Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Green Status Quo?

One of the common critiques of Al Gore's July, 17 speech at a Washington, DC energy conference that I've heard -- from those few environmentalists who actually understand ecology -- is that Gore's proposals, first and foremost, are directed to ensure the status quo survives. Of course, Gore adroitly sidesteps any mention of how that status quo is going to continue to improve their standard of living without their servants to prepare their food and dress them, or without an atmosphere and topsoil that can even grow their food, or even that global warming is but one factor calling into serious question the sanity of Western lifestyles predicated on infinite economic growth and financial accumulation that can only artificially confer a status that is superficial at best.

But this critique leads us to a bit of a quandary when looking deeper at what Gore said. It is currently thought to be political suicide to directly tell people the truth that Western civilization is generally at odds with life. The Industrial Growth model in particular is completely at odds with life, and actually helps define the concept of sustainability by providing a perfect example of its complete opposite, or negation.

So, when people who have actually taken the red pill (a small subset of those toying with the idea as possibly being a good thing to do) pick out and focus on statements from Gore's speech such as, "The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," and, "The future of human civilization is at stake," and use those statements to dismiss his entire message based on their beliefs that these outcomes would be beneficial, they might be shooting themselves in the foot. For if these are the only statements of Gore's that we concentrate on, we loose a perfect opportunity to bring up the viable and realistic alternative of powering down, relocalizing, and reconnecting. When looked at from a broader framework, Gore's speech can actually be a jumping off point for what more and more people are coming to realize needs to happen.

The American way of life and our understanding of Western civilization (which Gore incorrectly equates with human civilization) do need to be consigned to the dustbin of history, I won't argue with that. But I do think using that as a starting point is to risk losing a large segment of the population that we should be compassionately reaching out to with an honest awareness raising campaign of what we're really facing and what we must, and can, do.

There's nothing wrong with rightly pointing out that civilization as we know it is what has to go away; that powering a culture that is inherently destructive to life with renewable energy is neither the brightest nor the most rational thing to do. In fact, considering how far into overshoot we are as a species, powering our current Western lifestyles with renewables won't even buy us all that much time before the Earth's ecosystems tip into collapse.

But I don't intend to go into a complete critique of civilization here. Besides, others such as Derrick Jensen have done a very thorough job of that in works such as "The Culture of Makebelieve" and especially "Endgame, Vols. 1 and 2."

What I picked up on, and think we can constructively build on, were statements Gore made, as reported in the New York Times, regarding the "worse confluence of problems facing the country." Think about this for a second. What Gore is doing here is publicly tying energy depletion and high cost, job loss, high taxes on wage earners, and financial meltdown not only together, but with war. Very few political progressives have yet to make this leap.

Some of Gore's other statements, "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that´s got to change," are great as well -- as far as they go, anyway. He's still shying away from details. He's not being frank with people about what this really means and what must be done. But he is asking people to examine relationships that are normally glossed over at best.

This becomes an opening to talk to people about the fact that our way of life is based on an exploitive power-over structure that confers status and success on accumulation. It is a way of being that is in direct conflict with the principles natural systems use to nurture and sustain healthy, vibrant, and resilient ecosystems. This means it is in direct conflict with who we really are as a species and as individuals. Since it's elementary school math to figure out that on a finite planet, being a "winner" means less for everybody else -- plus the hard upper boundary on material accumulation -- in order to continue this economic game without inequity growing to the point that armed revolution is the only possible outcome requires selling a story of growth in the abstract concept of financial capital in which the commodification of everything, both real and imagined, is necessary.

What is needed, as Herman Daly pointed out decades ago, at the very least is to set limits to inequality in wealth and income. Orthodox growth economists insist that growth is a perfect substitute for income equality, for as long as there's growth, there's hope. Thus, the solution for the poor is to let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! This system is, of course, a symptom of a deeper malaise, but let's take it one step at a time.

We can help people make the next logical step -- that a system based entirely on economic growth is not only killing the planet, but is anathema to progress and prosperity when looked at from a perspective that includes the whole.

Because the fact of the matter is that Gore is correct. We could get 100% of the energy we actually need from renewables, not in 10 years, but today. As I keep pointing out, all it basically requires is to quit manufacturing the 99% of the stuff we don't need or want, build the rest of it to last and be repairable, decentralize the grid, and quit looking at efficiency from the narrow perspective of what is necessary to increase profit. This is the perspective we must get people to apply, not the assumption everyone immediately jumps to that alternative energy sources must be ramped up to replace what we're using fossil fuels for today.

And then we can go the next step. Start redesigning and rebuilding our communities to be livable instead of auto-centric, start getting population under control (in part by getting rid of excess), etc.

If we can help people connect the dots, and realize that a systemic alternative is available that stands a better than even chance of improving quality of life, they'll come to their own conclusion that civilization as we know it is a bad idea.