it industrialism and today it denominates everything.

Industrialism became a new way of being on the Earth—one that could more fully exploit the bounty of nature.  Sustained and accelerated by new concepts of specialized productive labour producing goods for sale in free markets, it came to be known as capitalism.  A new discipline, economics, developed.  It aimed to explain and manage this new form of human organization.  And by and large the system worked well for many millions of people in many countries over many generations—but only if enterprise was disconnected from the limiting constraints of nature.  The idea of limits was not compatible with a newfound sense of progress.

The new discipline of economics was embraced by politicians, industrialists and business leaders.  Their minds were bemused into believing that civilization could defy the cycles and constraints of nature and surge forward into the future as a flood of never ending growth.  Again, it seemed, except for periodic setbacks, to work well.  Until we reached the 21st century.

Now evidence abounds that industrialism as we have known it is not sustainable very much further into the future.  For those of us who lived the majority of our lives in the 20th century this is not a serious issue.  The familiar trappings of material abundance will see us out.  But for those of us who have a mind to care about what lies in store for our grandchildren the question is, “Which way do we go from here?”

The Dream of the Earth

 

Increasingly, the answer to that question is being sought in the science of ecology—in the context of how human activity is to be accommodated within the natural systems of the planet, including all other life forms that depend, along with us, on the healthy functioning of those ecosystems.  Which brings me to the third E in the framework of this blog: Ecology as a determinant of human destiny.

We should understand from the outset that our consideration of ecology needs to go deeper than treating it as an objective science.  A science it certainly is, and therefore amenable to the process of empirical investigation.  As such, it is yielding valuable understanding about how ecosystems work and what that means for human settlement and activity.  However, at a deeper level, underlying the collection and interpretation of scientific data, there is a profound sense that in this inquiry we are venturing into the realm of the sacred—the place where human reflection reaches to connect to something larger than itself.  This is the place where I wish to begin.

To guide us into this reflection I can think of no better source than Thomas Berry, who was described by Newsweek as “the most provocative figure among this new breed of eco-theologians. . . a solitary American monk whose essays have aroused environmentalists like a voice crying for the wilderness.”

In 1988 a collection of Berry’s essays was published under the title, The Dream of the Earth.  In the essay from which the book takes its title he sets out both the despair and hope for humanity.  He begins gently then builds forcefully to his central argument.

“In this late twentieth century we are somewhat confused about our human situation.  We need guidance.  Our immediate tendency is to seek guidance from our cultural traditions. . . [But] our cultural traditions, it seems, are themselves a major source of our difficulty.  It appears necessary that we go beyond our cultural coding. . . we need to go to the earth, as the source when we came, and ask for its guidance, for the earth carries the psychic structure as well as the physical form of every living being upon the planet. . . The human is less a being on the earth or in the universe than a dimension of the earth indeed of the universe itself.”

In these few short sentences Berry has established the central argument of the ecological as opposed to the industrial view of humanity.  The human being is not just physically but psychically connected to the earth.  Then he goes on to describe the consequences of ignoring that bond.

“Our secular, rational, industrial society, with its amazing scientific insights and technological skills, has established the first radically anthropocentric society and has therefore broken the primary law of the universe, the law of the integrity of the universe. . . The immediate advantages of this new way of life for its prime beneficiaries have been evident throughout these past two centuries.  But, now, suddenly, we begin to experience disaster on a scale never before thought possible.”

From there Berry goes on to catalogue what we thought were our great achievements “to re-engineer the planet” all in the name of “this magical word progress!”  But what we did not understand was that this sense of achievement was grounded in illusion.

“What we seem unwilling or unable to recognize,” says Berry, “is that our entire modern world is itself inspired not by any rational process, but by a distorted dream experience, perhaps by the most powerful dream that has taken possession of the human imagination.  Our sense of progress, our entire technological society, however rational in its functioning, is a pure dream vision in its origin and in its objectives. . . The story of this dream vision. . . has become the central story of the human community. . . The difficulty of our times is our inability to awaken out of this cultural pathology.”

And what are the physical manifestations of this cultural pathology?  Berry asserts their gravity in short, sharp, stabs of acid prose.

“We are changing the chemistry of the planet.  We are altering the great hydrological cycles.  We are weakening the ozone layer that shields us from cosmic rays.  We are saturating the air, the water, and the soil with toxic substances so that we can never bring them back to their original purity.  We are upsetting the entire earth system that has, over some billions of years and through an endless sequence of experiments, produced such a magnificent array of living forms, forms capable of seasonal self-renewal over an indefinite period of time.”

Strong words, but Berry is just warming to his subject!

“The disastrous consequences [of our attitude and behaviour] on the integral functioning of the earth [and] on our human destiny. . . are now becoming manifest.  The day of reckoning has come.  In this disintegrating phase of our industrial society, we now see ourselves not as the splendour of creation but as the most pernicious mode of earthly being.  We are the termination not the fulfillment of the earth process. . . We are the affliction of the world, its demonic presence.  We are the violation of earth’s most sacred aspects.”

However, as deep as Berry’s despair of the human impact on the planet might be, he is not without hope.  He turns next to considering the way out.

“In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances.  We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our beings. . . The supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community.  To achieve this mode of presence, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other life forms might flourish.”

Now he has come to it.  Human survival depends on our rethinking of the intrinsic values of the natural world, as well as the value we might accord to our own human culture.

“Two radical positions—the industrial and the ecological—confront each other, with survival at stake: survival of the human at an acceptable level of fulfillment on a planet capable of providing the psychic as well as the physical nourishment that is needed.  No prior struggle in the course of human affairs ever involved such issues at this order of magnitude.  If some degree of reconciliation has taken place, it remains minimal in relation to the changes that are needed to restore a viable mode of human presence to the earth.”

That was said in 1988.  Some progress has been made since then in understanding our predicament, but not a lot in correcting it as Berry would have us do.  The last paragraph of his essay resonates with his still unanswered challenge.

“In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries.  Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe.”

The Great Work

 

Writing a decade later at the turn of the new millennium, Berry published his manifesto for what we must do, and called it The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999).  Reflecting on the great work of previous periods in human history—like “the Great Work of the classical Greek World” that created the Western humanist tradition, and “the Great Work of Israel in articulating a new experience of the divine in human affairs”—Berry sets out the challenge for our own time in clear unambiguous terms:  “The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet as in a mutually beneficent manner.”

Berry has an epochal view of this moment in time: “The Great Work before us. . . is not a role we have chosen.  It is a role given to us, beyond any consultation with ourselves.  We did not choose.  We were chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historical task.”  In Berry’s sense of history civilization moves forward through epochal moments, when conditions have regressed into a “Dark Age” of ignorance and new generations step forward to lead humanity out of its impasse.  At these times the generations alive must see themselves not only as chosen to participate in the great work to be done, but as sustained “and cared for and guided by these same powers that bring us into being. . . We cannot doubt that we too have been given the intellectual vision, the spiritual insight, and even the physical resources we need for carrying out the transition that is demanded of these times.”

What an inspiration these words of Thomas Berry are to those who read this blog and to the countless thousands of others worldwide who are stepping forward to halt the “industrial assault” on the natural world!  In such an inspired vision lies the best hope for our grandchildren.  Every one of us has a role to play—and we are never acting alone, but in unison, in a “capacity for relatedness,” which is woven into the fabric of the universe in a wondrous dance of participation.

Berry’s contribution to the transcendent change for which he argues is much greater than his foundational concepts about the human-nature continuity.  He has much to say in The Great Work about the specific transformations required in industrially acculturated institutions: reforms in education, jurisprudence, ethics, governance and corporate activity.  These specifics will be covered in later posts as we explore initiatives to be undertaken in the E of enterprise in the framework of this blog.  For now we need to understand the foundational insights articulated so passionately by Berry that must underlie the actions we need to take.

Commenting on Berry’s great contribution to transformational ecological thinking, environmentalist Richard Louv in The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (2012) cites an interview with Berry in 1999 in which he spoke about the inner core of his belief: “If we don’t have certain outer experiences, we don’t have certain inner experiences, or at least, we don’t have them in a profound way.  We need the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers and the mountains and the birds, the fish in the sea, to evoke a world of mystery, to evoke the sacred.  It gives us a sense of awe.  There is a response to the cosmic liturgy, since the universe itself is a sacred liturgy.”

What does he mean, “the universe itself is a sacred liturgy?” We must remember that Thomas Berry was a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist order, and as such liturgy—the prescribed order for public worship—was important to him.  But Berry, the cosmologist, saw beyond the confines of his Christian tradition, to the great new creation story of the universe revealed by modern science.  And his interpretation of his scientific account of the Big Bang and the formation of the galaxies carries with it the mystical insights of the spiritual mind.

Not only, he says, was ”the flaring forth of the primordial energy” the beginning of the Earth story, it was also “the beginning of the personal story of each of us, since the story of the universe is the story of each individual being in the universe.”  The sacred liturgy of the universe is the revelation over eons of time that “inherent in the original flaring forth” were the “shaping forces” that “brought forth the galaxies, the Earth, the multitude of living species” and also the human intelligence that now reveals the new creation story as the universe becomes conscious of itself.  We, humans, are the consciousness of the universe fully invested with all of its transcendent magnificence, and we are not about to compromise our sacred part in this new creation story by allowing the lesser aspects of our intelligence that support the “assault of industrialism” to triumph over our sacred heritage.

If you understood all that, then you will know why Thomas Berry, though he was filled with despair at what he saw happening to the natural world during his lifetime, was optimistic at the end of his life about prospects for the future.  Richard Louv, whom I mentioned above as the author of The Nature Principle, first met Berry in 2005 when Berry was ninety-one years old.  Right away, Louv reports, the old man began to talk about the future: “Everything we discuss now should be about the twenty-first century. . . The great work of the twenty-first century will be to reconnect to the natural world as a source of meaning.”  A few years later in 2009 Louv visited Berry for the last time, shortly before his death.  Even at that great age, the grand old eco-theologian said that he felt an urgency to “go out into the natural world every day, no matter what the conditions are” because “the giftedness continues.”

Uprisings for the Earth

 

I have devoted so much space in this post to the teaching of Thomas Berry because his insights go to the heart of what we must do in the decades ahead to preserve a viable future for humanity in the natural world.  Berry sensed an “inner rage” in human beings of the industrial age against nature because we want to escape the limits that nature imposes.  We want to be better than nature.  But what we must be is in nature: to accept the earthquakes, the hurricanes, the pestilences and the privations along with the awe and wonder and the marvellous nutritional abundance of the land and the oceans.  Indeed, “the giftedness continues.”  Our task is to learn again how to receive and use the gifts.

Another voice to add resonance to Berry’s message is that of artist/sculptor/environmentalist Osprey Orielle Lake, who brings her feminine sensitivity to the call for humanity’s reconnection to the natural world in Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature (2010).  Taking off from Berry’s distinction between our inner and outer worlds, she says simply: “My thesis is this: whether we seek to renew our inner world or search for solutions to meet our human needs in the outer world, the potential for living in a state of natural good conduct with the Earth is greatly magnified through contemplative reflection and thoughtful encounters with nature.  I like to call this special presence with the natural world ‘listening to the Big Quiet’.”

Lake describes the ways in which we may encounter the Big Quiet: “In the tapping and thrumming of raindrops gently falling on the lake. . . when we listen to leaves purling in the wind. . . as we watch a sunset over the ocean.”  What she is describing are encounters with nature with space and time for reflection—to remind us of the great celestial collage of which we are a part; to ask ourselves when did we stop remembering the sun’s gift to us each day and where our food and water come from.

“The Big Quiet invites us to be present with ourselves and with our place, wherever we are, and to include the entire Earth community, down to the smallest of plants and animals, in our conversation.  This is not a ‘romantic’ concept; on the contrary it is one of vital importance to our survival as a species.”

Quoting scientist Stephen Jay Gould, Lake identifies the nub of the problem for those of us whose lives are consumed by the industrial culture: “ ‘We cannot win the battle to save the species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love’. . . Without an emotional connection, we will not be motivated to care.  Without knowledge of how we are connected. . . to nature and the larger cosmos, we will not easily find our way forward.  A culture deprived of its origins and place in nature ultimately will not be sustainable.”

Around the Fire

 

Lake invites her readers to sit with her around a campfire she has nursed into life from wood shavings she has prepared with a well-worn knife given to her by a friend.  Since the beginning of human time people have gathered around such fires to tell tales, to dialogue and dream.  In her imagination she invites distinguished leaders and elders to join us and share their wisdom and knowledge.

The great Buckminster Fuller with his extraordinary encyclopedic grasp of design in nature is here and asks the question: “If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on how I am and what I do, how would I be? What would I do?”

Dr. Joanna Macey, a general systems theorist and proponent of Deep Ecology, reminds us that we need to “recognize that denial itself is the greatest danger we face.  We have the technology to make sweeping and effective changes.  But not much can be done until we’re ready to acknowledge the situation we’re in.”

Nobel Prize winner Al Gore joins the circle and says: “Not too many years from now, a new generation will look back at us in this hour of choosing and ask one of two questions.  Either they will ask, ‘What were you thinking?  Didn’t you see the entire North Polar ice cap melting before your eyes? . . . Or they will ask instead, ‘How did you find the moral courage to rise up and solve a crisis so many said was impossible to solve?’”  To this Lake adds: “Across the fire, I imagine the grandchildren of our generation looking at us with these questions in their eyes.”

Finally, she brings in Haudenasaunee Chief Oren Lyons who says, “We are the generation with the responsibility and the option to choose the Path of Life for the future of our children, or the life and path which defies the Laws of Regeneration.”

And with that warning in our ears and hearts we stare into the fire and let it slowly burn down.  In the embers we see the question with which we began still glowing defiantly: Which way do we go from here?  The insights and passion of Thomas Berry and Osprey Orielle Lake have shown clearly that the path is back along a return to reverence for nature.  But how, exactly, is a confused industrial culture going to find that path?

The story continues.

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Economics: Summary and Review

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I have devoted many posts over the past few months describing how the economy operates as one of the determinants of human destiny.  You will recall I called this the second of five Es affecting our common future on Earth, the first being Energy.  Before proceeding to the third E, Ecology, I thought I should give a summary and review of what has been said about economics.  Hopefully, this will help to keep in mind the salient points we need to consider as we journey forward together into the 21st century.

A Human Invention

 Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the economy is that it is a human invention.  In all countries it was created over a few centuries by incremental human decisions.  As such it can be changed by human decisions about what we value.  If we therefore change our minds about what we value, we can decide how to change the economy to reflect these values. It’s not impossible to do—just very hard.  For this reason most people are inclined to leave it to others to make the changes, even in a democracy.  The major problem with that is it leads to control by a relatively small group in whose hands more and more wealth is concentrated.  That is the dangerous situation in which we find ourselves today.  Hence, the need for all of us to become better informed about economic issues and more involved with efforts to move the operation of the economy away from its present non-sustainable trajectory.

The Economy Is a System

 The next point to remember is that the economy is a system and was invented by humans to operate within another human system, society, both of which are nested within the natural ecosystem of the planet.  Early economists either did not think about the economy in this way, or deliberately chose not to acknowledge it, because it did not fit well with their mathematical models.  To a tragic extent, this same blind spot still persists in economic thinking today among those who should be leading us in a different direction.

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 The diagram above—drawn from Peter Victor, Managing without Growth (2008)—shows the important relationship we need to keep in mind.  The economy is an open system, nested within another open system, society, both of which are nested within the closed system of nature.  This means we take inputs from the natural world, process them, and discharge outputs as waste back into the natural world, the biosphere. Because the biosphere is essentially a closed system (except for energy coming in from the sun) it can eventually be overwhelmed by human activity, if the sum of the world’s economies becomes too large. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today after about three hundred years of industrialization.  For our grandchildren to have a viable economic future, radical changes have to be made to bring human activity on the planet into balance with the natural world.

The Foundation of Capitalism

The predominant paradigm guiding economic thought and action around the world in the 21st century is broadly known as capitalism.  It had its foundation in the writings of a moral philosopher, Adam Smith, in late 18th century Britain—The Wealth of Nations (1787).  Smith described how the primary wealth of nature could be converted into secondary wealth in society by productive labour based on knowledge and specialization utilizing markets and free trade.  Unfortunately, since the time of Adam Smith, economic thought has followed an exploitative bent along a developmental path in which the availability of so-called cheap energy from fossil fuels combined with a growing population and human ingenuity for innovation enabled productive capacity to increase enormously, so that the human ecological footprint on the planet has become larger than the Earth can sustain very much further into the future.

Sustainable Capitalism

The issue for us today, therefore, is how to turn an economic system of non-sustainable capitalism into a system of sustainable capitalism.  Awareness of the importance of this issue goes back several decades into the 20th century when voices like that of E.F. Schumacher in the 1970s were raised against the prevailing orthodoxy of economic thinking.  Schumacher nailed the human predicament when he said, “Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it.”—Small is Beautiful (1973).

Schumacher was an early environmental economist. He has been succeeded by others like Herman Daly whose chart depicting the flawed thinking of today’s mainstream economists is shown below.

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 The economy is viewed as an isolated system with no dependency on the natural world.  How is such a view still possible when we know what we know today about the impact of human activity on the environment? It is a classic example of the inconsistency of human thinking that this worldview still lies at the heart of policies that favour economic development.  Humanity got onto this wrong path when it substituted the acquisition of wealth or material abundance as a proxy for happiness or well-being.  Our ability to measure quantitative growth and our difficulty to assess qualitative improvement leads us to favour the former in economic planning and leave the latter to never-ending debate.

Sustainable Development

Herman Daly asserts that what we need to be focused on in economic planning is sustainable development NOT economic growth, because in a finite world continuous growth is not sustainable.  Eventually the world gets filled up with the growth of human activity, and then there is nowhere left to grow. He shows this in his Empty-World Full-World diagram below.  We are rapidly approaching the full world condition.

 004Daly further clarifies that it is not growth itself that is our problem, but growth of throughput.  In our modern industrialized economies we have too much throughput:  too many materials and too much energy being converted into too many commodities and producing too much waste for the planet’s health and our own good.  What we need are policies that favour a low throughput economy so that we can live more lightly on the planet (walking in the forest rather than roaring down the highway in a car powered by an engine of several hundred horsepower).  It comes down to adopting an ethic—a central organizing principle of society—that will guide our actions to embrace fairness, justice and compassion while we live within the scientifically verifiable limits of the natural world.

The End of Growth

Given the reality of a finite world already almost filled with human economic activity, it seems certain that our grandchildren’s future will be defined around arguments about how to handle growth.  Canadian economist, Jeff Rubin uses the provocative term, The End of Growth, as the title of his 2012 book to argue that in the near future the kind of economic growth we have known in Western industrialized countries will stall because the energy from fossil fuels on which it has depended will become too expensive.  This means that the policy of job creation through continuous economic growth will have to be rethought and replaced with policies that make the existing amount of work stretch further through job sharing and other approaches.

Essentially what economists like Jeff Rubin and Herman Daly are forecasting is a transition from economies based on continuous economic growth to “steady-state economies” characterized by job sharing, vibrant local economies, fewer government services, and a commitment from people to live less energy-intensive lives in communities based on mutual self-help.

Prosperity NOT Growth

What we are looking for in policy terms is a shift in thinking away from a fixation on growth and wealth as the solution to economic problems, to a focus on the idea of what it means to build prosperous societies in the 21st century.

Writers like Tim Jackson in the UK—Prosperity without Growth (2009)—and Peter Victor in Canada—Managing without Growth (2008)—describe how measuring well-being or prosperity using the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a defective idea.  Broadly speaking, GDP measures the total spending by households, governments, businesses and other investments in the nation.  Spending is taken as a proxy for satisfaction.  The higher the GDP, the more money being spent, the more people are supposed to be satisfied with their lives.

But there are several problems with this view of societal well-being.  For one thing GDP includes spending on undesirable activities like combating crime and cleaning up pollution or recovering from natural disasters.  It also omits contributions from voluntary work, unpaid housework, leisure time, damage to the environment and the depletion of natural resources.  What this means is that you could have a country running flat out with high GDP while it is using up natural resources, destroying its ecosystems, and spending massive amounts of money on cleaning up the messes it has created, while corruption and crime are in high gear.  Is this a prosperous society with high life satisfaction enjoyed by its people?

What might we substitute as a vision of a prosperous, flourishing society?  Surely it would include assurance that the place where you live is safe with ongoing access to clean water and air, and nutritional food at affordable prices.  You would want to see the natural environment protected and feel confident that the activities in which your society is engaged were not disrupting weather patterns that have sustained life for thousands of years. Affordable housing, equity, relationships of trust, meaningful work and a sense of contributing to a greater whole—all these would be part of a prosperous, flourishing society.

To get to such a vision means that we will have to address what Tim Jackson calls “an urgent need to fix the illiterate economics of relentless growth” and learn to manage our societies without a dependence on economic growth.

Managing without Growth

From what has been said above it is clear that if we are to address successfully the existential challenges facing us as a global civilization, we must change the operating system of the economic machine driving human activity.  To do so we need some concepts to guide us.

Richard Heinberg in The End of Growth (2011) offers the insight that we are facing what he calls the “fifth great turning in human history.”  Following the harnessing of fire, the development of language, the creation of agriculture, and the invention of industrialization, we are participating, says Heinberg, “in the turning from fossil-fueled, debt-and-growth based civilization towards a sustainable, renewable, steady-state society.”

Environmentalist Gustave Seth in his book, The Bridge at the End of the World (2008), says we are between two worlds: the one we have lost and the one we are making.  In focusing on the latter, Seth tells us that we must be very mindful about the damage we can continue to do if we don’t overhaul the operating system of “modern capitalism” that has been highly destructive of the environment.

Economist Peter Victor in Managing without Growth (2008) offers some concrete evidence that a modern industrial economy can run effectively on a “low growth alternative.”  He and his associates built an interactive computerized model of the Canadian economy called “LowGrow.”  Based on the data from his modelling, Victor argues that an economy like Canada’s can do well if “a reduced rate of economic growth is cushioned by using the government’s tax and expenditure system in various ways.”  However, we have to muster the political will to make the changes, which depends ultimately on an informed public demanding that it be done: no democratically elected government could implement the required policies without broad-based public support.

In broad terms, what we are facing is a need to manage the contraction of industrial economies and to redefine progress.  This need not mean undue hardship or turmoil if the process is managed well.  Richard Heinberg argues that “if we aim for what is no longer possible we will achieve only delusion and frustration.  But if we aim for genuinely worthwhile goals that can be attained, then even if we have less energy at our command and fewer material goods available, we might nevertheless increase our satisfaction in life.”  We won’t measure such satisfaction with the clumsy, blunt and misleading index of GDP, but with other indicators like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), the Gross National Happiness measure, or the Happy Planet Index—all of which are under development and receiving increasing validity in various parts of the world.

Money and Sustainability

If the requirement for a sustainable future is to get off the treadmill of continuous economic growth, and, as Gustave Seth says, to change the operating system of modern capitalism, then we need to re-engineer a key component of that operating system: the money component.

The problem with the money system is that it has a structural flaw built into it, which guarantees that it will never work well for the benefit of humanity as a whole.  The evidence of this structural flaw is seen in an astonishing number of financial crises over the past forty years culminating in the worldwide recession of 2007-2009 featuring massive bank failures and extraordinary bail-out measures by governments thereby increasing sovereign debt to a level where even the Bank for International Settlements warns that the path being pursued “by fiscal authorities in industrial countries is unsustainable.”

Since the days of Adam Smith who wrote about the primary wealth of nature being converted into secondary wealth by human enterprise, a third component of tertiary wealth (also known as “phantom wealth” or “a global casino”) has been created, in which massive amounts of money transactions take place with little or no benefit to the mainstream economy.

At the heart of the problem is what a 2012 report by the European chapter of the Club of Rome (Money and Sustainability: The Missing Link) calls “a defective meme” in collective human consciousness: that the only way to operate the money system of the industrial world is with national currencies in which 97% of the money supply is created by private banks as debt added to the bank accounts of their customers, which they are then required to repay plus interest.

There is a conceptual explanation as to why a system like that is guaranteed to work against sustainability.  It is described by the Club of Rome report mentioned above, and entails a new definition of sustainability as a balance between a pull towards efficiency on the one hand and a pull towards resilience on the other hand.  The theoretical basis of this view of sustainability comes from research in natural ecosystems, where it is found that nature always favours high resilience in order to ensure that ecosystems survive setbacks that occur naturally from time to time.  Diagrammatically, this view of sustainability can be seen in the following figure.

 004At the top of the curve is the point of optimal balance between resilience and efficiency, when sustainability is high.  Around this point is a window of viability.  When systems (both natural and human-made) get outside this window by emphasizing too much or too little efficiency, then sustainability goes down.  The problem with the human-designed money system is that it is pushing continuously towards greater efficiency (by inventing all kinds of new schemes for creating tertiary wealth), so that it is now outside the window of viability on the right hand side of the curve.  Moreover, it keeps on reinforcing its error every time a crisis occurs by propping up the existing system with public money.  The solution, according to the authors of the Club of Rome report, is to increase resilience by creating what they call “an ecosystem of complementary currencies” in which financial transactions are made without using the national currency.

Reform of the Money System

The problem with the money system is explained conceptually above as a fundamental flaw in design, but in practice the way it works against sustainability is more obvious.  The money system acts as a large scale unconscious programming tool that encourages aggressive competitive human behaviour where little or no thought is given to the sustainability of the system as a whole.  Self-interest is at the top of the agenda and the future of coming generations can go hang!

All of the money created as debt by the private banks requires continuous expansion of the economy so that money can be earned to pay back the debt plus interest.  All of that new money stays in the system causing it to grow continuously.  Individuals, businesses and government struggle to out-compete each other in order to pay down debt.  Natural resources are used up, pollution is allowed to run rampant, and human-induced climate change goes unchecked.  As if this were not bad enough, an added problem is that the system is designed to transfer money to those who already have a surplus (banks and other wealthy creditors) from those who are struggling to make a living.  This has resulted in today’s massive financial inequity, captured in the slogan that the 1% of the world’s super rich are dispossessing the 99% of the rest of us.

So how might the system be reformed?  One school of thought reflected in the work of UK reformer, James Robertson—Future Money: Breakdown or Breakthrough (2012)—would have government take over control of the money supply by giving national banks the sole responsibility for creating money so that government could spend it into circulation through services and a citizen’s income.  This approach would be combined with reform of the tax system by moving taxation away from incomes and profits towards things and activities that subtract value from common resources—like land speculation and use of environmental resources.

As mentioned above, a different approach from Robertson’s is favoured by the authors of the Club of Rome report—Money and Sustainability: The Missing Link (2012)—who argue that if lack of resilience is the problem, then efforts should be made to augment national currencies with an ecosystem of complementary currencies that would encourage resilience through the proliferation of local economies.

A similar aversion to control of the money supply by government is shared by US reformer, Thomas Greco—The End of Money and Future Civilization (2009).  Beyond the idea of local currencies he looks forward to using modern electronic communication technology to create a system of “cashless payment based upon direct credit-clearing among buyers and sellers.”

There is no doubt that reform of the money system is required if other changes to decrease dependence upon economic growth are to be effective.  Without these changes there is little likelihood that sustainability can be achieved and humanity is heading for a crash beyond anything we can currently imagine.  All things considered, I am inclined to think that the best prospects for the future will come if we, the people, push both for institutional reform of the money system by government and for creative initiatives at the local level to put new systems in place.

The Moral Dimension

I argued at the beginning of this summary and review of Economics that a key point to remember is that the economic system is a human invention and as such can be changed by human decisions.  I have outlined what the changes need to be: away from the illogical notion that economies can expand forever along an exponential growth curve; towards a redefinition of prosperity as qualitative improvement rather than quantitative expansion; incorporating reform of the money system to provide a foundation for achieving sustainability.

None of these arguments are particularly new. Variations of them have been discussed for decades.  But fundamental changes are not made, which leads one to conclude that there is a moral failure within the human condition when it comes to collective action for the common good.

Several writers reviewed in this blog have commented on this moral failure.  Grigor Yavlinsky—Realeconomik: The Hidden Cause of the Great Recession (2011)—asserts that it was moral laxity on the part of the public and regulators that allowed frauds and crooks to precipitate and profit from the worldwide economic recession of 2007-2009.  Chris Hedges—Empires of Illusion (2009)—has penned a tirade of criticism against the American populace who prefer to bask in the illusion of celebrity wonder rather than face up to the hard truths of a failed economic system and an eviscerated governmental system that can no longer protect their rights.  Bruce Nixon—A Better World Is Possible (2011)—condemns the current of global events over recent decades to be an outrage that the people allowed to happen through moral laxity, and he calls for a mass movement to “save our planet Earth.”

A Shrinking Global Pie

Two of the final writers reviewed in the Economics segment of this blog—Dambisa Moya, Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the Rest of the World (2012), and Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth (2012)—foreshadow a global future of increasing shortages of resources with the potential for conflict as nations, corporations and individuals scramble to position themselves for best advantage.  Sadly, in this context, a Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Krugman, sets his sights on the illogical notion of a rejuvenated American economic colossus living on borrowed funds—End this Depression Now (2012).

Conclusion

What we are left with at the end of this review is the disquieting prospect of the world’s collectivity of nations continuing to jockey for position on a limited and already damaged Earth with outworn policies promoting economic growth and neglect of the global commons.  It is not a happy prospect and it is given explicit description by Jorgen Randers in his forecast of what he expects 2052 to look like—2052: A Global Forecast  for the Next Forty Years (2012).  What he expects to see forty years from now is a world more ecologically diminished and ravaged by the consequences of climate change.  Some progress will have been made on implementing necessary changes in how humans live on Earth, but not enough to avert the threat of more severe conditions in the second half of the century. 

But it does not have to be this way.  With courageous and enlightened commitment from a well-informed public in all of the world’s great nations a new zeitgeist can take hold to preserve the planet and foster a human presence based on an ethic of sufficient good for all.

Exploring the dimensions of this changed human perspective will be the focus of forthcoming posts.

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