Tag Archives: adaptive cycle

Human Population

A little something I put together for my Bio. Anthro. Lab class…

Michelle Merrill's Cabrillo Anthropology Classes

Biological Anthropology is the study of humans as a species, and how we are related to other species in the Primates.  In thinking about humans as one very biologically successful primate species, it’s important to understand just how many of us there are.

Here are some useful resources for exploring that question.

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Aside

World of 7 Billion Wall Chart  Human population on the planet is estimated by the UN to reach 7 Billion by the end of this month.  How did we get here, and what does it mean?  This informative poster gives … Continue reading

Aftershocks

The immense human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is just starting to fade from the headlines.  The crisis of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility is at a plateau, but still far from resolved.

As I reflect on the enormity of what happened on the other side of the ocean we share, I see some cause for my usual Cassandra-esque blend of gloom and repressed rage tinged with the darkest glimmers of optimism, some small bright linings to the heavy smog.

First,  the prevailing winds.  While there does seem to be radiation coming to ground on Japan, most of it is blowing to sea.  That’s the half-full. The half-empty is that… it’s going to sea.  Yes, as long as there are no major fires like Chernobyl, it shouldn’t be enough to pose an immediate threat to human health, at least in the short term.  But how will it affect small sea life (algae, krill, etc.) and the bigger things that feed on that and might concentrate it?

And the silvery glimmer… this was a wake-up call about Black Swan events and nuclear power plants.  In the last several years, I’ve been discouraged to see more greenthinkers turning to nuclear power as an option to prevent the worst effects of climate change.  Not only did they seem to be overlooking the high carbon price we pay to get the damnable things built out of concrete and keep them operational (and we still don’t know exactly what it will take to decommission them since we don’t have a good way of doing it yet), but they apparently forgot a basic tenet of the Precautionary Principle – if the outcomes of a mishap are intolerable, even if the perceived likelyhood of such a mishap is small, just don’t do it. “If the Japanese can’t build a safe reactor, who can?” James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, et al. – what do you have to say for yourselves now?

Next, all that other stuff.  Videos show the tsunami grabbing and tossing things – heck, even the little one that tore through Santa Cruz harbor did that – and as it receded it pulled lots of those big and small things out to sea.  Now, my students in the Cabrillo Sustainability Council have been planning an event focusing on plastic waste and its impact on our oceans, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the gyre in the Pacific that lead to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The big ocean current comes right off northern Japan, and moves across the central Pacific, and that’s where things that float just get stranded in the doldrums. Affluent, convenience-minded Japan had an awful lot of plastic to go around.  How much is this adding to our already awful mess in the middle of the mighty Pacific, and how will that affect marine ecosystems?

Finally, there are the economic ripples that will spread from this latest shock.  In our globally interconnected system, the disruption to Japan’s mighty industrial output is going to cause shivers and shudders worldwide.  Our ridiculously long and convoluted supply chains will experience gaps, though I’ll admit that they’re actually embedded in networks that provide some resilience – if you can’t get your widget from Japan, if you look around you can probably get one from India or Belgium or Argentina or Singapore or…  Now, economists say Japan’s economic woes won’t be big enough to derail overall global growth, especially when they consider all the GDP boosts from reconstruction in the coming months (yet another example of the twisted logic of money culture economics – horrific disasters are good for the economy!).  But I still have hope that Japan’s unexpected plunge into the Ω-phase of release and destruction in regards to their energy-intensive industrial economy might open the way for a very creative re-emergence in the α-phase.  After all, one of the seminal books on permaculture philosophy – The One-Straw Revolution – was penned there back in the 1970’s, so the seed of a new approach is already present.  And if permaculture gets big in Japan…

See, hope amid the rubble.  It’s not all gloom and doom, all the time.  As we begin the work to heal Japan, perhaps we can learn ways to heal some other world wounds, too.

Delenn, Muse and the Strange Lure of Fighting for the Cause

In general, I am a pacifist.  Intellectually I abhor violence.  Personally, I’m unable to cope effectively with even the mildest conflict.  At Bioneers last year, Lynne Twist asked us to decide where we stand on conflict, rating our reactions from 1: never engage in any form to 10: pugilistic, jonesing for a fight (I paraphrase, but it was something like that).  I’m a 2; I’ll only fight about something when all other possibilities have been thoroughly explored and exhausted, and even then, I really don’t wanna.  So no, I’m not a model revolutionary.

But… I think I’m just a little bit in love with revolution.  As a kid, the movies that had the biggest influence on me were the original Star Wars Trilogy and Gandhi – two very different models of rising up to stop the evil tyranny of injustice.

To this day, I always get teared up watching a movie or one of my TV shows (there aren’t many, and since I try to keep my exposure to commercials to a minimum, they’re on DVD or Netflix), when someone gives that rousing “we happy few”-type speech.  I can barely describe the strange elation I feel when Delenn appears just as the second wave of Shadow-allied-Fascist-Earthforce attackers are threatening Babylon 5 and she says:

“Why not?  Only one human captain has survived battle with the Minbari fleet.  He is behind me.  You are in front of me.  If you value your lives, be somewhere else.”

The ever-so-hokey call-to-arms speech in Avatar has almost the same effect on me.  Heck, even the war cries in Braveheart and Return of the King get to me a little.

And so do all those rabble-rousing songs by Muse.  Invincible, Uprising, Resistance… not only do I enjoy the music, I am moved in some inexplicable way.

They will not force us. They will stop degrading us. They will not control us. We will be victorious…

Flip the switch and open your third eye and see that we should never be afraid to die. Rise up and take the power back; it’s time the fat cats should have a heart attack… – M. Bellamy “Uprising”

So with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc., in part I see the inevitable result of the demographics: educated, technologically-connected, underemployed, under-appreciated youth – with food prices rising, growing threats of water scarcity, the end of oil approaching and the wealth disparities increasing… of course they get a little feisty.  And as much as I’m ill-suited to any such thing (too afraid, too concilliatory, and getting too old), I envy them.  I wonder if that spirit of resistance will ever appear here in the overly-cushy U.S. of A – if the need to overturn an entrenched system of economic exploitation and environmental degradation becomes so urgent, for the sake of a livable future, that the young and frustrated see rebellion as a viable alternative, and they decide to take to the streets and demand change.

And if that comes to pass, where will I be?  What will I do?  I’m not a warrior.  I’m not a soldier.  I’m not a charismatic leader.  What’s my role, should revolution arise?

I came of age listening to punk rock (among other things): raging against the hypocrisy and injustice of the 1980’s status quo, but without a compelling vision of any alternative, only vague notions of an apocalyptic, nihilistic, MadMax future.  As a teacher, I now try to stay focused on what a better alternative might look like.  But sometimes I do wonder if the vision thing is just another opiate for the masses.

“I’m hungry for some unrest; let’s push it beyond the peaceful protest…” – M. Bellamy “Unnatural Selection”

But, honestly, I’m all about peaceful in my protest.  I’m not afraid to paint a sign and take to the streets (I’ve had to do that more than twice), but I don’t wanna be in an actual uprising.  Even verbal confrontation gives me the wiggins, so actual bare-the-canines-and-be-ready-to-back-it-up aggression is not something I could do, and not something I want anyone else to be doing either.

The protests of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were effective only because so many were brave enough to stand in harm’s way when it was necessary.  They were able to lead those protests because they were that brave, too.  But I’m so acutely aware of the fact that those kinds of leaders usually get assassinated.  Closer to my own experience, there’s Dian Fossey, who tried to protect the apes she was studying and the habitat they lived in, and got the business end of a machete for her troubles.  I’m not brave enough to face that.  So does it make me a complete hypocrite to long for a leader that is, and to be so drawn to the fictional images of such courage and conviction?

The Money Culture, Part 3

“We are at the point in history where the infinite growth paradigm collides with something that is more powerful than money is…”  – Michael Ruppert, Collapse (2009 movie)

The more-powerful something Michael Ruppert was referring to is the finite limit to energy available for our civilization under the current paradigm – more specifically, the coming of Peak Oil.  In the 1950s, M.K. Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak by about 1970 and then taper off, which – of course – it did.  Hubbert’s peak for world oil production was a little fuzzier, but there are many indications that it will happen is happening… right about now.   Globally, as a species, we are consuming known oil reservoirs at a faster rate than we are discovering new ones.  The expectation is that demand will continue to rise (due to both population growth and the expansion of economic growth/energy consumption in places like China).

In Collapse, Zeitgeist I and II and Money as Debt, the claim is made that the current monetary system – with fiat currency, fractional reserve banking and compound interest – is a kind of pyramid scheme that requires continual growth to prevent failure.  But continual growth is rarely seen in nature, and the places where it does occur (cancers, black holes) aren’t generally considered hospitable.  While I’m not sure about the demise of black holes, cancers are eventually limited by the death of the host.  So the argument has been made that the economy will die when it kills its host.   I for one don’t think the economy is resilient and voracious enough to live until the biosphere itself dies – it won’t kill the planet.  It might, however, kill the civilization, if it consumes vital resources faster than they can be replenished.

So, if money is power, and power is energy, energy is the real money.  And, big-picture-wise, there’s plenty of energy available to us Earthlings.  It’s radiating down on us, it’s captured by green things that grow in the fields and forests (using photosynthesis to defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics).  So in that sense, it’s not really limiting or limited in a way that humans are likely to need to worry about (in the next few centuries, anyway).  But in the money culture that we currently inhabit, everything depends on continual growth, and the basis for growth in the last century has been petroleum, and our use of that is not going to keep growing much longer.

The good news is, there’s actually plenty of solar energy available (including the energy that causes wind), if we can figure out how to harness and utilize it.  What’s holding us back?  Right now, it’s cheaper to just keep using oil. The reluctance to change has everything to do with money.  But if the economy isn’t weaned off oil very quickly, it might kill civilization before we can make the switch.

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.  ~Cree Proverb

So crisis is coming, that dance of danger and opportunity.  In the terminology of resilience thinking (a.k.a. panarchy), we at the point where the K-phase of conservation and ordered efficiency ends, and the Ω-phase of release and creative destruction begins.  Our challenge is to nurture the seeds of what comes next, so that when all of the resources and constraints are released, the new stuff that begins to grow is what we want to grow.

…Part 3 in a series of indeterminate length…