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Why is so much going wrong everywhere at once?
The answer is simple, though its implications for us are anything but.
We humans are facing what has been variously described as collapse, bottleneck, overshoot, catastrophe, the long emergency, and Nature's revenge because we are breaking Life's paramount rule:
We are living beyond Earth's means.
Our activities are bankrupting Earth's four billion year old living trust accounts as surely as they are bankrupting most of the Earth's national treasuries. In 2005, the United Nations' Millennium Ecosys tem Assessment put our hazardous extravagance in more official terms: "Human actions are depleting the Earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted." Our actions have depleted even more of that natural capital in the intervening years.
Economic, environmental, social and political challenges like those at left are the direct and indirect consequences of living beyond Earth's means. And they are neither static nor separate and distinct. On the contrary, they are reinforcing, amplifying and complicating each other and converging in a way that is precipitating a mega-crisis for which we modern humans have no precedent.
Never in the historic period, going back more than 6,000 years to the first city-states and civilizations, have all of Earth's human communities faced-simultaneously-the real and present danger of being unable to meet most of their people's needs.
Not since the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago has the health and continuity of all the living systems on Earth been put at risk by a single global phenomenon.
Not since archaic bacteria approached the point of exceeding Earth's capacity to support them has a single species been the cause of that Life- and life-threatening phenomenon.
It's not surprising, then, that most of us haven't seen this moment coming and don't yet appreciate the gravity of our circumstances or understand them fully if at all. Not surprising either that most of us, despite our being members of Earth's predominant species, don't yet accept responsibility for the part we're playing in this unfolding tragedy. It's easier, happier-and characteristically human-to deny the seriousness of the fix we're in than to face what it would take to fix it.
Bankrupt governments? Nothing new, we'll find a way out. The end of affordable oil? Not for decades, the skeptics say. Expensive coal, peak natural gas and the ramifications of losing all of our cheap fossil sources of energy? Won't happen for centuries, say the no-limits faithful. Global warming, climate change? Fewer than half of us-26 percent of Britons, 42 percent of Germans, and barely 50 percent of Americans, for example-believe that significant warming or instability is occurring or that we have much to do with it if it is.
Not believing in something doesn't prevent it from happening.
How about Amazon rainforest collapse, warfare over oil and gas in an often open Arctic Sea? Can we imagine Wal-Mart closing, two billion of us homeless and five billion hungry? What if social security systems, insurers and emergency management agencies go bankrupt? How about hundred-year droughts in some places and thousand-year flood cycles in others? Worst-case scenarios include the end of postal service, international shipping and discretionary plane travel, empty supermarket shelves, 50 percent unemployment, and the failure of antibiotics to treat common viruses.
Self styled "realists" assure us that these are not logical extensions of what's going wrong in the world already. No, they're the stuff of diehard pessimists' fantasies. But what if the realists are wrong? In truth, these scenarios are fantastical. But they are also logical extensions of what's already going wrong in the world, if we don't do something effective about it.
And who is "we"? In these pages the "we" who will experience this convergence of crises is all of us: humankind. Young, old, rich, poor, male, female-All of us everywhere will suffer a failure to fix what's going wrong everywhere at once. But obviously not all of us are responsible for this mega-crisis. The young and poor and less able in present and past generations have born the brunt of symptoms but do not bear the burden of responsibility. And the deceased cannot help us now except by their wisdom and example. But for reasons that will become clear in the pages ahead, we adult, able humans are all complicit wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, directly or indirectly, in the creation of the critical condition Earth's in. Consequently, we—adult, able humans—are the only ones who can do something about it, who can get past denial and create the cure for and alternatives to this critical condition. This is the "we" idealists mean when they speak of "We, the people."
But even if "we" do get past denial of the seriousness of our present circumstances and of worse ones if we don't do something effective, how can we possibly get our minds around a challenge this enormous for which we've had no preparation? And yet we must get our minds around it. Failing to appreciate the gravity and understand the nature and cause of our worsening predicament could prove fatal to most of us and many other living things.
Over forty years ago media analyst and futurist Marshall McCluhan foresaw this clash of the human mind with too much reality. "When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach our selves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." We do more of the same things that brought us to the brink of catastrophe until the catastrophe itself requires us to do something different.
Ignorance and inexperience explain our plight, but they are not permanent conditions and do not require us to capitulate to it.
The good news, and there is some, is that we adult, able humans are entirely capable of understanding the "why" of our present crises and of learning how to affectively deal with them. Down through the millennia, when push has come to shove, when there was finally no choice, humans have learned how to work together to survive ice ages and meltdowns, volcanic winters and collapsing civilizations, decades-long droughts, depressions and other disasters. As soft as some of us have become, as exhausted as others of us already are by long years or whole lives of hardship, we are the descendants of the survivors of those earlier crises. We can learn how to survive this mega-crisis, too. And we can surely make the process of trying to survive as humane, compassionate and rewarding as we are able. Some portion of us always has.
One way to begin is to acknowledge the fact of the crisis by giving it a name. Naming ephemeral things can make them seem more real. Giving something unfamiliar an effective name can be the beginning of the end of ignorance—and fear—of it.
What's in a Name?
What's in a name is precisely the capacity to share what cannot be widely or effectively shared without one. We need an evocative, even provocative name for our present mega-crisis so that it gets at least the same level of attention, widespread recognition, support and devotion we give top athletes, pop singers and movie stars.
Living beyond Earth's means has confronted us with a perfect storm of crises. While perfect storms pass away as quickly as they form, this one isn't going anywhere soon. And since it affects the whole Earth, there's no way to go around it the way seamen can navigate around a perfect storm.
We have most definitely arrived at or, as Bill McKibben suggests (in his newest book with its aptly misspelled title, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet) we may have just past the tipping point in the evolution of this crisis after which nothing will be the same. The tippers are anticipated to be the end of cheap oil, an uncongenial climate, a fragile global economy and/or the apocalyptic convergence of all three. But, though McKibben and others believe we've shot past the tipping point already, there is not yet widespread agreement that we have. Most people cling to the belief, or the hope, that if there is to be a tipping point, it's still up in front of us somewhere moving away from, not toward, us.
"Collapse" is the most commonly used term for what's wrong in the world. It's meant to name what comes after the tipping point: the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization. But as I write, collapse is still a prediction; it's not (quite) a present reality. It properly names what will come, and possibly quite soon, if we do not effectively and immediately face up to the real potential for worldwide system failure.
But "collapse" does not help us understand the nature or cause of the potential failure. And "collapse," like "tipping point," suggests a sudden breakdown, whereas we may linger just in front of total breakdown for a while longer yet, as social critic and best-selling author James Howard Kunstler proposes in The Long Emergency. And events may unfold so haphazardly and in what will seem such slow motion, each event distracting us from the others, that we will continue to overlook the real potential for collapse.
In fact, we have been able to use "collapse" to describe the demise of earlier socio-economic systems and civilizations only long after it was clear they had collapsed. It took the Roman Empire several centuries to complete the process we now call its "fall." Decline was an on-again-off-again affair involving many of the same kinds of challenges we face now except that it took place regionally rather than globally. Historical documents suggest that few Romans saw it coming. "Collapse" is useful to us now primarily as a warning of what's to come if we fail to deal with the challenges already confronting us.
It seems to me that "critical mass" better suggests the full significance and weight of the collection of crises we are already experiencing. And unlike the other possible names for it, "critical mass" can serve a double purpose: It can be used to name not only the crisis but also its cure. Getting through this crisis in a way that doesn't make the Dark Ages look good will require that critical masses of us get our minds around the nature and cause of this mega-crisis and then deal with that cause.
The term "critical mass" in itself has no positive or negative connotation. Originally used by nuclear physicists to name the amount of fissionable material required to trigger and sustain a chain reaction, it is now used more generally to identify a point in time or in a process when enough of something has been literally amassed that a spontaneous transformation occurs. After critical mass is reached, something new emerges or is created, or a new state of being is achieved.
The something new that follows on the heels of reaching critical mass may by our reckoning be good. We may deem it an improvement over what went before, like when a critical mass of neurons and synapses, wrinkles and folds and gray matter was slowly added to primate and hominid brains, resulting in the more complex, sophisticated human brain. Members of the activist cyclists' group Critical Mass deem it good when enough of them gather in a city's streets to stop traffic, making their point about the dark side of our dependence on fossil-fueled transportation and hopefully helping to inspire a widespread transformation to post-carbon (non-fossil fuel) forms of transportation, like cycling.
On the other hand, what comes after critical mass may be something that is by our reckoning disastrous and regrettable, as when disease amasses in the human body to the point that it takes over and then take's the human's life, or plague amasses in so many humans' bodies that it takes the lives of whole communities. Or when the amount of fissionable material gathered is sufficient to set off a chain reaction in a nuclear weapon.
If it is not dealt with soon and effectively, this critical mass of crises we are facing now will be of the latter sort. It will be so disastrous and regrettable from the human perspective that in these pages I will distinguish it from the positive and lesser kinds of critical mass with capital letters in order for us to be constantly reminded how urgent it is that we understand and deal with it.
So, there's a second answer to the question "Why is so much going wrong everywhere at once?"
We have reached global Critical Mass.
The next step, now that we've got a name for our mega-crisis, is to get our minds around what Critical Mass is and what it's doing to us and our world. We'll do that in the remainder of this chapter. The third step will be to determine what's causing Critical Mass. How are we living beyond Earth's means? That's the subject of the remainder of Part I. Part II offers what I believe is a compelling, perhaps inarguable, context for understanding what it would take to mitigate and get beyond Critical Mass. And Part III explores how we might actually do that.
An emotional roadmap to this book would warn you that Part I is pretty bleak and negative. But rest assured. Part II is inspiring and eye-opening and Part III is downright optimistic. May our future, starting now, work that way, too!
Understanding Critical Mass
In his 2007 bestseller Blessed Unrest, natural capitalism proponent and best-selling author Paul Hawken observed that one of the reasons most of us have not yet grasped the severity and complexity of the Critical Mass of crises we're facing is that we haven't had anything to compare it to. Most of us grasp something new more easily when we see how much it's like something we're already familiar with. We like analogies, similes and metaphors. Ostrich meat tastes like chicken, only stronger. The iPad is comparable to a notebook computer but it's even more portable and it's still a cell phone. Et cetera.
In the same book, Hawken provided the key that opened my mind to an analogy I believe explains our mega-crisis and points the way to what's caused it.
Referring to the "Gaia hypothesis," (Sir James Lovelock's seminal insight that Life on Earth works in ways that are similar to the way an organism like our body works) Hawken wrote that "If we ac cept that the metaphor of an organism can be applied to humankind [too], we can imagine a collective movement that would protect, repair, and restore that [planetary] organism's capacity to endure when threatened," as it presently is. Hawken proposes that such a movement—of individuals working through non-governmental organizations—would "function like an immune system" and the individuals and organizations in the movement could be thought of as antibodies.
That's it! I thought. A threatened immune ystem, antibodies ... That's why we're exceeding Earth's capacity to support Life as we know it.
Critical Mass is the Earth's equivalent of AIDS.
This insight became more compelling the longer I considered it.
Scattered around the world just as the diverse parts of the immune system are scattered throughout our bodies, Earth's diverse natural communities and ecosystems have in the past worked together to provide the same sort of protective, defensive and healing services for Life as a whole that our immune systems provide for us. That's what James Lovelock and others have meant when they've said that Life learned how to create and maintain the conditions in which it can continue to exist on Earth despite challenges like ice ages and asteroid collisions. Life evolved its own version of an immune system. And our activities are threatening to undermine it.
But, if we're the ones who are compromising Earth's immune system, why haven't we hit global Critical Mass sooner? It's not because we used to be more virtuous, intelligent or wise. We just didn't have the tools for whole-planet conquering.
Excerpted from Life Rules by Ellen LaConte Copyright © 2010 by Ellen LaConte. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 12, 2011