Life in the 21st Century: We Need to Build Resiliency or Be Swept Away

First a giant airplane loaded with people and fuel simply vanishes over the ocean. Then a wall of mud a mile wide slides down a mountainside and buries a small community of houses and people.  What’s next?

It disturbs me that so far I’ve heard not a whisper of the question of whether this week’s Washington state mud slide was caused by logging and/or development.

Before and after image

Before and after image

Was there clear-cutting going on in the ridge above the little town that got buried?  Was the town itself part of the problem, the clearing for houses taking away the trees that had been doing the good work of holding the landscape in place?

The obvious culprit being blamed is simply too much rain, yet another example of our climate going haywire in response to the destabilization of too many humans burning too much fossil fuel.

I’m glad to see glimmerings of recognition inside the insular Washington DC Beltway that the effects of climate change are here and are only going to increase in the coming years.

Earlier this month a group of Democratic Senators staged an all-night climate change rally, Senate-style—meaning, they talked about climate change all night long to raise awareness and bring attention to the urgency of the issue.

Talk is cheap; action is what counts.

So far we have not seen nearly enough action aimed at shifting our economy towards renewable energy and “sustainable growth”—scare quotes because “sustainable growth” may, in fact, mean “limited growth,” anathema in American political/economic circles.

We know now that if human population and resource consumption continue to rise at current rates, we will simply decimate our planet, like the locusts we are coming to resemble.  That way lies death, terror and madness.

We have already altered the climate enough to keep the disasters rolling in—floods and droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, spring blizzards and summer heat waves…we’ve seen it all and this is the new normal for the rest of our lifetimes.

We need to acknowledge that building resiliency is of paramount importance in these critical years while there is still enough political and social stability to make the adaptive changes that are needed.

images-1Building resiliency means shifting to renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal—that is locally based all over the planet.  Forget about pipelines and oil tankers.  Forget about huge power lines criss-crossing the countryside.  We need to move towards a distributed energy model where each town and county becomes responsible for its own energy needs, and has back-up plans in place for the times when those floods and storms hit.

The same thing goes for food production.  Forget about shipping tropical fruits north to please the fancy of the WholeFoods crowd.  Forget about ripping up African rainforests to create palm oil plantations. We need locally based agricultural production that can sustain populations where they are.

We need to return to the resiliency of pre-20th century human populations, but now connected as never before by our awareness of the role we can play, for good or for ill, in the global biosphere.

We also need, unpopular as it may be, to curb human population growth.  Sharply. Now.

Those who live to tell the tale of the 21st century will look back on the 20th century as the unfolding of the greatest nightmares the human species has ever faced.

In the 21st century, all those disastrous chickens hatched by the petro/agri/chemical industries of globalized capital are coming home to roost, and none of us will be able to build a wall high enough to keep them at bay.

If we want to survive—if we want to bequeath a livable planet to our descendants– we need radical new thinking, backed by urgent and committed action.  Now, before the next mudslide, the next flood, the next wildfire sweeps more of us away.

Facebook vs. Dead Space 2: which 21st century geo-political model will win?

This week I am teaching Darwin again, Darwin being a staple of the Simon’s Rock Sophomore Seminar, required of all students.  I have always found The Origin of Species difficult to read, but lately I am realizing why: because Darwin seems so sure that aggressive competition, the infamous “survival of the fittest,” is THE biological paradigm on our planet. All species are locked in a relentless “battle for life,” from which only the strongest and best adapted (which often means the most ruthless) will emerge evolutionarily victorious.

However, there have been some persistent voices in the past few years arguing that Darwin understated the case for altruism and empathy as an evolutionary advantage for human beings.  Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that cognitive neuroscience is now proving that we are in fact at least as empathetic, as a species, as we are aggressive.  He believes that the linking potential of the internet age has the power to help us overcome the divisiveness that marred the past 500 years or so of human history, and make a great leap forward in our social evolution.

“The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history,” he says.

“If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.”

Human beings’ amazing use of technology has always been both our blessing and our curse.  Technology is enabling me to send these ideas out into the ocean of the Web, a digital message in a bottle that could potentially reach millions of people across the globe.  Amazing!

But my reliance on electricity generated by oil and coal to perform this technological wonder is the Achilles heel of the whole enterprise, since collectively we as a species are overloading the biosphere with our wastes and driving the planet to the brink of what Darwin would call an “extinction event.”  Our own.

Will we make that great leap forward that Rifkin is foretelling, waking up to the necessity of moving from global competition to global collaboration in a new, more localized model?

Rifkin imagines a future global society based on the localization of energy sources like solar, wind, tidal and geo-thermal, as well as the re-localization of agricultural and manufacturing economies.

“In this new era of distributed energy,” he says, “governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.”

I believe that this rosy vision is theoretically possible, but I sure don’t see anything like it on the horizon today.  Rifkin puts his faith in the upcoming generation, who have grown up as “digital natives” and are more likely, he thinks, to be collaborative across traditional national and political boundaries. Facebook Nation!

Maybe so, if the young can be roused from their entertainment media trance and made to see the urgency of the mission.

I read with dismay yesterday that the U.S. video-game industry is one of the most highly subsidized sectors of our economy, rewarding, for example, the makers of “Dead Space 2, which challenges players to advance through an apocalyptic battlefield by killing space zombies.”  Dead Space 2 shipped 2 million copies in its first week of sales.

How can we expect young people to focus on serious, urgent issues like global climate change when they’re so busy chatting with friends on Facebook and killing zombies on Wii?

If this is the best we can do as a society, then I’m sorry, folks, but maybe an extinction event is not only on the horizon, but, as Darwin would say, “for the good of all.”



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