Posted by: terrapraeta | February 10, 2010

The Big Picture

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfill the book.
Won’t you have to sing
These songs of freedom? –
‘Cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs –
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.

Bob Marley, Redemption Song

I ran across this article the other day on the Solution’s Journal; Turning the Corner on Growth.

I guess it should be seen as a good thing that more and more people are recognizing the fundamentally unsustainable nature of our civilization. The Problem of Growth. Yes. Good. But I wonder, and I worry, that so many people see this as a fundamentally new problem. From the article:

In essence, humanity faces an entirely predictable peril: our population has been growing dramatically for the past 200 years (expanding from under one billion to nearly seven billion), while our per-capita consumption of resources has also grown. For a species, this is virtually the definition of biological success. And yet all of this has taken place in the context of a finite planet with fixed stores of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), a limited ability to regenerate renewable resources (forests, fish, fresh water, and topsoil), and a limited ability to absorb industrial waste products, including carbon dioxide. If we step back and look at the industrial period from a broad historical perspective that is informed by an appreciation of ecological limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are today living at the end of a relatively brief pulse—a 200-year rapid expansionary phase enabled by a temporary energy subsidy (in the form of cheap fossil fuels) that will inevitably be followed by an even more rapid and dramatic contraction as those fuels deplete.

Of course it’s all true – as far as it goes. But it misses the big picture entirely. The “rapid expansionary phase” of our species has not occurred over the last 200 years, but rather over the last ten thousand. Sure, oil has only been a part of that for 100 years and coal, another hundred years before that. But before that we saw peak wood, over and over (one of the resource limitations of both Mesopotamian culture and the Roman Empire, not to mention Easter Island), and we saw agricultural devastation amongst all former civilizations, just as we know it is happening now in our own. And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

Over the last ten thousand years we have devastated nearly ever acre of arable land on the planet. We have wiped out forests and plains trying to get more arable land, only to damage it beyond recognition. Of course, deforestation has other, further reaching consequences as well, but those issues are relatively obvious to most people. What is not obvious, what is not talked about – perhaps what nobody wants to see – is that with the end of oil, we are also facing the end of agriculture. And without agriculture, we are faced with a significant loss of global human population.

Now, let me clarify (knowing that my regular readers are already on this) – I am not suggesting the end of cultivation. Permaculture is a fabulous technique for growing food and restoring soil health. Forest gardening has the same possibilities to offer. Organic family gardens are not going anywhere. But agriculture – that set of techniques to maximize caloric production at the expense of everything else – will no longer be viable on degraded lands without oil pumping into the system. From an ecological perspective, this is fabulous news. Natural ecologies tend to recover quickly when we stop messing with them. But from a human-centric perspective, it really is “the end of the world” — at least for an awful lot of human persons.

To me, this understanding seems to be a really critical component of understanding what is going on around us. But then I stop and wonder. Does it really matter if the majority of people really understand what is coming? Is it perhaps, even better, for that understanding to be varied and incomplete – simply because with different ideas, more different things will be tried? I don’t know. Part of me wants to stand up and make people understand, while the other half of me knows that can’t work. And that little voice whispers at me that maybe even trying is a bad idea for some incompletely understood reason.


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