Human Society – Going the Way of the Dinosaur?

Dinosaurs didn’t go extent. They just flew away!

The word sustainability has almost lost all meaning in environmental discussions, as it has been applied to all manner of human activity. Many are inclined to drop this word and use others in their stead.

Resilience, sustainability, adaptability. I hesitate to throw away any words, as words have meaning and reducing our vocabulary creates a depauperate language.

The word “sustainable” is particularly difficult because it is used to opposite meanings in economics and biology. Sustainable in classical economics means: “making decisions and strategic investments to sustain the community over the long-term.” In biological terms, sustainable means “making decisions and strategic investments that are not harmful to the environment or deplete natural resources, and thereby support long-term ecological balance.”

The concept I’m searching for is a quality of human society that allows it to continue indefinitely into the future without reducing the carrying capacity of the biosphere that sustains it. This concept embraces sustainability, resilience and adaptability.

Adaptability is a particularly slippery concept, because humans do not adapt to the world in the biological sense that others species adapt through the process of biological evolution. Rather, humans actively adapt the environment to human needs and desires. We do not grow fur to live in northern latitudes, we take from natural resources to invent fitted clothing and insulated houses. We do not grow gills and flippers to fish in the sea, we invent boats and fishing tackle. We change our environment to suit our needs. We are an impatient species, with no time for mundane evolution to bring us into conformity with existing conditions.

What is needed rather than adaptability is forbearance, the quality that Scots call ”let-a-be,” that Taoists call “wu-wei,” allowing the world to rise of itself, rather than to shape it into predetermined human patterns.

What would a “wu-wei” human economy look like? Such an economy would take no more resources than are naturally replenished, leaving sufficient resources to support all life. Wastes would not be produced in greater amounts than are naturally assimilated through existing geophysical processes. Food for humans would be grown within existing cycles of resource availability and biodiversity.

In short, human societies would exist in a dynamic equilibrium with all other species, subject to natural cycles of resource availability. Humans would a be a part of, not apart from, the non-human world.

Non-human species have lived this way all the time. Those that fouled their nests or outgrew their food supplies declined or went extinct (or adapted and flew away). The process continues today, with the addition that non-human species must now adapt to the human propensity to ignore evolution and demand dispensation from adaptation.

Human economies are created and maintained to suit human desires and needs. They are a mental constructs subject to human construction and modification. We “Homo sapiens” invented our way into the environmental mess that our economies have created. We have the capacity to invent our way back into a cooperative, co-evolutionary relationship with non-human species that will benefit all and ensure our species’ place on this planet in the future.

If only we would.
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Classical Economics Dismissed

Talking about climate change in human economic terms is like talking about bicycles in terms of fish. The one has nothing to do with the other.

Economists are trained at an early age to strain at gnats and swallow camels. Environmental consequences of human activities are passed off as “externalities.” “Natural resources” (note the human centered term) are free and available for usurpation and profit by individuals and their corporate persons. When resources become scarce, the “invisible hand” of the market place will bring forth substitutes that will allow The Economy to grow indefinitely.

This, of course, is bollocks.

There really are limits to human growth, and we are stretching them as thin as spider webs. Many are convinced that we have already overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth for “Homo sapiens.”

The influence of human activity on natural climate variation is unknown quantitatively, but the qualitative effects of the human presence on this planet are plain for all to see. No obtuse economic justification can deny the effects of human pollution, habitat destruction and resource exploitation.

Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.

What do you have when you chain 1,000 economist to the ocean floor? A good start.

San Lorenzo Valley Water District eyes cap-and-trade program

The Santa Cruz Sentinel printed this article today, as straight news, not even in the comics section. 

BOULDER CREEK — Surveying will begin next month on about 1,600 acres of land in Boulder Creek, Zayante and Olympia to find out how much carbon those forests contain, with the San Lorenzo Valley Water District hoping to fetch a princely sum in the state’s newly launched cap-and-trade program.

Earlier this month, the district’s Board of Directors approved spending $45,000 on the “carbon sequestration” project, which will be headed by the Alameda-based forestry consulting firm Buena Vista Services. Work is expected to begin within the next 30 days, and “by the fall, we’ll have the inventory number locked down,” said Jim Mueller, district’s general manager. 

That number will be certified by an independent third party, and soon after, the district will be able to enter the cap-and-trade auctions.
During a meeting to discuss the project several months ago, Joe McGuire, a principal with Buena Vista Services, estimated the district’s lands contain up to 850,000 tons of carbon, and that those credits can be sold for a total of $550,000 during the next 12 years. 

Betsy Herbert, the district’s environmental analyst, said the team will take samples from trees in different sites, and that data will then be crunched to get an estimate on how quickly the forests will grow during the next 12 years, she said. The study will be updated in 2025, and every 12 years thereafter, she said.

How much more absurd can this be? The forest is standing there, growing, breathing in CO2 and breathing out O2, as it has for centuries. Now some upstart snert in the water department can make money off it by selling “carbon credits,” as if the Department was responsible for making the trees do their natural thing.
The other side of the story, not included here, is that someone, whoever is buying the “carbon credits,” is buying the right to pollute.
This is why economics is a fantasy discipline. It has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with human audacity. Who would have thought of such a thing but an economist?
Chaining them to the ocean floor is too good for them.

Coming to the wrong conclusions about Peak Oil


This article from Australia Demand for oil to outstrip supply within two years conflates Peak Oil with energy demand, assuming that Peak Oil means oil demand exceeds supply. Peak Oil actually means that point at which oil production irreversibly declines. Current projections, based on rather iffey reserve estimates, suggest that global Peak Oil will be realized some time in the next five years.

The article in “Perth Now” reaches the following conclusions:

“Energy will be king in the coming decades, and we must exploit our (bountiful) resources wisely, while preparing ourselves for much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity (aside from coal and LNG exports).”

Energy has always been king in human societies, whether it was for hunting mammoths, domesticating animals, building steam engines or flying across the Atlantic. Our major human “revolutions:” agricultural, industrial and informational have all revolved around and been inspired by energy concerns.

As to exploiting “our” bountiful resources, it seems there’s been too much of that going on around our poor beleaguered planet of late. Who says they’re our resources to exploit in the first place, anyway? Seems like us Johnny-Come-Latelys on the evolutionary scene owe a bit of forbearance to those species who preceded us and made it possible for us to keep on evolving, if indeed, we ever did.

Economic activity and prices are inventions of this one particular species egotistically called Homo sapiens. They’re not real, at least in the same way that air and water and sun and photosynthesis are real, important and essential. We got along quite well for 100,000 years or so without economics and prices. Seems like the neighborhood has gone rapidly downhill since their invention.

Can we get along with “much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity?” Sure we can. We did quite well during World War II. Prospered even. Well, some of us did anyway. That’s part of the problem.

The whole idea of steadily increasing domestic activity is oversold, and a bad deal to begin with that never got any better. It may have temporarily lined the pockets of a few, while others, including furred and feathered and scaled others, two-legged, four legged and finned, have done rather poorly. Their prospects don’t look any better for the future.

Unless, of course, we get off this obsession with growth for growth sake and devolve back to some semblance of balance, real balance, not the right-wing “I get more balance than you do” concept. “Much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity” will help considerably in that regard, of course, encouraging folks to consume less, stay at home, walk and bicycle more, work fewer hours, grow gardens full of good food and flowers, increasingly contemplate the natural scenery of their neighborhoods with sublime satisfaction. Gather up all the growth maniacs and put them on a secluded island somewhere, ringed with all of our excess military hardware so they cant’ escape. Let ’em grow there, in isolation.

Energy will indeed become king in coming decades, but in terms of saving it rather than expending it. The relaxing “clop,clop” of horses hooves will replace the mind-altering roar of captive automotive horses, with sound systems set on stun. Our streets will return to the commons, where we will meet with our neighbors for convivial conversation, where our dogs will bask undisturbed in the sun, where trees will provide welcome shade, moisture and beauty, where the edges will be marked with flowers and grass rather than hard concrete curbing.

With the End of the Age of Oil we will also come to the End of the Age of Automomotive Oppression.

A Vision of the Future

In this article on Common Dreams, a 93 year-old woman has provided a vision of the future – from the past. Dr. Grace Lee Boggs shows us how Detroit is a vision of the future, a city that “no longer has to adhere to the usual capitalist mantra of growth and expansion because it is absolutely clear that the industrial system is finished. This fact allows citizens to respond by starting something new all over again.”

We are witnessing the final failure of capitalism, as gleefully predicted by Socialists everywhere. Even official economists are beginning to admit that the whole idea of free market capitalism is failing, that traditional methods of propping up the capitalist economy have failed to budge the current growing recession, even unto “wars” (read: invasions and occupations) waged on two fronts.

Although it may seem to young people that we are “starting something new all over again,” we are really reviving what has always worked: local self-reliance, local politics, local economy, local social services. Victory gardens, allotments, cooperative child care, extended families, cooperative housing, flexible kinship systems, midwifery, and, most importantly, self-reliance and mutual aid, have always been the most effective social organizations to support the people at the local level. It is only when a professionalized central authoritarian government attempts to take control, supported by a professional constabulary and a standing army, that local social systems are broken down and forced to fail.

This doesn’t mean that capitalism, the private ownership of production, is bad in itself. It is only centralized capitalism that breaks down “normal” social relations, with the extension of the concept of a “free market,” which has never been free, outside the realm of economics. Social services can never be organized under free market auspices, which is intrinsically based on distinctions between haves and have-nots. In “free market” social serves, someone is always, by definition, left out.

The only social system that is historically documented to provide egalitarian social services is non-state, locally organized, bioregionally-based mutual aid. Call it (small c)communism, socialism, anarchism or what have you, the concept of local self-reliance based on mutual aid and local resources is the only demonstrably “sustainable” social form ever devised by human societies.

As our civilization, if that’s what it is, faces the unavoidable limitations of Peak Oil and climate change, David Brower’s advice becomes increasingly relevant:

Progress consists of turning around and taking a step forward.

The Unreal Deal

Dean Baker: What Was Actually Happening While You Led a Life: “The United States Since 1980”

As much as I despise economics, I’m beginning to think it’s the key to understanding what’s happening these days. Understand, of course, that economics is not necessarily about money, at least not all of it.

This article is fascinating and/or boring, depending on how you view economics as something real or not. Regardless of your view, it has some important points to make.

Even though you and I know that economics is not real, that it ignores all the really important things in Life, economics is where the people live who “run” this world. When the Bushies talk about the “reality culture,” they’re talking about those of us who don’t buy into economics as the prime mover of the world.

Be that as it may, economics is the prime mover of the part of the world that lies closest to the surface, the world that impacts people directly, like with bullets and bombs and famine and epidemics. These things don’t just happen, war doesn’t “break out,” like rain falling from the sky. Wars and famines and epidemics, to a large part, are caused by human action, within social systems such as governments and religious organizations. They are created on purpose, for a reason, and that reason is most often economics.

This is not about greed, exclusively, although greed plays a part. This is about power (measured in money and influence). This is about status. This is about control. This is about ideology and which ideology wins out in the end (coming soon to an Apocalypse near you).

So economists are the gurus these days, manipulating vast universes of data chasing around the globe twenty-four hours a day, conjuring up money from coursing electrons and febrile tangles of wires and transistors.

Economists on the one hand, militarists on the other, feeding each other in a frenzy that leads, ultimately, to economic collapse, the premature deaths of millions of humans, the destruction of the natural world (if there’s any left).

Bring ’em on, I say. Let’s get it over and done with, so we can all settle back into a steady state society, live as the animals we all are, and forget about all this frenzied progress, if that’s what it is.

Time to turn around and take a giant step forward.