Those of us who live in the ‘developed world’ frequently see their higher needs compromised. But, unlike much of the world’s population, we rarely find ourselves destitute of our most basic requirements, like shelter, water, and food. Our housing may not be particularly secure, our water may not be too clean, and our food may be low on nutrition, but we have, at least, some semblance of the basics.
Our piecemeal life support system works well enough that many of us become fat. The tragedy of this system is not just the substandard services it provides, but also the extreme wastefulness and inefficiency.
Recalling that these basic services were once provided freely by the environment, it’s clear that they’ve become remarkably expensive today. Studies of some hunter/gatherer groups found that their members typically labored just three or four hours daily for their sustenance. Today, the nine hour work day is the norm, with an astonishing proportion of our incomes going to basics, like housing and food.
Yet among consumers, there is growing awareness that we pay only part of the cost of the goods and services we use. People and environments far away may bear the brunt of these ‘external costs’. The inexplicably cheap prices we find in retail stores invariably result from such abuses. Could we pay the true cost of such items? This seems doubtful, as most of us cannot afford store-bought organic food, let alone responsibly-produced clothing and appliances.
Though our age is called one of convenience, the things we need come from further and further away. The sources of the food, energy, and materials we consume are invisible from our population centers. Where integrated ecological process once met all of our needs locally, we have created a disintegrated system, in which the surface of the earth is rigidly divided into zones of use. The degree to which we’ve partitioned our planet can be seen from space: the urban areas where people live, the agricultural areas where our food is grown, and the wilderness areas used for logging, mining, grazing, and recreation. To function as a viable life support system, these distinct zones must be connected by extensive networks of roads, rails, power lines, and pipe lines. The water, food, and energy people need is not available where people live, unless it is trucked, piped or wired in. Of course, all of this transport is very costly.
Outsourcing on this scale would not be possible without oil and other fossil fuels. For most of our history, the only energy available to us came from recent sunlight, stored only in plant and animal tissues. Almost every aspect of today’s economic system receives a tremendous subsidy from fossil fuels. It would take about 117 hours of hard labor to equal the amount of energy available in a gallon of gasoline. Consider that one may purchase a gallon gasoline for about three US dollars, and you understand what I mean by ‘subsidy’.
Perhaps of greatest concern, is the degree to which our food production is subsidized by fossil fuels (see also). It may take as much as 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food, using modern, industrialised methods. Fossil fuels allow for such staggering inefficiencies in every aspect of our economy. Yet we know these are finite resources, and their use is causing unprecedented climate change.
Realizing the costs we pay as consumers, the ‘external costs’ we inflict on the rest of the world, and costs which can only be paid through the use of an unsustainable resource, our modern life support system seems terribly costly and ineffective. How could any self respecting species tolerate such a broken system?
The optimal life support system is based in ecology. We know earth’s ecologies were functioning very well, prior to our abuses. Yet returning, with our ecologies, to a healthy state, has proven difficult. We’ve made valiant efforts to set aside habitat for other creatures. But as we’ve not provided a habitat for ourselves, we remain dependent on the abusive economic system which imperils all habitats.
Simply halting harmful activities will not yield a habitat for our species. Habitats are built of relationships, and relationships require energy and direction.
The fragmented pieces of our habitat are in desperate need of re-integration. This re-integration will require imagination and forethought. It will need a plan, a design. Perhaps no movement offers a more holistic method of design than the permaculture movement. The brilliance of permaculture design is that it applies the oft-ignored principles of ecology to every aspect of human settlement. Permaculture design meets human needs by cleverly arranging environmental elements, in a way that optimizes ecological function. One could say that while the dominant system ignores the rules of the game, permaculture seeks to play the best game possible. Permaculture and other ecological design methods can help us reintegrate our habitat and make our life support systems efficient again.
Every inch of earth, struck by rain and sunlight, has the potential to grow food and store energy. Thousands upon thousands of novel species offer themselves as partners, to nourish, heal, and clothe us. There is no reason why everything we need cannot be made freely available through our relationship with nature. We need only put things back in order. We’ve marginalized many of our old friends. We need to invite them again to our party, and perhaps introduce them to new friends, and new ways to interact. Our species can respect itself, abandon its vain struggles, and make life a celebration.
Needs not met sustainably
Every citizen of the modern world has a gut sense that things cannot go on like this — we all have some notion of an Armageddon, a nuclear winter, or peak in oil production. The science is not much more optimistic. Plow agriculture, the basis of our civilization, has been degrading soils since the Neolithic, and may eventually destroy all of them. If the human population continues to climb, we will overshoot the capacity of the planet to provide for us. The limit of certain resources, such as oil, phosphorus, and potable water, may also have dire consequences, if climate change or nuclear annihilation doesn’t get us first.
But perhaps it’s not the end we should fear. The fact that our civilization is unsustainable, no matter how distanced the doom, is a wake up call. A relationship that won’t last is not a good relationship, and that’s reason enough to ditch it, immediately. Why allow ourselves to treat ourselves like garbage?
Things are bad, right now. Some of us may be fat and comfortable, but nobody is getting what they really need.
Even if we are doomed, why not fight? It is our inherent right, as living things, to protect our habitat, for ourselves and for our children. Really, what else is there to do? Can we stand idly by while we are denied the expression of our innate human nature? Not if we have any self respect.
- Marshall Sahlins, on the hunter/gatherer workday, in ‘The Original Affluent Society’
- The US road system
- Google Earth, observe the face of the planet
- Fossil Energy in Food
- Man hours to gasoline
- Toby Hemenway on agriculture
- Richard Manning’s book ‘Against the Grain’ details agriculture’s devastations from the Neolithic onward