Converging Ecological Crises: Are We Up To The Challenges?
There is a very substantial volume of highly credible writing, for anyone that wants to see it, that warns us that humankind has only a few decades left in which to ‘get it right’. We face demographic challenges and global ecological disruptions on scales like nothing that people have seen before. This is no longer news; the information is out there. In spite of this, most people in North America are still ‘sleepwalking’ into the future.
Part of the quandary we face is that the more complex and long range the issues are, the less suited our political system is to meet them, and the less inclined people are to think about them. For the politician, discussion of mega-environmental issues and the politics involved does not attract votes for the next election. Indeed, thinking beyond the next election does not fit the agenda in our power-obsessed political system. For much of the public, discussion of impending crises is apt to lead only to dismissal – ‘doomsday talk; now lets see who is winning the hockey game’. It is a societal failure that, at a time when we need political people to share responsibility as we face rough seas ahead, there is neither leadership nor vision. There is no one at the wheel.
I urge that readers do not escape by ‘turning me off’. Our children and grandchildren will not be able to ‘turn off’ the massive impacts of the changes that are converging around us now. The denial of today, is the parent of the disaster and discomfort of tomorrow.
If there was such a thing as a report card on humanity, at the beginning of the 21st century, the failing grades would outnumber the passes and pluses. Ecological and demographic dangers are not offset by the positive and encouraging things that are occurring. Not only that, when we do look at issues, the examinations are too often only skin-deep. If and when media coverage is given to large-scale environmental crises, the coverage is on a single problem basis. In addition, mass media coverage is, far too often, absorbed with the symptoms of problems rather than base causes. Blood and tears sell, penetrating analysis does not.
What is crucial to understand and face up to, is the fact that we are not confronted by a single issue such as climate change, depletion of oil, or loss of fish resources, serious as each of these may be. We are, in reality, confronted by an inter-connected complex of environmental and resource loss and/or breakdown challenges that will shape the societies of the future. The elements within the list of challenges are formidable:
- We add about 70 million people per year to an already overloaded planet. Writers who hold the darkest vision suggest that after reaching 8 or 9 billion people on earth, environmental collapse will drive human numbers back by two thirds. Like almost everywhere else, we are ‘in the game’ in B.C. Here, we add about 50 thousand per year to our own province with its southern portions already people-stressed.
- We are at, or past, ‘peak oil’. The major reserves have been located and we are now using them up. There are no comparable and flexible substitutes for this energy bonanza, laid down over millions of years but consumed in only one or two centuries. The sub-urban sprawl of North America, the long-range transport of food, the operation of our great sky-scrapers, and life built around the automobile are all in peril. Read J.H. Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency”. The influence of declining oil supplies will affect nations, worldwide. In Canada, declining supplies and increasing costs of oil and gas will be critical to people living in colder regions, wherever these may be as climate warms up.
- Climate is changing with a powerful array of potential impacts on water availability, forests, fishes, infrastructure, health conditions, and livability of many regions without cheap energy. See Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, or read the book. Although the impacts of climate change are many, the people of central B.C. are living with one of major importance to their livelihood. The eruption of Mountain Pine Beetle from Clinton to Fort Nelson is, in large measure, due to changing winter climate conditions.
- In association with increased CO2, ocean pH is decreasing, i.e., acidity is increasing. The effects of such change on corals reefs, and production and composition of marine plankton, are not known. Prof. D. Pauly, Head of the Fisheries Centre at UBC, in a recent interview on CBC radio, regarded ocean pH change as enormously significant and risky.
- Freshwater resources of the world, and of many parts of B.C., are dangerously over-taxed with use, or are being degraded. It is projected that by 2025, between 2.4 and 3.4 billion people will live in conditions of water scarcity or stress. Considering local examples, here in the lower mainland of ‘Supernatural British Columbia’, groundwater is being heavily charged with nitrate from chicken farms. Nitrate is well above the level of 10mg/L, the acceptable standard for drinking water. Worldwide, about 460 million people depend, almost entirely, on groundwater reserves that are being used faster than replenishment. Such use includes that of the 450,000 km2 Ogallala Aquifer underlying eight U.S. states. When that aquifer is depleted, American water users will come to Canada for water. If such required water is deemed to be of “national security” to the USA, you decide how much, and how effectively we will be able to “negotiate”.
- Major fisheries of the world are under assault. According to a study in the scientific journal “Nature” (2003), industrial fleets have fished out about 90% of all large ocean predator fish – tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod, halibut, skates, and flounders. This done in the last 50 years. Midwater fish species, that were at one time considered unusable, are now being fished down as well. Pacific salmon are in decline from central B.C. southward through the US Pacific Northwest. Freshwater fish over much of the world are put in jeopardy by forestry activities. Much of this is covered in a book by T.G. Northcote and G.F. Hartman, “Fishes and Forestry: Worldwide Watershed Interactions and Management”.
- Since the dawn of agriculture we have lost about half of the earth’s natural forest. The annual, worldwide, loss of natural forest is currently about 120,000 km2 per year. Tropical forests are under assault from both the forestry and agriculture sectors. Boreal forests across the world are at risk of loss due to climate warming.
- Our perennial demand for economic growth, which invariably results in conversion of ecosystems to human use, reduces biodiversity which ultimately affects the stability of these systems (See http://www.countercurrents.org/cc-dawe030406.htm)
- Functional ecosystems of the earth provide us with vital services such as water treatment and detoxification, waste assimilation, regulation of air quality, control of erosion, regulation of local climate, spiritual fulfillment, and many other things. These services, valued at near 33 trillion dollars per year, have been put at risk by our collective activities. The “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report” (2005) states that 60%, 15 out of 24, ecosystem services evaluated are being degraded or used unsustainably.
On the ‘plus side’, there are important positive elements:
- Awareness of our plight is increasing, and hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups are actively involved in dealing with environmental issues.
- Means and scale of communication have increased. Television and the internet, if used responsibly, have wonderful potential to inform and connect people. The David Suzuki shows have increased awareness among tens of thousands of viewers.
- The powerful documentary movie and the book, “An Inconvenient Truth” by Vice- President Al Gore has reached million of North Americans.
The list of demographic, environmental, and resource challenges indicates the powerful but unbalanced array of processes occurring on our planet. One way or another, some or all of these will affect people everywhere. Many of these dangerous and disturbing processes are interconnected, and the interconnections lead back to the reality that excessive numbers of people and their consumptive demands are overstressing the planet. As it stands, and as we behave now, increasing crowding and “shortages” will exacerbate the ongoing lawlessness and civil strife on earth.
I believe that the next few decades will make it even more clear to us that we can not sustain the kind of social and economic systems that have prevailed over North America. Environmental and resource changes will force us into a very different relationship with the earth. It will be one that involves less consumption, less waste, and less travel. Life may, indeed, be less comfortable. Our legacy may be that future generations look back at us with dismay and resentment.
If we go back to biological principles, every animal species on earth lives in some state of balance with other species and the physical environment. Whether it is an experimental population of meal worms in a jar of cereal, a population of snowshoe hares in the Arctic, or salmon in the Fraser River system, the numbers go up and down, but they don’t rise indefinitely. We too, are bound by this ecological reality. Compounding technology, as we have too often used it, has served only to increase, our numbers, our developmental pressures on the environment, and ultimately, the distance we may fall when the system collapses.
The convergence of ecological crises demands that we go further than trying to deal singly with climate change, or depletion of oil, or some other issue. It demands that we move to ‘steady state’ economies and populations, not those growing like mad. It demands, also, human behavior in which we are part of the system, not an increasingly dominant element within it. Politically and socio-economically, we will have to make a quantum shift. The challenge of doing so, and having a vision-driven role on the earth, beyond growth and profit, may be one of the most difficult that we have faced, or will have to face, as a species.
The political systems of today seems to be quite unsuited for dealing with the massive and complex ecological and social challenges that are either here or on the horizon. These challenges eclipse most of the issues that currently occupy our politicians.
I believe that we should seek some type of forum, however chosen, whose role it is to understand ‘macro-issues’, and to inform and encourage elected people to get them to deal with challenges that may not be popular in the short term. I do not know exactly what the structure of such a forum might be, but we need a ‘long-term brain’ for government. As part of the foundation for this, we need awareness.
This critical foundation requires that we recognize and begin to understand the full nature of our situation. The extent to which we can do this, and have some influence on our own future rather than having nature make the decisions for us, may tell us just how much we deserve the “sapiens” in Homo sapiens, the Latin species name we have given ourselves. We had better be “sapient” (wise) because ‘nature bats last’.
He has a Ph.D. in zoology, was the scientist in charge of a major fish-forestry research project, held senior positions in the provincial government and the Yukon government; He has taught at the university level for about six years (University of Guelph and Addis Ababa University) and spent three years in Africa with CIDA for two, and FAO for one. He thinks he has written about 80 publications, scientific, or managerial, or philosophical.
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IMO Once the Rocky Mountian glaciers have finished melting in the next 5-10 years it should create dust bowl conditions for much of Western Canada (via lack of run off irrigation) through to the great lakes during the summer months. This can only speed up the melt of the Northern ice cap, and once that happens it could change everything adding new atmospheric conditions from an open ocean absorbing sunlight and creating weather conditions. Than again....
The great United States of America has scientist with the like mind of Dr. Hart Then there are the scenists employed by the oil companies that try to do every thing in their power to discredit those with a sound scientific knowledge. Like Dr Hartman.
Our politicians will not grab the ball as they would self destruct. I need say no more as Dr. Hart tells it like it is. I wish people would have the knowledge to listen to him
Well said, I agree. Look at all the warmongering going on at the beginning of this, the 21st century!
One would think that the people of this earth had learned from all the conflagrations of the 20th century that it is better NOT to settle disputes by violence, large scale killing and destruction.
Mushroom clouds are on the horizon and if it happens it doesn't matter whether there is already global warming or not.
Sad; but all of mankind seems to be drifting towards self-annihilation.
After that, the tortured earth can go back to normal again.
The blame seems to be always be directed at businesses trying to make a buck at the expense of our environment. But, if the demand wasn't there, the market wouldn't be either. Why do we need to be so driven? Why can't we just be content with enough?
More, bigger, better, faster seems to be the constant driving force behind an achieving world. The "Me" generation is wanting more, while wanting to do less. It never seems to end and it's never enough.
We need to be content. We need to slow down. We need to be happy with what we have. We need to learn to be satisfied with what we have been given.
As the demands for our products and services decrease, so do the demands on all of us. Wouldn't it be nice to just side step this treadmill we find ourselves on? Chester
By Steve Wohlrab (7/12/06)
Over the past several months, I've had the opportunity to make a few brief presentations about Peak Oil. As a member of the planning committee for the recent North Bay Energy Vulnerability Summit, I've been privileged to speak in front of local city and county officials in the hope that they would attend our event. Although the turnout was less then initially anticipated, we none-the-less felt the event was very successful.
However, I'm left with mixed feelings. Since I did a lot of the initial outreach, I guess I took it a little personally that so few local leaders actually showed up
Recent frustrating attempts to communicate with friends about peak oil have also left me wondering about my communication and presentation skills. It has also led to my questioning the response of the listeners. In particularly, to what extent is their response a "projection" based on the listener’s personal dynamics? (listener bias). To what extent am I, as the presenter, unconsciously responsible for contributing to the difficulty.
According to interpretation theory, to the extent that authentic understanding is possible, the presenter must first examine and then bracket out his/her own hidden biases, assumptions, and motivations. Presenters must also look at their own emotional context.
The "message" can be easily distorted or corrupted by the messenger unless great care is taken to separate out ones prejudices and emotional baggage beforehand. This process is never complete, there is always more "stuff" to look at. However, the better we're able to confront these biases the less likely we will "contaminate" the presentation. To the extent that we are able to bracket out our pre-existing biases, motivations and emotions from the presentation, the more likely a incongruent response to the content is a projection of the listener. Authentic understanding occurs when both the listener and presenter each try to bracket their hidden biases, etc. and a fusion of horizons begins to take place.
There is some part of my psyche that's drawn to tragedy. Despite this, I don’t believe that my interest in Peak Oil simply reflects a convenient theory that fits nicely with my neurotic style. I do my homework. Unfortunately, I must rely heavily on “experts” as my sources for “facts” about this subject (an act of faith?). I don’t really know to what extent these experts ask themselves the same hard questions or to what extent they bracket out and examine their own deep motivations?
Yet there remains additional reason why can't we get more people to believe what seems so obvious to a growing number of us? We have legitimate, valid concerns and the truth lies beyond the emotional dysfunction of the messengers.
I know a fair amount about how crazy a human mind can get. I also realize that authentic understanding requires some effort. So much of what we experience is an unconscious projection. Things are usually not what they seem - ulterior motives, hidden agendas, unconscious neurotics styles and sometimes serious pathology play out before our eyes.
It's important that we learn to listen without judgment and learn to communicate in more open and supportive ways. We also need to examine ourselves a bit more, discover our deeper motivations, uncover our unconscious defenses and develop the emotional maturity and intellectual integrity demanded by our situation. I'm not real confident that this will happen in time to mitigate the problems we face yet these qualities seem so essential to our ability to successfully navigate the transition.
The facts about Peak Oil, etc. seem to cry out for immediate action. Why has the response been so disappointing? Reasonable, sincere people have been warning us for years now about a number of serious issues. Collectively, we should have been listening and begun mitigation efforts sooner. Why isn't a well crafted, thoughtful, reasonable presentation enough to convince people to take action?
Grieving and Denial
To more fully understand we must also look at the non-rational forces at play. Those that both help and hinder us should not be quickly dismissed or their power underestimated.
Fear, ignorance and our deeply held beliefs about the world are all difficult obstacles to overcome. Deep insight is required along with a willingness to suspend our assumptions and at least consider how we might be unconsciously distorting our “reality.”
One of the non-rational forces that hinders us is our collective inability to grieve. Or perhaps, stated differently, we're a culture locked in a stage of grief known as denial.
How does a species grieve the loss of its progeny, it's future? While I'm not a parent, my guess is this might be similar to the experience of loosing a child - a horrible thing to think about and exactly why we don't - few are willing to go there. I'm suggesting that the mere contemplation of such an event is so emotionally overwhelming that our innate defense mechanisms refuse to allow us to experience it emotionally. It's too painful to even consider - so we don't, despite dire warnings from reasonable and respected experts.
The possibility of severe, dramatic, global catastrophe is not only emotionally numbing but the socio-economic and cultural transformation required to prevent such a disaster inhibits the necessary behavioral changes required to avert it (to many people the cure might seems worse then the disease).
A more proactive cultural transformation may only be possible once we’ve begun to recognize how deeply sad and scary the future looks. The more we ignore that future the worse it will get. Unfortunately, we must first overcome our denial, at least some degree of it. How do we "bracket out" our denial?
As I come to terms with my own grief about the future, experiencing its different stages, I'm starting to better recognize how we each react differently, at different times, to the reality of looming crisis.
From the perspective of a psychologist, I've come to view much of our collective response to current events as analogous to grieving. Our reactions can be viewed in that context. Grieving involves well documented "stages" (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) which can occur at different times, not always sequentially. We might even "re-experience" a stage and/or experience several at the same time.
Deep despair work - grieving for a dying planet and for the end of civilization as we know it, might take some time. Time, unfortunately, is not on our side. Denial is one of the more common stages where people can often become "delayed."
Denial can also be viewed as "healthy" response to a difficult situation or event - to an extent, a certain degree of denial serves as an important defense mechanism necessary to our daily survival. However, it’s unconscious effects may be difficult for us to recognize and it’s power easily underestimated. This fact more then any other causes me to worry. I often loose confidence in our collective ability to turn things around in time. As yet, no one I know has figured out how to expedite the process of grieving and/or overcome our collective denial.
Willingness to embrace such heavy pain - to allow oneself to grieve requires a great deal of courage and endurance. It may also require the ability to suspend our assumptions and "beliefs" long enough to entertain the possibility that a worst case scenario is entirely possible. We might need to do some "as if" playing and pretending - serious playing in which we are existentially touched and emotionally effected by this experience (allowing ourselves to experience what it would be like, to imagine a horrific future, to consider it a realistic possibility). I recommend doing this not to encourage or support that reality but to recognize the more shadowy aspects of being and honor ourselves enough not to suppress any thoughts.
I believe that you give power to that which you deny and are most afraid of - that it ultimately takes more energy to suppress something painful (we pay a heavy price by avoiding painful truth). Sometimes the only way out is through.
We must also somehow not get too pre-occupied or overly identified with this darker stuff lest we be paralyzed by despair. Ultimately we want to affirm and visualize the brightest future we're capable of imaging. Warning folks about potential danger is not mutually exclusive of this.
Authentic grieving requires that we endure an experience which seems unbearable - so incredible, unchangeable and final. The process takes as long as it takes - sometimes years, perhaps an entire lifetime. My point here is we need to figure out how to "midwife the transition" (re-localizing away from fossil fuels in an eco-friendly manner) while supporting, nurturing, respecting, and honoring each other through this unprecedented time. Our collective future on this little planet might require an equally profound spiritual and emotional transformation along with profound lifestyle changes. Therefore, we might want to cut each other a little slack, not expect perfection and be more ready to forgive that imperfection in ourselves and others.
Hope and Denial
Denial reflects a complex process when used in a psychological context. Our ordinary "self" - our normal human consciousness reflects many variables and dynamic forces.
For many people who are just starting to understand our current global predicament all the dire predictions must seem a bit overwhelming, frightening and hopeless. Therefore it’s too emotionally overwhelming for most folks to seriously consider the possibility of a worse case scenario actually occurring. Have compassion for those who aren't able to take in all the ramifications of your message. However, urgency requires us to forge ahead - move on with your truth to a more receptive audience.
There may be some "truth" out there but it might be dismissed as another crack pot, doomsday, conspiracy theory or its reality accepted but not the conclusion or remedy ("technology will save us" - a rationalization, another stage of grieving?).
Telling people in denial that they're in denial doesn't cut it - it's like confronting a paranoid patient about their delusion - the delusion is not rational. (that's why, to our rational minds, the delusion seem "crazy").
Sharing hopelessness authentically with integrity ("from the heart") will not comfort most folks. You're just increasing their anxiety levels to the point where psychological defense mechanisms prevent them from considering any serious threat to their cognitive well being.
By definition, someone who is in denial is not consciously aware of the experience (they will generally refuse to consider that possibility if confronted). Awakening from our collective and individual denial tends to be a gradual process. Intellectual honesty, personal integrity and a courageous and dedicated pursuit of truth are prerequisites.
Unfortunately, an actual traumatic event can also serve as a wake up call (similar to waking suddenly from a vivid "nightmare") - this type of "shock to the system" is a much less desirable way of breaking through someone's defense mechanisms. Trauma is not a cure. It often leaves its victims more emotionally crippled then in their prior state of denial. Hoping for a severe enough event to occur so that a majority of people wake up from their collective denial in time is sadomasochistic. If Katrina didn't sound a loud enough alarm bell one wonders (and dreads) what it might take?
To some extent we're all in denial, how could we be otherwise? For many people, the threats to our species are so great that they're unable to permit themselves to be emotionally effected by it. This deep level of denial resembles what is clinically known as a dissociative disorder in which the avoidance of a traumatic event leads to individuals literally creating and maintaining their own reality. If we were able to move beyond the veil of cognitive dissonance (for we have no reference for the scope and scale of the crisis unfolding) we would be quickly overwhelmed.
Natures feedback mechanisms are often too subtle for us to notice. Denial along with day to day distractions and rationalizations help to keep us "deaf, dumb and blind." Unless we turn down the sound, and crank up the hearing aide we may not hear the alarms sounding.
The way I dealt with my grief was to let go of hope. This does not mean I gave in to hopelessness and despair, rather this reflects a deep spiritual insight. For me it's about surrender, faith and humility and letting go of outcomes. These "insights" reflect my understanding and experience of the dynamic openness of Being.
For me, this wisdom has led to some degree of acceptance. Of course I'd let go of hope - or I let go of outcomes. This helps me to better accept whatever comes my way. Of course, I still feel compassion for this "realm of reality" in which we dwell and I still intend to persevere and help organize my community.
Whether we survive as a species or not (no guarantees) there's no doubt that the earth will go on, with or without us.
Offer your truth with humility and integrity, let go of outcomes and lighten up - it's only life. Don't expect the information you share to quickly "convince" others. At best you may be able to plant a few seeds. Qualify remarks by first discussing theories about denial and listener bias - share some of your own biases as presenter.
Visualize the future you want as if it already existed and also wisely prepare for an emergency (perhaps even a “long emergency“).
Just think, the new car you order will not need a blockheater.
It will not use electric being plugged in for hours pre-starting....or to run for 15 minutes to warm up the interior on those minus 30 mornings.
No more furnaces to heat your homes.
The city will love the lack of wood burning by Grandma, as she will not need it to heat or cook.
Once its hot enough just put the pies on the back step and in 40 minutes they will be golden brown.
I can get rid of my wet and dry suits when i ride my PWC or go waterskiing, as the lakes will be warmer.
No more slip and fall injuries on icy city sidewaks or parking lots. I will not have to mount the plow on my quad to plow my driveway anymore.
Its going to be great.
All i need is to buy ice for the cooler to keep my beer cold at the lake, and i am off....woohoo.
Yes, I am being sarcastic and foolish.
But the people freaking out of global warming started it, so i just wanted to join them.
Governments want to be re-elected, so they shy away from outlawing Hummers or 400hp pickup trucks that are typically driven by a single occupant back and forth to the corner store to pick up a pack of smokes and a bag of chips!
Houses are infested with electronic gadgets that are never really shut off, as they sit there consuming power waiting for the "On" command from a remote control.
Ranges, microwaves, VCRs, TVs, Stereos, computers, alarm systems, garage door openers, etc. etc. all use electricity even when "Off."
It has been estimated that several large coal fired generating stations in the US and Canada could be shut down if this parasitic consumption of energy could be eliminated.
There are a great number of opportunities to really get serious and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sacrifices will have to be made and energy costs will have to increase to make investment in wind power, wave power, solar power and tidal power (to name just a few) feasible from an investment perspective.
The use of cold water from Lake Ontario to cool office buildings in Toronto's downtown core is an excellent example of progressive thinking, planning and action. After it has been used for cooling it is used (slightly warmer) as drinking water by the city in the usual fashion.
The Smart car gets 75 miles to the gallon - one day it may be a common sight in all traffic together with vehicles that are perhaps even more efficient.
We've got to get with it before we hit the proverbial wall.
Then, segueing into "Peak Oil", yet another unfounded conspiracy theorist's platform... whose own data is contradictory, when not outright erroneous.
Some truths for consideration:
1.) The earth's population growth is not a significant factor though, logistics of accessibility to food, water and shelter can give this misperception at times i.e. 2 of the most densely populated regions on Earth, India and China are net exporters of food and have no overall or pending water shortage issues... now extrapolate these 2 billion people globally and you start to get the picture. At present, a land mass the size of Texas could feed the world.
2.) Resources are finite, yes but, as this forum focuses principally on fossil fuels, we have over 100 years of known reserves and likely 140 to 200 years with yet to be "discovered" and exploited. The winning bet would be that as substitutes for fossil fuels are developing quickly, the price of fossil fuels might well drop rather than straight-line increase over the next hundred years.
3.) As for climatic change, guess what? The climate has always changed, is changing and will continue to change... that's called nature and that means opportunity for us. As some areas become arid others becoming tropical. It is change that causes economic stimulus and opportunity. I hate to say it but, every time we have a hurricane, flood or earthquake, it stimulates the economy.
4.) Finally, let's put things into perspective. The world is getting better, not worse. It's only the media that chooses to sell the easy spin on things being worse that misleads us... that includes the extinction of species. Yes, human impact is not always good on other animal life however, the world is far more adaptive than some would have us believe and the status quo is not an environmental norm or desirable objective. Once again, things change and that is what is normal and desirable. For the record, approx. 93% of all life that existed before humankind came to walk the Earth was extinct before we arrived.
Thank you, QuasiMe, for identifying all the problems that mankind has inflicted on planet
Earth and upon itself in the last century and a half of industrialization as "A pile of crap."
Why would anyone reduce polluting, look for cleaner energy alternatives and reverse (if possible) the damage already done if the problems only exist in the fertile imagination of some mad scientists and the agenda driven media?