Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Magical Thinking

With all of the news air being sucked up by the market collapse and an election that is now less than three weeks away, it's been really hard to think about the real issues that face humankind much less write about them. Thank goodness George Monbiot is able to stay on track.

Here's a bit from his recent piece in the Guardian:

This stock collapse is petty when compared to the nature crunch
The financial crisis at least affords us an opportunity to now rethink our catastrophic ecological trajectory

This is nothing. Well, nothing by comparison to what's coming. The financial crisis for which we must now pay so heavily prefigures the real collapse, when humanity bumps against its ecological limits. (clip)

Here are some of the reasons why people fail to prevent ecological collapse. Their resources appear at first to be inexhaustible; a long-term trend of depletion is concealed by short-term fluctuations; small numbers of powerful people advance their interests by damaging those of everyone else; short-term profits trump long-term survival.

As we goggle at the fluttering financial figures, a different set of numbers passes us by.

On Friday, Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist leading a European study on ecosystems, reported that we are losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year as a result of deforestation alone. The losses incurred so far by the financial sector amount to between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Sukhdev arrived at his figure by estimating the value of the services - such as locking up carbon and providing fresh water - that forests perform, and calculating the cost of either replacing them or living without them. The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch. (clip)

Ecology and economy are both derived from the Greek word oikos - a house or dwelling. Our survival depends on the rational management of this home: the space in which life can be sustained. The rules are the same in both cases. If you extract resources at a rate beyond the level of replenishment, your stock will collapse. (clip)

The two crises feed each other. As a result of Iceland's financial collapse, it is now contemplating joining the European Union, which means surrendering its fishing grounds to the common fisheries policy. Already the prime minister, Geir Haarde, has suggested that his countrymen concentrate on exploiting the ocean.

The economic disaster will cause an ecological disaster.

Normally it's the other way around.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond shows how ecological crisis is often the prelude to social catatrosphe. The obvious example is Easter Island, where society disintegrated soon after the population reached its highest historical numbers, the last trees were cut down and the construction of stone monuments peaked.

The island chiefs had competed to erect ever bigger statues. These required wood and rope (made from bark) for transport, and extra food for the labourers. As the trees and soils on which the islanders depended disappeared, the population crashed and the survivors turned to cannibalism. Diamond wonders what the Easter islander who cut down the last palm tree might have thought. "Like modern loggers, did he shout 'Jobs, not trees!'? (clip)

Ecological collapse, Diamond shows, is as likely to be the result of economic success as of economic failure. The Maya of Central America, for instance, were among the most advanced and successful people of their time. But a combination of population growth, extravagant construction projects and poor land management wiped out between 90% and 99% of the population.

The Mayan collapse was accelerated by "the competition among kings and nobles that led to a chronic emphasis on war and erecting monuments rather than on solving underlying problems". (sound familiar?)

Again, the largest monuments were erected just before the ecosystem crashed. (clip)

But the financial crisis provides us with an opportunity to rethink this trajectory; an opportunity that is not available during periods of economic success. Governments restructuring their economies should read Herman Daly's book Steady-State Economics.

A steady-state economy has a constant stock of capital that is maintained by a rate of throughput no higher than the ecosystem can absorb. The use of resources is capped and the right to exploit them is auctioned. (clip)

Alternatively, we can persist in the magical thinking whose results have just come crashing home." more

Monbiot points out that one of the benefits of modernity is our ability to spot trends and predict results. Obviously, if the global economy keeps growing at 3% a year (or 1,700% a century), it will hit a wall.

But our ability to believe in this kind of Wile Coyote magical thinking, and culture's natural tendency to believe that "the system that worked yesterday will work tomorrow", tends to obstruct our ability to act rationally.

Thus, we hear the crowds of red yelling to "drill, baby, drill".

As this crisis continues to reveal its full meaning, let us work together to shape a different kind of magical thinking, and a new hope for a world of justice and understanding, free from the chains of the past, grounded in the practicalities of the natural limits of our earth, and powered by the unlimited potential of the energy from the heavens.

This is magical thinking we can live with.

Earthfamily Principles
Earthfamilyalpha Content IV
Earthfamilyalpha Content III
Earthfamilyalpha Content II
Earthfamilyalpha Content

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home