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“But if it is broke, fix it.”
– Engineer’s credo
One thing needs to be said, up front and with drum roll: There is a way out.
It needs to be said because what I hear, from a depressing number of people, in a depressing number of countries, and in a depressing number of books and articles and blogs and conversations, can be boiled down to “The system is fucked.” Some put it more genteelly, but they mean the same thing.
The charge-sheet, digested, is essentially this:
• Our politics is corrupted by money and poisonous ideologies. Hardly any of us bother to vote, for good reasons.
• Our economy has become a casino for the rich, a gilded rat cage, while millions are struggling, waiting for the bailiff’s knock. The media are full of an obscenity called a “jobless recovery” – that is, recovery only for the affluent.
• Our corporations sue for the right to bribe (“lobby”) politicians and deny that they have any obligation to clean up the toxins they so carelessly create. We have become resigned to a garbage-strewn world. When last did you dare to drink wild water?
• Our planet is warming, with still unknown but probably dire consequences, but our oh-so-clever newspaper columnists and bloggers and radio talk-show blowhards are still finding oh-so-clever reasons why this cannot possibly be so. The people we listen to don’t have a clue. Governments remain miscreant. Nothing gets done, just greenwashing that passes for action.
• Our oil is running out, but we have no real plan for its obsolescence.
• Humanity’s uncontrolled global swarming has left us a world where more than 1 billion people live in mega-slums the size of small countries, reduced to huddling in cardboard boxes and wrecked autos, drinking putrid water and eating muck while they watch their children die. And we’re still debating the ethics of contraception!
How can we fix anything? How can there be a way out? I recently had lunch with a gaggle of journalists, all of them experienced reporters who have covered the Middle East, Central Asia, all the world’s trouble spots, people who have been around. Every one of them believes that we’re screwed, and that it’s too late to do anything about it.
This bleak vision is the secular equivalent of the Christian Rapture. In that view, similarly, the world is going straight to hell in a handcart, though the righteous will be plucked from the handcart at the last moment and taken up to Jesus – Jesus in the sky with diadem. The rest of us will just burn. So long, good riddance, tant pis.
Nevertheless, I believe in neither the handcart nor the selective plucking. If I did, I wouldn’t be offering a book called Our Way Out. I’d be hunkering down, drinking the last of my good wine, living somewhere remote, behind a don’t-messwith- me razor wire keep-out fence, shotgun on hand to keep the ravening mobs at bay.
It’s true, politics is a swamp and too many politicians lie constantly, without shame or remorse. But there are many honest politicians, and a deep-rooted eagerness exists among voters for something better. Change is attainable, reform within reach. Our economy is a casino for the rich, yes (I give you Goldman Sachs), and estranged from the world most of us live in. But we can use our revulsion to leverage change, and better models do exist. Too many corporations are predatory and without conscience, but they can be tamed and remade, from within as well as from without, and reenlisted in a new cause. We can even make globalization a force for good. Global warming is real, but we know how to fix it. It’s not easy, but it is perfectly doable. There are far too many of us, but we know how to deal with that too.
To borrow a slogan from Barack Obama (before he became mired in the muck of American federal politics), “Yes, we can.” We are not without our options. I’ve spent years reading about solutions to our problems, and talking to the people who propose and oppose them. Many of these solutions are clever, even ingenious, and eminently practical and affordable. There are technical solutions, political solutions, economic solutions, and solutions through social engineering. Some are commonsensical and some dismayingly draconian. Mostly, though, they are solutions proposed in a vacuum – they are single-issue solutions. Almost all ignore the critical issues of population and economic growth, a lamentable failing.
You can’t solve any one problem on its own. But you can solve many if you solve them together.
Everything is linked, that’s the point. Solutions lie in the linkages.
Let’s try a thought experiment, in the cant phrase of the day. Let little Sable Island, a curious bow-shaped sand dune in the Atlantic, 100 and more kilometers from anywhere, stand in for the planet. Like Earth, Sable Island is a closed ecology, and within its protecting embrace the island’s biosphere has achieved a balance. The population, such as it is – really just birds, a herd of 400 or so wild horses, and a varying number of transient seals – has come to equilibrium. The energy the system uses, the sun and the rain that allow grasses to grow and the population to feed, is constant. It can be diminished, but only marginally increased. Still, the ecosystem is self-sustaining. The horses eat the grass, and their manure encourages more grass to grow. If there are too many horses, the food supply for each animal diminishes, and in a year of poor rain horses die, and the population returns to equilibrium.
This is not paradise, exactly – too much fog and too cold for paradise, and the whole place is too fragile – but it is stable, held in a durable balance. Imagine, then, what happens if you drop into this not-quite-paradise a curious, energetic, and enterprising animal called the human being.
These humans, as is their nature, start to grow. They build houses and workshops and machine sheds and barns for their newly imported cattle and they cultivate gardens, all of which diminish the food for the horses. Because they love horses, they feed them and look after them – it’s their responsibility, no? So the horse population expands, further diminishing the grass, so fodder must be imported. Meanwhile the humans need more water for cultivation, and drinking and cooking, and sanitation, so the precarious water table begins to drop. Salty water creeps in – the island is only a kilometer wide, after all – and desalination techniques must be employed. Can these be powered with sustainable energy? The sun can’t do the job on its own, but perhaps wind can. So they cover half the island with wind turbines, but it’s still not enough, and demand keeps going up. They import diesel fuel, for which they need docks and pipelines, holding tanks and furnaces and smokestacks. Then they need maintenance technicians, and support staff to look after them – cooks and drivers and other hired labor. The population swells. Tourists want to come and see the wild horses, and they consume water and need sewage facilities, but the water table is too shallow and the sewage must be collected and distributed – somewhere. So the horses, no longer wild, must be paddocked, for their own protection . . .
This is a concatenation of problems. Each affects the others. You can’t solve one without in some way dealing with them all.
In the case of Sable Island, however, you could cut through the whole mess. You could simply deport the humans, thus avoiding the whole issue.
In the larger world of our Earth, it’s not so easy. There is no outside from which to import resources, and in which to deposit excess. We must use up our natural capital, and live in our own mess. Which is what we’re doing on and to our small planet. The answer is simple: Stop breeding, don’t deplete resources, and make no mess. That’s the way out.
How to do that is really the only issue.
Solutions have a cascading effect
The converging crises of global warming/climate change, the continuing (if diminishing) population explosion, and the inevitable termination of the oil-based fossil-fuel economy present not just problems, but also opportunity. With strong incentives to back out of the series of dead ends into which we have so obliviously wandered, and with the will to push through a new road to a reconfigured and sustainable industrial civilization, we can not only avoid disaster but achieve something fine. Solutions have a cascading effect, just as crises do, and crises become easier to solve once the crucial decision has been reached that we can in fact do something, remembering also that if crises reinforce each other, solutions enable each other. The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 – a crisis of constant-growth capitalism in a regulatory-free environment – only reinforced the argument.
To survive – and profit from – these converging crises, local and global economies and polities have to be remade. Luckily, the goals overlap and reinforce each other.
First, we must confront climate change and peak oil by fixing energy, because planetary warming is a consequence of the massive deployment of energy that fuels the global economy. We cannot solve energy simply by switching fuels. But we can manage the transition to a post–fossil-fuel era by a simple (though expensive) set of policy changes: investing in green infrastructure, rebuilding the grid and electrifying transport, launching an efficiency revolution, penalizing resource extraction while subsidizing alternatives, and many others. These notions have long been commonplace, though they have yet to be acted upon. And we must revisit the essential role of nuclear technology. Fix the economy. This means more than just heading off (or fixing) economic calamity and punishing the bankers; rather, it means dealing with the economy as system – with its continuing insistence on the notion of perpetual growth, and with its underpinning of consumerism. We need to push all economic activity toward sustainability, to assist in its “dematerialization,” and to come as close as possible to a steady-state economy, an economy that develops without growing – that ceases to grow without falling into stagnation.
Rein in the abuses of corporate capitalism. We must come to grips with the fact that corporations are conscienceless. They may create wealth, but they are also predatory and rapacious, and they’ve become too big.
Fix politics. Fix the democratic deficit: reengage citizens and pry policy loose from special interests. We must deal with the drowning of democracy in the murky flood of special-interest money, and the consequent corruption of legislatures everywhere. We can no longer rely on governments, as presently constituted, for solutions.
Fix globalization by ameliorating its worst aspects and encouraging its best. This means taming multinationals and the international trade regime, while subsidizing the globalization of ideas through open-source, universal, planetwide education. Eliminate, or at minimum alleviate, extreme poverty, and ensure that foreign aid is used for infrastructure development and education.
Confront the notion of zero population growth, explore the idea of an ideal population number, and stabilize the population. If energy and growth and the attendant problems are the flesh and gristle of our predicament, human numbers are a nerve that penetrates deep, affecting everything we do. It follows that without solving population we haven’t a hope of solving the food crisis, the pollution crisis, and the series of other minor calamities that confront us. A study for the London School of Economics concludes that universally available contraception would be five times cheaper as a means of preventing climate change than conventional green technologies, which suggests that family planning is a primary method of emissions reduction. 2 Continuing population growth and unsustainable economic growth are conjoined twins – we must solve them together.
Finally, fix the scale of human activities by reinventing community in a number of ways, including a radical decentralization of industrial and agricultural production (to minimize transportation and maximize local employment and the development of robust local economies) and the inclusion of “distributed” (i.e., decentralized) electricity generation in the energy mix. In other words, implement policies that allow communities to reinvent themselves.
At first glance, the task seems too daunting and global pessimism too deep, especially when our Dear Leaders have proved themselves to be suicidally out of touch. Until the financial crisis hit and drove all thoughts of “the vision thing” out of politicos’ heads, and therefore out of public discourse, it briefly seemed possible that a resurgent America would remake itself once more. But in the aftermath of the financial typhoon, debt has ballooned (except possibly among bankers), and money for any fixes at all seems vanishingly unlikely.
It would be easier, given our dysfunctional politics and civic apathy, to go on doing what we’re doing now: cutting back here and there, wherever it is least painful to do so. But we’ll soon face an escalation of the already obvious: an Earth overburdened with too many people, continuing environmental degradation, more extreme weather, increasing food shortages, environmental refugees, and bitter wars over ever scarcer natural resources.
But we’re not faced only with the kind of choice described by Woody Allen (“More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly”). If we do things right – and we can do things right – the present crisis could be a catalyst for creative thinking. It will mean jettisoning a shopping cart full of entrenched doctrines (theological, political, and economic), but it could also mean uploading new social systems for a new age. Many industries will disappear, but many new ones will be invented, reinvigorating capitalism’s “creative destruction.” The conundrum of job creation in a recession-prone system, and consumerism in an economy that doesn’t grow can be resolved in the same way.
Not a small task, no. But why would a small task be expected? Changing how we live and how we think will be profoundly disruptive (though not as disruptive as not doing anything). It will be difficult, a massive undertaking – don’t believe those who tell us it will be easy. It will not be cheap. It will cost many fortunes, and trouble even rich economies. But the transformation to sustainability is already happening, in small ways, in many parts of the world. It is time to scale up those efforts. It is beyond time to think big.
If we do, we can succeed. We can emerge with a population that lives as well as, or perhaps better than, the well-off do now, and yet treads lightly on the planet.
That could be exhilarating.
Sustainability is really just an antidote to wretched excess
To bring all this off, we first need the facts. But we also need a governing idea – a framework within which we can contemplate those facts. Instead of faith-based science, we need sciencebased faith, a belief that we can, collectively, make the changes necessary.
We need a political vision, of the kind that the “stimulus packages” passed in most industrialized countries in 2009 lamentably failed to produce. This is the vision that says we can each be a part, a small but recognizably valid part, of the greatest project in the long and often melancholy history of human civilization, the project that saves our lives and the lives of all the wild creatures that live here with us on this small and vulnerable planet. This is the project that can turn human beings aside from their self-imposed task of planetary plunder and renew a sense of wonder at the fecundity and genius of the natural world.
Meanwhile, here’s a place to start:
Even in the wake of the Great Meltdown, economists have still not grasped a simple fact that has long been obvious to scientists: the size of the planet is fixed. Earth is a closed ecology, and a closed system cannot grow – it can only cannibalize itself. Nor can you ever throw anything away in a closed ecology, something that orthodox economics has consistently ignored. The overall size of the system – the amount of land, the extent of the water, the density of the air, the presence deep underground of minerals – these are all fixed. The proposition that follows from this is so simple that it seems embarrassing to have to write it down: The fundamental wealth of Earth is the ability to maintain life itself, and all of economics is merely a subset of the biosphere.
Humans have become what philosopher Brian Swimme calls a “macrophase power,” by which he means that our impact on the planet now rivals the forces that caused the ice ages and mass extinctions, “yet we have only a microphase sense of responsibility and ethical judgment.”
By way of counterpoint, management guru Peter Drucker personifies the Old Story, which should now, surely, have been discredited – it is, after all, the credo of the plunderer. He believes that it is the entrepreneur who creates value: “Before it is possessed and used, every plant is a weed and every mineral is just another rock.” It is this pernicious credo that underpins so much of our current evils.
From these simple notions – and they really are simple – all economic activity and all policy decisions must flow. Exceeding the planet’s energy budget is, except in the very short term, unsustainable.