What To Do Now

Another Entry in the Mad Jubilado series

It is the always-present never-ending question of life. Sure, we have good intentions and sometimes they work out – as planned or not. Yet each moment is contingent. The future never arrives; it’s always out there because we are always here, in the present. We have our To-Do lists; we have our schedules. And we have our big plans. They all represent the near- and long-term future. We even have our spontaneous impulses, if we have held on to our creativity. But what to do now?

The Mad Jubilado has said many times, mostly to himself, “you could be run over by a truck tomorrow, so what are you going to do now?” It is just a reminder that life – and its length as well – is quite unpredictable and can end at any time, without notice, despite our attempts at stability through habits. So, what really is important?

Will contemplating such a core existential dilemma affect what we do now? Maybe, maybe not. What difference does the certainty of indeterminate termination make? We all know that we will not live forever, but at a certain level we push that realization out into the future far enough that it doesn’t bother us so much. That is easy enough when you are young, which is why so many die young due to feeling invincible.

Risk aversion grows with age, more or less. So grows the awareness of the certainty of death in the much nearer future for this seventy-eight year old Mad Jubilado than for the twenty-eight year old brazen base-jumper. To live well may not require taking high risks, but some risks will arise on their own whatever we do. I was about twenty-two when I barely avoided a head-on crash with a truck on a narrow bridge in central Mexico, with what seemed no more than a couple of centimeters between us as we simultaneously crossed that narrow bridge in opposite directions.

That got my attention. I realized that luck as much as skill allowed me to continue to Guadalajara and beyond to the rest of my life. Of course, I attributed survival to my own skill in “threading the needle” between the on-coming truck and the bridge abutment. Yet it shattered part of my youthful sense of being fully in control. We must play the hand we are dealt. Yet, our play may or may not be enough.

Anyone who has lived as long as this Mad Jubilado has seen others of her/his generation die; s/he usually takes notice. That has happened to me several times in recent years. Since about the time I retired, three of my university colleagues in California have died of pancreatic cancer. What is it about LA?

Then, now already three years ago, one of the most joyful life-loving women I have ever met, the wife of a close friend in Santa Fe, died too young after a shared struggle both of them endured for four years. Throughout that battle with cancer, they both lived life as fully as possible – more so than many do living in comfortable risk-averse habituated routine.

Habits can enhance stability, but they contribute little to “the hero’s journey.” It is always an honor to know people who live their lives creatively and fully. Adventure is the essence of the hero’s journey; it always involves struggle and the resulting unbounded joy in living, which should be a lesson for us all. No matter what happens, there is only one thing to do now: live!

Recycling Redux: Can we Recycle Profligate Consumerism?

I have been recycling for a long time. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Some will remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, mid-twentieth century. When I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties, “recycling” had not yet entered the public lexicon. I remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk. The dairy reused them many times.

Milkman.delivers

1940s Milkman Reuses Glass Bottles

Of course, this Mad Jubilado sometimes remembers little details about the post-WWII era better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity” driven by the high-tech fossil-fueled industrial culture of perpetual economic growth. We can do much more now to capture the waste of the industrial-consumer economy, but how and to what extent does it really matter?

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife planned to make. Despite my disdain for its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products available there from around the world. Whole Foods is the one of the few places in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan salmon. However, that is feasible only if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle-class income. Meanwhile, wild salmon season shortens, the fish get smaller, and plastic trash proliferates in the seas.

plastic clamshell lettuce

Plastic Containers of Lettuce and Prepared Fruit

A huge cold case displays many plastic-encased varieties of prepared salad ingredients along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” Romaine hearts, etc., each individually packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

The Recycling Diversion

Recycling is a growing industry. Finally, the recycling of plastic in Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and other barely identifiable materials used in ever-extended packaging seems to accelerate. However, we must ask the question, is such plastic proliferation sustainable, even if we rigorously recycle? The answer is no.

Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling. Widespread consumer compliance with the recycling ethic seems unattainable. Even if achieved, recycling itself is a big energy consuming industry. In addition to the proliferation of complex packaging as well as of plastics themselves, I have noticed that many forms of plastic packaging such as those holding diverse parts from picture hangers to light bulbs at the hardware store, have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Controlling such plastic proliferation into the environment seems impossible, short of banning it altogether.

Does it even matter, since such a small percentage of plastic packaging, from produce bags to clamshells and water bottles, actually reaches the recycling center? Is the half-hearted ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by slightly reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

The Necessity that Should Not Be

In the present context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, only temporarily holding back just one segment of the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. If we could recycle everything – and we cannot – it would not even slow global warming noticeably before it reaches the point of no return from climate catastrophe to societal chaos. Don’t get me wrong. To whatever extent we produce consumer waste, recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Dairy farms re-used those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties and fifties many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets in which the milkman carried them in during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction, shipping, manufacture, use, and waste. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. The funds should be used to convert energy production and industry to the simplest forms, with near-zero emissions technologies now available.  And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed heavily at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the environment – the factory. The purpose of such taxation should be to make profligate plastic packaging economically too costly to continue. What is most important about consumer waste is that we can reduce it only by constraining its production. If all the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. The consumer has little choice and too many choices. The energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

Some Right Things Done in All the Wrong Ways for All the Wrong Reasons

Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.

The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.

Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism

container-ship-emissions

Fossil-fueled International Trade

International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.

We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.

Earth Systems Transformed

The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.

Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.

Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.

Anthropocene Rising

Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.

Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.

To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.