Monthly Archives: March 2014

Keep Calm and Carry On

Let's not go overboard.

Let’s not go overboard.

In my post the other day I commented quite a bit on the forces that cause us to not be alarmed about the situation on the planet, and how our general lack of alarm is partly a function of human psychology. After working with the numbers for days, though, and then giving presentations about it, the sheer magnitude of the situation we’re faced with really hit me. Articles like this one didn’t help—“NASA Study Concludes When Civilization Will End, and It’s Not Looking Good For Us“—it’s about yet another model predicting systems failure around the year 2030. (There are other studies; see my post last year, “It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“). Perhaps having already been mulling this over for days had my brain in a receptive mode, and it occurred to me that if one human reaction to the situation is lack of concern, then another one is fear. The numbers are indeed daunting—in just the two weeks since I wrote that last post, there are over three million more people on the planet. And it continues, and continues, and continues. It’s been going on like this my entire life, and isn’t predicted to slow appreciably for decades. Every four days—a million more mouths to feed. When will the system reach a breaking point, and how? What’s the failure mode for these complex, inter-dependent systems? Combine this with news of disappearing honey bees and bats and monarch butterflies and moths, and all the other bad news, and it’s enough to make one quite rationally start to think about bunkers and guns and food stores and where-on-the-planet-might-be-a-safer-place. Suddenly, the “preppers” and their articles like “How Far Will the Zombie Hordes Get” don’t seem all that far out.


The scary population graph.

The scary population graph.

But, had some good discussions with Mr. X, and two minds are often better than one, and I’ve pulled myself back to the middle. Just as a lack of concern isn’t productive or helpful, too much concern might not be productive or helpful, either. Instead of building bunkers and hoarding food and buying guns and the like (all of it non-productive resource consumption that would contribute to the planet’s ills), we need to be spending that time, energy, and those resources doing things like planting fruit and nut trees, installing solar panels, weatherizing our houses, or getting to know our neighbors. In fact, that’s quite the illustration right there—with too little concern, we’re off buying clothes and plastic junk and too-big houses and going off on hedonistic vacations, but with too much concern we’re buying guns and bunkers. Neither is a good choice. Worse, the latter can become a self-fulfilling prophesy if done en masse. Never have Gandhi’s words seemed more apropos— “Be part of the change you seek.”

So, to step back and evaluate a bit, hidden in the dire news are some positive trends. First, world food production has outpaced population growth since 1960—in the last fifty years, population has doubled, but food production has almost tripled. (Graphs here, others I’ve seen similar) . Worldwide, extreme poverty has also been cut in half in recent decades, and while population growth is frightening in terms of annual numbers added, by percentage the rate of growth is steadily falling, from over 2% annually fifty years ago, to about 1% today, and predicted to fall to close to zero by 2080.

The (slightly) less scary graph. Even at 1% growth, population will double in about 70 years.

The (slightly) less-scary graph. Even at 1% growth, population will double in about 70 years. We can’t afford any more doublings.

This is in addition to all the new wind towers and solar installations and electric vehicles and net-zero houses and small organic farms and tens of thousands of people all doing small pieces of the transformative work that needs done. So, to roughly quote something I heard the other day, the world does indeed seem to be “poised between breakdown and breakthrough.”

Now, I have to admit that there is a fine line when it comes to the “guns and bunkers” mentality. Some of what is done in this vein are moves towards being more resilient, and on the whole, resilience is a good thing. Resilience adds a bit of stability to systems that could potentially be unstable. So having an emergency source of water, or backup power, or growing some of your own food, or even being able to protect one’s family from an occasional “bad guy” aren’t necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But we need to remember that going overboard in any of these categories isn’t helping society as a whole. We also need to remember that there are other, perhaps even more powerful, forms of resilience—community with our neighbors, strong local agriculture systems, an environment that is functional and not being degraded, genetic diversity of plants and animals, and fairer economic systems. Those that put too much focus on making-it-alone need to realize that we might be able to live for a short time without society, but ultimately we would be doomed without it, along with every bit of our knowledge and culture. There’s no escaping the fact that our future is inextricably tied with the future of everyone else (and with the future of all living things, for that matter). 

So, to borrow the 1939 slogan from wartime Britain, “Keep calm and carry on”. Let’s not be counter-productive, either by disregarding our problems on one extreme, or by over-reacting in unhelpful ways on the other. As Kathryn Blume put it in a speech yesterday, we’re in “a very narrow window between everything being fine and everything going to hell.” This is an important time, let’s not mess this up. Our parent’s generation couldn’t fully know the problems, and in another generation or two it will be too late. It’s up to us, and there’s much to be done.

keep calm

Top mage credit: bortn66 / 123RF Stock Photo. Image has been cropped.
Population graphs: Wikimedia.
Keep Calm: ivaleksa / 123RF Stock Photo.

The Anthropocene and the Psychology of Alarm

Not modern art, and, in an ironic fluke, not "Forever" in this USPS-released image. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Not modern art, and, in an ironic fluke, not “Forever” either. Welcome to the Anthropocene. Landsat image of irrigated fields in Kansas. (The Postal Service apparently marks their digital images of stamps in this way so the image can’t be printed and used as a stamp).

Holy Moly, I’ve been too busy to function here. I was in New York City for most of the week before last taking students to this year’s Model UN convention, and now I’m scheduled to speak three times in the next two weeks on environmental subjects, and have been trying to get ready for those presentations. But, preparing has spurred some thought, along with ideas from the book “Ecological Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, and a New York Times essay “Why Bother?“, by Michael Pollan (the latter short and well-worth reading—highly recommended).

To be more specific—one of those presentations I’m scheduled for I will give this week to (mostly) high-school students at the Vermont Global Issues Network Conference, in Rutland. I’m going to call it “A Time to Choose—Our Sustainability Crossroads”. It occurred to me that a logical starting point for this particular audience would be to address the question of whether or not we even have a problem. After all, as I’ve written before, we look out of the window in a bucolic rural state like ours, and nothing seems overly amiss. So I began gathering images to help me outline the big picture. Pictures of crowds, to represent the seven-billion-plus human population, pictures of huge, growing metropolises where these people live, and then other pictures of human impacts on the planet. First, how this expansion has been powered, in the last two-hundred years, by fossil fuels. Then, how the immense power they contain, combined with the immense power of the market system, has enabled humans to accomplish nearly unfathomable feats. We can use bulldozers and chainsaws to remove whole forests, we can create huge agricultural monocultures, we can literally move mountains (mountaintop-removal mining), and vacuum every fish from the sea. These powers have given us huge (but not complete) control over the planet; we are altering the world to such a degree that we may be entering what many scientists feel is a new geologic age, the “Anthropocene”, or Age of Man. It hasn’t been without consequence, and those consequences are continuing on, or even accelerating. Our actions have also engendered many unfortunate side-effects; they have given us global warming, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, massive use of pesticides and herbicides, extinctions, air and water pollution, soil erosion, heavy-metal contamination, groundwater depletion, a million more people on the planet every three or four days, desertification, and habitat loss, just to name a few. When the information in the above paragraph is viewed visually, as a series of stunning pictures, it’s enough to make even myself feel a bit freaked-out.

opening slide

And yet, despite these tremendous effects, there isn’t much alarm in the world. A bit here and there, with the likes of Al Gore making his “Inconvenient Truth” movie or Bill McKibben with his books and articles. But, for the most part, it’s business-as-usual, mixed with a bit of mild concern, at the most, or even outright denial. All is good, nothing to fear, take another plane trip, buy that boat, that bigger house… Why is this? Then, in a separate but related issue, who is to blame? Who exactly is the evil destroyer, ruining our world?

(Before I continue, let me pause and point out that some of the ideas here are mine, some are others’ that I have read, and some seem to be truths that have popped up independently in the minds of many people; a sort of collective intelligence emerging, perhaps. I’m not sure how to attribute ideas that I’ve thought of, but then subsequently read nearly verbatim in some article. Perhaps the standard rules of citation apply—if you can find it in more than five places, then it’s probably common knowledge, and doesn’t need attribution. That being said, what I know is undoubtedly based on the thinking and learning of a great many others.)

So, back to my two questions, and to answer the second question first—there is no evil destroyer. This has become ever more clear to me lately. The destroyer is us, all of us, by virtue of numbers. A wealthy Westerner trying to enjoy his weekend, citizens in an emerging economy building necessary new infrastructure, the impoverished cutting down forests to simply survive—every one of them diminishing the planet through their collective actions. There’s just too many of us, as of today 7,219,741,144, and growing by the second; births by the end of today will outstrip deaths by over 225,000.  As Michael Pollan puts it in the article I mentioned,

“…the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle—of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more nor less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents seventy percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.”

Pollan is talking about climate change here, but the same thought applies equally to all of our environmental problems. We’re simply going about our daily lives, but the way that we live our lives is bringing the planet to the brink.

NYT satelite image article pic

NASA image of pollution in India, from New York Times article “Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity: Manmade Perils to the Universe’s Garden of Life are Evident from Space”.

Which brings us back to the first question, why no alarm over this seemingly calamitous course? It’s fairly apparent, from the long view, that we’re all caught up in a disastrous slow-motion crash. Here’s where Goleman, in his book “Ecological Intelligence”, has some insightful observations (again, they probably aren’t his alone; I’ve read similar things elsewhere, one such article here). First, according to Goleman, our problems are not only too big for us to fix alone, they’re too big for us to comprehend alone. Here’s why looking out the window isn’t enough to raise alarm. I haven’t personally seen the melting Arctic, the rainforest clearcuts in Indonesia to make room for palm oil plantations, or the rivers of the world pumped dry for agriculture. I’ve seen the photographs of others, or read their accounts, but I haven’t been there myself. Other things I couldn’t see even if I went and tried, the truth exists only as numeric trends over time, such as ever-diminishing groundwater levels, or the reduction of bluefin tuna numbers, or the steady increases in planetary temperature, or ocean acidity, or the rising height of the world’s oceans, or our increasing bodily loads of industrial chemicals, or the radiation at Fukashima. Then, an added factor that plays a huge effect here— the changes that are occurring are happening just slowly enough to be virtually invisible to a single person. As Goleman writes, our biological systems, designed over the millennia to protect us, just aren’t triggered to alarm by these events. A longer quote from his book is in order here—

“Our brains are exquisitely attuned to pinpoint and instantly react to a fixed range of dangers, those that fit within nature’s periscope. Nature hard-wired the brain’s alarm circuitry to spot and recoil immediately from objects hurtling toward us, threatening facial expressions, snarling animals, and like dangers in our immediate physical surroundings. That wiring helped us survive to the present. . .

“But nothing in our evolutionary past has shaped our brains for spotting less palpable threats like the slow heating of the planet, the insidious spread of destructive chemical particulates into the air we breathe or the food we eat, or the inexorable destruction of vast swaths of flora and fauna on our planet. . . the world we live in today presents us with abundant dangers we do not see, hear, taste, or smell. The brain’s threat response system is buffaloed time after time. . . our [brains are unsuited for the dangers] that come on gradually, or at the microscopic level, or globally.”

Goleman continues by discussing what psychologists call the “just-noticeable difference”, and concludes that virtually all of the dangers we face today occur below this threshold. Thus, no alarm. The damage is happening in too many ways that we can’t readily perceive. Goleman quotes Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert,

“Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept things we would not allow if they happened suddenly. The impurity of our air, our water, our food has increased dramatically in our lifetimes, but it happened one day at a time, transforming our world into an ecological nightmare that our grandparents never would have tolerated.”

So, to conclude, these two things—the understanding of why we don’t see or become alarmed by the problems, and the realization that there is no evil destroyer, but that we ourselves are causing this damage, leads me logically to an uncomfortable conclusion that I’ve been avoiding or skirting around for a year now. To wit—once we understand these truths, and I believe that they are indeed true, then we have a moral imperative to change. Not to do so is selfish; stealing benefits from other humans, other life, and from future generations. It’s selfish, too, in that others are working to fix these problems, at the same time our own actions are exacerbating them. By not changing, we’re mooching off of the system, and making others pay for our actions. That doesn’t mean that knowing exactly what to do or change is easy to figure out, but I believe we have a moral imperative to try. And, I’m in no way trying to be self-righteous here; I also face these difficult choices of what to change, and how much to change. Many options fall into wide swath of gray area, where our options are limited just by the nature of the economies that we live it. I’d love to take high-speed rail, powered by renewable electricity, to see my siblings and father in Texas. But, such systems don’t yet exist where I need them, to visit my family I’ll likely have to fly on a plane. Other choices are clearer—as much as I’d really like to fly to the Virgin Islands and embark from there on a weeks-long luxury cruise through the Panama Canal, I’m not sure I’ll ever again be able to justify such conspicuous consumption. I’ll have to replace such trips with hiking the Camino Santiago, or other trips with  lighter impacts.

Video above by Time Magazine; a dramatic video representation of collective human impacts over time.

I’ll close here in the same way I’m likely to close this presentation I’m making, by quoting something that Mark Shepard wrote on his facebook page the other day (he’s the author of “Restoration Agriculture”, see my post “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“) . I don’t think he would mind me posting it here—

“I ALWAYS WONDERED WHY SOMEBODY DIDN’T DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT, AND THEN I REALIZED THAT I AM SOMEBODY. Together, I believe we can thrive in an ever-changing world. Together, I believe that we can create a more sustainable future. Together, I believe that we can change the world.”

Amen, brother.


Image credit: Center-pivot stamp– USPS.
Turbines in field– 123RF by tonarinokeroro, #18095255. Image has been cropped.
Tomatoes– 123RF by Orcea David, #9303784.
 Satellite image– NASA, via New York Times at