Quantity vs. Quality

Brave New World Revisited – Revisited – Part 2

Click HERE for Part 1

Crowds of people wait in the check-in ar

In the highly populated world we experience today along with 7.7 billion human beings, what are the effects of over-population on human health and well-being, democratic political and government institutions, and overall quality of all life?

In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley suggests that by failing to do anything systematic about human breeding, we insure that our expanding population is of inferior biological quality. Since we strive medically to make sure that everyone lives to reproductive age, we are also insuring that all genetic predispositions to disease and infirmity are preserved and spread throughout our gene pool.

As my ecology professor told me some 50 years ago, “Someday everyone will wear glasses and have diabetes.”

Huxley also suggests that in addition to a decline in general healthfulness, we are experiencing a decline in average IQ. Looking about our world as it is, one might think that, but, of course, I would never say this. Such thoughts would be hopelessly politically incorrect, harking back to the eugenics movement, which has, seemingly forever, forestalled any rational discussion of purposeful management of human development.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, at the same time George Orwell was crafting 1984, and Aldous Huxley was continuing to critically examine human society, leading to Brave New World Revisited ten years later, B. F. Skinner was writing Walden Two, a novel about an experimental Utopian community based on his own ideas about behavioral engineering.

There was considerable recognition of the path modern civilization is taking, with regard to the relationship between Homo sapiens and the natural world, prompting a search for alternative lifeways that might ease the burden of human presence on the planet. I flirted briefly with the Intentional Communities movement in the 70s and early 80s, but drifted away when I found it was largely a spiritual rather than a science-based pursuit.

the-concept-of-overshootOur biggest problem as a species is that we have no predators to keep us healthy and strong, and we are incapable of rationally controlling our own breeding to keep our numbers in check to prevent environmental overshoot and resultant collapse. Overshoot occurs when a population temporarily exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment.

As a consequence, individually and as a species as a whole, we are becoming increasingly unhealthy, decreasingly intelligent by any measure, and decreasingly fit to the prevailing environmental conditions. We are so dependent on our constructed environment and cultural support systems, that we can no longer function in the natural world without them.

More importantly, our constant population and economic growth is rapidly changing the natural world, destroying natural habitats, extirpating species and making a wasteland of what little natural world that remains.

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The result is an escalating spiral down the porcelain parkway to oblivion, at least for humans and what we refer to as civilization, that is, the totalitarian domination of the entire planet, above ground, below ground, on the oceans and even unto their deeps.

Fortunately for all life, two things work against this seemingly unstoppable trend: inescapable evolution and unavoidable natural processes.

Despite overweening hubris, Homo sapiens is still subject to the processes of natural selection and evolution. Though we pretend to have substituted culture for evolution, the reality is that we are evolving (see the above mentioned diabetes and poor eyesight), though most likely not in ways we will appreciate in the long term. The culture we prize so highly is singularly out of step with the natural world and the preservation of conditions to which humans have accommodated for the past several thousand years. As those conditions change, the rigid cultural expectations of the dominant culture may be incapable of accommodating the new ecological regime.

It’s the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded, and Mother Nature is stepping up to the plate. Natural processes will out in the end in the fullness of time, and Homo sapiens, if we have not already joined the Sixth Great Extinction Farewell Party, will evolve and acculturate to the new conditions, fewer in numbers, greater in physical health and cultural diversity, and living in greater harmony with the many other species and ecosystems.

 

21st Century Libraries – Books or Programs?

Downtown library-2018

Recently I’ve been intimately involved in the efforts of our local Santa Cruz County library system in planning the use of funds from a county-wide property tax measure to maintain and renovate library buildings in its ten-branch library system.

The flagship of the system is the downtown Santa Cruz library branch, pictured above, which functions as the headquarters for the entire system, with other smaller branches placed in local neighborhoods throughout the county. In 1968 the city demolished the original 1904 Carnegie Library building and replaced it with the current building, now 51 years old.

The plan put forward by the City of Santa Cruz is to abandon this building in the city’s civic center and build a new library in the ground floor of a five-story parking garage in a location three blocks away.

Proponents of the proposed building project cite a need for a “21st Century Library,” following the lead of the American Library Association’s Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (AL21C) which was focused on monitoring and evaluating trends in technology and society to assist the library community (the ALA program was “sunsetted” in 2014). It’s important to note that this policy emphasis in library services is entirely internal to the professional library community and is not in response to trends in library patrons’ needs or expressed desires.

The technological focus of the 21st Century Library movement is, of course on computers, internet access and digital and digitized materials. This reflects a wider social trend in the embrace of computer technology and the ubiquitous presence and use of “smart” cell phones. The perception communicated by proponents of this view and policy is that the technological and social trends cited mean that libraries should no longer be chiefly regarded as repositories of physical books and materials, but should be more service oriented and provide programs, events, learning opportunities and entertainment to their patrons.

At a recent meeting of the Santa Cruz City Council Downtown Library Subcommittee, the question was asked by the moderator: “If cost restraints on renovating or building a new library become reality, what would you be willing to give up?” Shockingly three of the eight professional and volunteer participants in the room stated they would be willing to give up books and printed material collections and keep digital access and programs.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What the 21st Century Library Looks Like, Shannon Najmabadi ponders these recent trends in public and academic library philosophy and policies.

“Libraries have reported spending less on print materials and more on electronic resources, including online journals and databases.

“As books are moved off-site, a question remains: What happens to the body of knowledge they contain? Irene M.H. Herold, a recent president of the Association of College & Research Libraries, says a downside to removing books is that patrons won’t be able to stumble on interesting material just by perusing library shelves.”

In addition, in my experience, thumbing through printed material to find something specific is infinitely different from searching for it on the internet. The serendipity factor is eliminated in a computer search, and, thus, any unforeseen opportunities to learn and incorporate something entirely new and unexpected are foregone.

Research suggests that digital reading results in lower comprehension and retention than reading physical books and printed materials. This, coupled with the emphasis on programs and events in libraries, many of which are noisy and obtrusive to otherwise quiet library spaces, further reduces the utility and effectiveness of digital library holdings.

From my perspective as an incipient 70 year-old, these recent professional technological and social library trends serve to reduce public literacy, critical thinking skills, and cultural and historical understanding of youth and adults alike. These skills and social awareness are absolutely necessary for functioning as a contributing member of our democratic society.

Hearkening back to the Library Committee meeting where three of the eight participants immediately expressed a willingness to get rid of books, I feel as if I’m shouting in a crowd of silent onlookers in a dark public square, watching jack-booted thugs hurl armloads of books onto a roaring bonfire.

The Madness of Crowds

airport-crowd

“A crowded society is a restrictive society; an overcrowded society becomes an authoritarian, repressive and murderous society.” 

Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

Ed Abbey’s words were prophetic when he wrote them, even more so now than he realized in his too short life.

We live in a world of crowds, everywhere, from the street outside our doors, to our daily work and play, in our parks and “open” spaces, we live in a teeming mass of humanity, an ever-growing technocratic occupation of every square inch of this much abused planet.

One birth every 8 seconds; one death every 12 seconds; one international migrant (net) every 34 seconds; a net gain of one person every 16 seconds. Oops, here comes another one. Scoot over and make room.

Yes, our societies have become more authoritarian, repressive and murderous. In the great bell shaped curve of human behavior, where only a percentage of the population acts badly, more people means more people acting badly. Thus increasing numbers of  laws, regulations and rules, and the accompanying and rapidly proliferating number of lawyers, regulators and rulers.

Impact = Consumption X Population

The impact of the human species on every other species, and their habitats, is a function of per capita consumption multiplied by the number of human beings, both of which are increasing at a prodigious rate. Any reduction in per capita consumption is rapidly overwhelmed by increasing population.

The greatest threat to life on this planet is not climate change, nuclear proliferation or wandering asteroids. Those are distractions, economic opportunities, political footballs. The greatest threat is human growth and profligacy, overweening hubris and inability and unwillingness to consider the consequences of our own actions, and inaction.

Population control is the most defiled of all subjects for cogent deliberation and understanding, and the most urgent. It is socially incorrect, economically unthinkable and political suicide. Population control is the bastard stepchild of the global growth industry, the unquestioned acceptance of the assumption that economic viability necessitates continuous and ever increasing population and economic growth. More than the ideology of the cancer cell, human growth is the evolutionary path of the dinosaur, that had to develop two brains in order to manage their overwhelming bulk. So far, humans have only one brain, and that one only firing on three cylinders.

Homeless camps in every community, out of control crime everywhere, proliferating imperialism internationally and decreasing political capability locally and nationally, all are symptoms of a human population that has outgrown its ability to care for itself, and the biosphere that supports us.

“There is no justice, sense or decency in this mindless global breeding spree, this obscene anthropoid fecundity, this industrialized mass production of babies and bodies, ever more bodies and babies. The man-centered view of the world in anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, antinature, antilife, and–antihuman.” 

Edward Abbey, Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside

Reviving Radical Environmentalism

Radical Environmentalism has fallen on hard times.

7740d-backhoe

Ever since “The Death of Environmentalism” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger appeared in Grist in 2005, accompanying the global obsession with climate change, environmentalism, real environmentalism, has evaporated under a flood of climate change hysteria, with side branches of Extinction Rebellion, Green New Deals and corporate managed school walkouts.

Keith Makoto Woodhouse’s 2018 book, The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, tells the sad tale of the rise and demise of radical environmentalism, from its roots in the New Left, SDS and Aldo Leopold’s traditional conservationism, to Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Society confrontational tactics, to the rise of Washington-based Big Greens and the inevitable compromises that turned radical environmentalists into corporate toadies and hunter-gatherers of government funding.

It’s a weird new world we live in these days, with the United Nations touting climate disaster to pump up their Sustainable (sic) Development program, to fund economic growth in less developed countries so they can join the global economy freight train rushing toward the collapsed bridge over Extinction Canyon.

Now we see impressionable children paraded before the ubiquitous media eye, reciting their memorized mantra of climate disaster caused, so they’ve been indoctrinated to say, by burning fossil fuels.

Climate change hysteria is the ultimate separation of human beings from Nature. Climate alarmists and their unthinking followers, call for us to “fight climate change,” to “stop climate change,” and in its most benign form, to “reverse climate change,” as if climate is something outside of human beings that we can control at will. Climate change alarmism is the ultimate expression of our species’ hubris (is there any other kind?).

If we are to rescue radical environmentalism from the clutching claws of climate change alarmists, we must also revive an understanding of ecology, evolution, geomorphology, and, most of all, a common sense perception of the world we share with billions of others species on this benighted planet.

To cultivate this perspective, find a patch of undeveloped Earth, get down on your hands and knees and stick your nose into the plant and animal life at your feet. Stay there for a day or two, maybe three, until you know intimately every creature crawling in and around every plant in your field of vision. Then, when throughly familiar with that wilderness, stand up on your hind legs and look around you, in a 360 degree scan of the roundabout thereof. Expand your awareness of the wilderness at your feet, to the wilderness surrounding you. It’s there, even if, temporarily, hidden under roads, houses office buildings and other monuments to human folly. The same biophysical processes are at work wherever you look, inescapable, perfectly natural (Nature-all), continuing apace as they have since the beginning, if there is one, of this Universe thing we inhabit.

Once you are thoroughly at home with your own bleeding piece of earth, your dealings with local government, developers, Chamber of Commerce growth maniacs, militaristic imperialists and other butchers of things natural and good, take on a depth and authenticity unavailable to those drifting in a sea of social media, cell phone obsession and dislocated, electronic distraction.

“O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!”

Radical environmentalism is a revolutionary awakening that brings into sharp focus the yawning chasm between human ignorance and uncaring profligacy, and the natural world that arises of itself within and around us. Once awakened to this all-encompassing reality, one can never see the world in any other way.

I’ve been walking this path for a long time. For a glimpse of my travels and travails, go to The Way of Nature, and join me as we look beyond our toes at the edge of the abyss, turn around and take our first steps forward.

Climate Cycles, not Climate Crashes

Gary Patton’s Blog, We Live in a Political World, cites Jessica Stites, Deputy Editor of In These Times. as claiming:

“within 100 years, many of our cities will become uninhabitable, submerged under oceans or deadly hot. Storms will become more violent. The gentle planet we’ve known will be no more.”

I have a Doctorate in anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where my dissertation and post-doc research was on the chronology of occupation of the Bering Strait from 2500 BP to the present. I published papers on the effects of climate change on human population movements in Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. I did dendrochronological and dendroclimatological research on driftwood and archaeological wood from Siberia, St. Lawrence Island and the Alaska mainland. I studied tree ring research at the University of Arizona Tree-Ring Research Lab, and climate change at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute.

I agree that many indigenous cultures have, in the past, “demonstrated [the] ability of the human species to adapt to changing conditions.”

I strongly disagree that “the extinction of the human species is a very real possibility,” with respect to climate variability. I strongly object to the statement “within 100 years, many of our cities will become uninhabitable, submerged under oceans or deadly hot. Storms will become more violent.”

There is simply no evidence to support these alarmist predictions.

Patton also cites Dahr Jamail’s book “When the Ice Melts,” as justification for these alarmist claims. I must point out that Dahr Jamail is not a climate scientist nor an anthropologist, nor a scientist of any sort. He is a journalist, one with a long record of unrealistically inflammatory rhetoric regarding what he calls “climate disruption,” which is in reality natural climate variability.

Yes, many glaciers are retreating, as are many glaciers advancing. That’s what glaciers do and have done for millennia, long before human civilizations developed. Climates around this planet (and all the other planets in the solar system) vary cyclically in tune with its variable travels around its star, and our planet’s own internal cycles of the closely coupled ocean/atmosphere system.

Does atmospheric CO2 and CH4 warm the planet? Yes, up to certain point. Does increased atmospheric CO2 result in increased global warming? No one knows, as this has never been tested. Does human produced atmospheric CO2 threaten runaway global warming? Not in the slightest.

Jamail and Stites’ dire “predictions” are not supported by climate science, not even by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a policy making organization, not a scientific research organization.

Should we “civilized” cultures change our ways to be in closer harmony with natural cycles? Of course. Human population growth coupled with cultures based on unlimited consumption cannot continue in a world of finite resources. We not only must change our ways, we most certainly will.

Humans may think we live in a world separate from Nature, but Nature functions otherwise. Humans are subject to the same ecological cycles as all other species. There’s no exit strategy. There’s no other planet to escape to. This is our only chance and either we figure out how to get it right, or Nature will haul us back into place in ways we make not like.

The choice is ours.

 

Ecosocialism: the alternative that isn’t

Yes, I know I promised to go through the Way of Nature elements. But first, I want to write about an element that is not included in my Way of Nature analysis:

green Marx.jpgEcosocialism

Now, before you click away from here in disgust at the term, bear with me for a moment while I explain why I’ve not included ecosocialism as an element of the Way of Nature.

 

From Wikipedia:

“Eco-socialism, green socialism or socialist ecology is an ideology merging aspects of socialism with that of green politics, ecology and alter-globalization or anti-globalization. Eco-socialists generally believe that the expansion of the capitalist system is the cause of social exclusion, poverty, war and environmental degradation through globalization and imperialism, under the supervision of repressive states and transnational structures.

“Eco-socialists advocate dismantling capitalism, focusing on common ownership of the means of production by freely associated producers, and restoring the commons.”

Delving into ecosocialism is a lot like stepping into a steaming swamp where you can’t see the firm bottom. It’s chief proponents, Ian Angus in Canada, Derek Wall in the UK and the late Joel Kovel in the United States, have written voluminously on the subject, as it has evolved over the past 17 years. Ian Angus’s Climate and Capitalism website is the best place to explore the history and current development of ecosocialism.

Why do I exclude ecosocialism from my Way of Nature?

Ecosocialism began as a breakaway political philosophy from standard, everyday Marxism, an admirable attempt to align classic socialist economics with modern understandings of the effects of human social systems on the natural world. Unfortunately, because of its basic Marxist underpinnings, it falls short in two important respects: human population, and human consumption of natural resources.

Population Control

Adherents of ecosocialism are unswervingly opposed to any form of population stabilization or control. This roadblock to thought and rational analysis arises from Marxist focus on economic justice. Ecosocialists hold than any form of population control would preferentially affect people of color, people in poverty, people of the global south. This refusal to consider the detrimental effects of increasing population is extended to immigration as well, holding that people should be free to move from place to place at will.

Consumption

One of the basic Marxist assumptions of socialism is that with the elimination of capitalism, production will be for use and not for profit, and therefore increased technological production would create enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, equally in every part of the human world. In such a “post-scarcity” world, human consumption of natural resources would decline and reduce impacts on the natural world.

I = P x A x T

These two ecosocialist assumptions ignore the formula for measuring and predicting global human impacts on the natural world developed by Barry Commoner, Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren in the 1970s:

I = P x A x T – Impact on the nonhuman world is a function of affluence and technology, multiplied by population.

While it may be true that a socialist economy of use value eliminating production for profit value would reduce per capita production and consumption (this has never been demonstrated historically), this positive result would be held hostage to a growing population, which would overwhelm any gains through a reduction in production.

Stabilizing population growth, even unto the point of reducing human population globally, need not affect any particular population over any other. An ecosystem-based analysis of local human population pressures could be used to stabilize global population by reducing population levels in areas of high impact and stabilizing populations in areas of lower impact. Methods of such population control would be implemented based on local cultures and economies.

Lifting restrictions on immigration ignores the realities of local ecosystems and carrying capacities. If humans are free to drift from place to place, in response to population and social pressures, local ecosystems will quickly degrade in areas where the human drift accumulates. While restrictions on immigration by arbitrarily designated state boundaries might not be desirable from a social standpoint, an ecosystem-based analysis of human population pressures must be used to avoid undesirable negative impacts on the local ecosystem. If social relations in  a particular region are undesirable, humans should solve their problems in place, rather than exporting them to other ecosystems that may be less capable of withstanding increased human impacts.

In the end, despite its optimistic appellation, ecosocialism is yet another anthropocentric philosophy that begins and ends with human benefit as its primary concern and only tangentially addresses the detrimental effects of human growth and technology on the non-human world.

Socialism, even ecosocialism, offers no inherent alternatives to capitalism with regard to human consumption and destruction of natural habitats.

Now then, back to The Way of Nature.

Putting it all together or taking it all apart?

jigsaw-puzzle

On one of my other websites, The Way of Nature, I’ve described many of the elements of an ecosophy that seeks to balance human activity with the natural world. These are philosophies and practices that I find attractive when thinking about the horrible mess this human world has created at the expense of the broader biosphere.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t see any way for the current dominant human way of life to continue much longer. There just aren’t enough resources on this the only planet we can inhabit to support 7+ billion human beings without destroying the habitats of the eleventy bazillion other inhabitants, including our own. The human world is caught up in social systems and philosophies antithetical to living in harmony with all other life. There is no sign at present of any serious movement to change to alternative lifestyles that offer any prospect for continuing into the foreseeable future.

Visualize Civilizational Collapse

A combination of environmental, social and economic collapse seems inevitable, most likely within the lifetime of those living today. A civilization (sic) based on unlimited growth coupled with exponentially increasing consumption of finite resources will inevitably expire in a much deserved collapse, just as previous civilizations and empires suffered the same ignominious end.

If there is such a thing as natural laws, this must be one of them. Any species that eats itself out of house and home will drag itself down the evolutionary porcelain parkway with alacrity. Rabbits do it. Caribou do it. Even plants do it.

The difference is that, unlike humans, non-human animals and plants have natural predators that keep their numbers in check, and that, providentially, strengthen the prey species by eliminating the halt and the weak and the diseased. But hubristic humans insist that “every sperm is sacred” and no individual shall be allowed to die without massive medical intervention to keep them alive and breeding… for a price.

So it seems truly well and good that human civilization should take its place in the good old dustbin of history and make way for what is to come afterwards.

What comes after Civilization?

It’s seems most likely that once human civilization has had its way with this planet, and descended into the abyss of evolutionary despair, there will be insufficient resources remaining for humans to claw their way back out of the hole they have dug for themselves and build a new shining city on the hill to hold dominion over all once again.

This is where the Way of Nature comes into the story.

Any future human world will, of necessity, be organized in harmony with natural cycles of resource availability, just as are all other extant species on the planet. It will be characterized by the same features as other species: diversity, adaptability, humility, cooperation and unswerving patience.

In other words, any post-collapse civilization will live by the Way of Nature.

Take some time to review the elements of the Way of Nature, and we’ll start going through them in the next post on Searching for Balance.

More reading on collapse:

  • Collapse, Jered Diamond
  • The Party’s Over, Richard Heinberg
  • The Enemy of Nature, Joel Kovel
  • Good News, Edward Abbey
  • Toward an Ecological Society, Murray Bookchin
  • Human Scale Revisited, Kirkpatrick Sale
  • The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman