Sunday, September 2, 2007

Common roots and a systemic solution

A recent posting on Gristmill

"Brit's Eye View: Are we too obsessed with climate change?"
by Peter Madden concerned the worry that by concentrating on global warming (what I call catastrophic climate destabilization) we risk the danger of ignoring other urgent environmental concerns. By only looking at long-range targets for the year 2030 or 2050, we can overlook what needs to be taken care of today or next week. While global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism, government and big business think that if they just concentrate on going low-carbon, everything will be fine.

An online comment by Fergus Brown to this story made some excellent points as well. There is a tendency in the media to conflate global warming with environmental problems, to think that every environmental problem is due to global warming, and that solving global warming will cure all environmental ills. There is a growing backlash among people tired of hearing every problem being blamed on global warming. This creates a particular problem of global warming denialists being able to simultaneously marginalize or brush-off other environmental problems.

That global warming gets conflated with other environmental problems does make sense, but not for the reasons given. These problems are all the direct outcome of a cultural paradigm that is disconnected; that sees nature as an "other" to be exploited for personal benefit just as the affluent North does with what it considers to be third-world countries. Global warming and all other environmental problems are really a problem with human attitudes; with a lack of restraint in both human population and consumption; with the reliance on addictive substitutes for the natural fulfillments available in abundance for any species that stays within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem; with focusing all of our energy on competition and destruction instead of cooperation and creation. This is a choice for humans, it is not a hard-wired immutable natural principle.

The solutions to global warming and other environmental tragedies are one and the same. Quit overconsuming the Earth's limited resources and quit using the biosphere as a waste receptacle. Remember that the prime activity of all other living organisms is to self-organize in the creation of mutually supportive relationships that support the web of life in creating and sustaining more life. Remember that the same principles that create a sustainable ecosystem are an intimate aspect of who we are, and that if we are to ever have any hope of reaching our potential as individuals and as a species, we had best start acting like it. We must think and act the way nature works.

There is not just a problem with focusing on global warming to the exclusion of other environmental problems. There is a meta-problem with focusing on applying band-aids to symptoms of a culture out of balance--that has disconnected its relationships with the natural world, with each other, and with our own inner nature. As Paul Cienfuego of Democracy Unlimited points out, we must quit clipping branches and start digging up the roots.

This, of course, makes the proponents of growth economies very squeamish. By taking every proposed solution to global warming, other environmental problems, the energy crisis, etc., off the table if the solutions don't, first and foremost, protect economic growth, they ensure that the problems will remain intractable. Proponents of the status quo (the sycophants of free-market capitalism and its practice of economic cannibalism) reverse all the relationships they haven't severed. Profit is put above people and planet. However, nature neither produces waste nor grows beyond maturity. As Edward Abbey said, infinite growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. We have been aware of the implications of what we're doing for a long time, e.g. Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" in 1949, and John Storer's "The Web of Life" in 1953.

Of course, once one reaches these inescapable conclusions, what is the actual process to implement these solutions? What is the alternative to the status quo that we're constantly told either doesn't exist or is utopian and thus unrealistic? The only systemic solution--the one that addresses the common roots of systemic collapse and can improve quality of life as well--that I'm aware of is to relocalize our communities with steady-state economies and reconnect all of our senses to their roots in the natural world.