A Slow-Moving Crisis

In my view, the greatest threat to America’s future isn’t hiding in a cave in Pakistan or Afghanistan; it’s right here at home. What I’m talking about is America’s continuing ignorance, apathy, and inaction on a range of large, known, and growing challenges that are reshaping our nation and our world… Far too little thought is given to what’s come before or what lies ahead. ~ David M. Walker, US Comptroller General, “America At a Crossroads,” October 23, 2006

As has been pointed out many times in the last few decades, the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity.  This concentrated bit of ancient Chinese wisdom is often applied to our historical time.  The danger is that, if we do not see the danger, we will miss the opportunity – they go together.  In ecosystemic terms, periods of imbalance, far from equilibrium, create the opportunity for change and evolution, but can also lead to breakdown.

But what if the forces of disintegration become inexorable?  Are the opportunities lost?  Not if creative, resourceful human beings can see the opportunities opened by the disintegration of the old order.  That doesn’t mean the danger goes away, just that there’s more space for creativity.  Nevertheless, the creativity has to address the danger in time if it is to lead to effective outcomes.

This is the problem we are faced with in this epoch-changing time.  Like a deer in the headlights, the culture itself – especially in the United States, but also in Europe – seems unable to move in a direction that will enable it to survive.  The deer is mesmerized by the glare of the headlights, unable to see the danger for what it is, and therefore unable to take the opportunity to run.  Even many people who are aware of the approach of a lethal impact to our collective way of life seem unable to take action.

Cultural Myths and Illusions

The glare of the headlights that hypnotize the culture and its inhabitants is the glare and blare of the false assumptions, myths and illusions of the culture itself, which are broadcast night and day into homes and public spaces.  The glare and blare of the mainstream media constantly reinforce our cultural belief system, which in turn maintains ‘consumer confidence’ and keeps the global economy running. Among the myths and illusions that keep people spellbound these seem to be foremost:

• the myth of perpetual progress, the illusion that our way of life will continue and get better and better

• the myth of limitless growth, the illusion that the Earth can continue to support economic and population expansion

• the myth that our Euro-American civilization is superior, ‘The Greatest,’ and so exceptional that it is not subject to the same forces that brought down previous civilizations

• the myth that technology will save us by solving all problems

• the myth that the mainstream media will tell us what we need to know

• the myth that the American political system is self-correcting, the illusion that we are safe in a free democracy, can trust the ‘experts’ to solve our collective problems, and that informed participation is not necessary

• the illusion (delusion) that Americans, 5% of the global human population, are “entitled” to consume 25% of the Earth’s resources in order to maintain the “American Way of Life,” and that this is sustainable (it isn’t)

An analogy often used to illustrate the human response to the seemingly slow-moving environmental crisis is that of the frog.  If you drop a frog into boiling water, it jumps out.  If you drop it into a pot of cool water and gradually bring the water to a boil, the frog cooks.  Like the deer, the frog doesn’t sense the danger.  It enjoys the warming water until it’s too late.

The analogy of the frog applies not only to our response to global warming, but to other issues in our collective life.  While we are enjoying the ‘party’ of the global economy, and its overabundance of cheap consumer goods, we are slowly cooking in a stew of troubles heated up by fossil fuels.  By the time the fossil fuels run out, or even before they run out, we will be faced with water shortages, deforestation, depleted soils, dying oceans, climatic chaos, economic meltdown, food shortages, and too many people to feed.  The signs are all there and have been for decades.  We are approaching “Peak Everything” in a century that will bring declines in the ecological services that we rely upon to live on this planet.  (If you are unconvinced, listen to the hour-long audio interview of Richard Heinberg discussing Peak Everything that is linked above, or listen to or read this interview about the book.)

The time to have addressed these issues was when we were warned about them 30+ years ago.  We heard about Peak Oil in the 1950s, about the dangers of overpopulation in the 1960s, about the limits to growth and global warming in the 1970s, and about deforestation and species extinctions in the 1980s.

Now the limits of our planet are clearly visible and it is too late to prepare the world’s human population for the drastic reductions in consumption and emissions required to change the course of our civilization.  The human population has more than doubled since 1960.  Preparation for the transition from the age of excess to the age of scarcity takes at least 10 to 20 years.  Having been reassured by false promises made by people who got very rich in the intervening years, and who now steer the ship of America and the world, we find ourselves suspended between the utopian dreams of the global economy and visions of apocalypse, and we don’t know what to believe.  Or, more likely, we choose to believe the dreams.

As a long-time student and teacher of Buddhism and ecology, and a lover of truth and the Earth, I trust evidence, experience, and my intuition, or ‘truth sense.’  I believe the evidence provided by science. Science and my own senses have been telling me for many years that the Earth is in trouble.  I’ve also learned to see through the false promises and illusions of our current economic and political arrangements. Much of that learning was facilitated by Dharmagaians who taught me about the rainforest crisis in the 1980’s.

Dharmagaian Warnings

Dharmagaians (people with allegiance to the Earth and the future, who aren’t afraid to tell the unpopular truth) have been sounding the alarms about sustainability and survival for decades.  Many of them have been scientists, but also deep ecologists in the fields of philosophy, history, human ecology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and other realms of human endeavor. Against the claims of the New World Order that the global economy will ‘lift all boats’ and that, anyway, ‘there is no alternative,’ these Dharmagaians have sought the truth of our earthly situation beneath the glitzy surface of the global consumer society.  And the truth has been unwelcome.

As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788- 1860) famously observed: All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

So, the warnings of Dharmagaians about the dangers of over-exploiting the biosphere, and of overpopulating the Earth with humans, were first dissed (disregarded, disrespected, disdained) and, yes, ridiculed.  Then, although few died as a result of telling the truth and campaigning for the preservation of nature, the Right Wing waged a war against the environmental movement, which was inspired by Dharmagaians such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Gary Snyder.  The war against the environmental movement was a public relations war of disinformation that was heavily funded by industry, and it succeeded in subverting the media and therefore the public’s interest in urgent environmental issues.  The attention of the public was channeled into consumerism.  To put it in the simplest terms, the result of this anti-environmental backlash – which is still going on — is the confusion people are in today about how seriously to take global warming, species extinctions, overpopulation, peak oil, etc., etc.  [For information, news coverage, and commentary on these issues, see the essays and links in the Gaia and Great Turning sections on the Dharmagaians website.]

Those who see the dangers of resource depletion and suggest the possible collapse of civilization are still regarded as ‘fringe’ at best.  That is, denial still reigns. The monumental efforts of somebody with the credibility of Vice President Al Gore have only created leaks in the wall of denial around global warming.  And denial and confusion still persist in the mainstream regarding peak oil and resource depletion.

As long as the siren song of the global economy continues its refrains – “Just keep spending and consuming, technology will save us” – people will continue to be confused and unable to take seriously the possibility of the disintegration of civilization in this century.  But by the time that siren song is disabled by resource depletion, it will truly be too late.  The collapse will be in progress.  Some say it already is, but we just don’t see it yet.

This is the reason that so many Dharmagaians – particularly those who are peak-oil educators — are now warning about Collapse. [See The Cassandra Club.] Although peak-oil deniers and detractors like to accuse peak-oil educators of being ‘apocalyptic,’ peak-oil warnings are actually realistic projections based on facts.  There is no known source of energy on this planet as potent and plentiful as the liquid fossil fuels that the industrial system and the global economy depend upon to operate.  The use of cheap, abundant oil has enabled the overshoot in human population numbers and the overexploitation of the biosphere, and is at least a major cause of global warming, if not the cause.  Overpopulation, environmental degradation, and global climate change are themselves threats to civilization in this century.  And now we are facing a permanent decline in oil and gas supplies.  Demand now exceeds supply, which is why the price of everything is going up.  This spells economic trouble, which is the reason that economic meltdown is often predicted along with peak oil.

Carrying Capacity

Meanwhile we humans – industrial societies in particular – have exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth by 25%. With its exponential growth, humanity moved from using, in net terms, about half the planet’s biocapacity in 1961 to over 1.25 times the biocapacity of the Earth in 2003. The global ecological deficit of 0.25 Earths is equal to the globe’s ecological overshoot.  Not only does this mean that our society is unsustainable, but that we are leaving a depleted planet for future humans.

There is disagreement among peak-oil educators about how fast or slow the breakdown of industrial society will occur.  The most level-headed peak-oil analysts, that I know of, are people I regard to be Dharmagaian Allies – ecological thinkers who are peering into the future.  In my view, the writings of Richard Heinberg and John Michael Greer are the most interesting, well written, reasonable, and reliable.  Both are very careful – and well-informed – in making their projections.  But the consensus among level-headed peak-oil educators seems to be that the collapse is likely to be slow and painful, and that a decline in the Earth’s human population is unavoidable, though most people don’t like to talk about that or project how it will happen.

One peak-oil aware, ecologically literate blogger has pointed out in “Why A Slow Crash Will Destroy Everything“ that the longer the collapse of industrial civilization takes, the more damage to the Earth there will be.  The more damage to the Earth that takes place, the fewer will be the number of humans that can survive.  Not that it’s in anyone’s power to determine how fast or slow our civilization will disintegrate!  Except, that is, those who have nuclear weapons at their disposal.

The people referenced on the Dharmagaians site who warn of collapse are motivated by the desire to wake people up from the ‘cultural trance’ and provide the information they need to make informed decisions about how to prepare for what’s coming.  If governments do not tell people the truth about these converging crises and prepare their countries for ‘powerdown’ – and as of Oct. 2007 they are not – then people need to inform themselves and figure out how to prepare for the crises as individuals, families and communities.  [The links pages on the Dharmagaians site provide a great deal of information on these subjects up until mid-2010.  You might be surprised how much there is!]

But there is another danger creeping slowly and inexorably into American life that even Dharmagaians rarely address, and that is the danger of fascism — the warnings about which are coming from the political and economic spheres.  We will discuss this in Part 3 next time.

Further Reading/Watching/Listening:

Denial, Deception, And Delusion, American Politics Vs. Reality, by Michael Byron  14 October 2007

Steep decline in oil production brings risk of war and unrest, says new study, by Ashley Seager  October 22, 2007

Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and EnergyThe retired Professor of Physics from the University of Colorado in Boulder examines the arithmetic of steady growth, continued over modest periods of time, in a finite environment. These concepts are applied to populations and to fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal.

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