Thursday, December 6, 2007

Doing What Comes Naturally: Responses to Systemic Crises

Global warming is becoming the rallying cry of many environmental and social justice organizations. As can be expected, they each insist that solving their particular issue is the best solution, or the best place to start, as we begin work to shift demand to renewable energy sources. None, however, mention reducing demand. Of course, we must also remember that these groups all find themselves firmly enmeshed in triage situations of a system that has become normalized; that we legitimize.

For example, a recent Oxfam e-mail action alert starts out by listing aspects of the dire situation global warming is creating; a particular species going extinct, disappearing ice caps, more destructive storms. Then they say what's missing from the global warming debate is the effect on the world's poor. And to a certain extent, that's very true.

However, it seems that what's really missing from the debate about global warming is questioning what the true underlying cause of this crisis is. Nor are the intimately interconnected aspects of the equally devastating crises of energy depletion, mass extinctions, overpopulation, and biospheric toxicity often mentioned. Of course, we can also throw all the deteriorating quality of life indicators into the mix as well as we contemplate what 'dire' really means.

Might there be some overlooked connections between global warming and poverty that run deeper than coastal flooding?

From nearly every vantage point, when you closely examine any of these crises, you quickly uncover one or more aspects of the excess of economic growth and exploitation, which provide the commonality for these issues through their requirement for a never ending quest for more producers, consumers and natural resources. The crises and their secondary manifestations all lay very close to the diseased root of materialism which encourages usury, celebrity status of financial wealth, and materialism's addictive substitution for psychological and spiritual health and well-being.

It's not just poor people, but the 90-95% of the world's population outside of the power and control structure who will, at least initially, suffer the brunt of any negative changes to the environment and to their livelihoods. Meanwhile, those at the top of the control hierarchy--the ruling elites in our Plutocracy (or more accurately, Kleptocracy)--hold fast to their fantasy of having security in troubled times because their credit rating assures them of acquiring the latest technologies. Technology is thought to meet the economic dictum of perfect substitutability.

We don't need poison free food, air, or water. We don't need fossil fuels for the Industrial Growth Society. Atmospheric carbon can increase to 550 PPM and the planet can warm six degrees... or even more. We've got technology!

I call this the techno-rapture. These are the people who will be the most devastated, by being the least aware of and prepared for, the consequences of business as usual.

Being honest about what the problem really is the necessary first step in formulating responses to these systemic crises that will be both effective and lasting.

Capitalism is a system that has failed--dangerously. Fortunately, there is an alternative that just happens to be both life affirming and capable of improving quality of life. The alternative is relocalized steady-state economies and embracing sustainability, especially its carrying capacity aspect. But this alternative is discounted by the system that is threatened by it. Centralized control and power over have no role in this alternative system. We are told any alternative to the status quo is unrealistic or worse, utopian. If this doesn't work to scare people away, we're warned that it's communist. Therefore, no meaningful discussion can take place, as it would be an idealistic or unpatriotic waste of time.

As the various social change groups lobby for change, they all point out the U.S. is the world's largest polluter. It's this abstract other that is the villain. But... the U.S. is us. You and me with our hybrid cars and our solar powered 10,000 sq. ft McMansions filled with our energy-star rated products that use more energy, like 42" plasma screen TVs, than their predecessors did. But, we assure ourselves that everything's really ok because we switched to compact fluorescents and we reuse our shopping bags. We've allowed the system to convince us that discrete individual actions to redecorate our staterooms as the ship of Western culture continues steaming toward the rocks is the best we can do.

What we must realize is that we can simultaneously work to alleviate the symptoms of dominator hierarchies and the economic cannibalism of unfettered free-markets--symptoms such as poverty, oppression, inequity, privatization (piratization) of the commons, and separation from the natural world, each other and our own inner nature--as we create a sustainable future based on ecological wisdom and social justice.

Embracing a common goal of sustainability would lay the foundation for a democratic culture of peace. This would be in keeping with the life affirming principles of natural systems. It would, therefore, actually be easier than all the effort we're currently putting into maintaining and enhancing a system at odds with these principles. It wouldn't, however, increase GDP.

So, the first decision we must make as we grapple with what to do about global warming is: Which is more important, profit... or people and planet?

If we decide for the latter, let's see of we can agree on a foundation for a sustainable future.

A first point would be recognizing that a healthy ecosystem is the master of sustainability. It is the best place to examine the principles that create the mutually supportive relationships that keep an ecosystem healthy, vibrant, and resilient. Each organism has an abundance of opportunities to find fulfillment within carrying capacity constraints, which include being part of the food chain.

A second point is recognizing that humans come from the Earth. Whatever created natural systems principles used them to create us as well. We do, after all, have over half of our DNA in common with a banana. (And if this isn't cause for humility, I don't know what is.) We naturally embody the ability to be sustainable, and can look to healthy ecosystems for the models and metaphors we need to create sustainable lifestyles, organizations, and communities.

The best way I've found to express this is to start with the four core principles of natural systems: mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. These combine to keep an ecosystem sustainable. The prime activity of living systems in expressing these principles is to self-organize mutually supportive relationships that create more life. It must also be noted that living systems at all scales grow to maturity, and then continue to develop and contribute to keeping the system healthy and in harmony.

From this we can also develop a legally defensible definition of sustainability that has environmental, moral, and scientific aspects. The defense of this definition and what it means to human societies can be founded on a strong constitutional argument that is based in Supreme Court jurisprudence dating back to the beginning of the U.S. It protects property rights by providing a foundation to base property rights on. The definition I propose is:

Sustainability: integrating our social and economic lives into the environment in ways that tend to enhance or maintain ecosystems rather than degrade or destroy them; a moral imperative to pass on our natural inheritance, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in its ability to meet the needs of future generations; finding, and staying within, the balance point amongst population, consumption, and waste assimilation where watersheds and bioregions maintain their ability to recharge and regenerate.

If we can agree that the above points are reasonable, we can use them to start analyzing an issue like poverty from a fresh perspective.

We can start by removing the requirement for economic growth in any response developed. We should also take a close look at what human enterprise has made available to us. It's instructive to note that in the overall global economy, 1/3 of the population creates everything that is consumed on the entire planet. What this means is that we should all be working 2/3 less and have full global employment. Then we can start increasing this ratio even more by looking at increasing efficiency, environmental constraints, quality and craftsmanship, and doing away with throw-away consumerism by helping people discover and remember that being more fulfills in a way that having more never can.

We can quit running people off their land and provide the knowledge to plant and harvest a wide diversity of ecosystem adapted crops instead of a single luxury export crop that requires unsustainable inputs. We can make sure basic nutrition and medicine is available and reduce infant mortality and the need for large families. We can provide honest family planning education that is culture sensitive and return elders to their respected mentoring roles as valuable community members. We could very quickly stabilize global population and start allowing it to drop to a sustainable level, estimated by many to be about 2 billion.

None of this is particularly radical, it's all perfectly feasible, and there are functional examples of each aspect we can draw on. We have both the necessary wisdom and the technology available today. This has been the promise of science, technology, and religion all along. People will not turn into layabouts, but will gain the time to find the fulfillment they've been seeking instead of using shopping or sitting captive to mindless entertainment as a substitute.

The above factors would combine to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, decrease demand, increase personal security and satisfaction, and the need for war greatly diminishes or disappears. If people's natural expectations for fulfillment are being met, poverty would no longer be a symptom of a system seriously out of balance.

And of course all of the above is relevant in other contexts. Democracy advocates, some of whom express their goal as being the desire to experience democracy in their own lifetimes, will focus on an issue like campaign finance reform as being the cure. But this is just another symptom whose root is the same paradigm of domination as the other global crises. If activists of various stripes would concentrate on cooperating to change the root, using their prime issue of concern as a guide for their actions, the branches on the co-evolving tree of life would be different instead of coming out diseased in a different location on the trunk.

What this all comes down to is agreeing on a common goal--sustainability; guided by a set of values such as those in the Earth Charter--respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, nonviolence and peace; and developing a willingness, and accepting the responsibility, to become fully human.

It's in our nature to do so. It is a rational choice that also just happens to feel good.

There are numerous tools we can use on the journey to a sustainable future. A few of the effective ones include a process from applied ecopsychology, Dr. Michael Cohen's Natural Systems Thinking Process, that can both empower us and reconnect us to all aspects of nature--personal, social, and environmental. There's a project known as relocalization that provides a new blueprint for our social and economic development. The Green Party provides a political platform that deeply embodies these concepts. And there are a number of social studies that show widespread support is available and growing (Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson's Cultural Creatives), that rapid change is possible (Paulo Freire's work with illiteracy in indigenous tribes and Marian Diamond's work with enriched environments), and that a partnership society is both functional and provides a precedent for balanced cooperation between the natural world and human society (Riane Eisler's Partnership Way).

Let's get busy.