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What on earth are we doing?!

Yesterday, the lady who cuts my hair commiserated about the environmental carnage inflicted around her 30-acre property by the run-away behemoth: The Austin Formula 1 racetrack.  She told me how all the trees were cut, the animals have no place to hide and die on the road, and she told me about the noise and pollution and craziness around her home.  And this "development" has been committed so that a few people might occasionally pay to watch traffic.

What on earth are we doing? Here is my tentative answer.

Our Earth
“The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 44-46.

A human can live for only 5 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 30 days without food. In other words, our biological survival depends on the uninterrupted, high quality services of the Earth's ecosystems. These ecosystem services are taken for granted and their willful obliteration proceeds at an ever accelerating pace, despite ample evidence that we are committing suicide. For example, the deforestation that subsidized the development of all Mediterranean cultures over roughly 2000 years was equal in area to the deforestation of the Amazon forest over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, the Earth has not expanded 100-fold in the meantime.

Just like bacteria, fungi, and higher animals, humans will always seek new sources of cheap, accessible organic carbon. From the soil and crop carbon, through the wood carbon in forests, coal, petroleum, and natural gas, humans have developed an insatiable appetite for power from the ever more abundant and fungible sources of carbon energy.

Faced with the looming depletion of the easily accessible, plentiful sources of petroleum carbon, and desperately clinging to our energy-rich lifestyles, we now pretend that returning to plant carbon that is produced in annual cycles will somehow replace the geological carbon sources produced over eons. In the long run, the consequences of this self-delusion will be more tragic for humanity than for the life-giving ecosystems.

Our Environment
“In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go in mad pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
Charles MacKay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, 1841, Volume I, page 1.

Thirty years ago, Nicholas Rescher wrote his Unpopular Essays on Technological Progress. He observed that most environmentalists think that the current “environmental crisis” results from humanity’s excesses: too much air and water pollution, too many active chemicals in the soil, too much waste, etc. They cast most discussions of the environmental crisis as exercises in motivation and social uplift.  The lesson is driven home that if we are good and behave ourselves, everything will be just fine. If we only adopt more stringent environmental protection laws, remediate localized water and soil pollution, sequester enough carbon dioxide, control population growth through planned-parenthood, educate our children better, etc., we will be able to live happily ever after.  In the US, this way of thinking is typical of the statements made by many of the Democrats and, in particular, of the policies pursued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  This thinking reflects the quintessential American optimism that virtue will be rewarded, the good guys will always win, and everyone will be happy.

Smog lingering over the endless Mexico City.  Credit: Nancy Marley, Argonne National Laboratory.

On the other side, the Republicans bring the “free market” arguments that go something like this: There is scarcity of resources that can be alleviated only by market-based solutions.  There is not enough clean water, agricultural land, coal underneath mountain tops, land for car race tracks, highways, shopping malls, and other “development,” as they call it.  But our businesses can fix it.  Amusingly, many of the environmentalists and conservatives affirm the ever-growing need for land for industrial agriculture and biofuels.

Alas, the environmental resources are in ever shorter supply – due to the environmental crisis according to one side that calls for more regulation, and the insufficient role of free market and less regulations according to the other side.  Unfortunately for all Earthlings of whatever religious persuasion, the pristine lakes, rivers and streams, clean beaches, thriving forests, living oceans and seas, and fertile unspoiled land, cannot be “produced” by more regulations or by less.  Thus, both sides of this ideological divide are equally self-deluded, but - I must say - the Democrats are usually less harmful to the planet.

The environmental resource production would be equivalent to manufacturing another planet to which current Earthlings would move to live. To deliver biofuels that would displace all fossil fuels, as well as food, we would have to manufacture and colonize six extra Earth-like planets.  I submit to you that this is the grandest of the many delusions that have ripped through human cultures over the millennia.

Our Society
“In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities. Truth must be at all costs avoided. When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defenses and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre dance party. We try to stay out of harm's way, afraid that they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed to what we have done to ourselves and to the world, expose us as the hollow people we have become. And so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.”
Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words, Context Books, New York, 2000, Silencing, page 2.

People all across the world are scared, angry and disoriented, and their governments routinely fail to explain the very basics of what is going on. Why is that?

Perhaps for the first time in modern western democracy, our leaders and leading intellectuals are relying in an essential way on keeping people confused.  This puts us on the opposite side of the moon from the attitudes of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and so on, who did their best to explain their thinking clearly to all. When these great men lived, the Earth surely seemed infinite, but she is very small today.  Here is the kicker: To pretend nowadays that the Earth is infinite, as most of us effectively do, and is capable of feeding our runaway economy ad infinitum requires some serious self-delusion. 

In fairness to our leaders, they lie and we eagerly consume their lies, because otherwise we would have to change from within, and for most people change is genetically impossible.  Generally we leave change to political campaign slogans which are so obviously lies that we do not have to do anything. So, this is how it goes. Someone lies about an economic recovery which is just around the corner; someone else lies about the banks that must be saved at any cost with our money because they are too big to fail; and yet somebody else professes that converting over half of our fossil-fuel driven food to a fossil-driven biofuel is good for all.  And we all listen to these empty lies and eagerly try to believe them, for what else we can do.  That is a good question, isn't it: What else can we do? Can you think about a thing or two you could change on your own?

The Truthiness cartoon was taken from the New York Times, January 22, 2006, Op-Ed Column Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito by Fank Rich.

How far do we need to step outside of the current system of lies that are fact to most? Not that far, it turns out.  All we need to do is to admit that the Earth is finite, her resources are finite, and the current global economic system cannot grow.  In Europe, Japan, and the U.S., the respective economic systems have already reached the maximum attainable complexity and must undergo deep simplifications.

My Conclusions
“ "Maturity," Bokonon tells us, is "bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." ”
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, Chapter 88, page 198.

More of the tropical forest has been burned alive and a new oil palm or soybean plantation is born. This plantation will produce biodiesel or feed for Chinese livestock.  The good environmentalists will observe that the carbon footprint of the clean biodiesel produced on this plantation is negligible.  The good marketeers will say that a free-market solution is used to develop an idle resource in a third-world country.  I say that everybody lies to cover this self-evident crime, but the living Earth is diminished further, in exchange for 10 - 20 years of someone's illegal cash profits, most likely financed with a World Bank loan. After that the polluted, depleted, and eroded-away land will be abandoned, and the plantation will take over another area of the forest. And so on, until we run out of the forest.

I am mature alright, and I laugh a lot, but this is what I must say through tears: The Earth is not in a state of “environmental crisis” that would imply a temporary condition amenable to remediation.  Because of too many people, who consume too much and produce too many things using messy technologies, the Earth is in the state of chronic environmental degradation which shows signs of acceleration, not abating.  There are no global solutions, but there are ever more deleterious designs on what is left of the environmental services of the planet.  One such big design involves production of biofuels in the tropics, and Europe and the United States of America are deeply implicated.

We want to avoid the outcome of Cat’s Cradle: All life on Earth being exterminated by superior science. Thus, we need to step out of the bounds of our current systems thinking and look from the outside on the false security of our complex societies. Perhaps then we will be able to see more clearly where this continuing environmental degradation leads us and do something.

It is safe to say that my difficult and unpleasant suggestions will not be heard by mainstream journalists and politicians on the left or the right.  But what is bound to happen then?  My natural laughter freezes when I think about the consequences of stumbling along, while also knowing that exactly nothing will happen until it is way way too late.


  1. I already suspected Mr. Patzek was brilliant. Quoting Kurt Vonnegut confirms it.


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