May 12, 2008

Global Suicide Pact: Amish Takeover

Suicide (n) - The most preventable type of death.

This is the ongoing story of a species whose leaders had a death wish, and whose members at large mostly didn't.

To me, "sustainability" means a situation in which your descendants are able to confront their own problems, rather than the ones you exported to them. If people a hundred years from now are soberly engaged with phenomena we have no nouns and verbs for, I think that's a victory condition.

On the other hand, if they're thumbing through 1960s Small World paperbacks and saying "thank goodness we've finally managed to pare our lives back exclusively to soybeans and bamboo," well, that's not the end of the world, but it's about as appealing as a future global takeover by the Amish. Give me the computronium problems; at least I can get out of bed and not have to mimic every move my grandpa made. - Bruce Sterling

I am not going to survive in any apocalyptic dystopia. My vision's good, but my knees are dodgy and I can't function without coffee and a high protein diet. (Maybe I could move to Costa Rica and grow chickens in exchange for the sweet, sweet arabica ... Hmmm, if I get out before the travel costs become prohibitive ... What!? Sorry. Ahem.) You can see how this would make me not only opposed to immanentizing the eschaton, but to sailing on to a post/pre-industrial civilization of the sort envisioned by mid-last-century back to the land movements or perhaps, the creators of Mad Max.

(And yes, I'll grant you, there were entirely too many hyphens in that last paragraph. Just wait, though.)

So on that note, you can be certain that when I talk about preserving the environment, I have a deep, parallel interest in preserving civilization somewhat-as-we-know-it. Consider that I'm a big fan of the intertubes, artificial lighting and indoor plumbing, just for starters. Don't get me started on refrigeration. Though civilization just-as-we-know-it, sorry to break it to you, but it has to go. At once. Couldn't be soon enough, really. And go it will, whether we want it to or not.

What a lot of people think is that there are three choices. Just, as I wrote here in the comments, it's that these are our choices:

A) We do either nothing or not enough and become subject to drastic reductions in population and standard of living, or …

B) We make significant progress towards sustainability and have a chance of preserving a climate and ecosystems sufficient to support 6 billion people and counting.

There is no ‘C’ option, where we can sort of keep doing what we’re doing now, but with a slightly lower emissions profile. That gets us to the same point as doing nothing. That equals failure and catastrophe. Even if it were a political "success", it would be a real world tragedy and lead to the deaths of millions, perhaps billions by century’s end.

(I'm not trying to be alarmist, here. See, because that suggests a pale knock-off of being actually alarming, which is what I'm going for. I'm not joking about the suicide thing we seem to be attempting. Just continue to bear in mind that there are solutions, otherwise, instead of writing this, know in your heart of hearts that I'd be holed up even now in a European backpackers' hostel with a bottle of Scotch that is itself of legal drinking age and a scantily clad raver. Right then.)

And our current order, the one we think we have, may even be gone before we realize. Our minds are slow to register change, so we still expect well into adulthood (and sometimes into old age,) many of the things we expected as children. Yet as the material conditions of prosperity, particularly our ability to grow food and the health of the land on which it's grown, are degraded, our economy suffers and food shortages are already causing riots.

We have a global rise in food prices, especially of corn, rice and wheat. The grain shortages are such that people are smuggling wheat into Afghanistan and riots are breaking out all over the world as per capita demand for grain and farmed goods outstrips our dwindling stocks of agricultural lands and compete with biofuels.

About those biofuels, they're supposed to be helping our carbon emissions. At the point of use, that may be true, but overall, they cause more emissions than fossil fuels. So just like the converging credit crunch and fuel crises we face, biofuels will contribute to further unfavorable weather and pest infestations that decrease our ability to feed ourselves, and hence, to solve our problems.

I mean, you don't think we're going to suddenly discover rationality on this matter when the worsening climate starts starving whole continents, do you? Me neither. And it'll get bad:

Climate change is likely to create new food insecurities by further pushing up the already rising prices and bringing down the world agriculture GDP by 16 per cent by 2020, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report said.

"Impact on developing countries will be much more severe than on developed countries. Output in developing nations is projected to decline by 20 per cent, while output in industrial countries is expected to fall by 6 per cent," it said in the report 'World Food Situation: New Driving Forces and Required Actions'.

... Stressing on crop yields, the report said, "With the increased risk of droughts and floods due to rising temperatures, crop yield losses are expected to be imminent. Cereal yields are projected to fall, with mean losses of about 15 per cent by 2080 in more than 40 developing countries". ...

If the biofuels, the already-worsening climate, and the spread of pest and crop disease weren't bad enough, we're also starving people out preemptively as we do other things to magnify these problems. Consider that what we're doing right now in Iraq, ending their system of seed saving in favor of forcing them to buy agribusiness' seed that can't be saved either by law or by design, has been done incrementally in many developing nations.

The food distributors that run the world market often only take certain varieties of crop, which means that farmers are forced to abandon crops suited to local growing conditions and buy often unsavable seed that requires a lot of extra water, pesticides, fertilizers and work, as compared to the old varieties.

This runs a lot of farmers out of business, which means even more families that have to buy food instead of growing it, and then when per capita supplies get crunched, they have an even harder time buying it. This also often means that their land gets turned into single-cropped, industrial farm land, which makes that patch of ground rapidly emit carbon stored in the soil as carbon dioxide, store less carbon in biomass (living tissue), and increase demand for greenhouse gas-intensive pesticides and fertilizers. You can see how this can make the climate crisis worse, which makes the other problems worse, which makes the food supply problem worse, which ... you get the picture.

And if it weren't so serious, it would be funny. Because tropical kitchen gardens, and traditional farming methods that grow a lot of crops on the same ground, store a lot of carbon in the soil and biomass, while also yielding more total food per acre than industrial agriculture. Funny. Ha, ha.

Right about now, you're probably wondering what you can do. This is about that point, right? I've told you it's happening now. I've told you it's big and scary. I did say there were solutions, which there are.

However, I didn't write this tonight in order to advise you on who to write a letter to, or what sort of appliances to buy, or where to shop for your food. We'll save that for another time, perhaps.

Nor did I write this in order to cause you to despair of your fellow citizens. Because they're waking up all over to our peak habitat problem. They get it, even though the politicians don't.

And that, at last, is what I hope you take away from this. This is a battle of minds and attitudes between that majority of the public who wants to do the right thing and the status quo power brokers who act like money is something people could eat, who act as though we should move from civilization to a war of all against all, as they say.

I want you to remember, when you hear the deniers and the delayers, that they're attempting to make us all commit species suicide. To starve the vast majority of us out. That basically means they're nuts. People who are nuts are also sometimes very good at making arguments and defending their positions. They can communicate with other people just fine, it's only that they've stopped communicating with the facts.

So I want you, if you'd be so kind, to do these three things: preserve your sense of hope, stop listening to crazy people, and practice compassion.

There isn't a link for that last one. I think you know what to do. When we care deeply, when we give a damn, when we love our neighbors, we find the path towards doing what's right. We find the path towards courage and power.

Then the solutions begin to suggest themselves.

I promise.

And I think the Amish would approve of that bit, but that's okay. As long as it doesn't require me to dress like Laura Ingalls and pump my own water by hand.

"I don't believe that any human community can be shown to have survived by the principle of all-out competition among its members, which the Bible (if that matters to you) explicitly forbids. ...

The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful"

- Wendell Berry, "Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community"

Other GSP installments:

Transnational Maoism - All hail our corporate mercantilist overlords.
Darfur Engine, Pt 2 - The long burn.
Darfur Engine, Pt 1 - You didn't think the Chinese had no precedent, did you?
Amish Takeover - Apocalyptic dystopia? No thanks, I'd rather have a civilization.
The Efficiency Trap - Energy flow in living systems and their origins.
The End of Cheap - Political reality, meet physical reality.

Posted by natasha at May 12, 2008 10:34 AM | Environment | Technorati links |

Fearless prediction, offered without evidence :

No matter what we do, the human population of the earth will drop 10 % or more in the next thirty years.

Posted by: joel hanes at May 12, 2008 04:12 PM


Posted by: ccoaler at May 15, 2008 12:40 PM