© Roland O. Watson 2001-3
(Note: This is an excerpt from Part 4 of Freedom From Form, Visions of the Futures.)
What we do or dont do in the next few decades will have influence for the next millions of years.
- Norman Myers, Oxford University (via Science News, September 15, 2001, page 168. Also, hows that for irony: such a statement, in Science News)
We will consider the future of the earth next, rather than of society, because the first is the predicate of the second. We must conform to the characteristics of our planetary ecology, including its opportunities and constraints. Individual and social prosperity are inextricably linked to the earths health.
We saw at the start of the book that if you jump off a cliff, you know you will hit the bottom in a few seconds. Collectively, humanity has jumped off a cliff, and forced the rest of the life on the earth to do so as well. But it is a very high cliff, so high in fact that the bottom is dim and obscure: we cant see it clearly yet.
It is worth remembering that the higher the jump, the harder you will hit, and the more it will hurt when you do.
A lot of evidence, including never-ending overpopulation, resource exploitation and habitat and species destruction, and the negative effects of out-of-control technology, from the very small (atomic and genetic) to the very large (global warming), suggests that it is a very, very high cliff. And it is as tragically ironic as it is possible to be that it is one of our own making.
All around the world, millions of people, quite possibly hundreds of millions, live in remote areas on the edges of the last remaining primary habitats. (A primary habitat is one that has never been cut down or otherwise significantly altered by man.) And, season-by-season, year after year, they are encroaching into these habitats, slashing up the hills, and burning out the valleys in-between. In doing this they are destroying untold amounts of habitat, and isolating the rest in pockets, many of which have inadequate gene pools for further evolutionary development.
In addition, as they slash and burn they establish claims, thereby taking public land and making it private. (This is the only form of theft that in scale approaches that of government corruption.) Indeed, at some point all land could become private: you will need permission, and to pay a fee, to go anywhere. (It is also ironic that the last bastions of so many of our traditional cultures are also responsible for so much environmental harm.)
In the tropics what happens is that the encroachers are the sons and daughters of families whose land is already fully utilized. They are the pioneers who move into these new areas, first by burning one field for their main crop - probably rice or corn - and then building a small bamboo house next to it. In addition, they cut the large trees down, and make lumber for houses in the towns and cities, and for furniture, and with the scrap used as firewood. For their basic diet they plant a few fruits and vegetables: papayas, bananas, tomatoes, etc. And they hunt in the hills for protein, including insects such as ants and grasshoppers; frogs, turtles and snakes; squirrels, wild boar, deer and monkeys; and birds, fish and shellfish (no matter how small). As a result, the little remaining habitat quickly becomes largely deserted of life. Therefore, they must hunt further and further afield. And as all of this occurs, other sons and daughters join them, and soon the new farm is surrounded by others, and a small village is formed. Lastly, in parallel with this, transit between such fields and villages develops from footpaths, to motorcycle paths, to cart paths and roads.
Seeing this happen, it is difficult not to view the human species as a cancer, spreading across and eating the natural environment of the earth, with such paths and roads as the blood vessels nourishing the cancer.
Another way to evaluate the effect of humanity on the earth is via the relativity of time scales. To us, the destruction we cause is occurring slowly, over a number of human lifetimes. To the earth, though, it is taking place extremely rapidly. Three hundred years, as a percentage of the earth's lifespan of 4.5 billion years, so far, is equivalent to three and one-half minutes of a one hundred year old human lifespan. We are far more virulent than cancer. Our effect is that of a highly toxic substance; of a poison. Humanity if poisoning the Earth.
Now, imagine the life, particularly the animals, which we displace and on whom we prey. Formerly, for millions and millions of years, they lived in large, unbroken expanses of primary habitat. But then a new animal arrived, eating into the perimeter, and hunting and killing them. (They now have a new threat.) And this animal never retreats: it keeps advancing and advancing and advancing, and at an alarming rate. So they retreat: deeper into the habitats, with conflicts with members of their own species, and others, along the way. But still, the new animal advances, so they retreat further, and higher. And along the way some species, mammals, birds, insects, plants, etc., which they have always lived with - in peace, or competition - disappear. The last individual dies and the species is eliminated. But the new animal is never eliminated. There are more and more and more and more of them. The retreat ultimately reaches the point where the little remaining life ends up on small pockets of land, completely surrounded by this new animal. They are in a very real sense dispossessed; refugees. But still the new animal comes, armed with spears and arrows and guns, but now sometimes with binoculars and cameras, to look at and photograph them, as environmental curiosities and rarities, and as evolutionary artifacts.
This is bottom-up, grassroots environmental destruction, but unfortunately it is not the only kind. There is also top-down destruction, when businesses and governments engage in large-scale road building and development, and through the environmental consequences of military conflict and conquest.
One might ask, how many animals are killed directly, or die inadvertently, to satisfy a typical human during his or her lifetime? Of course, it varies by culture, but what this clearly shows is that one aspect of our being the highest form of life is that we are the best, and most insatiable, predators. (One of the main reasons why we think we are better than other species is because we are so good at killing them.)
One might also wonder what percentage reductions have occurred in the total number of birds, fishes and mammals in the last century or two? Although such numbers are unknown, they are, or were, an objective reality. For example, consider the Passenger Pigeon.
In 1830, John James Audubon sat on the banks of the Ohio River for three days as a single flock of Passenger Pigeons darkened the sky from horizon to horizon. He estimated that there were several billion birds in the flock.
- Strategic Monkeywrenching, Dave Foreman, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, page 6
The Passenger Pigeon is now extinct, which is a one hundred percent reduction.
What all of this makes clear is that this is one of the most negative forms of all from which we must seek our freedom. If the earth, at least as we know it and love it, is to have a future, we must stop our behavior as a parasite killing its host, or as a child raping its mother.
We should think of it this way: the earth, including all of its species, and also all of their genomes, is the rarest of all gems. But this is not only because of its scarcity (we only have one!), but also because of its complexity and meaning. Further, it is best as it is, as wild nature. It is not like a rough gemstone, which is enhanced with cutting and polishing. Rather, to harm it, to degrade it in any way, is to tarnish the most beautiful thing that we have.
Our impact on nature and other life is so severe (and undeniable - people who refuse to admit it are either idiots or corporate apologists) that to those people who are most sensitive to it, it is enough to drive them to despair. When you hear of the latest environmental atrocity, the unbelievable manifestations of human stupidity and selfishness, you think: to hell with it. Why not just kill it all, now? Kill everything alive, including ourselves, and as quickly as possible. Thats who we are; thats what we do; thats our form. So lets be ourselves, and get it over with.
But then you think, when the emotion passes, why not just kill those humans who are responsible? But then you realize that you are responsible, too, and that the only real alternative is to rise above our past, to change our behavior and ethics, and to assume a new form, that of planetary and nature stewards. (Our purpose is to protect the other life on the planet - from ourselves.)
And if we dont do it, nobody else will. We are supposed to have a democracy, but nature is not represented. We therefore must act as if we are natures representatives, including to cast our votes as if we are conveying its interests and desires.
In Joseph Conrads renowned book, Heart of Darkness, the intrepid explorer (and company representative) Kurtz, travels up the Congo River in Central Africa in search of elephant ivory, and with the personal goal to convert the locals to Christianity. Instead, overwhelmed by their reaction to him, he accepts the temptation to be revered by them as a god. Then, with the power this grants him, he plumbs the depths of human depravity and the limits of human savagery: his own heart of darkness.
His famous (written) statement: Exterminate all the Brutes!, which on the surface is meant to apply only to the locals, clearly refers to all of us. We are all brutes, foremost through our behavior towards other life, but also with how we treat each other. And this will continue to be the case - we will be this way - until we choose not to be.
Of course, it all starts with population (at least in a practical sense). The underlying problem is that there are simply too many humans. Other species, notably insects, have survival strategies that are based on producing massive populations. And the derivative idea is that in such large groups the individual is unimportant. But we are advanced, at least in the sense that individuals are important and that we no longer need to rely on this type of strategy. We can transcend our insect phase.
We simply must defeat the form to have children, of which we have seen there are many parts. There is the basic procreation instinct, the unthinking desire to have babies, which is no different from the behavior of other species, animals and otherwise. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the motivation to give birth as the ultimate form of creative expression. And in-between, there are all of the selfish rationales that were described earlier in the Species Background chapter.
Furthermore, we must fight the specific social form of the subjugation of women; what has been called keep them barefoot and pregnant. The greatest reduction in population pressures will be achieved by bringing about equality for women; specifically, by ensuring that all women have the right to education and also to pursue any opportunity in life. It is well-documented, in many, many countries, that if girls are given the chance to go to school for longer periods, and career options other than that of being a wife, or possession, that they will postpone child-bearing and also reduce significantly the number of children that they have.
There are also many other social forms to be confronted. For instance, national tax policies should not include tax credits for children. And individuals who do not have children should not have to pay for the schooling of those who do.
A final way to look at this is to consider the responsibility that children entail. Babies, like puppies, are cute, but they are one hundred times more work. You cant leave them alone, and feed them once a day. You have to be there for them, particularly when they are young, all the time. And, if you are not, if you do not accept and fulfill this responsibility, then you are a bad parent.
Many people are unprepared for the seriousness of this responsibility. They have a baby because it in some way satisfies their needs. They are not prepared for the consequences, for how much effort, and patience, and love, a child requires, so they dont give it.
You should only have children if:
1. You believe that life, as an existential category, not your life, or even human life, is good. (This precondition is easy to overlook.)
2. You want to bring someone into life so they can experience the beauty and mystery of it. (These two together constitute the non-selfish basis for having children.)
3. You are prepared to be a capable parent.
For the last, children should only be born when two individuals have made a loving commitment to each other, and when:
- they have worked to ensure a degree of financial security, such that they can care for the child, and have established a home in which to do so.
- they are both psychologically prepared for it, including understanding how much work will be involved, and how they will regularly have to sacrifice their interests to those of the child.
- and they willingly accept this - actually - they look forward to it.
How many, or what percentage, of the children in the world today were (and are) born to such parents? Certainly it is less than half, and likely much lower.
At the turn of the century the global population is six billion people. The annual growth rate is approximately eighty million, and the United Nations medium projection is for a population of nine and one-half billion people by the year 2050. This is far, far too many people: way beyond the planets carrying capacity. If it occurs, it will lead to hitherto unimaginable social and environmental disasters.
We have to prevent it from happening, but the means should not be forced sterilizations or abortions (although Chinas policy of one child per family is a good guideline). Rather, we must accomplish a population reduction through activism and voluntary action.
The earth needs a break. It needs a rest: a long rest. Therefore, you should always use birth control, and you should encourage others to do so as well. (You should actively support such programs in the countries that have the greatest population pressures.) Furthermore, you should postpone having children until at least your late twenties. You will be a better parent if you do, more experienced as a person and hence more able as a teacher, and you should also have greater financial resources to care for your child. In addition, when you think about having children, consider - carefully - the world in which they are going to have to live.
Our best course of action would be to have a global moratorium on births, lasting up to a decade, to limit to the greatest extent possible the number of new children that we bring into the world. Indeed, this is perhaps the only way to finally and significantly reverse the ecological stress and damage that we create.
The other aspect of minimizing our impact on the earth is education. We want to reduce the number of people, and increase their education. The problem is that, like a dog which cannot extricate itself if it is on a line wrapped around a pole, that is unable to learn that all it has to do is walk around the pole to free itself, many people appear unable to learn basic environmental lessons. No matter how many times you tell them, they simply do not grasp the fact that it is better to preserve nature, to limit consumption, to conserve energy, and not to litter.
We saw before that education is difficult. All education is difficult, even the things that many of us take for granted. Around the world many people are developing ecological consciousness, but many, many others are not, including:
1. The members of traditional communities that were in balance with nature when they had small populations, but which are not with large numbers, and which refuse to change their ways.
2. Corporate executives and other developers. (Corporate apologists are so brainwashed that they are blind. Some people are unable to read; others are unable to see.)
3. Modern world people who consciously accept or otherwise incorporate the anti-environment messages of #2.
For environmental education to succeed, these different groups will have to be approached separately. For example, consider the case of litter in traditional communities. If you travel widely in rural and developing regions, you will likely be surprised, at least initially, by the enormous amount of litter that is thrown about, piece by piece (used plastic bags!), and in massive piles. For this to change, the people in these communities will have to learn, and do, the following:
- Right thinking. This is the most important of all the steps, and the predicate of the rest. (It also applies to all of the above groups.) The individuals in these communities must learn - they must be taught - that nature is beautiful, and that when it is littered with garbage this detracts from its beauty. But such a point, which will seem simple to many people, is in fact not simple at all. It involves a profound repositioning of a major characteristic of your self-view, that of your relationship to the environment. The change involved here is a shifting from the position that the environment is of no concern, or that it is a competitor that must be defeated, to one where it is incorporated into your sense of self. Indeed, your mental balance depends on your having a harmonious relationship with your environment. (This reflects, at the deepest level, the fact that you and it are inseparable.)
And this mode of thinking, as I hope this book has described, represents the latest stage of the entire process of human development. Learning not to throw garbage on the ground is not simply the discipline to control a specific action. It actually involves proceeding through the entire human development cycle from its earliest beginnings to its truly most advanced state.
At this point, and presuming that such development can be accomplished worldwide (it is not going to happen overnight!), the rest of the educational process is simple, even mechanical.
- Produce a supply of trash bins, in an as environmentally friendly way as possible.
- Hire people to put them in all locations with litter, especially in scenic locations, where the need for right thinking is clearest.
- Have the workers regularly empty the bins.
- Recycle everything possible.
- Dispose of the rest in such a way that there is as little pollution as possible, and also with its conversion to usable energy.
There are other, more subtle aspects of environmental education as well. We have seen that sometimes the consequences of our actions are purposeful, but that at other times (many times) they are unintended. To this we must add the idea of unseen. Some consequences of our actions are not only unintended, they are unseen: we are not even aware of them. For instance, this is regularly the case with extinctions. It is rare that someone is aware of, and even rarer still that someone actually witnesses, the death of the last individual of a particular species. But here it is essential to realize that extinction is forever. Such a species will never exist again. This illustrates the fact that the last characteristic of the consequences of our actions is that they are eternal. Time never stops: actions, and their consequences, can never really be reversed. (If you have ever made a terrible mistake, with tragic consequences, you already know this only too well.)
The element of environmental education in this is that we must be aware of it - of our ignorance - and its implications. The only way to see unseen consequences is to imagine them, to try to predict them, but such efforts will always be imperfect. Therefore, we must recognize that we cannot plan or control the survival of other species. The ecology is so complex that the only way to ensure that it functions correctly, and that other life survives, is to leave large, interconnected pieces of it alone. This is the only way to guarantee that we do not affect it in some unintended and unknown way.
(Recently, attempts have been made to clone endangered animals, and such efforts with extinct species, as in Jurassic Park, are not inconceivable either. But, extinction is forever. Even if we clone a new individual of an extinct species, (1) it will not have parents to teach it how to behave; (2) there will be insufficient genetic diversity to maintain the species; and (3) the reason for the extinction, the destruction of its habitat, will still exist. There should be no cloning of extinct species for zoos!)
The final aspect of environmental education is to apply all of the above:
- To spread right thinking.
- To limit our consumption.
- To preserve and if possible regenerate - increase the size of - green spaces, which will involve the relocation of some - hopefully many - human settlements and agricultural developments. (Our overall goal is to reduce the human footprint.)
- Instead, when we need land, and for any use, we should redevelop brown spaces. (This is land already so degraded from human use that its reconversion to primary habitat would require such great resources that it is better simply to reclaim it in a limited way.)
- Lastly, we want to use such education to Vote Green, to make environmental issues, including overpopulation (and womens rights), a primary government priority. (A media guideline related to this is that the ecological consequences of any major news story should be investigated and reported as a matter of course. Media producers should assign specific reporters to such coverage. For example, for a conflict like Kosovo or Afghanistan or Iraq such coverage would include the environmental consequences of the bombing, of refugee movements, etc.)
So, and in conclusion, what is the future of the earth? Well, in the short-term it is decidedly uncertain, if not bleak. First, we have not yet broken the trend of increasing population. Also, even though the rate of increase for many countries has declined, there is still the residual problem of population momentum. Many, many countries have populations with a very low average age, and these groups represent unexploded population bombs. Some unforeseen development could start them reproducing again at a greater rate.
Secondly, we cannot understand - we do not know the extent of - the destruction that is already programmed by our past behavior. The total view of what we have done so far is not available to us. For instance, I just said that one goal is to exclude large portions of the ecology from human activity and interference, but in a very real sense this is impossible. We affect all of the water bodies on the planet, and all of the atmosphere, and all other habitats as well through atmospheric effects such as acid rain. We cannot limit our impact to selected parts of the ecology: thats what ecology means - an interrelated, interdependent whole.
Thirdly, the bulk of the global population, while still living low resource utilization lifestyles (other than land!), is rushing to get to modern societys level of consumption. Because of this, we are a long, long way from sustainability. (In many developing nations, the background for television financial news is the counting, by machine, of large stacks of money. If people see this enough times, the quest for money can easily become the central goal of their lives. Also, in all countries, people with money are given great respect, no matter how they got it. Because of this, the temptation of wealth is irresistible. The only problem is how to get it without being caught: unethical means are the only means available to most people. And, if you are caught, well, it was a gamble. Therefore, the seed for pervasive unethical behavior, including direct and indirect environmental destruction, is being planted every day.)
And fourthly, even in our educated desire to reduce our impact and to utilize the ecology sustainably, we lack the information that we need for such efforts. We do not have, and we will not have, again, for a long, long time, standardized indices of resource utilization for all goods and services, with which to guide our consumption.
As to the long-term future, I hazard to predict. There will certainly be additional catastrophic environmental changes. More and more habitat will be destroyed, and more and more species will become extinct. We could even kill the planet: force it to begin a new evolutionary cycle, from the few species, largely insects, weeds and microbes, which would survive.
For humans, even without such an extreme conclusion there will be great resource shortages, and not only of food and water. For example, imagine a world with no petroleum-based energy. What took the planetary ecology hundreds of millions of years to form, will have been used completely in a few hundred years. We will have used all of the viably extractable oil and gas that the planet contains in about one-millionth (one ten-thousandth of a percent) of the time that it took to produce. (Thats sustainable!) So we will need new sources of energy (more technology), or we will be forced to expand greatly the use of atomic energy, and coal (we will run out of that at some point, too), or perhaps we will learn, and simplify, and conserve.
Personally, I dont think we will make it to such a point; that human society will survive with its present behavioral patterns that long. As the resources are depleted, and through other ecological effects, this will lead to - it will require - massive changes to human social conditions.
But the choice remains: we can use our will. Indeed, we have to use our will. We have to learn, as a species, if we want to avoid such a disastrous future. My own hope is that we will accomplish our forced adaptation, with the oversight of reason, and that much of nature, much of the life on the planet, the remaining life, will be saved.
What are you doing for the earth, and the animals, tonight?