When will time be up?

For me, the semester in Ecology and Culture began with a book entitled Water by Alice Outwater, in which she seemed to advocate the restoration of pristine ecosystems,[1] a goal which could not help but charm me. The notion, however, of a pristine ecosystem—apparently defined as one in which humans have no impact—would seem to exclude the possibility of human existence. That, of course, is not what I had in mind, and I noted at the time that “even as Outwater has meticulously described a number of ways in which European settlement has altered the ecological system as it relates to water, she has not described a system humans can realistically aspire to that is healthy for humans and other living things.”[2]

In that passage, I neglected the fact that even indigenous people, widely lauded for living in harmony with nature, have had significant impacts, as Gordon Dickinson and Kevin Murphy observed. These authors cast the problem partly in terms of scale. Human populations have grown, but the character of intervention has also changed as humans developed agricultural, pastoral, and industrial societies.[3] The changes Outwater described were quite bad enough: from pre-Columbus water systems in what is now the United States, she subtracted bison, alligators, and mussels; and to them added modern fertilizer and pesticide-intensive agriculture, domesticated livestock, cities, industry, water treatment, and sewage treatment as radically altering and largely fouling the freshwater sources of the planet.[4] Possibly most frightening, however, are the impacts of industrialization on the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the impacts that these are having on the earth, for which Robert Henson has amassed an extraordinarily useful guide, The Rough Guide to Climate Change.[5] Some say—and I have heard this far more often in whispers among my fellow scholars than seen it published—that the combination of population growth and climate change may lead to human extinction (along with an unknown number of other species) within 100 years.[6] A speculative but particularly frightening scenario for how that might come about is not hard to see. The Pentagon’s quadrennial defense review notes that

climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.[7]

That the United States Department of Defense views this as a military problem raises the possibility that war, potentially involving a significant portion of the world’s population may be a consequence. As a matter of sheer numbers, comparing world population to U.S. population, it becomes quite conceivable that the U.S. may perceive an existential threat that might lead to the unleashing of nuclear weapons. The U.S. arsenal is reportedly capable of annihilating all life on earth several times over. Even if political leadership refrains from unleashing these weapons, there appear to be significant elements in the military with a predisposition to view such a scenario in apocalyptic biblical terms[8] and who may attempt to respond accordingly.[9]

If we even value our own species, let alone other life on this planet, it would well-behoove us to consider more carefully our impact upon earth’s ecosystems. Models for societies with low impact on their environments do exist, but with small populations,[10] and Robert Harms offers an example of a small-scale society which suggests that small and indigenous is not always beautiful.[11]

Harms’ work is not unproblematic. In his preface, he notes that he “began to realize that the Nunu settlers on the floodplain of the Zaire had a great deal in common with our own pioneer forebearers in the United States.”[12] While Harms should be credited for acknowledging what some may see as a bias, his readers may wonder if his choice of game theory—which appears to be such an ideal fit for the society he describes as he describes it—is not an extension of that bias. To the extent that his interpretations have any validity at all, they would seem to cry out for review and—to the extent this is even possible over twenty years later—an attempt to replicate his research, largely reliant on interviews with aging informants, from another cultural perspective.

And even if Harms is right, my original question remains: what would a system look like, that humans can realistically aspire to, that is healthy for humans and other living things? And, to put an activist spin on it, is it possible—and if so, how—for humans to make the necessary social adjustments to realize that system? My thinking here is incomplete and the treatment of systems theory in Roy Ellen’s Environment, Subsistence and System[13] is profoundly inadequate. However, Joanna Macy offers an approach to mutual causality generally as well as between individuals and societies and between individuals and morality that would seem to suggest that adaption will inevitably occur.[14] The question, given cascading positive feedbacks, in which for example, melting polar icecaps increase heat absorption by the Arctic Ocean leading to releases of undersea methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide;[15] however, is whether such adaption can be fast enough to enable a new system with stabilizing negative feedbacks to form.

Philip Slater argues—or perhaps, hopes—that integrative social change that would be better for all concerned is inevitable. However, he seems to assume that emergent properties in a new system will be favorable.[16] But the definition of emergent properties is not that they will be favorable; rather, that they will be unexpected,[17] indeed “that [they] emerge at a certain level of complexity but do not exist at lower levels,”[18] that they comprise the difference between the whole of a resulting system and the sum of its parts, and as Edgar Morin points out, the system may impose constraints on its parts that mean the whole is less than the sum of its parts.[19] There is, in short, no guarantee that a new system will accommodate humans at all, or any particular species, let alone that it can accommodate anything like our present lifestyles.

Riane Eisler echoes Erwin Laszlo, who wrote that we “cannot leave the selection of the next step in the evolution of human society and culture to chance”[20] but her approach to social change—encompassing somewhat more modest goals of achieving greater parity between men and women in a less hierarchical society—would require generations to complete. Against a 100-year deadline for extinction, with a probable threshold of no return at some time point before that, humans simply do not have that much time.

The only other hope for humans then would seem to be a technological fix. Given the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, leading to an extremely dangerous situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, in which there have been explosions at three reactors and where attempts to cool fuel rods with a mixture of sea water and boron have been likened to a “Hail Mary Pass,” questions have been raised about the wisdom of a turn to nuclear power—which for all its other risks does not emit carbon dioxide—but where the nuclear power industry successfully resists safety measures that can only be proven necessary with 20/20 hindsight, where no amount of engineering seems sufficient to guard against catastrophe, and where nuclear power advocates may be premature in weighing nuclear-caused deaths and damage against earthquake- and tsunami-caused deaths and damage.[21] There are other fixes, such as solar and wind power, better building insulation, etc.,[22] but again the question of whether humans have sufficient time to implement them widely enough appears.

So for all this, my question remains: what would a socioeconomic and ecological system look like that protects the health of humans and of other species, and how do humans progress toward that system?

  1. [1]Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic, 1996).
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Water,” DisUnitedStates.org, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=2018
  3. [3]Gordon Dickinson and Kevin Murphy, Ecosystems, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2007).
  4. [4]Outwater.
  5. [5]Robert Henson, Rough Guide to Climate Change (London: Rough Guides, 2008).
  6. [6]See for example, Niall Firth, “Human race ‘will be extinct within 100 years’, claims leading scientist,” Daily Mail, June 19, 2010 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1287643/Human-race-extinct-100-years-population-explosion.html
  7. [7]U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review, February 2010, p. 85, http://www.defense.gov/qdr/images/QDR_as_of_12Feb10_1000.pdf
  8. [8]Matthew Harwood, “Share No Dominion: The Lonely, Dangerous Fight Against Christian Supremacists Inside the Armed Forces,” Truthout, July 11, 2010, http://www.truth-out.org/no-dominion-the-lonely-dangerous-fight-against-christian-supremacists-inside-armed-forces61214?print; Bryant Jordan, “AFA Religious Survey Called ‘Flawed’,” Military.com, October 30, 2010, http://www.military.com/news/article/afa-religious-survey-called-flawed.html?ESRC=dod.nl; Mike Ludwig, “‘Underground’ Group of Cadets Say Air Force Academy Controlled by Evangelicals,” Truthout, September 30, 2010, http://www.truth-out.org/underground-group-cadets-say-air-force-academy-controlled-evangelicals63726; Nadia Prupis, “Family Escalates Fight Against Air Force Academy for Allowing On-Campus Proselytizing,” Truthout, December 22, 2010, http://www.truth-out.org/family-escalates-fight-against-air-force-academy-allowing-on-campus-proselytizing66161
  9. [9]This is supposed to be extraordinarily difficult. “Permissive action links” should prevent the accidental or unauthorized detonation of nuclear weapons. If the descriptions of their designs I have seen are accurate, bypassing the current generation of these links should require the dismantling and reassembly of the weapons involved with replacement electronic components. I am not qualified to say whether or not this is feasible; however having worked in information technology, I can say that competent security specialists routinely assume that any security design is somehow fallible and that vulnerabilities are discoverable.
  10. [10]See, for examples, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People (New York: Vintage, 1989); Colin M. Turnbull, The Forest People (New York: Touchstone, 1962).
  11. [11]Robert Harms, Games Against Nature (New York: Cambridge University, 1987).
  12. [12]Harms, viii.
  13. [13]Roy Ellen, Environment, Subsistence and System: The Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982).
  14. [14]Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1991).
  15. [15]Henson.
  16. [16]Philip Slater, The Chrysalis Effect (Brighton, UK: Sussex, 2009).
  17. [17]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).
  18. [18]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996), 29.
  19. [19]Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  20. [20]Erwin Laszlo, “The Crucial Epoch,” Futures 17 (February 1985): 16, quoted in Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).
  21. [21]Agence France-Presse, “US Experts: ‘Chernobyl-Like’ Crisis for Japan,” Common Dreams, March 12, 2011, http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/03/12-2; Bernard L. Cohen, “Putting the Problem in Perspective,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/13/japans-nuclear-crisis-lessons-for-the-us/putting-the-problem-in-perspective; Michael W. Golay, “Realism About Costs and Benefits,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/13/japans-nuclear-crisis-lessons-for-the-us/realism-about-costs-and-benefits; Michio Kaku, “Faust and Fission Power,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/13/japans-nuclear-crisis-lessons-for-the-us/the-price-of-fission-power; David Lochbaum, “Disasters Fail to Follow Scripts,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/13/japans-nuclear-crisis-lessons-for-the-us/disasters-fail-to-follow-scripts; Hiroko Tabuchi, David E. Sanger, and Keith Bradsher, “Japan Faces Potential Nuclear Disaster as Radiation Levels Rise,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15nuclear.html?nl=afternoonupdate&emc=aua2; Frank N. von Hippel, “How to Retrofit Reactors,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/13/japans-nuclear-crisis-lessons-for-the-us/what-us-reactors-need
  22. [22]Henson.

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