To Live and Die in the Anthropocene

The debate over whether or not it is too late to “save the planet” from the human industrial-consumer juggernaut misunderstands the issue of the role of humanity and our future into the Anthropocene. An important flaw in the thinking of traditional “environmentalists” is that they partake in the errors of the culture they seek to reform.

Many would apply technological fixes like “geoengineering” to the symptoms of the system they cannot give up. They hold to the mostly unconscious image of humans separate from a thing called “our environment.” They fail to think in terms of the actual complex adaptive systems that comprise the entire Earth System, of which we are all a part. We are not “in” the environment; we are active agents within the Earth System.

Death is more Certain than Taxes

Regardless of the odds of human species survival in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, the human predicament remains the same. Will we live and die with some semblance of dignity as one of the many species engaged in the dance of life? Or will we go down in a spiral of denial and resistance to the very forces that give us life, insisting on human, even American, “exceptionalism” to the end?

To avoid the latter path of self and system destruction, a major transformation in consciousness and practice must sweep across humanity and lead us toward ecological harmony. Yes, that does seem unlikely, especially in the short time we have to stave off at least some of the worst consequences of our former and current destructive practices.

Can we live and die well, as individuals, communities, and societies? Can we find ways to live well in the context of approaching societal collapse? Can we live well in the face of extinction? Only with courage and realism can we shape our lives well in the face of death.

Living Well instead of Denying Death

What, after all, constitutes living well in a deadly post-affluenza world? Moderns define living well by their consumption and by the accumulation of wealth, as a means of denying death. The post-modern predicament of impending collective death reminds me of the prophetic words of the old Plains Indian chief, Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie, “Little Big Man,” just before a big battle,

“Today is a good day to die!”

It is not that one intends to die now. Some say we begin to die right after birth. Yet, the inevitable outcome is always a matter of timing. The advocates of “deep adaptation” recognize the grave prospects for human survival into the Anthropocene. They would have us accept our species extinction now in order to mourn properly our collective passing as new swings of Earth System instability make life increasingly intolerable. However, even the strong possibility is not a certainty. We must live until we die.

I am also reminded of Chris Hedges statement, “I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists!” The will to go on in the face of likely defeat or death has formed an important human value for centuries. Samurai warriors took it to the extreme, glorifying self-inflicted death itself as a respectable way to protect their honor.

Roy Scranton draws on his experience facing death on a daily basis deployed in Iraq and finds hope in living as if already dead, expressed in his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton reflects on how we might live best in facing the grim realities of impending societal collapse as climate chaos increases the likelihood of human extinction.

I fight for the survival of human and other species not because I will succeed; I fight because I am still alive.

The Sustainability Conundrum

Sustainable This, Sustainable That; Green This, Green That. What exactly is the point? The “sustainability” meme seems to have gone culturally viral. Promoters use it to give any action or proposal at all a sheen of environmental respectability. But what does it actually mean?

I am afraid that “sustainability” has come to mean nothing at all, other than functioning to evoke a politically correct gloss over whatever the speaker (or advertisement) is promoting. It has gone the way of “green” as an emotionally evocative signal that everything will be just fine, as long as you do not look behind the curtain, behind which you may find the shocking truth. (One notable exception is “The Green New Deal.”)

Talk is cheap

Most “sustainability” talk is constrained by assumptions it deeply embeds in the very same extractive industrial consumer culture and practices that can no longer be sustained. “Sustainable” usually implies that a practice can continue indefinitely because it relies on renewable resources, energy and/or “responsible” methods of extraction, harvest, or production.

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Open Pit Mining ~ Tanzania

However, industrial-consumer economies cannot sustain current levels of extraction, production, and consumption without forcing extreme levels of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and resource depletion. The industrial-consumer economy will no longer be able to sustain the overgrown populations that depend on it. The limits of growth have arrived; economic growth itself is no longer sustainable.

Words and Deeds

The global industrial-consumer economy can sustain some practices for a long time, yet contribute significantly to climate chaos, ecological destruction, and eventually societal collapse. More broadly, the “technosphere” itself (the techno-industrial complex that sustains and is driven by the endless growth economy) is not sustainable simply because it is destroying the core living Earth systems upon which we all rely for survival.

Physics is not negotiable. Faith in technological innovation and economic growth as the drivers of human progress is no longer a viable belief system. Physical Earth System parameters constitute impassible boundaries to reckless techno-industrial economics. Those who live in the ephemeral world of such utopian dreams hold to their untenable beliefs, but cannot persuade the Earth System to passively accept the plunder and pollution we have put upon it. We have set in motion self-amplifying processes that we have little if any remaining ability to control.

Deadly Decisions

Continuing on our present path of impossible endless economic growth will force the collapse of society itself following both the destabilization of the complex dynamic living Earth systems on which it all depends. Also, the internal major sub-system breakdowns we have already experienced, such as in the 2008 global financial meltdown, all indicate growing system instability leading to an accelerated collapse.

A New Great Transformation, vastly more complex than the industrial revolution that started the now-dying industrial era, is upon us. Yet, we have done little to mitigate or adapt to the catastrophic disruptions of economy, ecology, and climate that it has caused.

The dominant concept of “sustainability” fails to consider the limits of extraction-production-consumption and waste on our finite. The globalized corporate economy has overshot the Earth System’s capacity to carry the ecological load of a

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population of industrial consumers. What is actually sustainable is so different from the pseudo-sustainable industrial-consumer practices still promoted, that it is hard for most to imagine. Survival of the human species will depend on our ability to shape new local/regional ecological communities that embed their economies within and harmonize with the ecosystems they inhabit.

Asking how to assure “sustainable development,” or worse, “sustainable growth,” is a way of denying the fact that the current trajectory of political economy is itself unsustainable.

Overcoming Trumpery and the Technosphere

~ Another entry in the Mad Jubilado series ~

Palpable fear, justified if misdirected anger, and xenophobic demagoguery have Trumped American democracy, even in its degraded form within the corporate state.

With the powerful influence of the fossil-fuel industry, largely through Koch-brothers’ and similar front groups, neo-fascists and white supremacists have penetrated the U.S. politics and that of other industrial nations as well. Driven by extreme racist nationalism, they are manipulated by the corporate powers that dominate democratic institutions at national and state levels of government. These extremists have made significant inroads.

What’s a Mad Jubilado to do? What is anyone with a semblance of democratic values to do to redirect politics to serve the public interest when the corporate elite has exerted so much power across the nation? Citizens remain all caught up in the oppressive if comfortable industrial consumerism that supports what Dmitri Orlov calls the “technosphere” in his book, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency, and Freedom.

The Technosphere and its Illusions

Orlov writes with biting sarcasm and stark realism about the global techno-industrial system run wild. The technosphere is an “anti-Gaia,” self-perpetuating artificial non-organic complex adaptive system. It is driven by its own growth imperative and the need to replace the biosphere with itself. Of course, unless we overcome the technosphere it will destroy the biosphere and its human creators and slaves as well, as its growth surges toward collapse.

Tech.MeaningCredit: Zooky World – WordPress.com

 Orlov grew up in Leningrad, USSR, and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, so he has a special sense of oppressive systems. Combined with his experience in computer engineering, linguistics, high-energy physics, internet commerce, network security, and advertising, his mindfulness of human-produced self-aggrandizing systems is unique.

Some artificial intelligence (AI) experts believe that AI-controlled automated systems can eventually reproduce, eliminating the need for their human inventors. Famed technologist Ray Kurzweil even asserts an inevitable technological transcendence of human biology in his book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Such minds live entirely in the technosphere. In contrast, Orlov hopes that humanity can gradually shrink the technosphere to bring it back under control so that the biosphere, including us, can survive.

Grounding Communities in the Biosphere

National politics is now a pawn of Trumpery and all the Earth System plunder that entails. Even liberal opponents retain their faith in the technosphere as a harbinger of progress. Therefore, to realize Orlov’s hope and our own, we must turn to the remaining spheres of power over which we can exert some control. Many who fear the growing tyranny of the technosphere, as well as its political anti-Nature enabler, Trumplandia, are turning to local electoral politics and civic action.

Their efforts focus on influencing the passage of local ordinances that can protect communities and ecologies from the destructive actions of the technosphere. Their efforts would replace extractive industrial high-energy technologies with human-scale appropriate technologies that can work in harmony with the ecosystems they inhabit.

More on asserting the rights of community and Nature over destruction by the technosphere in a subsequent post.

On the Road Again: Leaving La Peñita

It was a wonderful four months a year ago last winter in La Peñita, basking in the temperate sunshine of the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta, the longest time we’ve spent in Mexico. We’ve grown fond of the people we have gotten to know there. They are unselfconsciously generous, easygoing, and ever so polite. That made me reflect on the civility of human behavior in their narrow cobblestone streets compared to the self-importance displayed in Santa Fe’s Whole Foods parking lot.

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Surf Dog

We spent most late mornings at a secluded beach where Copper gets to run free into the surf, chase birds, and play with her new friend Tawny, whose owner camps there often. My quiet time begins at dawn’s first light allowing me to write undistracted and look at the sunrise to the east or its reflections on Tortuga Island a mile or so out to sea. I brought along the woodworking toolbox of ancient Japanese design I had built just before leaving Santa Fe, stuffed with my best hand tools. The house we rented on the hill overlooking Bahia Jaltemba, like many houses there, has a rooftop patio. There, a little room with a counter and bunkbeds provides a possible extra bedroom. I used it as a mini-woodshop where I worked on some wood sculpture, with a beautiful view of the bay.

Those four months reflected the same peculiar nature of retirement itself. With so many possibilities, we find we don’t seem to have enough time! Almost every day, usually after visiting the beach, we went down to the always-bustling Centro to pick up any fresh produce or other supplies. Compared to Santa Fe, it is remarkable how fast food spoils in the tropics, even in the “dry season,” which is more humid than Santa Fe spring monsoon season.

Much talk about “cross-cultural experience” resolves into cliché. Yet, the differences and similarities of people here and there can be instructive if we think about them. For example, La Peñita, a town of about 20,000 residents, is a buzzing commercial center for the surrounding area. Rincon de Guayabitos – just south across the small estuary where crocodiles roam – is primarily a tourist town with many hotels, all-inclusive resorts, endless gift shops, and a calm beach. Many of the folks who live in La Peñita work in the various tourist establishments in Guayabitos. Local economies here seem just as dependent on international economic systems that are poised for failure as global warming intensifies.

The New Great Transformation of both Earth’s ecosystems and humanity’s relations with them is already underway but barely noticed if at all by political leaders in the fog of climate denial and political distraction. I wonder how the people of La Peñita, with so much less wealth and resources, but with such energetic resourcefulness, will do, compared to, say, the privileged elite of Santa Fe, the wealthiest city in New Mexico. In some different respects, both are ill prepared to transform their relations with the ecosystems upon which they must rely for survival as climate destabilization accelerates and the political response remains wholly inadequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene.

Two Views of the Climate Emergency: David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben

Acknowledging the Climate Emergency opens one up to all sorts of intellectual struggles with a reality that confounds even great minds. The industrialized nations and most of their intellectuals seem either unwilling or unable to face the magnitude of the hard facts. They do not know how to take action to ameliorate the immediate and extreme existential threat to humanity inherent in growing climate chaos.

One peculiar but not entirely surprising result is the bickering over what goals to seek, not what we must do to achieve them. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction. Another is the problem of how consistently experts have underestimated the growing impacts of climate chaos and overestimated the impact that climate action may have.

Extreme Realities

Accusing those who promote “extreme” climate-action of fascist tendencies results from adhering to the illusion of a non-existent democratic political process that is really what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” — that is, “inverted totalitarianism” in democratic sheep’s clothing. Extreme emergencies usually call for extreme measures to counter catastrophe. However, the corporate state refuses to acknowledge the emergency, treating the global emergency as just another “issue.”

Neither our corporate-state nor the laws of physics are democratic, even though the solution to the climate crisis if we can actually pursue it, will most likely arise from DIRECT DEMOCRACY initiated by people in local/regional contexts. Necessary climate action derives not from traditional political pluralism but from understanding the physically DETERMINATE processes of the complex dynamic systems of ecology and climate.

climate chaos is globalDavid Wallace-Wells’ wakeup call, “Time to Panic,” in the New York Times, argues persuasively for immediate climate action. His new book, Uninhabitable Earth, piles on the latest evidence fully justifying existential fear and immediate action. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first public warning of the impending climate crisis. In his new book, Falter, he urges greater collective resistance to the fossil-fueled corporate state. He argues for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and divestment from fossil-fuel related investments. He also points out the futility of individual action alone. Recycle all you want, but the problem is that so much recycling has become necessary.

Extreme Emergency requires Extreme Action

Useful and important in substantiating the emergency, neither McKibben nor Wallace-Wells addresses any clear vision of major climate action beyond civil resistance and technological replacements. I am sure they endorse the Green New Deal as a starting point, since it is a significant departure from existing national gradualism and denial, though a political longshot. Looking at the whole thing sociologically, the big barriers become clear.

Resistance may bend the neo-liberal corporate state somewhat, allowing some moderate “green” reforms, which in the U.S. will depend on who controls the Senate and presidency after 2020. However, time is our enemy now. Neither resistance alone nor eventual political victory can result in the kind of precise strategic action we need from national governments now. Also, no amount of technological replacement will suffice within the neo-liberal corporate global political economy, which is incapable of a massive reduction of carbon emissions. Achieving resilience is really a matter of how well we restrain the endless growth economy, which most ideas of mitigation and adaptation fall short of doing. See https://thehopefulrealist.c…

Optimism is a flat out illusion; so is pessimism. They both traffic in fatalism. The facts offer no basis for optimism while pessimism excludes the possibility of concerted action to reduce the existential threat that now confronts us ever more directly. However, my hope will die when I do.

Action is always possible until we can no longer move. Moreover, we cannot predict exactly how well extreme climate action can mitigate surging climate chaos until we take such action. But the evidence overwhelmingly confirms that extreme action now is necessary for the survival of a much smaller ecologically integrated human population after industrial civilization collapses.

As Ugo Bardi points out in relation to the early dismissal of the findings of Meadows, et al (1972) in The Limits to Growth, that it is folly to treat forecasts, regardless of the quality of data, as predictions — actually, they are WARNINGS. Because we know a lot about the diverse trends implicated with carbon emissions and global warming, we CAN forecast approximate outcomes depending on how those factors play out.

The Time is Now.

HOW AND TO WHAT EXTENT HUMANS TAKE ACTIONS to counter the destruction that WILL prevail IF we do little or nothing, will determine our survival. To what extent will we alter the parameters that determine whether, in the case of climate chaos, the planet heats to 1.5 degrees C., 2.0 degrees C., or more? That is the key question because we know with certainty that failure will lead to more ecological and climate tipping points beyond which societal collapse is inevitable and survival is threatened.

The underlying problem is not solved by trying to convert to renewable energy (though that does help) to power the continued extreme extractive-industrial-consumer global economy. The real problem is how to stop that economy in its tracks while rapidly transforming society to operate on a vastly lower level of energy consumption. At this point, that will not result from government or corporate policy change, nor civil resistance to their current failures.

As difficult as it seems, the only viable way to “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it, is through direct local/regional RESTRUCTURING of communities to align their economic behavior with the requirements for restoring the ecosystems upon which they depend. That is possible only by a massive turning away from the globalized growth economy.

Joy of Dog III

At first, twice a day at the dog park was barely enough to burn off a good portion of Copper’s seemingly boundless puppy-energy. For a while, it was a bit of a chore, but fun to watch her run and play with the other dogs. We discovered a whole culture of human social organization at the dog park too, but that is another story, a reflection of other larger scale social relations and problems of the nation and the planet.

The social life of dogs is much more complex than one might imagine without experiencing their interaction at the dog park. It was especially good to find other puppies at the dog park who could match Copper’s energy. She learned the ropes and soon became quite popular among the other dogs at the park, mostly because of her enthusiasm and friendliness.

Dog Society

Copper could match any other dog’s energy and playfulness, and her disposition is so sweet that all the other dogs like her – except those two aggressive poodles, whose owner exhibited a total lack of responsibility for her dogs and simply refused to control them. That is also another story in itself. But Copper tolerated even a level of aggressiveness that would offend and repel most other dogs. It just occurred to me, those poodles remind me of Trump.

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Copper playing with Django

Generally, dogs socialize newcomers in the etiquette of play, which in some ways mimics the behavior patterns of the hunt. In their wrestling, they often pin one another down, engaging in mock battle, appearing to bite one another’s throat as if to kill. In that behavior, they acknowledge the mutual trust that is inherent in allowing another dog to wrap her/his big jaws around one’s throat. However, it is “mouthing,” not actual biting with what could be a lethal instrument. Mouthing is also a sign of affection expressed toward their human “masters.” For dogs, the primary instrument for engaging with the world is their mouth – their closest analog to our opposable thumb.

Socializing and Play

On a good day, up to twenty dogs of all varieties and sizes may appear at the 1-acre fenced area, covered with a blanket of wood chips. The etiquette (and lack thereof on the part of a few) regarding human responsibility for dogs and their waste, mirrors the culture of civility versus the culture of waste and indifference in the larger society.

I had owned several dogs over the years, but when I was a kid, nobody I knew had ever heard of such a thing as a dog park. I ran, walked, and played with my dogs in the yard, the neighborhood, and sometimes at the beach or a neighborhood park. The dog park is another world entirely. Copper took to it as she had taken to the water on the coast near Baja California del Sur when she was a small pup.

Personality

Now, Copper enthusiastically swims out to me through the surf at a deserted beach on the west coast of mainland Mexico; I swear she likes body surfing, just as I did as a kid in Southern California. In the calm waters at the beach at Rincon de Guayabitos, she loves to swim out among the moored boats, chasing after gulls and pelicans as far out as fifty yards before I call her back.

Copper’s favorite playmates tend to be the young dogs of her approximate age and energy, although her energy level surpasses that of almost every dog she encounters. When her playmate might tire and withdraw from the high-energy wrestling and running, Copper sometimes starts barking impatiently, demanding more play. As it turns out, Vizslas mature slowly and continue to exhibit puppy characteristic until four or even five years. She is four and a half now, and clearly retains some of that ‘puppiness.’ However, she will always be a “fun dog.”

Trade Wars and Climate Chaos

It is as sad as it is fascinating to observe the complete disconnect between the assumptions behind current emerging trade wars and those behind the current pretensions of nations to taking climate action.

On the one hand, news reports of steps taken on either side in the escalation of Trump’s trade war with China assume that human progress depends on extensive international trade. They portray such steps as damaging imports and exports and therefore “the economy” itself. That, of course, results from the near-universal belief in the value and necessity of expanding the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy.

Perpetuating the Impossible

On the other hand, it is eminently clear from the overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence that the very same global economy is the primary source of the disruption of ecosystems around the world. Industry not only destabilizes local and regional ecosystems by aggressively extracting materials for production. That global system of extraction, shipping, manufacture, more shipping, promotion, sales, consumption, and waste – what Dmitry Orlov calls the “technosphere” – is the driving force behind climate chaos and destabilization of the entire Earth System. Yet, it is deemed necessary and good.

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Global Air Temperatures, June 2019

Of course, while China and other nations recognize the existential threat of climate chaos for their societies, the U.S. remains hog-tied in a political struggle between the know-nothing, anti-science, fossil-fueled corporatists and climate activists. Even as China begins to turn away from coal as a major source of energy production, the sheer momentum of its growth adds significantly to global carbon emissions. Despite the international agreement to limit carbon emissions to achieve global warming no greater than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is itself an inadequate goal – global carbon emissions continue to grow.

System Dynamics in the Real World

Everyone who pays attention to the growing body of scientific evidence understands the destructiveness of the trends, especially in the self-amplifying feedback mechanisms that accelerate climate chaos. The two obvious examples are: 1) methane release from melting tundra adds to the warming that caused it; 2) deep blue arctic waters absorb more heat than did the reflective white Arctic ice that has melted into the seas. The evidence is now clear that even if we were to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, significant climate chaos will result.

The sad fact is that no government in the industrial world has made any serious effort to curtail emissions to an extent anywhere near the level required of all nations to avoid societal collapse within a couple of decades. To reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” will require dismantling the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy and replacing it with local and regional ecological societies that embed economic activity within the parameters needed to restore ecosystems and restrain climate instability. The implications for social change are nearly inconceivable.

Societal Transformation for Survival

Clearly, pulling off such a New Great Transformation of societies is a long shot. Nevertheless, it is the only shot we have to avoid extreme destabilization of climate and the destruction of ecosystems upon which humanity depends for survival. Global, regional, and local collapse of societies will follow as ecosystems and climate destabilize, causing massive crop failures, violence, and loss of life. Fighting or resolving trade wars, in this context, is the global equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Forget international trade, except for limiting it to exchanges that assist devastated nations to survive. The industrial and industrializing nations must abandon the entire culture of industrial consumerism and the extraction, production, and trade that it perpetuates.

Unfortunately, national governments and the corporations that control them continue in exactly the wrong direction. Trade wars are part of the old global industrial-consumer economy, which dominates national governments. That is why it is now up to the people to find a new path out of the death dance of industrial consumerism.