Peter Montague, Rachel’s Democracy & Health News
Feb. 26, 2009
This series was named after the prescient article, “What We Must Do” by John Platt in Science magazine Nov. 28, 1969, pg. 1115. It is worth (re-)reading Platt’s urgent description of “a storm of crisis problems” 39 years ago, comparing it to our world today, and then asking ourselves if what we are doing with our time seems likely to produce the outcomes we intend and hope for. Are we asking questions that are radical enough, which is to say, questions that get to the roots of our problems?
In that spirit, here are 17 suggestions, all aimed at avoiding the worst as our human population climbs from 6.7 billion to 9 or 10 billion or more by 2050. They are not ranked in order of importance because I think we have to try to do all of them.
1. Learn to live within limits
The toughest problem we humans face is learning to live within limits. I know it’s popular to pretend limits don’t exist, but they do. We live on a small stone hurtling through space, a stone “partly bare, partly dusted with grains of disintegrated rock, upon which rests a thin film of air and water no thicker, relative to the size of the Earth, than the fuzz on a peach.” Furthermore, so far as anyone has been able to discover, ours is the only stone in the universe hospitable to our species. Earth is our only home, so we had better take care of it.
To puny humans, the Earth has always looked immense but just recently we discovered the truth: sometime during the 1970s, the human economy grew so large that it outgrew planet Earth. We humans have exceeded some invisible ecological limits and we are now degrading the planet’s natural capacity to renew itself. We are living in a condition called “overshoot” — like the cartoon Roadrunner who speeds off a cliff, hangs stationary in midair, still running ever faster, until the inevitable crash. To avoid the crash we humans must reduce our footprint by reducing our numbers or by reducing our individual demands upon the ecosystem, or both. Running ever faster won’t help.
In 2005, the authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was published — a five-year study of the condition of the Earth’s ecosystems, involving 1360 scientists from all across the globe. When they announced the first volume, the MEA Board of Directors said, “At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”
In 2007, the Global Environment Outlook report (known as GEO-4) was published. GEO-4 concluded (among other things) that human activities now require 54 acres (22 hectares) per person globally, but Earth can provide only 39 acres (16 hectares) per person without suffering permanent degradation. We are living well beyond Earth’s means.
For additional corroboration, see Mathis Wackernagel and others, “Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 99, No. 14, July 9, 2002), pgs. 9266-9271 and see the web site of the Global Footprint Network.
The evidence of overshoot is everywhere: global warming; the thinning ozone layer; marine fisheries depleted; oceans acidifying (damaging the base of oceanic food chains); humans crowding out other species, causing the sixth great extinction; tillable soils shrinking as deserts expand; forests disappearing; mountain snow pack and glaciers shrinking, jeopardizing fresh water supplies for large numbers of people; global-warming-related multi-year drought afflicting large sections of the U.S., China, India, and Australia; human and wildlife reproduction disrupted by industrial poisons now measurable everywhere on Earth; childhood cancers, diabetes, autism and attention deficits rising; and so on. This list could be readily extended.
We are no longer living off nature’s interest, but are now drawing down Earth’s store of capital, devouring the future. It is as if we were randomly pulling out roof beams and floor joists and burning them in the fireplace to warm our only home.
To learn to live within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere we need to get good at discerning, and then living within, ecological limits, and we need to get much better at monitoring the effects we are having on our home. We need to get really, really good at analyzing the human footprint lest we stamp out features and creatures that turn out to be essential for our own continued existence, exterminating something crucial before we even know it exists. Right now we are driving an ever-expanding fleet of bulldozers through Earth’s china shop blind-folded, hoping nothing essential gets broken. Yes, Earth and life will survive; they are not endangered. We are.
2. Make a serious commitment to the Precautionary Principle
While we are learning to see better (through improved ecological science), we need to proceed cautiously, doing our best to live within poorly-perceived ecological limits and still enjoy some of the benefits of modern technologies. This means we must (a) shift the burden of proof and start assuming that all activities, large and small, that impact the Earth are likely to be harmful and (b) therefore always search for (and adopt) the least-harmful way to proceed; and (c) constantly examine the consequences of our actions and be prepared to alter course, which means we should (d) favor decisions and courses of action that are reversible, avoiding irretrievable commitments. The name for this new way of living is “precautionary principle.” (My thanks to Carolyn Raffensperger and Nancy Myers, Mary O’Brien, and Joe Guth for their deep insights into precautionary decision-making.
These are common-sense proposals, but how remote they seem from the way decisions are still being made today!
Seeing things in this new way becomes unavoidable the moment we accept that humans have become a force of geologic proportions and are degrading the ecosystems upon which our species is entirely dependent. This implies that one of our major tasks is to inform the public, the media, the courts, the decision-makers (public and corporate), and the school children (among others) that the world is new — new because humans have become a force of geologic proportions and are now degrading the planet in ways that are ruining our only home. This is definitely new, and it requires a new understanding of our history and our kind, new goals, new habits, new attitudes, new thinking, new stories, new heroes and heroines. Much of what we learned in high- school is obsolete and in the way.
3. Limit the Means of Violence
But ecological destruction is not the only killer problem we face. We live in a world where at least nine nations now brandish atomic weapons, and in all nine there are fundamentalists itching to use them. Meanwhile, emotionally and socially, we are not all that far removed from chimpanzees. Perhaps more than any other mammalian species, humans habitually maim and murder each other — and in this endeavor, let’s face it, the U.S. has striven mightily for preeminence. During my lifetime we developed A-bombs, H-bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs, dumb bombs, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs, chemical bombs, depth bombs, and penetrator bombs (among others), plus napalm, thermobaric weapons, pain weapons, noise weapons, shock weapons, heat weapons, laser weapons, stun weapons, space weapons, and no doubt many other ingenious new weapons we haven’t yet been told about. Now tens of thousands of our best-educated people spend their days hunched over drawing boards devising new techniques for exterminating — or at the very least blinding or crippling — other people whom some Very Important Person has defined as Enemy. In 2009 the White House is requesting $711 billion for military spending roughly the same amount being spent on military preparation by all the other nations of the world combined). That $711 billion is $81 million every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone are absorbing $17 million per hour, 24/7/365. Meanwhile our libraries, schools, universities, hospitals, and physical infrastructure are wanting.
There is a reason why President Obama — after running on a platform of peacemaker — immediately upon taking office ordered 17,000 fresh troops into the Afghanistan meat grinder. Because our economy must perpetually grow, and civilians don’t reliably create sufficient demand (in truth, there’s already plenty of stuff to go around), we now rely on Enemy to absorb our surplus effort. In my youth, Enemy was communist. Now Enemy is Muslim fundamentalist. Tomorrow Enemy will no doubt be someone new — perhaps robot soldier (far easier to mass produce and train to kill than human babies are) — but you can be sure Enemy will be there. Enemy is the ultimate consumer, the flywheel of our economy. We have no national industrial policy (because that would smack of “central planning”) but we have the Pentagon. Because our economy exists in only two states — growing or collapsing — prolonged peace would produce severe economic hardship across this great land.
4. Shift into a Steady-State Economy
But there is hope: it doesn’t have to be this way. Both the problem of ecological destruction, and the problem of excessive militarization could be reduced to manageable proportions if we developed an economy that could grow but didn’t have to grow. If economic growth were optional, then nations that have so much they don’t know what to do with it could choose to limit growth, or even choose to shrink. This would make space for the large part of the world that desperately needs economic growth — roads, ports, power plants, hospitals, schools — yet could hold the total size of the human footprint within Earth’s ecological limits.
Economic growth in the so-called Third World would reduce the rate of growth of the human population. When societies achieve middle-class status, they can afford real social security programs instead of relying on large numbers of children as their only old age insurance. This is the answer to “the population problem.” Given education, a middle-class existence, and real choice, women tend to favor small families. Demographers (the people who study populations) call this widely-observed phenomenon the “demographic transition.”
At this time, I know of only one detailed economic proposal for an economy that could grow but wouldn’t have to grow, but there must be others. (Please tell me about them, dear reader: email@example.com.
5. Aim for a Global Culture of Fairness
To live within global ecological limits and put a priority on economic growth in the so-called Third World, it would help immensely to develop a global culture of fairness. Fairness is basic, and not just to humans. Dogs and chimpanzees (among others) have a sense of what’s fair. Humans definitely do. Every child at some point cries, “Hey, that’s not fair!” Fairness is fundamental. Roughly comparable treatment is the basic idea, expressed in every culture as some variant of the Golden Rule: I want to be treated fairly and with dignity, so it is only fair that I should treat you similarly. Conversely, if I treat you fairly and with dignity, it’s only fair that you should reciprocate. As we say, fair is fair.
Humans defined what fairness means in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration says, among other things, that everyone has a right to a livelihood: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Surely if we took these words seriously, the impetus for violence in this world would be hugely diminished (as would the impetus for large families with many children as old-age insurance). Yes, there are sociopaths among us, misfits with low self-esteem who need and even relish violence — some of whom from time to time even gain high office in powerful nations — but even strong sociopathic urges could probably be diminished in a world intent on treating everyone fairly.
6. To Promote Cooperation, a Policy of Full Employment
In addition to being a violent species, we humans are also a profoundly cooperative species. Our best expression of cooperation is working together toward common goals. Work is what we do. When we find ourselves “out of work,” we feel cast out, tossed aside, rejected, denied participation in the great common enterprise. This forces me to conclude that a policy of full employment is among the most important goals we — or any nation — could set for itself and aggressively pursue. Yes, it may be “inefficient,” in some narrow economic sense. But (I believe) the benefits of full employment would be unmeasurably large, creating conditions conducive to domestic and international tranquility.
A successful full employment policy would name government as the employer of last resort, admittedly not an entirely desirable state of affairs. Still, as a source of social stability, full employment would no doubt have a major dampening effect on crime and violence by giving everyone who wanted to work an opportunity to do so, thus preserving the all-important sense of individual dignity and worth by allowing full participation in the great shared enterprise, the economy.
At a time when the physical infrastructure of the U.S. (bridges, city services, public transit, communication, etc.) is in tatters, who can say that something like a Works Progress Administration or a Civilian Conservation Corps would be an entirely bad thing? As we know from Germany after World War I, high rates of unemployment and debt can spark aggressive expansionist and racist tendencies — even among the most cultured and best-educated people in the world — which can then destabilize whole regions of the planet. A full employment policy, guaranteed by naming government the employer of last resort, seems a better alternative. Look around your community. Is there not work that needs doing? Why not let everyone get to work?
7. Show Everyone the Lifeboats
As we try to step back from the brink of irreversible ecological decay and collapse, we need to demonstrate real, workable alternatives. As Patrick Reinsborough of smartMeme wrote in Rachel’s News #809, “Even though people might realize they are on the Titanic and the iceberg is just ahead, they still need to see the lifeboat in order to jump ship.”
Yes, we need detailed plans for a steady state economy — an economy that can grow but doesn’t have to grow — and we need to help people see themselves living and working within that economy. We need movies, videos, stories, novels, youtube shorts, magazine and newspaper and blog articles, plus of course technical analyses, about alternative ways of organizing ourselves, so we can live within the limits set by nature. We need to make sure people can see the lifeboats, to help people jump ship and declare allegiance to the future.
8. Acknowledge self-deception and denial
In doing this work, we need to give full recognition to the remarkable human capacity for self-deception and denial. That’s all I will say on the subject for now, but it’s a crucial reality that we must acknowledge and navigate. Humans do not accommodate change well. We resist it. We seem wired (as we age) to deceive ourselves and deny reality; we look for scapegoats to blame and punish. This means successful change will be thoughtfully managed (to the extent we can and still retain a commitment to individual liberty), not thrust upon us cold and unprepared.
9. Recast the environmental movement as a democracy movement
The “environmental movement,” I believe, should really view itself (and become) a “democracy movement” with heavy emphasis on “fairness.” The “environmental justice” movement is leading the way here, bringing fairness and justice into discussions that were for too long strictly technical and scientific, lacking a human dimension. The justice perspective is now spreading throughout the “environmental movement” — and the logical end of this trend is to declare that we are a
democracy movement, dedicated to global (and local) fairness as a strategy for reducing the total size of the human footprint across the planet while promoting local and regional economic growth wherever it is needed.
10. Build and Maintain an Infrastructure for the Movement
But to move into its next phase, this incipient democracy movement desperately needs its own infrastructure, intentionally planned and built. Our neo adversaries — neo-conservatives and neo-liberals — built such an infrastructure starting about 1970 and it allowed
them to prevail for almost three decades after 1980. Yes, their basic premise — expressed in 1987 as, “Greed… is good” — eventually failed to thrive politically, but during its 30-year reign it enabled the greatest transfer of wealth the world has ever known, extracting trillions of dollars from the pockets of working people and funneling it into the tax-free offshore bank accounts of a tiny elite of multi- millionaires and billionaires. This is no small achievement, and we could learn from the Greed Movement how to build an infrastructure.
At a minimum, we need 50 state-level organizations that local groups can turn to for help (what my hero Lois Gibbs calls “larger than locals”). We need a local electoral strategy. We need ongoing leadership development and training. We need political education. We need communication networks, and basic sources of reliable information (here, the work of Pete Myers is exemplary). We need sources of funding that are not dependent upon the largesse of anyone captivated or bedazzled by the corporate form. We need think tanks that train interns and offer endowed positions for researchers who publish books, reports, magazine articles, op-eds, talking points for decision- makers, legislative proposals, memos to the movement, bumper-sticker slogans, and so on. I don’t think we even know all the pieces of the Greed Movement’s infrastructure, but we could study them for the purpose of supporting a democracy movement to help humankind survive. We know, for example, that their institutional funders think quite differently from many of ours, which is regrettable.
(11-17 continued next time)