Saturday, January 2, 2010

Paths to Sustainability

Last year, I completed a set of mathematical projections of world population based on consumption of resources. These projections show graphically that we must either increase our supply of resources or suffer massive casualties. These “resources” have been both from the living and nonliving parts of our planet, and access to them is intimately tied to our technologies for their extraction and transportation. We are rapidly reaching the point where, to continue our historical growth, we will be entirely dependent on nonliving resources, because we will have effectively destroyed the rest of the biosphere.

The present trajectory of population suggests that we’re rapidly approaching a technological limit in our ability to reach and use resources. To survive, we must stop our growth in consumption and quickly as possible stop consuming nonrenewable resources. Since the biosphere is already finely tuned to process renewable resources and reuse everything else, and we don’t have time to create an entirely new system that does the same thing, the rational thing to do is to stop exploiting Nature and to reintegrate ourselves with it. In the process, we should try to repair the damage we’ve already done and release habitat to other species.

I have spent the intervening time reading what others have to say about these issues, and done much thinking about the real-world implications and how they relate to people’s personal values. To the extent I thought it would be useful to others, I’ve written about both what I’ve learned and my reactions as determined by my own evolving values.

The question I’ve struggled with most lately is what to do. I’ve made personal changes in lifestyle, become part of a community (Transition) that shares the same concerns, been politically active, and written extensively (including publication of my related novel, “Lights Out”), but this doesn’t feel like near enough. I still support the system that is destroying the planet in myriad ways: through my work life (providing technical services for a high-tech transnational corporation), consumption patterns (yes, I bought and got way too much for Christmas), and conforming to cultural norms that inhibit in-your-face criticism of the status quo. I’ve thought about possibly joining a green technology company; but this doesn’t make sense, primarily because no company or technology can be by definition “green,” and because it is an illusion that rewarding people with more consumption can ever be sustainable.

I just finished reading “What We Leave Behind” by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, which addresses many of the issues I’ve struggled with. The authors argue that humanity is part of Nature, Nature is a part of us, and that civilization has deluded us into believing otherwise, leading us to wage an unhealthy, unsustainable, and immoral war against the rest of the biosphere which we -- and almost everything else -- can only ultimately lose. Their solution is to actively get rid of civilization, returning to the sustainable ways of cultures that coexisted with other species for most of human existence. We must submit ourselves to the needs of the system by taking only what we need and letting other species in turn take what they need from us.

In terms of my modeling, Jensen and McBay are advocating the most direct route to maximum sustainability, coupled with a large decline in consumption which is almost certain to be accompanied by large casualties, primarily among those who refuse (or are unable) to adapt. Alternatively, the population crash resulting from business-as-usual may be considerably more catastrophic, with a reduced chance that anyone will be able to recover (especially with our air, water, and soil fatally poisoned by industrial pollutants).

I have held out hope (which Jensen and McBay would dismiss as “magical thinking”) that people can be voluntarily persuaded to change, based on the evidence. This has been the basic assumption behind my writing about the subject. But the evidence of my own life seems to reinforce their theme that people will only make such drastic changes if they are forced to: Consider how little I have changed my behavior, even knowing what I know. I don’t even have the courage of the fictional characters in my novels, who have no problem defying authority and other people’s opinions to say and do what they know is right.

Yet still, I have hope. One way to start might be to convince the millions of people currently unemployed (and currently “valueless” to the economy anyway) to develop a physical and social infrastructure that meets people’s basic needs for free, using natural ecosystems as tools. Permaculture, for example, offers a range of means of doing the physical part, but it must involve a minimum amount of resource-intensive activity (such as the use of municipal water and conventional transportation). Debt still poses a problem, so some “production” might be needed in a transitional way to deal strictly with paying off what people owe; I say this knowing well that in a just world, these debts should be forgiven. If at least the poor and the soon-to-be-poor can take care of themselves, then perhaps others might see the wisdom of following a similar path (or, if my consumption projections are correct, they will be forced to by circumstance). Reinforcing this effort would be the continued exposition of all the ways that our institutions are becoming incapable of meeting our needs anyway: government and industry can’t keep our food supply safe, or keep dioxins and plastics from contaminating us all, or fulfill the basic covenant between members of a community to protect each other’s health, or assure that some of us can’t steal from the rest of us.

I can already anticipate the comebacks to my optimistic schemes. The already-powerful and their not-too-bright minions will simply find a way to turn the unemployed into slaves (which is already happening with undocumented aliens). The powerful will argue that all wages should come down (which is currently being done in response to complaints about outsourcing). They will find some way to appropriate the land that people might use for self-sufficiency, just as they have -- and continue to do -- in poorer countries. Our socioeconomic system is rigged to keep everyone dependent on a decreasing number of powerful people who will stop at nothing to accelerate the consolidation of their power.

A comeback is one thing; ground truth is another. If I have a personal niche, it is as an idea mill, and I’m pretty good at testing assumptions too. Exploring and testing people’s world views with the goal of exposing a larger truth that serves them better is, I hope, a valuable contribution. Let’s test some of those ideas before we rule them out, and focus on providing a clear-eyed understanding of the world to as many people as we can in the process. At the same time, I’ll work harder on being less of a hypocrite, and share what works with others so they can do the same.

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