Biodiversity, Consumerism, Economics, Food Shortages, Global Warming/Climate Change, Health & Disease, Population, Society, peak oil — by Ernest Partridge September 20, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Ernest Partridge. Published here with permission of the author.
Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings. – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Place a few fruit flies in a bottle with a layer of honey at the bottom, and they will quickly multiply to an enormous number, and then, just as quickly, die off to the very last, poisoned by their wastes. Similarly, add a few yeast cells to grape juice, seal the bottle, and the cells will consume the sugar and turn it into alcohol. When the alcohol rises to 12.5% it will kill off all the yeast, and the wine will be ready for the table.
Fruit flies and yeast in a bottle are embarked upon suicidal endeavors. They can’t help it. They don’t know any better, lacking the cognitive equipment to “know” anything at all.
Human beings, we are told, are different. Humans can utilize their accumulated knowledge, evaluate evidence and apply reason, and with these skills and accomplishments they can imagine alternative futures and choose among them to their advantage.
Human beings have these capacities. But history teaches us that all too often, human beings simply refuse to apply them and, like the mindless fruit flies, march blindly into oblivion. For example:
None of the antagonists in the First World War wanted the war. It was touched off by the assassination of an Austrian Duke in the Balkans. And when it was all over four years later and sixteen million had died, one German politician asked another, “How did it all happen?” The second replied, “Ach, if we only knew!” (Tuchman)
When the Nazi pogrom against the Jews accelerated, a few wise Jews fled Germany, leaving friends, professions and all their possessions behind. The others, reflecting that “This can’t be all that bad, after all, I am a loyal German,” remained. When in January 1942 “the final solution” was decided at the Wansee conference, it was too late.
Industrialized fishing techniques have drastically reduced both the quality and quantity of the world-wide catch. As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in The New Yorker, “In the late nineteen eighties, the total world catch topped out at about eighty-five million tons… For the past two decades, the global catch has been steadily declining … by around five hundred thousand tons a year.” This is a paradigm example of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” whereby “ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest…” While a global agreement to limit fishing might restore the take to sustainable levels, there are ominous indications that, in addition to over-fishing, climate change might be significantly responsible for these reductions. (More about this below).
Finally, consider Easter Island. When Polynesian explorers discovered and colonized Easter Island at about 900 AD, they arrived at an island that was fully forested, with huge trees that supplied essential resources for canoes, houses, food, fuel, ropes and textiles. With these resources, the islanders built more than eight-hundred stone statues (moai) for which Easter Island is famous. When the first Europeans arrived in 1722, they found a barren island totally devoid of trees. The peak population of this sixty-six square mile island is estimated to have been as much as thirty thousand. In 1872, only one hundred and eleven native islanders remained. (Diamond). Could the Easter Islanders foresee the consequences of the destruction of their forests? If not, then why not? If so, why did they not act to protect this essential resource before it was too late?
In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond poses these questions in words that strike ominously close to home:
I have often asked myself, “what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?
When we look back in time, we find numerous examples such as these of a collective failure of societies to anticipate and deal with oncoming emergencies. With 20/20 hindsight, we look back and wonder: How could they not have seen what was in store for them?
Thus it is fair to ask, how acute is our foresight today? What are we doing, or failing to do, that might prompt future generations to ask the same question of us: How could they not have seen what was in store for them?
The answer, I submit, is most discouraging. Our political and corporate leaders have eyes, but will not see. They have minds, but will not think, much less anticipate the catastrophes before us and take appropriate action to avoid them. Consider:
Regarding the domestic and global economy, our leaders are steadfastly ignoring Herbert Stein’s law: “That which can not go on forever, won’t.” Wealth continues to “percolate up” from the producers of wealth to the owners of that wealth. Today, one third of the U.S. national wealth is owned by one-percent of the population. The average Standard and Poors 500 CEO earns in half a day, more than his company’s median worker earns in an entire year. When, if ever, does this trend end? More in an hour? In a minute? Meanwhile, the super-rich pay a smaller fraction of their income in taxes than the average citizen – taxes that pay for the infrastructure, the courts, and the education of the workers upon which their wealth depends. Ever upward climbs the national debt. The Republican “solution” to the economic crisis? More of the same policies that precipitated the crash of August, 2008.
The solution to the federal budget deficit? Screw the little guy by cutting back on Social Security, Medicare, health reform and education. But don’t even think of raising taxes on the super-rich. How long will the bottom 99 percent of us tolerate this injustice until, at last, we band together and storm the Bastille?
More than half of the federal budget goes to wars, past, present and projected, and to the maintenance of the American global empire – over seven hundred military bases in at least 130 foreign countries. The military-industrial complex builds submarines and aircraft carriers to fight an enemy without a navy, and jet aircraft to fight an enemy without an air force. The U.S. military budget is roughly equal to the total of all other military budgets in the world. Yet scarcely any politician dares suggest a cut in the so-called “defense” budget which, with its enormous waste, fraud and abuse, is arguably a greater threat to our “national defense” than any “enemies,” real or imagined. How about using some of that cash for R&D in clean energy? Or for the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers? Or in the repair of our collapsing physical infrastructure? All of these are clearly matters of “national defense.” Will our leaders recognize this and act appropriately? Given the current political/economic/media environment, not a chance.
Modern industrial society runs on oil. There can be no doubt about that. In a very real sense, citizens in industrial societies “eat oil.” Petroleum products produce fertilizers and pesticides, run farm equipment, and distribute food to the cities. In the United States, about two percent of the population is directly involved in food production: one agricultural worker feeds fifty American citizens, and many more individuals abroad. And yet, ecologist Kenneth Watt estimates that nineteenth century pre-petroleum agricultural methods could support a global population of from one to four billion people. “Mankind,” writes Watt, is thus “embarked on an absolutely immense gamble” that somehow, when the oil runs out, another energy source will be available. When that happens, the world population, now approaching seven billion, might well exceed ten billion.
No one will contend that the supply of unrecovered petroleum is infinite. The controversy centers on various estimates of the remaining reserves. Oil extraction is becoming ever-more expensive, and the last drop of oil will be recovered at about the time that more energy is required to extract it than is contained in the oil itself. Some experts claim that “peak oil,” the time of maximum oil production, is now upon us.
So what happens if and when the oil finally runs out? If alternate energy sources are not in place and in full operation, wars and mass starvation are certain to follow. Current efforts to avoid this catastrophe are feeble, too little and too late. The international oil conglomerates that effectively own the congress of the United States are not inclined to encourage the promotion of their competitors.
Ninety-seven percent of all active climate scientists agree that global warming is real, and that human activity is the primary cause. This consensus is challenged by an array of scientifically uninformed politicians, media celebrities and corporate lackeys, joined by the usual “biostitutes” (Robert Kennedy Jr.’s term) – scientists for hire, ever prepared to conjure up bogus “evidence” to support their sponsors’ corporate agendas. The climate denier’s efforts and investments have been effective, as surveys indicate that fewer citizens are concerned about global warming and more citizens are inclined to be skeptical about it.
Meanwhile, the global atmosphere is proving itself to be totally indifferent to public opinion and political inaction as it continues to heat up, causing widespread wildfires in Russia, floods in Pakistan and Iowa, drought in the American southwest, the shrinking of the Greenland icecap, rising sea level, with still more horrors in store in the future.
Oberlin College ecologist David Orr is unconstrained in his rage over the political and corporate resistance to informed and effective responses to climate change:
“We really don’t have a name to describe behavior of this sort… It is criminality beyond any language, concepts or laws that we presently have. It’s criminality that places the entire human enterprise at risk. And we simply have not been able to confront inaction that allows the entire human enterprise to slip into catastrophic failure. It really does beggar the imagination to understand why, given the consensus of the scientific community on this issue, … inaction was the order of the day.”
And finally, a little-noticed news report that should scare the bejesus out of all of us: Canadian scientists have discovered that the population of oceanic phytoplankton has dropped by 40 percent since 1950 and continues to drop at a rate of about one percent per year. This fact just might foretell a catastrophe even greater than global warming which, as it happens, may be the primary cause of this phenomenon.
Why should we care about the fate of these microscopic plants? Because phytoplankton are the foundation of the oceanic ecosystem – the base of the food pyramid that sustains all marine life. No phytoplankton, no fish, and the seas become biotic deserts.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Phytoplankton produce half of the world’s atmospheric oxygen and absorb that carbon-dioxide that we are spewing into the air in dangerous super-abundance. This raises a question that I’ve neither read about or heard: is it just possible that the loss of phytoplankton might suffocate us all? Without oxygen, we all die. Plain and simple. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the alarm? Are there any proposals to reverse this trend? And if we suppose that we can survive without the oxygen supplied by the phytoplankton, then pray tell us how this is possible.
Perhaps the Canadian scientists are mistaken. If so, then a threatened humanity pleads with the dissenting scientists to present their evidence and deliver their refutation. However this investigation might proceed, one fact remains unassailable: our fate is inexorably bound with that of the phytoplankton.
Are we, like the fruit flies in the bottle, predestined to meet a horrible fate due to forces beyond our control – beyond our control because we cannot overcome the blind economic interests which dominate our political processes and which own the mass media that misinforms the public?
I am sadly inclined to believe that this is the case. But I am not entirely convinced, for history also provides examples of how, facing pending emergencies, societies and nations can act responsibly.
On December 6, 1941, a majority of the American public was pacifist, demanding that we stay out of “those foreign wars.” Two days later, that same public was in solid support of President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. And the United States military, at that time one of the weakest in the world became, within months of total mobilization, the strongest.
When in 1974, physicists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina published a paper in the scientific journal Nature, linking the erosion of the atmospheric ozone to the artificial chemical compounds, chlorofluorocarbons, the chemical industry responded with an all-out public relations campaign to debunk them. Eventually, the international scientific consensus prevailed resulting in the Montreal Protocol of 1989, banning the production and release of these substances. In 1995, Molina, along with Paul Crutzen, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery.
In 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released a comprehensive government report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer. The tobacco industry replied with a volley of quasi-scientific rebuttals. Now the good news: after relentless effort by medical and public interest groups, brutal truth has broken through the tobacco industries’ PR campaigns. In 1965, 42% of American adults were cigarette smokers. In 2005, less than half that number of Americans were smokers.
“You can’t keep an empire abroad and a republic at home,” wrote Mark Twain. Chalmers Johnson agrees: “Empire vs. Democracy…” Faced with this choice sixty years ago, Great Britain chose democracy. It remains to be seen how the United States will choose. At the moment, the indications are not favorable for democracy.
Japan, with one of the highest population densities in the world, has managed to keep 74% of its land mass forested – the highest percentage of all first-world countries. (Diamond)
While the fossil fuel public relations behemoth continues to convince the American public and politicians that renewable energy sources are “impractical” and “too expensive,” foreign countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Germany and China forge ahead with their research, development and installation of alternative energy. True, electricity from the sun costs more than energy from coal. But as R&D progresses, those costs are plunging while fossil fuel costs are rising. The cost curves are certain to cross in the near future, at which time coal-generated electricity will become obsolete. In fact, when such “externalities” as health and environmental effects are factored in, fossil fuel energy today is vastly more expensive than wind and solar energy. Europe and China’s message to American industry: lead, follow, or get out of the way. But we are not waiting for your reply!
Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, is a monumental study of how societies from around the world – in Easter Island, in Pre-Columbian Central and North American, in Greenland – are demolished by the heedless destruction of the sustaining environment. And yet, in the final page of this book, Diamond closes on a hopeful note: “we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree.”
It remains to be seen if we seize upon this opportunity.
A few corporate public relations geniuses with limitless budgets have convinced large portions of the American public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was in league with al Qaeda, that their president was foreign-born and is a practicing Muslim, and that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a vast conspiracy of climate scientists with motives still unknown. Now these same geniuses have taken on the task of convincing us that the solutions to our energy, economic and environmental problems are to continue the policies that created these crises in the first place.
This, of course, is the clinical definition of insanity. And so, to borrow Albert Einstein’s reflection upon the atomic bomb, everything “has changed .. save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”
The immediate result of a policy of “more of the same” will be a securing of the vast wealth and political power of those who have benefited from this policy. As for the remaining 99% of us in the disappearing middle class and the growing serf class, we’re on our own. No doubt, in the calamities that follow, the oligarches and kleptocrats of tomorrow will eventually be consumed as well.
To prevent which, here are a few stragegies of survival:
When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you are heading straight for a cliff, stop and change direction.
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” (Richard Feynman) The best means of discovering and validating truth is science. Propaganda, skillfully and ruthlessly practiced, can deceive an entire nation. But it can not abolish fundamental physical laws. “Facts,” said John Adams, “are stubborn things.”
“In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute: [the nation] that does not value trained intelligence is doomed.” (Alfred North Whitehead). A nation that dismantles its public schools, impoverishes its universities, and makes advanced education unattainable to its brightest young people, is a nation engaged in collective suicide. “ “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, … it expects what never was and never will be.” (Thomas Jefferson).
Promote the common good. There are public interests and social benefits distinct from the summation of all private interests. Ayn Rand was profoundly and dangerously mistaken when she proclaimed that “there is no such entity as ‘the public,’ the public is merely a number of individuals. On the contrary, that which is good for each, may not be good for all. United we stand, divided we fall.
No civilized society has existed without a rule of law and sanctions to enforce the law, which is to say, no society has existed without a government. The choice, then, is not between government or no government, but between worse or better government – between government of, by, and for the privileged few, or government of, by and for the people. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
The ballot is the beating heart of democracy. The citizens’ ballot must be secret, but not the method of counting it. Neither should the counting and compiling of votes be in the hands of private companies with partisan affiliations. An unverifiable vote is an invalid vote. There is abundant evidence that recent elections in the United States have been fraudulent, yet the politicians have refused to investigate and the media has refused to report this evidence.
In a free society access to public office, legislation, and judicial decisions can not be bought and sold. “Privatized popular government” is an oxymoron. When privatization of government and an unrestricted market obtain, the inevitable result is oligarchy and despotism. The remedy was clearly enunciated by the founders of our republic when they declared our independence: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
The task before us is momentous, and the outcome is uncertain. Quite frankly, I am inclined to agree with the pessimists that humanity is about to enter into dreadful and prolonged dark age.
There is no greater task before us than to dedicate ourselves to proving pessimists such as myself to be ultimately wrong. As the great Andrei Sakharov reflected:
“There is a need to create ideals even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.”