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.
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.
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.