Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite science fiction writers. His works include some of the better collapsitarian novels, The Wild Shore, Pacific Edge and Forty Signs of Rain, plus the brilliant Red Mars. He gives a thoughtful response to the question “Is it too late?”
So on to the much better question: How much of the biosphere can we save? Similarly, how much of civilization can we save (and what parts do we most want to save)?
One hundred years ago, the once mighty species Ectopistes migratorius lost its final survivor. Alone in the Cincinnati Zoo, on 1 September 1914, Martha was found dead at the bottom of her cage, the last of the passenger pigeons which had outnumbered humans more than 3-to-1 a century earlier (by some estimates). Her kind had vanished from the wild fourteen years earlier .
The death-of-birth among the passenger pigeons was one part of the ongoing Sixth Great Extinction. It may not have been exclusively the fault of Homo sapiens, but there can be no doubt that our species contributed and it is likely we were the deciding factor. And it’s quite likely that the loss of this species, once so abundant that a passing flock could darken the sky for days, contributed to the steep decline of the once mighty American chestnut tree, whose loss in turn contributed to the rise of moonshine and tobacco in the American southeast.
So take a moment on September 1st to contemplate the loss of this bird: fleet and gregarious flyer, shaper of continental ecosystems, a feathered message penned with a last breath a century ago.
RIP Martha | ca. 1900 – 1 September 1914
Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know. ~ Aldo Leopold, 1947
A fascinating new piece,
by Richard Heinberg was published on Resilience.org. He moves through important ideas from anthropologist Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism to Heinberg’s own important perspectives on the age of fossil foolishness. Below are some highlights, but you should really read the whole thing.
Oil has given us the ability to dramatically increase the rate at which we extract and transform Earth’s bounty (via mining machinery, tractors, and powered fishing boats), as well as the ability to transport people and materials at high speed and at little cost. It and the other fossil fuels have also served as feedstocks for greatly expanded chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, and have enabled a dramatic intensification of agricultural production while reducing the need for field labor. The results of fossil-fueling our infrastructure have included rapid population growth, the ballooning of the middle class, unprecedented levels of urbanization, and the construction of a consumer economy. While elements of the Scientific Revolution were in place a couple of centuries prior to our adoption of fossil fuels, cheap fossil energy supplied a means of vastly expanding scientific research and applying it to the development of a broad range of technologies that are themselves directly or indirectly fossil-fueled. With heightened mobility, immigration increased greatly, and the democratic multi-ethnic nation state became the era’s emblematic political institution. As economies expanded almost continually due to the abundant availability of high-quality energy, neoliberal economic theory emerged as the world’s primary ideology of societal management. It soon evolved to incorporate several unchallenged though logically unsupportable notions, including the belief that economies can grow forever and the assumption that the entire natural world is merely a subset of the human economy.
He means the failure to comprehend:
…With less useful energy available, the global economy will fail to grow, and will likely enter a sustained period of contraction. Increased energy efficiency [and, as outlined earlier in the article, the lower energy-return-on-investment array of renewable alternatives – ed.] may cushion the impact but cannot avert it. With economies no longer growing, our current globally dominant neoliberal political-economic ideology may increasingly be called into question and eventually overthrown.
And don’t forget:
Choose your assumptions—optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between. In any case, this is a big deal.
* * *
We are living at a historic moment when the structure of society (economic and political systems) and its superstructure (ideologies) are about to be challenged perhaps as never before. When infrastructure changes, what seemingly was solid melts into air, paradigms fall, and institutions crumble, until a new societal regime emerges. Think of a caterpillar pupating, its organ systems evidently being reduced to undifferentiated protoplasm before reorganizing themselves into the features of a butterfly. [Not entirely accurate for what happens in butterfly metamorphosis, but close enough. – ed.] What a perfect opportunity for an idealist intent on changing the world!
It’s time to take up the role of doula and assist in the birth of a positive future. Let’s help this come out right!
Long-time population maven Paul Ehrlich just published a post called Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization on the blog for the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB).
“Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth.”
“A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply. “
This timing is good, as I just taught my Biological Anthropology lab unit on population. I’ve made the student and instructor materials for this module available, as part of my work on a grant for Engaged Interdisciplinary Learning for Sustainability.
I also continue to hear from the folks at Californians for Population Stabilization. I know, it sounds like exactly the kind of sane thinking that Dr. Ehrlich was talking about. That’s what I thought it was at first, too. Unfortunately, it turns out that they’re on an extreme anti-immigration kick. I tend to think this is antithetical to the actual goal of GLOBAL population stabilization. After all, as Hans Rosling shows, increasing prosperity and child survival reduces birthrates and population growth; immigrants in the US definitely follow this trend. In fact, something like the DREAM Act is likely to lead to exactly the kind of improved education and opportunity for girls that leads to reduced fecundity and zero population growth. So yes, a narrow, parochial approach to population stabilization in California might be served by reducing immigration, but it would probably just exacerbate the global population problem.
Let’s focus on the big picture, people! You’ve got to think global while you act local (or global). And remember, Dr. Pongo sez “Copulate, Don’t Populate!”
In case you didn’t get the memo that climate change is probably the most important, and almost certainly the largest human rights issue facing us today. If you want to promote peace and justice, you need to work to reduce and mitigate climate change.
Warmer climate strongly affects human conflict and violence worldwide, says study.
“What was lacking was a clear picture of what this body of research as a whole was telling us,” said Solomon Hsiang, the study’s lead author, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at Princeton during the research project and is now an assistant professor of public policy at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. “We collected 60 existing studies containing 45 different data sets and we re-analyzed their data and findings using a common statistical framework. The results were striking.”
They examined various aspects of climate such as rainfall, drought or temperature, and their associations with various forms of violence within three broad categories of conflict:
- Personal violence and crime such as murder, assault, rape, and domestic violence;
- Intergroup violence and political instability, like civil wars, riots, ethnic violence, and land invasions;
- Institutional breakdowns, such as abrupt and major changes in governing institutions or the collapse of entire civilizations.
The results proved all three types of conflict exhibit systematic and large responses to changes in climate, with the effect on intergroup conflict being the most pronounced. Conflict responded most consistently to temperature, with all 27 out of 27 studies of modern societies finding a positive relationship between high temperatures and greater violence.
… The findings of the study suggest that a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50 percent in many parts of the world.
Happy Solstice 2012! While the Mayans have plans for coming years, this is prophesied to be a major time of transitions. Others are calling this U-Day, a day of global unification and and peace. Here’s hoping that a global mindshift is … Continue reading
Pitchapalooza! « The Imagined Worlds of Michelle Yvonne Merrill.
A bit about the pitch for my latest fiction idea. I’m developing a young adult novel for a couple of strategic reasons:
- I think it’s the best way to reach the most people quickly with important ideas. (Of course, I’d be delighted to sell out, given the opportunity. Just because I have a lot of disdain for the money culture doesn’t mean that having money would be a bad thing, given that it’s not going away tomorrow.)
- It’s an even better venue for talking about both traditional permaculture approaches and the promise of sustainable technology.
- Honestly, I love the story and the characters, and I’m having so much fun writing it.