population chart
Regular readers of this blog know that I believe we’re headed for ecological catastrophe, driven by the double whammy of overpopulation and accelerating resource consumption (depicted on the charts above, with the red and green lines marking maximum and ideal sustainable levels respectively), and they know that my ‘Roadmap‘ for heading off this catastrophe is a set of 27 actions (technological, social, political and economic), with a more radical backup ‘Plan B‘ if it turns out we’re unable or unwilling to follow the Roadmap.

Many others seem to share my alarm about our current situation, but there is no clear consensus on what we should do about it. Over the past year I’ve described at least eight prescriptions for ‘saving the world’:

  • Each do what we do best to ‘Be the Change’ (e.g. Ghandi)
  • Strive for a new collective consciousness (e.g. Jon Schell)
  • Apply our vast human imagination (e.g. Bucky Fuller)
  • Take aggressive, coordinated action (e.g. my ‘Roadmap’)
  • Lead the way away and others will instinctively follow (e.g. Daniel Quinn)
  • Revolution: Overthrow the system (e.g. Marxists, Anarchists)
  • Radical intervention: Coercion and sabotage (e.g. my ‘Plan B’)
  • Prepare for inevitable apocalypse (e.g. neoprimitivists, religious salvationists, eco-fatalists)

This past weekend I’ve been reading about yet another approach, in the work of Elisabet Sahtouris (EarthDance) and Gary Alexander (eGaia), both of whom use the caterpillar-to-butterfly radical transformation metaphor, to call for what I’d describe as a human ‘Cultural Metamorphosis’. I’d like to thank Don Dwiggins for bringing this thinking to my attention.

In EarthDance, Elisabet lays out an 11-part prescription to bring about this ‘metamorphosis’ (the numbers in brackets are cross-references to the equivalent elements in my 27-point Roadmap):

  1. Change how we measure human success from GDP to a measure of well-being
  2. Educate everyone to be aware of the unsustainability of our culture, and what must be changed and why (S1)
  3. Introduce alternative currencies to change human economic behaviour and more equitably distribute wealth
  4. Reduce human fertility by reducing economic and health disparities so large families are no longer necessary (S4, P8)
  5. Encourage voluntary simplicity to reduce resource consumption (S5)
  6. Require all human products to be 100% consumable or recyclable with no pollution or other waste (P1)
  7. Introduce sustainable agriculture — no ploughing, no tilling, no fertilizing, pesticides or herbicides — based on Peru’s Waru-Waru or Mexico’s Aztec Chinampa model, and end agricultural subsidies (P3)
  8. Encourage bioregionalism and local self-sufficiency in production of essential goods (T1)
  9. Migrate from the oil economy to a renewable energy economy (T2)
  10. Use the Internet more aggressively and democratically to enable self-organization (‘autopoiesis’) of communities, devolve power, share information and facilitate collaboration (T4, T5, S7)
  11. Teach everyone Gaia philosophy — that we are an integral part of a living, self-balancing Earth organism, and what that entails

Gary’s eGaia is consistent with Elisabet’s prescription. After outlining his case for change, he introduces a series of principles based on the achievement of peace, cooperation and sustainability (replacing war, competition and growth, the fuels of our current culture). He then presents a future state vision, much as my upcoming novel will do, with vignettes from individuals’ lives in a balanced and harmonious future world (though his future world is much less radically transformed than the one my novel depicts). A highlight of his book is his description of Italy’s Federation of Damanhur, a fascinating and pragmatic 800-person community built on self-sufficiency and cooperation that exists right now. It’s a little too spiritually-based for my tastes, but it demonstrates that modern, self-organized, self-managed communities can work for long periods very effectively and very successfully.


This reading has modified my thinking somewhat on the Roadmap, and I will be making some changes to the Roadmap as a result. But the more I read about our current situation, the more pessimistic and radical I get in my thinking, and the less persuaded I am that any voluntary program of human behaviour and way-of-thinking changes, legal, economic and political changes, and creative problem-solving, will be substantial enough, or come soon enough, to deal with the crisis we face today. I am increasingly convinced that the momentum of 6 billion people’s (and doubling every 60 years) insatiable desire to acquire more, is just too much to overcome in time. And the more I read and think about the natural crisis behaviours of all living creatures in extreme overcrowding and resource scarcity conditions, the more I am persuaded that, if we could take the lid off the population/scarcity pressure cooker, the other social, political, economic, psychological and ecological problems we now face might actually solve themselves.

Here’s why I think this: Imagine for a moment two very large islands, A and B, somewhere in time and space. The people of both islands believe they are alone on their world, and in the universe, and that, since they’ve looked for it in vain for years, each group of islanders believes there is no other land on their world. Now imagine that both islands are in crisis situations — badly overpopulated and polluted, with massively inequitable distribution of resources, power and wealth, and constant war, violence and bloodshed. Suppose that the human population of island A is growing at 1% per year — doubling every sixty years, every average lifetime. But there is a new virus on island B, taking the lives of 3% of the population each year, in an apparently random way, so that island’s population is actually dropping by 2% each year.

On island B, I believe, any of the prescriptions for change I’ve listed above — from Ghandi’s ‘be the change’ to Quinn’s ‘walk away, build a new culture and others will follow’, or even a Cultural Metamorphosis — will probably work, because the population pressure that underlies all of the other problems is being alleviated, and creating the opportunity for a new start, the building of a new evolutionary culture that will prevent these problems from arising again. In fact, such a metamorphosis might not only be possible on this island, it might be inevitable, because the scarcity necessary to sustain war, violence, the hoarding of resources and the power and authority of the rich elite will quickly and simply dissipate. The people of island B can, and will, ‘walk away’ from the dysfunctional culture and economy that they will blame for the passing crisis, and build one, or many, diverse and sustainable cultures better suited to their new reality.

But on island A, there is no such opportunity. There is no time, and no space, to try out evolutionary change, no breathing room for widespread public debate or to create awareness of the urgent need for lower fertility, simpler living, less consumption and more equitable distribution of resources. The rich will keep spending more and more of their money and resources protecting what they have from ever-increasing numbers of ever-more-desperate poor, seeing and dealing with only the symptoms (e.g. suicide bombers) of the crisis, and not its underlying cause. The poor will remain convinced that large families — the labour of which is the only resource they have and can control, the only asset they have of value — are a critical means of support and survival. On the television stations of island A, the news will all be about current wars, corporate corruption, epidemic disease, the need for more growth, and parochial politics — there will be no widespread awareness of the crisis, let alone intelligent discussion of its causes and possible solutions. On island A, like on our world today, there is not enough time, and there is no reasonable way out.

So I’m intrigued and enlightened by the Cultural Metamorphosis solution. But I despair that its chrysalis can survive the coming winter, and fear that its butterfly is doomed to be still-born.

(Graphic above is from Thank You For Not Breeding, a film and flash animation by Nina Paley)

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  1. Denny says:

    The problem is almost inconceibable huge, global. There may be apathy or cynicism or even evil, but I think the danger is that caring people don’t know where to start. It’s too big. Even the suggestions in your post, which are right-headed, seem so sweeping and non-specific that the average well-intentioned person STILL doesn’t know what to do.

  2. Joshua says:

    When is it time for plan B? If you were now living south of the US border, might you now think it time for plan B? In Africa? As you state, the apocalypse whose arrival you place at the end of the 21st century, is already being lived by the billion humans living below the poverty line. I believe that it is these people that are the catalyst for change.

  3. Kevin says:

    You’re not alone in your losing hope. The more I learn, the more I see a need to change our behavior, and the more I change my own… this makes me feel hopeful, that “hey, we can overcome this!” But my life is very sheltered. Most of what I read and do is environmentally centered now, or at best environmentally neutral. This allows me to keep false hope. Every once in a while though, I am put into a situation outside my little hopeful box. It may be a simple meeting with a client that takes me into the city, it may be a party with friends, or it may be a movie or TV show depicting “average” life, or at least what people aspire their average life to be like. When I see this I realize that there is really no way that change can come quickly enough, if it even comes at all…It’s discouraging to think that really the only way I can have hope is to close myself off from the outside world. It’s not in a Unibomber sense, but more subtle. Shopping at the local organic grocer allows me to never have to see the crap they sell at the normal person’s super-market. Taking a bike vacation and staying in a tent allows me to ignore the fact that most people are flying to their destination and staying in huge hotel rooms, air-conditioned 24-7. Reading a majority of environmentally minded web-sites gives me a false sense that a majority of people care.The other day I watched a tape of the first episode of “The Apprentice”. It was sickening to see how much damage one man such as Donald Trump can do, but it was even more sickening to realize that most people watching that show envy him and want to live just like him. It’s a real reality check considering that I generally watch the much less popular PBS channel, with it’s hopeful programs about what can be done to save the earth.As for ideas about what can be done, I had a *terrible* idea the other day, but the more I think about it, the more the pessimist in me wonders if it’s not a more realistic solution.Considering that most action only happens when something reaches visibly critical levels, such as pollution laws only being put into effect when people in an area start to die in large numbers, animals being protected only when they are facing immediate extinction, etc… perhaps we should not be trying to make people cut down on consumption, which appears to be futile, and any success simply slows the progression of the earth’s destruction to an even more out-of-site out-of-mind level. Perhaps instead, we should be promoting even more reckless consumption, in the hopes that a visibly critical situation develops sooner than later, causing humanity to act quickly in time to save what little remains, instead of letting everything die off so slowly that before the majority of people notice, there is nothing left. :(

  4. Conor says:

    Ooooh… “Still born-born butterfly”, and a doomed one too. Great name for an ultra-postmodern girl goth band….And yes, I agree with your assessment. It’s gonna get whole lot worse before it get’s any better, especially if you are a female and a child in the developing world.

  5. Conor says:

    I mean “Still-born butterfly”. I’m a terrible self editor.

  6. Dear Dave, Kevin, and Joshua:I am a little disapointed for your comments and your desperation…. if you really want a social or world change yous hould know that it will take years or may be centuries!!! social changes are really slow just to give you a couple of examples: How many years (or centuries?) take to change from the midle age to the renaissance?, How many year has taken the fight for consider the women equal to the men??? now please thin How recent is the conscience of environmental damage? 50?, 80? 100 years? and you dont see the changes yet?? Cant you see the study programs in collega and universities about earth sciences and environmental management??? Is not that a change? What do you tell me about the new NGO (no goberment organizations Is like that?) worried about environment??Do you think your effords are useless? just remember what the english empire thought about Ghandi This naked guy is going to get us out form india??? No way!!!! and what happened?? you should feel bad about your thought having a great example like that.How could you dare to expect a change in such a little period of time?? the fight just have started!!!! and im pretty sure that we wont be able to see such change but Do we have the right to feel that our fight its senseless?? NO WAY!!!!! im fighting to give a better world no to mi sons (i dont expect the things change that fast, no!!!) not even my gran childrens i just expecto that my graetgrand childrens could see it.Another exmaple when Marx saw the inequity between the labor and aritocracy start thinking in a new way of economy Did he saw his master piece finiched??? he was just the architect of such kind of organization!!!! and the same job is for us.Joshua you are asking about where to start ill tell you where… in your own life!!!! talk to everybody you can, your life has to be the example of the change you want to see!!! are you really worry for South america??(down of the Bravo River, this is a bad name for us, but we will talk abput this later)so start buying pur products, avoiding voting for goverments who support extra taxes for food and vegetables, avoid the anti-inmigrations laws (we both need inmigration), travel more to the south, teach english to those who dont know it, you dont need just to feel pety, you can act whereever you are, and here in the south we are fighting to against our own devils… did you know that Barzil has a left thinker president after years of bad politicians??? did you know that Mexico has a new president after 70 years of a totalitarian regimns? that we both are trying to make better environmental laws?? so everybody its trying to do ther best, to me you just want to see huge revolutions and radical changes but in a very short period of time and are unable to see this litlee but very significative steps to a new

  7. Kevin says:

    “I am a little disapointed for your comments and your desperation…. “You’re right Miguel. Re-reading my comment this morning I see that it was exceptionally and unexcusably negative… no more writing comments so late at night when I am tired. However,”if you really want a social or world change yous hould know that it will take years or may be centuries!!! “What is discouraging is not the speed of change per say, but rather that we just don’t have centuries given the current trends. As you can see by Dave’s graphs, the situation is different than it was in the renaissance. While there may have been centuries to change things in the past, the current population trends no longer allow centuries for social change to happen at it’s historical pace.”Cant you see the study programs in collage and universities about earth sciences and environmental management??? Is not that a change? What do you tell me about the new NGO (no goberment organizations Is like that?) worried about environment?? “Do you think your effords are useless?”I see these, and this is what gives me hope. In fact, I am going back to school in the fall to enter one of them. But like I tried to say in my comment, when I take myself out of the world of people who care and are trying to make a difference, I am overwhelmed by the attitude and number of people who don’t care. I don’t see that their efforts are useless, but I see that for every one of them, there are hundreds more people working against them, and that number isn’t going to decrease any time soon.”im fighting to give a better world no to mi sons (i dont expect the things change that fast, no!!!) not even my gran childrens i just expecto that my graetgrand childrens could see it.”The despair doesn’t come from the speed of the change so much as the impossible deadline (which I feel, given the trends, is probably before the birth of my grandchild). Although I have never seen anyone write about a deadline, about a realistic forecast of how long we must implement change, taking into account the current positive and negative changes in society and the carrying capacity of the earth. Of course, when certain “goals” are set, which are not to be confused with “deadlines” for change, because even these goals are met it is not enough, the goals are often ignored by the very people who must try hardest to meet them. Kyoto Protocol? The United Nations Development Program? These are all but ignored by the US, and there is really no evidence that leads me to think they will be met. It is not even something that can just be blamed on the Bush administration either, the blame lays on the American people and their quest for more stuff. And I see no change in sight… at least not for the better. Instead, I see more and more people acquiring the greed, clamoring for the the “good” life. That is what is discouraging to me.In closing though, thanks for this comments about Brazil and Mexico. Stepping out of my own little world, I tend to get discouraged, maybe it’s just because I don’t step far enough out. I am far from having a complete picture of where world as a whole stands. Maybe if I knew it all, I would feel a little better. At least I hope so.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Denny: You’re right. Some would say what’s the point of alerting people to a huge problem, making them care, if there’s no achievable solution to it? For that reason I’m going to try to set up a How to Save the World virtual think-tank — a space where those of us that care can effectively collaborate and see whether there are some better, more concrete solutions than the various ones I outline in this article. More info in an upcoming post…Joshua: The Catch-22 of course is that those that are most motivated to bring about radical change are least empowered — they have the least wealth and power, the fewest resources, the least access to media and means to move the change beyond their small communities. Some have argued that the remaining hunter-gatherer cultures on Earth have all the answers, pragmatic, modern solutions to living in harmony with nature and within our means, and even how to rein in overpopulation, but they can’t get any attention. As David Jones says, the most valuable man on Earth is the himalayan nomad who is the perfect model for how to live. But we can’t see him, and even if we do we can’t get past his strangeness to learn from him.Conor: Maybe the all-girl goth band can spread the message of what needs to be done much more effectively than we bloggers ;-)Miguel: Kevin is exactly right in pointing out that, for the first time in human history, we do not have the luxury of time. As long as we live in an ‘island B’ world there will be inevitably more crises emerging than we can solve. For every step forward in Mexico and Brasil there are two steps backward in 100 other nations. As population and consumption soar, there will be more and more Iraqs, AIDS, MadCows, SARS, North Koreas, and reactionary Bush regimes springing up, and we will be distracted and exhausted trying to deal with the symptoms of the problem, as the problem itself gets inexorably worse. Our despair is instinctive — and it grows the more we learn. We are like the wounded gazelle surrounded by the pack of lions — the adrenaline is still pumping, the hope for escape is still there, but we are in many ways already preparing ourselves for death, beginning to float away so that in our final moments we will be in another place, at peace, at last.

  9. Dear Dave:I get your point but i think you should be more in somme middle point, you are right when you said: “For every step forward in Mexico and Brasil there are two steps backward in 100 other nations. As population and consumption soar, there will be more and more Iraqs, AIDS, MadCows, SARS, North Koreas, and reactionary Bush regimes springing up, and we will be distracted and exhausted trying to deal with the symptoms of the problem” but the justice, truth and science has his followers too i’ll give you some examples: Jacobo Arbenz (from Guatemala, killed by the Norh American banana huge company because he face them), Ricardo Lagos (President of Chile trying to get more social justice to his country with a kind of 3 via), Joseph Stiglitz (Economist, part of the William Climton economical advicers, fighting for taxes to those that pollute the environment), Fernando Savater (Spanish wrtiter fighting agains ETA and the lack of environmental regulations), Germán Dehesa (Mexican writer trying to safe our Chapultepec (Chapultepec is to Mexico like Central Park to New York) fighting against corruption, envitonmental laws, etc…) and Did you know that the 90% of the all history scientist are still alive? yes i know there is a lot of bad people, but there are thousends more of good fellows…. What is the diference? the good guys are not on tv shows, they dont have the first page in news papers Why? because evil its multifaceting, being bad haev many faces…. the virtue, sacrifice and legality just one and its very hard to get it.And im sure there are thousends of citizens fighting in their own trinch, hundreds of David Pollards or Kevins…this is all is about…to know who is fightingh and how you can help him…to get the internet and the information as our weapons and keep fighting!!!!

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