For the past semester, my work week has ended on Friday at noon which allows me the luxury, weather permitting, of initiating my weekend with a hike into the Arroyo Seco Canyon near Pasadena in Southern California. For the first mile or so, the trail runs alongside the campus of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before giving way to the Gabrielino Trail that meanders alongside the Arroyo Seco stream which eventually merges with the Los Angeles River. Most of the trail is canopied by maple, elm and douglas fir, however the charred corpses of trees burned in the 2009 Station Fire, the result of arson, stand as reminders of the negative impact of human activity.
When I first began hiking the Gabrielino Trail, I was not at all enamored by it. There was natural beauty, to be sure, but there was also too much evidence of human activity. In general, I like my trails to deliver me to at least an imagined wilderness. In the late 1800s and early part of the 20th century the trail was a popular spot for building cabins. Although most of the cabins were destroyed during a massive 1938 flood, many of their stone foundations remain. There are also remains of bridges, in several spots rusted and gnarled iron rebar seems to grow alongside the trail as if it were part of the natural flora and on occasion the dirt trail gives way to pavement. I’ve grown to love the trail because it challenges my assumptions of nature and culture by blurring the boundaries of both, and to be honest, it feels a little like walking along the ruins of civilization which feeds my affinity for the apocalyptic.
Much of the trail is still closed due to fire damage, so the furthest one can hike is to the Brown Mountain Dam which was built in 1943 as part of the US Forest Service’s Los Angeles River Watershed Program. The dam looks its age, colored by shades of rust and orange with thin veins of greenery growing out of its seams. Water falls 80 feet over its edge, giving birth to the stream that is followed to find the dam. Debris from floods and fire are held behind the dam’s massive wall and standing beneath its falling waters it is easy to imagine the forces of nature crashing over and toppling the aging dam, destroying what has been so carefully cultivated and managed below. It is, I think, an appropriate metaphor for the precarious situation in which civilization currently finds itself. For 10,000 years, beginning with the development of agriculture, humanity has been changing the face of the earth via its technologies and there is a growing sense that nature has taken all she can and the floodgates are about to burst open.
I do not fancy myself a prophet or a prognosticator of any kind. However, given current environmental, economic and political realities, I do not hold much optimism for the future of humanity. Although our technologies have leveled mountains, taken us to the deepest depths of the oceans and beyond the clutches of earth’s gravity to the moon, I am unconvinced that they will prevent great amounts of suffering. Indeed, I believe the wave of progress we have been riding has crested and we have likely begun an inevitable descent into global collapse.
In his study of failed societies, author Jared Diamond defines collapse as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.”[i] Diamond provides a five point checklist of possible contributing factors to environmental collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and the society’s response to its environmental problems. While the first four items on the checklist “may or may not prove significant for a particular society,” he claims that response to environmental problems “always proves significant.”[ii]
There is little debate that human activity has caused environmental damage. Beginning with the development of agriculture, we have been breaking ecological constraints and creating artificial environments.[iii] In the forward march of civilization, humanity has altered and eradicated habitats and completely eliminated thousands, if not tens of thousands of species. Indeed, the rate of extinction is currently 1,000 times what it was before the industrial revolution and we are currently experiencing the largest crisis in biodiversity since the last great mass extinction which saw the end of the dinosaurs. [iv] The environmental damage to global ecosystems is staggering. We have polluted land, sea and air. The majority of the world’s forests have been cleared and rivers have been pumped so full of industrial toxins that they have caught fire. There are now dead zones in our oceans, mostly created by the run-off of nitrogen rich pesticides and herbicides. where nothing can survive. The oceans are also becoming more acidic and approximately one fifth of the world’s coral reefs, which support more marine species than any other ocean environment[v], have been lost. According to a report released by the United Nations, the world’s ecosystems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse.”[vi] As Clive Ponting observed in his A New Green History of the World “the foundations of human history lie in the way ecosystems work”[vii] and given the precariousness of the world’s ecosystems, the foundations of human civilization should be considered weak at best.
Climate change is intricately connected to environmental damage and the degradation of ecosystems. That human activity is contributing to climate change is not controversial to the overwhelming majority of climate scientists performing research and publishing in the field. The science of climate change is well over 100 years old and began as an attempt to understand the previous ice ages. That carbon dioxide, methane and water trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect, is not new science. It was first introduced by the French scientist Joseph Fourier in the early 1800s.[viii] The logic behind climate change is quite simple; a change in greenhouse gasses will elicit a change in climate. The more greenhouse gasses, the warmer the earth’s surface temperature, the less greenhouse gases, the cooler the earth’s surface temperature. As the globe cools and heats, climate changes. Humans have been continuously pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the advent of the industrial revolution, particularly through the use of fossil fuels, and there has been a steady increase in the average temperature. Deforestation contributes to climate change since less trees mean less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is also absorbed by the oceans, and it is the extra carbon dioxide being absorbed that has led to the oceans becoming more acidic.
Although climate change cannot be inferred from single weather events, it is getting more and more difficult for people to deny that something is happening. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over 15,000 high temperature records were broke in March 2012. As the planet warms, we can expect more extreme storms and this was confirmed by a rash of tornadoes that tore through the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys and Texas during the same month, initiating an unusually early tornado season[ix].
We can also expect longer and more intense droughts which are a threat to the global food supply. According to the U.S Drought Monitor over 36 percent of the United States was classified as experiencing moderate to exceptional drought by the end of March 2012, which is problematic as the US is one of the major grain producers in the world.[x] Indeed, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute claims that the world is one poor harvest away from chaos. High food prices can lead to food riots and political unrest. It does not help that the world has been overpumping its aquifers in order to water its crops. Citing a World Bank study, Brown states that 175 million people in India and 130 million in China are being fed by grain produced by overpumping. Furthermore, Irrigation wells are running dry in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Saudi Arabia has completely depleted its nonreplenishable fossil aquifer.[xi] Add to this an ever increasing world population and the fact that more and more people are attempting to adopt the western grain-intensive diet of meat, milk and eggs and that a little over a quarter of the US grain harvest is converted into ethanol for fuel rather than being used for food, future famines seems like a grim probability. Indeed, In addition, prolonged droughts will increase the likelihood of forest fires and aid desertification.
As the globe warms, water levels will rise as land based iced sheets and polar ice caps melt. If the Greenland ice sheet, which stands nearly one mile high and is the second largest in the world, were to melt ocean levels would rise by approximately 20 feet. If all the world’s ice sheets melted the oceans would rise by about 260 feet.[xii] Obviously this would radically change the shape of the world’s land masses. Although drastic rises in ocean levels are still far off in the future, countries like the African nation of Mozambique are already being affected by rising sea levels[xiii]. As coastal cities and island nations face encroaching waters, it is likely that there will be a mass migration of climate refugees, placing further stress on the world’s political and economic systems. Victims of floods, hurricanes and drought will also contribute to migratory populations looking for relief.
Climate change, I believe, is the single most substantial threat to human civilization, and our survival as a species that we have ever encountered. In his Oscar winning 2006 documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore described the changes in ecosystems observed by scientists as “a nature hike through the book of Revelations.” Indeed, it does feel as if judgment is upon us. In fact, when considering Diamond’s five point check-list, climate change is a far more substantial threat than hostile neighbors, especially since we live in a world far different than the historical failed societies he examined. While individual nations may still be at threat of collapse due to hostile neighbors, that does not at the present time seem to apply to the larger, first world nations. Although war appears to be a constant, especially in the United States, and diverting funding from much needed social programs to defense spending contributes to social inequality, war no longer poses the same threat as climate change. Indeed, even the United States Defense Department is taking climate change as a serious threat to global peace and national security.[xiv]
While Diamond mostly examined individual societies, he recognized the importance of trade relations between nations. This association is particularly heightened in the interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The latest economic slump did not affect just one or two national economies; it affected the entire global economic network. Diamond states that “societies today are so interconnected that the risk we face is of a worldwide decline.”[xv] Indeed, the global economic situation remains precarious, with a double dip recession or even worse global depression hanging above the global economy like a sword of Damocles. For citizens of first world nations, it may seem like apocalypse mongering to suggest that civilization is on the border of collapse. After all, groceries are full of food, the average human lifespan has increased and many of the diseases humanity has historically faced have been either entirely eradicated or are on the brink of being annihilated. To many, it would seem that the only way to go is forward and to continue riding the escalating curve of progress. However, Diamond warns citizens in collapsing societies do not often notice the downturn, with the slippery slope into decline frequently beginning within a few decades after a society “reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power.”[xvi]
The final and I think most important factor of collapsed societies that Diamond notes is how they respond to environmental challenges. I think we are at a crucial point in human history and our collective actions in the next twenty years will determine the fate of the human species. Diamond identifies two types of approaches for dealing with environmental problems; a top-down and the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach is associated with larger civilizations that have centralized governments in which the governing bodies establish the policies for dealing with environmental problems. A bottom-up approach originates not with centralized governments, but with local communities where people work together to manage environmental issues. These two approaches are not exclusive and can and do exist side by side. Indeed, that is what is currently happening in the United States and other countries throughout the world. However, the question remains whether we can act boldly enough and quickly enough to avert the worst of environmental degradation and climate change.
The worst case scenario is collapse and extinction. If humanity does survive, the population will be greatly reduced due to famine, war and infectious disease. With no meaningful reduction in greenhouse gasses, the climate may very well enter a vicious cycle where increased warmth releases more greenhouse gasses, particularly methane which is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide, from thawing permafrost and melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.[xvii] The quality of life will likely match Thomas Hobbe’s assessment of an existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.” It is difficult to determine exactly what the average increase in temperature may be. There is no question that the planet will not be able to sustain the current number of humans. Although I think extinction remains unlikely, a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at their current rate, an average warming of seven degrees Celsius would make many regions of the earth hostile to human life. The authors of the paper claim that there is a five percent risk that the entire planet will become uninhabitable by humans.[xviii] Of course this is debatable. The risk could end up being far greater.
On most days, I believe that this worst case scenario will not come to pass. I do have my doubts though, especially when I consider how the world’s governments have failed to rise to the occasion. In a recent editorial commenting on the latest meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which took place in Durban, South Africa, linguist and political gadfly Noam Chomsky commented that intelligent extraterrestrials observing the failure of world governments and in particular the United States to seriously address climate change would not be remiss if they inferred that humanity was infected by “some kind of lethal insanity.”[xix] Of course, any economic system that requires infinite growth based on finite resources is irrational, if not insane. That said, there are a variety of “rational” reasons why the world’s governments have been dragging their feet on this issue, most of which are also centered on the global economy. The nature of capitalism is that immediate profits typically take precedence over the wisdom of long term thinking. Furthermore, seriously addressing climate change requires the world to radically lessen its reliance on fossil fuels, but fossil fuels are what have been driving progress, development and industry so climate change is a direct challenge to political, social and economic structures constitute modern civilization.
In his book The Ascent of Humanity, author Charles Eisenstein argues that what is required is a paradigm shift where the human concept of self is transformed. The western trajectory of progress has been such that it has created a sense of a separate, atomistic self that exists apart from nature. This was largely accomplished via technology, beginning with the development of agriculture. According to Eisenstein “Inherent in technology is the division of the world into self and other.”[xx] The modern sense of self is also defined via global capitalism so that the self is identified primarily as consumer. The engine of capitalism is not only fueled by fossil fuels but also by manufactured desires. The trajectory of western progress has left humans so void of relationships and connections with each other and the natural world that we are left to identify ourselves via our possessions. Yet we remain unfulfilled and incomplete. As Eisenstein notes
Today, inundated in an unprecedented deluge of material conveniences and luxuries, we are nonetheless desperately in want. Think of that phrase, to be in want. I want, I want, I want. To be constantly in want is the very definition of poverty, no matter how large one’s house or bank account. By that measure, ours is perhaps the poorest society the world has ever known.[xxi]
There does seem to be a shift in consciousness happening from the bottom up. The modern environmental movement is now over 40 years old and is not without its successes. Over the past year social movements have sprung up, challenging the inequalities inherent in global capitalism and frequently the connection is made between the economy and environment. There seems to be rebirth of community building at the local level. Community gardens are becoming more and more frequent and community supported agriculture is also becoming more popular. There is no question that a good number of people have been attempting to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Yet too often, we are left with only market driven options for change; change our light bulbs, purchase fuel-efficient cars, avoid plastic bags by using reusable ones, and eat organically grown food. While these are important steps, they are hardly sufficient responses for the task at hand. Yet, it is the bottom up approach that gives me the greatest hope. I do not think it is possible to dismantle the current system, but what can be done is to begin creating new systems to take its place. Eisenstein describes examples of local communities creating alternatives to the global economy via gifting economies and local currencies as well as offering alternatives to public education. As Buckminster Fuller is credited as saying, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”[xxii]
Although Diamond offers two primary approaches to solving our environmental problems and saving ourselves from collapse, there is a third option which is that technology is what will save us from ourselves. Author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that there is no stopping technological progress as it is on an unstoppable trajectory towards what he refers to as the singularity. In his book What Technology Wants, author Kevin Kelley calls this evolution of technology the technium. However, Kelley defines the technium in an everything but the kitchen sink kind of way so that it includes not only the “interconnected system of technology vibrating around us” but also includes “culture, art, social institutions…software, law and philosophical concepts.”[xxiii] He claims that the technium is different than culture in the fact that the technium is a “self-reinforcing system of creation.”[xxiv] How culture or civilization are not a self-reinforcing systems of creation is not explored. Perhaps his best definition of the technium is when he describes it as an “ecosystem of technologies.”[xxv]
Neither Kurzweil or Kelley offer much evidence to support their views that inevitable advances of technology will solve our environmental problems. Instead, they act on faith and ignore the detrimental effects of technology. Indeed, Kelley sometimes comes across as techno-Pollyanna as when he insists that when existing technologies cause damage we can simply make better technologies.[xxvi] He fails to consider the fact that new technologies often create their own set of environmental problems. The classic example which is also discussed by Diamond is the introduction of the automobile. Before cars became commonplace, the primary mode of transportation was via horses which fouled city streets with urine and feces, creating an unpleasant and potentially unhealthy environment. Cars were believed to solve this problem and allow for a cleaner, more healthy environment. Fast forward several decades to metropolitan areas choked with pollution and the emissions of automobiles contributing to a warming planet.
There is also something downright fascist about Kelley’s technium. For example, he tells readers that we will not have a choice whether genetically engineered crops will one day appear everywhere because they will. Our only choice will be whether innovations in genetically engineered foods are regulated by industry or government. This troubling tendency to ignore the darker ramifications of technology is apparent in his discussion of the proliferation of recording devices:
The further diffusion of cameras into cell phones and digital devices birthed a universal sharing of images, the conviction that something is not real until it is captured on camera, and a sense that there is no significance outside of the camera view. The still further diffusion of cameras embedded into the built environment, peeking from every city corner and peering down from every room’s ceiling, forces a transparency upon society. Eventually, every surface of the built world will be covered with a screen and every screen will double as an eye. When the camera is fully ubiquitous, everything is recorded for all time. We have a communal awareness and memory.[xxvii]
Although Kelley is suggesting that this panopticon will actually lead an increase in individual freedom, I find that his optimism blinds him from seeing the potential of this technology being abused and individual liberties swept aside by the security state’s omnipresent gaze.
While Kelley at least acknowledges our environmental problems and social injustices, Kurzweil does not appear to be as balanced. He bluntly claims that we are approaching the time “where only thing that has value is information” and the raw materials of which our technologies are made are essentially worthless. There is no discussion about the worth of rivers and communities poisoned by extracting these resources.[xxviii] He also states that by 2030 somehow we will magically be able to meet all of our material needs via nanotechnology and artificial intelligence[xxix], which essentially disregards the entire physical foundation of the planet on which we live. Yet, this should not be surprising since Kurzweil’s main project is to argue that humans will eventually escape our biology. This epitomizes the separation that Eisenstein describes as the root of our ecological crises.
Diamond considers the idea that “technology will solve our problems” a one-liner solution that will not work. First, he states that “all of our current problems are unintended consequences of our existing technology” and that the advance of technology has created problems faster than we have been able to solve them[xxx]. He also identifies other hidden assumptions in the technological solution: that new technologies will succeed, that they will not create any further problems and that they will be developed in time to make a meaningful difference.
There are too many contingencies to put all of our faith in technology. Although there may be the potential for developing technologies that will help us out of our environmental dilemma, there is not always the political will to see that research and development funded. Private industry may take a lead, and most do invest in research and development, but their primary emphasis will always be on immediate profit over long term technologies that support sustainability.
This is not to say that I believe that technology has no role to play in solving our problems. Humans are and always will be technological beings. As Charles Eisenstein writes
Someday soon, when we fully digest the futility of control arising from the non-linearity of our universe, we will begin to adopt a wholly different approach to technology, one that does not attempt nature’s reduction but seeks rather its fulfillment. This is not simply a decision about the “appropriateness” of such-and-such a technology; it is the recognition that we are incompetent to determine its ultimate effects. Technological development will come from a place of humility.[xxxi]
I believe this new kind of technology can be found in biomimicry as described by Janine Benyus. Biomimicry is technology that is modeled on natural systems. It is technology informed by nature, where we approach nature as a mentor rather than lifeless substance to be appropriated as resource. Indeed, it would seem that biomimicry is a new paradigm in technology. As Benyus writes “Once we see nature as a mentor, our relationship with the living world changes.”[xxxii]
Biomimicry is technology that uses an “ecological standard” to gage the merits of our inventions. Instead of asking what a technology can do for us, how it can help achieve instant gratification we will instead ask “Does it run on sunlight? Does it use only the energy it needs? Does it fit form to function? Does it recycle everything? Does it reward cooperation? Does it bank on diversity? Does it utilize local expertise? Does it curb excess from within? Does it tap the power of limits? Is it beautiful?”[xxxiii]
Examples of biomimicry include modeling agriculture on local diversity of plant life and attempting to create solar cells that harness the sun’s light as efficiently as a leaf. By modeling our technology on nature we should be able to avoid harmful unintended consequences. While there are researchers actively developing technologies based on nature, too few of them have been implemented to help us out of our current environmental predicament. However, there is no technology at present that can do that.
Jared Diamond explains that there are two kinds of choices that have been crucial in whether a society is able to achieve long-term success or inevitable collapse. One choice is recognizing the virtues of long-term planning and the other is willingness to reconsider core values.[xxxiv] The first choice is one that must be made by our governmental officials and industry leaders. As Diamond points out, all too often our politicians focus only on issues that may arise within a 90 day period. Add to this the economic imperative to emphasize short-term profits over long term benefits. While there are a few politicians and business leaders who recognize the benefits of long-term planning, I am afraid they are too few to make any real difference.
That leaves reconsidering core values. For Diamond, this involves reflecting upon the values that have served society well and rejecting values that have led us to the point of collapse. I believe this is where religion can help play a part. Diamond does not discuss religion except to point out that “religious values tend to be especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior.”[xxxv] While this is true enough, religions have also been the source of some of the best humanity has achieved. Religions can also provide a foundation for ecological security. Every religion has something to say about the human relationship to the environment. They also have something to say about the evils of materialism. Considering that most people continue to base their values on their religious belief, I think we would be remiss to reject the role they can play in determining the fate of humankind.
The fact of the matter is that we are all standing before the dam of collapse, hoping that it will hold for just a little bit longer. Diamond suggests that many engage in psychological denial in an attempt to preserve their sanity. They observe the dam every day, see its leaks and stress points, and yet deny the possibility that it could ever burst.[xxxvi] If we are to survive as a species and defer as much pain and suffering as possible, I believe we need to be honest with ourselves about the possibility that the dam will burst. At the same time, we need to make contingency plans and develop technologies that will work with the forces of nature pressing at the dam. Some water will escape and some damage may be sustained, but if we are smart we will be able to avoid the full unleashing of the floodwaters and live to tell the tale.