If you get the sense that problems are developing faster than we can solve them, you are not alone. Recently, Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything and Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction have dramatically documented radical changes taking place in the environment, and Ted Koppel in Lights Out has shown how vulnerable we are to a cyber-attack on the power grid (I confess that I haven’t had the courage to read any of these except The Sixth Extinction, which is predictably depressing, although beautifully written). But I found one scientist who has put his finger on the ultimate cause of our many environmental problems.
William Rees is a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. He is best known as the co-originator of “ecological footprint analysis,” a quantitative tool that estimates humanity’s ecological impact in terms of appropriated ecosystem area. He wrote an essay that you can find on the web at https://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/63679469?access_key=key-a96x5ce4d4gcxibjc86&allow_share=true&escape=false&view_mode=scroll
It is a beautiful essay written in clear English with transparent logic, It is also devastating. Here is his prescription for solving our (un)sustainability crisis:
To reduce the human eco-footprint, the fetishistic emphasis in free-market capitalist societies on individualism, competition, greed, and accumulation must be replaced by a reinforced sense of community, generosity, and a sense of sufficiency.
I cannot think of anything less likely to occur in a world of competitive consumers, especially in the U.S. where individualism is a national religion.
Rees’s argument is based on evolution:
Numerous experiments show that unless or until constrained by negative feedback (e.g., disease, starvation, self-pollution) the populations of all species:
Expand to occupy all accessible habitats.
Use all available resources….
What can our genes possibly have to do with whether we act sustainably or not? The connection is actually quite simple. There are certain behavioral adaptations that helped our distant ancestors survive—and thus those predilections were passed on to us. But those same (now ingrained) behaviors today are decidedly not helpful in solving our sustainability crisis—they have become maladaptive. Moreover, these natural predispositions are reinforced by modern humanity’s technological prowess and addiction to continuous material growth.
Through our unique ability to cooperate and the technology that cooperation makes possible, humans have been able to push back against the negative feedback that keeps other species in check. We have run amok across the globe’s surface. Rees quotes an outspoken and prize-winning Canadian journalist (Andrew Nikiforuk):
“Let’s face it: Homo economicus is one hell of an over-achiever. He has invaded more than three-quarters of the globe’s surface and monopolized nearly half of all plant life to help make dinner. He has netted most of the ocean’s fish and will soon eat his way through the world’s last great apes. For good measure, he has fouled most of the world’s rivers. And his gluttonous appetites have started a wave of extinctions that could trigger the demise of 25 percent of the world’s creatures within 50 years. The more godlike he becomes the less godly Homo economicus behaves.”
In 1855, 80 years before I was born, there were 1.1 to 1.4 billion people alive. When I was born there were about 2.2 billion people alive. 80 years later, in 2016, there are 7.2 billion and growing. I belong to that small cohort of humans that have lived during a tripling of the population (after humans became widespread – very early generations may have seen drastic population changes).
An exploding population intent upon a higher standard of living requires more food and water, eats away at the stock of irreplaceable natural resources such as rain forests and crucial minerals, and pollutes the land, atmosphere and oceans. Global warming is a direct result of an exploding population.
Those like Thomas Malthus who have predicted that we will run out of some crucial resource have typically been dismissed because they cite a specific resource such as food or oil, only to have a technological fix of some kind overcome the supposed limit. But in the 1970’s when the “green revolution” was completed, supposedly ending our food worries, there were half as many people on earth as there are today. We cannot rely on historical precedent, because we have never faced a world with 7 billion people, let alone the 10 or more billion now projected.
Also, each technological fix moves us farther out on a limb of dependency, and requires yet more technological fixes to repair the damage it causes – our dependence on fossil fuels is the best example. Shortages and pollution are accelerating, while the technological fixes take longer to accomplish and require social conditions that are highly unlikely to occur.
Nearly every economist from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman says that the only way to maintain prosperity is through growth, yet we can’t keep making more stuff indefinitely. So what is Plan B? The really scary answer is that there is no Plan B. Or rather, Plan B is so drastic that the chances of its use are vanishingly small. Let me cite another quote from Rees, one by the esteemed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio:
“[For humanity to survive the sustainability crisis] we must rely on highly-evolved genetically-based biological mechanisms, as well as on supra-instinctual survival strategies that have developed in society, are transmitted by culture, and require for their application consciousness, reasoned deliberation and willpower.”
OK, we know this because of science. We can do science because we know how to reason. Damasio is saying that we need to reason our way out of the mess we are in and change our behavior. So can we use our conscious reasoning powers to change our behavior as a species?
Psychologists have been busy trying to answer this question, and the results are not encouraging. The evidence is rapidly accumulating that our behavior is almost completely driven by emotion and built-in cognitive and sensory machinery that bypasses reason. We use our reasoning abilities primarily to construct belief systems and social structures to justify our behavior, not to guide it.
But we have in the last 0.2% of human history come up with a belief system, science, that drastically improved the match between what was believed (by scientists and engineers) and what seems to be happening in nature. This has allowed these specialists to make more and more precise predictions about an increasing range of phenomena, and to use those predictions to rapidly escalate our ability to bend nature out of the way of our desires. And our desires are, like those of any animal of our type, to use all available resources and occupy all available habitats.
Yes, when given a choice, women will limit their reproduction rate, as reproduction is expensive. As infant mortality declines, women (given a choice) choose to have fewer children, stabilizing the population. However, there is a lag between the decline in mortality and the decline in growth rate, and it is this lag that has created our exploding population. In several African countries, the expected decline in fecundity has not occurred, so that current population projections show skyrocketing population, which simply can’t be accommodated.
Science has its limits. Human institutions are far too complicated to explicate at the same level of precision as for example the findings of physics (always the touchstone of scientific validity). But you don’t need precision to make predictions. For example, we likely will never understand evolution in precise detail, but we know generally how it works, and can make accurate predictions even in our ignorance. Newton was fully aware that his theory had a serious flaw, but decided to ignore it because the theory was so useful (and still is).
So by looking back into our evolution, and observing at present how we use our knowledge, we can come up with a conclusion that is as valid as any in science: we cannot continue to maintain a consumption-based economy for much longer. But all the evidence I can muster makes it extremely unlikely that we can act on the imperative described by Damasio: changing our behavior globally, quickly and in a way that defies our innate and culturally learned ways of doing things.
We must somehow invent a society and economy that is not based on growth, one in which the number of “natural” molecules that we turn into “useful” molecules abruptly stops growing, in which all are provided with basic goods and services and our efforts are focused laser-like on saving what is left of the biodiversity on earth. To the politician and economist, lack of economic growth equals stagnation, deflation and misery. So we plow ahead into a future using an economic model that by definition cannot survive over the long run and has already begun to break down.
Saving civilization will require a reversal of our value system from the accumulation of resources to their redistribution. We will need to be satisfied with what we have (or in the case of “advanced” societies, give up a lot of what we have). We will have to abruptly stop population growth. We will have to abandon or drastically modify the contemporary religion of personal liberty in the service of working together to survive. I am as dependent on personal liberty as the next American, but our quest for liberty is leading us to destruction. The New Hampshire license plate motto, “Live free or die,” seems prophetic, not exhortatory.
Far from being robust, the global economy has become perilously fragile. Everything that we rely on for survival depends upon a supply of electricity (you can’t run a motor generator without fuel, and fuel requires electricity to pump it). If a terrorist were able to damage key machines in our power grids that take months or years to replace (generators and transformers), tens of millions (maybe hundreds of millions) would die in the meanwhile. We have put all our eggs into an electrical basket with big holes in it. And it is unnecessary to remind you that the glorious luxury made possible by oil and coal is changing the climate.
Similarly, global trade and travel have made us incredibly vulnerable to pandemics and the ravages of invasive species. And who knows when we will exterminate a combination of organisms that proves to be essential for human survival? We may already have done so.
Science fiction writers, journalists and cinematographers have varying ideas about how our bloated civilization will react to growth limits, and I am not immune from this pastime. Wars are likely over land and resources, and they are likely to involve nuclear weapons. Rich countries that are using many times their share of global resources will fight to the death to hold onto their advantages. There will be a breakdown of the stable institutions without which modern society cannot exist, a breakdown of law and order. With it will be a breakdown in the science and technology upon which we have become as dependent as infants on their mothers.
Ironically, all this is truly unbelievable, in the sense that our brains (including mine) cannot constantly be aware of impending doom. We are built to discount risk, imagine impossibly optimistic outcomes and tolerate or even celebrate obvious contradictions. I have gathered together a ton of evidence convincing me that human civilization is rapidly unraveling, but I don’t act on the basis of my beliefs. And neither will you.
I truly admire the many efforts small and large that environmentally savvy people are doing to counteract the effects of specific problems like deforestation, extinction, global warming, atmospheric pollution, disease prevention, poverty – a long list. But until we develop a global perspective that is based on reason and sharing, versus emotion and acquisitiveness, these efforts cannot prevent the breakdown of human civilization.
The weirdest perspective is the largest one. Something like humans, I believe, are an inevitable outcome of evolution. The constant pushing of organisms against environmental and biological limits, the force that drives evolution, sooner or later will come up with a game-changing organism, one that overcomes limit after limit until it reaches ultimate, global limits. I suspect this dynamic is built into evolution and therefore life itself.
I believe this is why we haven’t heard from anyone out there. Just at the point when a species is able to manipulate nature to the extent of sending signals vast distances, the evolutionary dynamics that made such a feat possible destroy that capability. To get a sense of perspective on our modern civilization, take a look at the video at the end of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNLdblFQqsw, which traces 100,000 years of human evolution at 1,000 years per second. After 9o seconds of stasis, civilization appears. In the last second, we vault from the Dark Ages to the present. Space travel occurs in the last 1/20th of a second, as does the population explosion.
Another weirdness: I am intensely aware of and dismayed by the rapidly accelerating and inevitable extinction crisis. I care passionately about migratory birds, one of the miracles of nature. Yet the evolutionary force that made it possible to think about such things is the same force that is exterminating the birds.
Conversely, a human that lived in dynamic harmony with the rest of a bio-diverse nature would know nothing about it except what they learn during their short lives. Apes, elephants, cetaceans, birds, octopi and many other animals have an advanced form of consciousness and can perform remarkable mental feats. But none of them are able to accumulate knowledge. The inventions of each non-human genius dies with its death. What we call progress is impossible for organisms that cannot accumulate knowledge.
So just as we learn who we are, we stumble and undermine the institutions that made such learning possible. Whoever survives the crisis will live in a mutilated world without modern technology, amid the ruins of modern civilization. The myths that emerge will be extraordinary, tall tales about what used to be and about the function and symbolism of this or that mysterious object. Likely there will be pockets of knowledge left intact, rather like the Arabs and monks of the Middle Ages (but only about things that are physically present, like books, because everything electronic will vanish along with the technology that supports it).
But I’ll leave it to the science fiction writers to picture such a world, which they are busy doing in print and cinema. Meanwhile, following Ecclesiastes, we privileged few will keep doing what we are doing, enjoying our luxurious way of life, until it goes away. And then the survivors will adjust. That’s human nature.