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How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy
By Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Three Stories of Our Time
When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances, they can become self-limiting, even a threat to survival. That is our current situation.
David Korten, The Great Turning
On May 7, 2001, journalists gathered for a press briefing at the White House. Ari Fleischer, President Bush's press secretary, had nothing to announce that day but invited questions from the assembled crowd. Rising energy costs quickly became the lead topic, with one of the early questions evoking a strong response.
JOURNALIST: "Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?"
MR. FLEISCHER: "That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life."
While presidents come and go, Mr. Fleischer's "big no" remains a powerful force in our society. It is the voice that doesn't question the way we live. This conviction grows out of a particular story about how things are in our world. By story, we don't mean a work of fiction but rather the way we make sense of the events we see happening.
In this chapter we identify three stories being enacted in our time, as mentioned in the introduction. The first assumes that our society is on the right track and that we can carry on with business as usual. The second reveals the destructive consequences of the business-as-usual mode and the progressive unraveling of our biological, ecological, and social systems. The third is about the groundswell of response to danger and the multifaceted transition to a life-sustaining civilization. Recognizing that we can choose the story we live from can be liberating; finding a good story to take part in adds to our sense of purpose and aliveness. We will explore how these stories shape our response to global crisis.
The First Story: Business as Usual
Of the food you've eaten in the last twenty-four hours, how much is based on ingredients produced hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away? For most of us living in industrialized countries, the answer is lots of it. The average carrot, head of lettuce, or box of strawberries sold in supermarkets in Iowa, for example, is likely to have traveled more than eighteen hundred miles. And it's not just our food: many of the things we use have traveled vast distances to reach us. Transportation costs are a major factor in making ours the most energy-costly era in history. Ari Fleischer might think of this as the American way of life. But it isn't just American. Increasingly, for those living in affluent parts of our world, it is becoming the modern way, the accepted way, the one we think of as normal.
This modern life we're describing holds many attractions. It's common for people to take vacations in faraway places and to have their own cars, computers, televisions, and fridges. Just a few generations ago, such comforts, if attainable at all, would have been seen as the preserve of the super-rich. Nowadays advertisements give the impression that everyone should have these things, and progress is measured in terms of how much more we have than we used to or how much farther and faster we can go.
One way of thinking about our times is that we are enacting a wonderful success story. Economic and technological development has made many aspects of our lives easier. If we're looking at how to move forward, the path this story suggests is "more of the same, please." We're calling this story Business as Usual.
This is the story told by most mainstream policy makers and corporate leaders. Their view is that economies can, and must, continue to grow. Even in the face of economic downturns and periods of recession, the dominant assumption is that it won't be long before things pick up again. Expressing his trust in the path of economic growth, in November 2010 President Obama said, "The single most important thing we can do to reduce our debt and deficits is to grow."
For a market economy to grow, it needs to increase sales. That means encouraging us to buy, and consume, more than we already do. Advertising plays a key role in stimulating consumption, and increasingly children are targeted as a way of boosting each household's appetite for goods. Estimates suggest that the average American child watches between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand television commercials a year. In the United Kingdom, it is about ten thousand. As we grow up, we learn by watching others. Our views about what's normal and necessary are shaped by what we see.
When you're living in the middle of this story, it's easy to think of it as just the way things are. Young people may be told there is no alternative but to find their place in this scheme of things. Getting ahead is presented as the main plot, supported by the subplots of finding a partner, fending for your family, looking good, and buying stuff. In this view of life, the problems of the world are seen as far away and irrelevant to the dramas of our personal lives.
Transmitted by global media, this story of modern living is catching on around the world and arousing an increasing appetite for consumption. Before 1970 just four items were regarded as essential purchases in China — a bicycle, a sewing machine, a wristwatch, and a radio. By the 1980s a growing consumer class had expanded this list to include a fridge, a color TV, a washing machine, and a tape recorder. A decade later, it had become normal for more and more people in China to have a car, a computer, a mobile phone, and air conditioning. And it's a list that's still growing, as Joe Hatfield, CEO of Walmart Asia, explains:
We started out with four feet of skin care; today it's twenty feet. Today we don't have deodorants, but someday down the road we will have deodorants in China. Five years ago perfumes were not a big business here. But if you look today it's the emerging market ... there's a lot fewer bicycles, so that takes away from the exercise side of it, so people are getting larger, so what's that tell you? Sales of exercise equipment's getting good, exercise wear, jogging outfits, and at some point, we'll have Slimfast and all those type of products.
Some view this as progress.
Why shouldn't people in other parts of the world develop the lifestyle thought of as normal in the West? And why shouldn't we continue with the Business as Usual of economic growth, with people buying more things and using so much energy (see Box 1.1)? To answer those questions, we need to look at the shadow side of modern living and also at where this is taking us. That leads us to our next story.
The Second Story: The Great Unraveling
In 2010 polls for both CBS and Fox News showed that a majority believed the conditions for the next generation would be worse than for people living today. Two years earlier, an international poll of more than 61,600 people in sixty countries yielded similar results. With so many people losing confidence that things will be okay, a very different account of events is emerging. Since it involves a perception that our world is in serious decline, we take a term used by social thinker David Korten and call this story the Great Unraveling.
In our work with people addressing their concerns about the world, we're struck by how many issues are triggering alarm. The list in Box 1.2 identifies five common areas of concern, and most likely you have some others you would add to this list. Facing these problems can feel uncomfortable, even overwhelming, but in order to get to where we want to go, we need to start from where we are. The story of the Great Unraveling offers a disturbing picture of where that is.
The economic crisis that erupted in 2008 saw not only the collapse of financial institutions but also rising prices, unemployment, home foreclosures, and food riots in many parts of our world. Just a few years earlier, at the beginning of 2005, the global economy was thought of as booming. With house prices rising fast in the United States, property was considered a "safe" investment. There was money to be made in the mortgage business, and loans were freely given, even to those with poor credit ratings. But this boom grew into a bubble that eventually burst. An economist might view this as part of a boom-and-bust cycle. Another phrase we'd use to describe what happened is overshoot and collapse. Here's why.
When something moves beyond the point at which it can be sustained, we call this overshoot. To restore balance, we need to notice and correct such overextension. If we don't, and the system keeps pushing for more and more, that system can only go so far before reaching a point of breakdown and collapse. The housing market couldn't keep growing indefinitely; neither can the economy.
After years of unsustainable growth, the bubble eventually burst in the US housing market, and in 2006 and 2007 property prices collapsed. Since so many financial institutions were invested in the mortgage industry, the crisis affected the entire economy. Like a row of dominoes, financial giants fell one after the other. Governments borrowed huge amounts of money to prop up ailing institutions that had gone first into overshoot and then into collapse. But what if the whole economic system is in overshoot mode and is now unraveling as a consequence?
The bubble of continuing economic growth depends on an ever-increasing input of resources and generates ever-higher levels of toxic waste. The more we push beyond sustainable limits for both of these, the more the unraveling occurs.
In 1859, when the first of the US oil fields was discovered in Pennsylvania, the world's population stood at just over a billion people. By 1930 it had doubled, and by 1974, with increased food production from oil-powered agriculture, it doubled again to 4 billion. We are already well on the way to another doubling, with global population passing the 7 billion mark in 2011. It isn't just population that's growing; the spread of modern lifestyles, as discussed above, has amplified our appetites, especially for energy.
In the twentieth century, global consumption of fossil fuels increased twentyfold. Oil has been our dominant fuel, and we are now consuming more than 80 million barrels a day. If we continue at this rate, we will use up available supplies within a few decades. Problems start long before we run out; as oil fields become depleted, the remaining reserves become more difficult and costly to extract. The same is true of the world's supply as a whole. As a result, fuel prices are rising and the age of cheap oil is already behind us.
Each big rise in the price of oil over the last thirty-five years has been followed by a recession, with the price of oil doubling in just twelve months prior to the economic downturn of 2008. When oil production levels move past their peak and into decline (the point referred to as "peak oil"), the inability to meet demand will push prices through the roof.
We're unlikely to be rescued by new oil source discoveries; for the last three decades more oil has been consumed each year than has been found in new reserves. By 2006 that deficit had grown to four barrels used up for every new barrel discovered. What's more, the new reserves are either difficult to reach, as is the case with the deep-water wells over a mile beneath the ocean's surface, or are of much poorer quality, as is the case with the tar sands in Canada. Our collective oil consumption cannot be sustained. If we don't address this issue, we will be heading for a crash.
Even more crucial to life on our planet, the availability of freshwater is also in decline. A recent United Nations report warns that within twenty years, as much as two-thirds of the world's population could be at risk of water shortages. Industrialization, irrigation, population growth, and modern lifestyles have dramatically increased our water consumption, with water use increasing sixfold during the twentieth century. Climate change has also been a factor, with more rain in some parts of the world but much less in others. Since 1970 severe droughts have increased, and the proportion of the Earth's land surface suffering very dry conditions has grown from 15 to 30 percent.
When more people consume more things, we not only deplete resources, but we also produce more waste. The rubbish generated each year in the United States could fill a convoy of garbage trucks long enough to go round the world six times. Not all our waste is so visible: each year, the average European puts out 8.1 tons of carbon dioxide; the average American more than double this. While this greenhouse gas is invisible, its effects are not. Climate change is no longer only a distant threat for future generations: it has arrived in measurable and destructive form.
At the time, the 1980s was the warmest decade ever recorded. The 1990s were even warmer, and the decade starting in 2000 warmer still. Linked to this warming, weather-related disasters (including floods, droughts, and major hurricanes) have increased dramatically: on average, three hundred events were recorded every year in the 1980s, 480 events every year in the 1990s, and 620 events every year in the decade up to 2008. In 2007 there were 874 weather-related disasters worldwide.
As warming causes water to evaporate more quickly, land is drying out so much in some parts of the world that crops are failing and wildfires are becoming more intense. In Brazil, the droughts in 2005 were considered a once-a-century event. Yet the droughts that followed in 2010 were even worse. In Washington State, there has been more forest loss from wildfires in the last ten years than in the previous three decades combined.
At the same time, warmer winds carry more water from the oceans, causing other areas to suffer an increase in flooding and extreme rainfall events. Ronald Neilson, a professor of bioclimatology at Oregon State University, explains: "As the planet warms, more water is getting evaporated from the oceans and all that water has to come down somewhere as precipitation."
In Bangladesh, fourteen inches of rain fell in a single day in 2004, contributing to floods that left 10 million homeless and much of the crop yield destroyed. The floods in Pakistan in 2010 put a fifth of the country underwater, displacing 20 million people.
Most of the world's major cities developed as ports bordering the sea or major rivers, and more than 630 million people live less than thirty-three feet above sea level. If the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica continue melting, rising water levels will flood London, New York, Miami, Mumbai, Calcutta, Sydney, Shanghai, Jakarta, Tokyo, and many other major cities. Melting ice is also significant because land and sea surfaces absorb more of the sun's warmth than ice cover does. This creates a vicious cycle (see Box 1.3), in which the more the ice melts, the less it reflects the sun's heat and the warmer it gets, leading to further ice melting.
Forests play a protective role by absorbing carbon dioxide, but as woodlands are chopped down, we lose this crucial process. Tropical trees are additionally at risk because when warmer air dries out the soil beyond a certain point, the ground can no longer support large trees. A global temperature increase of 7.2°F (4°C) could be enough to kill much of the Amazon rain forest. If this happened, not only would we lose the forest's cooling effect, but the greenhouse gases released from rotting or burning trees would further add to warming, setting off another vicious cycle. The term runaway climate change is used to describe this dangerous situation, in which the consequences of warming cause more warming to occur (see Box 1.3). Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change warns of the catastrophe this could lead to:
For humanity, it's a matter of life or death ... it's extremely unlikely that we wouldn't have mass death at 4°C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4°C, 5°C or 6°C, you might have half a billion people surviving.
Social Division and War
At the moment, the poor of our world are bearing the brunt of the Great Unraveling. As oil prices have gone up, the cost of food has rocketed. Global food prices more than doubled between February 2001 and February 2011, pushing more and more people below the poverty line. In 2010 more than 900 million people suffered chronic hunger. Meanwhile, the richest 20 percent of our world's population (that's anyone able to spend more than $10 a day) receive three-quarters of the total income.
While some argue that economic growth is needed to tackle poverty, wealth has flowed much more to the rich than to the poor as the global economy has grown. The number of millionaires and billionaires increases, while nearly half the world's population still lives on less than $2.50 a day. Within affluent countries too, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider. Twenty-five years ago, the richest 1 percent in the United States earned 12 percent of the national income and owned 33 percent of the wealth. In 2011 they earned nearly a quarter of the income and owned 40 percent of the wealth. Studies show the more economically divided a society becomes, the more trust levels fall, crime increases, and communities fall apart.
Excerpted from Active Hope by Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone. Copyright © 2012 Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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