Civilization Sys Chart
If you’re an American, I can appreciate that your immediate priority for saving the world is to get rid of “the worst president in the history of the United States”. His administration has almost certainly caused more damage to the environment than any regime in any country in history. What is exasperating is that our struggle with this psychopath is distracting us from a much more critical struggle against a much greater enemy: the growth that is killing us and our planet.

The thesis for much of this blog since it began sixteen months ago has been: Our world is headed for ecological collapse, due to the relentless and catastrophic rate of increase in both human population and per-capita resource consumption (‘footprint’). We are already consuming resources at over twice the rate at which our planet can sustain such consumption, and by the end of this century, at forecast growth rates, twice as many people will each be consuming twice as much again, so we will need eight Earths’ worth of land and resources just to meet immediate demand. This consumption will, at current rates of sprawl, use up every square inch of livable, arable land on the planet just for residential housing. It will require five times the energy that we can reasonably expect to find, extract and push out to the planet’s insatiable humans by the end of the century, even if we abandon all environmental constraints and burn every ounce of coal and wood, fire up hundreds of new nuclear plants, and exhume every gallon of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon that has taken millions of years to accumulate under the earth, the seabeds and the permafrost. As by-products of this activity, we will also generate five times as much pollution and waste as in all previous centuries combined, befouling the water and air, poisoning our food, raising the atmospheric temperature enough to bring about massive and catastrophic climate change, and eliminating all wilderness areas, every plant and animal species not used for human food, the forests that provide us with vital oxygen and medicine, and lowering the water table around the globe enough to desertify much of it and create a massive fresh water shortage.

On one point, the scientists, informed humanists and head-in-the-sand eco-holocaust denyers can agree: This cataclysmic future will never happen. As man shows himself incapable of reining in his own rapaciousness and greed, nature will intervene with increasingly potent and dreadful surprises to prevent this human cancer from destroying her body. If it weren’t for civilization, this would have already happened, quickly, simply and painlessly as it did for three million years before man invented a system he thought was better. But civilization has now raised the ante, introducing a whole new series of political, social, religious, technological, moral and economic systems, illustrated in the above chart (from last week’s post), designed to counteract and overcome natural forces. Let’s follow this chart through and see what we’re likely to face by the end of this century.

Overpopulation — more people per square mile than the Earth can reasonably support — naturally produces mental stress, which manifests itself in war, physical and psychological violence, neglect, repression, mental illness, and a lowered immunity to disease. In a natural system, this disequilibrium, combined with the scarcity of food and other critical resources in an overcrowded population, is sufficient to reduce fertility, increase mortality, and bring increasing numbers of natural predators to the table, and hence restore the population to natural levels.

But man has too much invested in relentless growth in population and consumption to give up that easily. He has invented the following ingenious methods to sustain growth and civilization even as nature is trying to limit them:

  • Monoculture agriculture: Intensive cultivation of land with larger and larger quantities of fewer and fewer varieties of food plants and food animals. This is sustained by: genetically engineering plants for higher yields; soaking fields in chemicals, herbicides and pesticides to kill everything else that interferes with these selected plants; soaking fields in increasing quantities of fertilizers to compensate for the degradation of the soil caused by the chemicals, herbicides and pesticides (and exacerbated by overuse, and the runoff from clearing land not designed for agricultural use); poisoning and shooting wildlife that tries to eat human agricultural products; stuffing animals full of growth hormones and antibiotics to increase meat yield and ward off the natural diseases that come from overcrowding and monoculture; cramming these animals into tiny quarters to increase yield, and then debeaking, confining and drugging them so the stress of this horrendous overcrowding doesn’t cause them to kill themselves and each other. This agriculture is dependent on cheap supplies of foreign oil for the petrochemicals needed to sustain it, massive government subsidies, huge, inexpensive tracts of land to grow corn and grain for cheap animal feed, and concealment of the incredible cost and damage of monoculture agriculture to the taxpayers and the Earth’s ecosystems. But in the meantime it results in huge quantities of deceptively cheap food, which in turn keeps human population growing.
  • Salvationist religions: As overcrowding produces stress and epidemic disease, the people could get disheartened about the benefits of civilization and rebel against the power elite. So we need religions to say that nature is evil, war and suffering are honourable and ‘natural’, and we must conform to a strict moral code — and have large families. And if as a result we’re miserable all our lives, we’ll get our reward in the next one. These religions teach us we’re not responsible, we need not act responsibly, that if we destroy the planet it’s not our fault, and someone else will fix it.
  • Corporatism and its political and economic propaganda: The myth machine must ensure that the teeming billions don’t realize just how bad and unsustainable the situation is, and start taking things into their own hands — with revolutions, civil wars, terrorism, and other behaviours that disrupt the population growth and consumption necessary for civilization to continue. So the corporatist elite must control the education system, preserving the myth that pre-civilization man lived a “brutish” life, the myth that wars are caused by megalomania and ‘evil’, rather than as a response to desperation and suffering and deprivation, the myth that with hard work anyone can be rich and happy, the myth that we all have a fair say in our political, legal and economic systems, the myth that our ‘leaders’ are working for democracy, rather than hoarding their wealth and power. And the corporatist elite must control the media, to perpetuate these myths, to ‘dumb down’ the citizens into mere consumers, and to keep the majority ignorant of political, economic and ecological reality. And of course the corporatist elite must continue to control the political and economic centres of power — governments and corporations — so they control the means of production, the law, and the judiciary, to keep wealth and power for themselves, and to lock up and silence those who pose a threat to it.

These man-made systems — the skewed, destructive, elitist, subjugating economic, political, legal, social, health, educational, agricultural, corporate and criminal justice systems, and religions and the media — produce some poisonous by-products as well. The bankrupt and propagandizing education system crushes human initiative, creativity and imagination, so that many of the people who could get us out of this mess give up or drop out. Without imagination or conscience or knowledge of ecology, we get strip mining, clearcut forestry, massive flooding for hydro dams, and the deadly threat and toxic radioactive poisons of nuclear power and nuclear bombs — technologies that needlessly accelerate the destruction of the environment and the loss of biodiversity. With a little better education, we might have solar and wind and geothermal energy, erasable paper, hydroponics and advanced ceramics instead.

This same lack of education and imagination has given us a health system that treats the rich and neglects the poor, instead of a health system that prevents disease for all.

And the massive inequality created by corporatism aggravates the stress that destabilizes the third world, ruins third world economies and makes them into desperate, violent welfare states, whose destitute majorities produce the only thing they can that has marketable value — more babies.

And so the circle goes round and round, producing more and more people and more and more mindless, wasteful consumption.

What will it take to break the cycle? If we acknowledge that the cycle is unsustainable, what is its weak link? I believe there are three weak links: disease, instinct, and technology.

  • Disease: If you’ve read Demon in the Freezer, you know that every species has its own unique poxviruses. They are nature’s choice of disease for dealing with massive overpopulation, and mosquitos, for example, have a host of selective poxviruses that keep their numbers in check without unbalancing the rest of the ecosystem. Poxviruses need a certain concentrations of numbers within a certain travelling distance of each other to thrive. With our record numbers and mobility, we are the perfect target for a new poxvirus, and nature’s ability to evolve new viruses when there is a prolific host is extraordinary. And we are just starting to learn about prions, another mechanism for spreading epidemic disease, and one that is probably unstoppable. And our monoculture agriculture has greatly increased the vulnerability of our foods to epidemic disease as well (as BSE and Avian Flu have demonstrated recently).
  • Instinct: For three million years man survived, and thrived, by trusting and following his instincts. We have forgotten how to listen to them, and been brainwashed to distrust them, but they’re still in our DNA and they’re still telling us what to do. I believe the drop in fertility in many countries with high population density is due more to instinct than to education or birth control technology. I believe the worldwide rejection of globalization, ‘free’ trade, ‘preemptive’ war, cultural homogenization and consumerism is an instinctive revulsion, not a spiritual or parochial one — we intuitively know that there is something very wrong with the way we live and the way we are headed, and that economic, political and social imperialism — and the destruction of cultural diversity — are part of the problem, not part of the solution. We know violence, abuse, rampant crime, pollution, global warming, extreme poverty and hopelessness are symptoms of the fact that something is very wrong, and we know something must be done. We don’t need someone to show us or teach us this. We just know it.
  • Technology: Technology is the innovative application of knowledge. It can do an end-run around the most entrenched and change-resistant political, economic or legal system. The corporatists recognize that the Internet has produced a knowledge and communication explosion, and have tried to squelch and corner every possible disruptive technology by patenting every single conceivable process. They even tried to create an alternative Internet under their own control. But they can’t put the lid back on Pandora’s box. Margaret Mead said it only takes a few people to change the world, and never has there been greater motivation, or opportunity, for that to happen.

You’ll notice that my three civilization ‘weak links’ have nothing to do with politics, economics, or law. These are lousy levers of change, and tend to entrench power, wealth, and the status quo. These systems, and the corporatism that depends on them, will collapse, but they will last longer than most of the other elements of civilization on the chart above. If we depend on the politicians, the economists, the lawyers or the business leaders to get us out of this mess, we’re in for a big disappointment. Not that these systems aren’t going to be faced with convulsive change in this century: Watch for massive immigration embargoes and blockades, fire-bombing of plague areas, dozens of coups, wars, suspensions of civil liberties, many new forms of hyphenated-terrorism, and revolutions. But none of these will change much. Have they ever, really?

On one side, monoculture agriculture, salvationist religions and corporatism. On the other, epidemic disease, instinct and technology. An epic battle, a fight to the finish, that will start in this century but could last hundreds of years — It’s not as if there’s a shortage of pawns. Some have called it “humanity’s final exam“. It is that, and more. Since we are a part of nature, this battle is in fact a civil war. Which side we each take, or support by our ignorance, our apathy, our indifference, will determine how we are assessed by our descendents, and how we are judged by history.

We won’t be around to see the end, but we are already witnessing the first skirmishes. We owe it to our children and grand-children to, at least, not make the situation worse. In tomorrow’s post, entitled What You Can Do to Save the World, I’ll suggest some ways I think each of us can help ‘not make the situation worse’. That may not sound like much, but if enough of us refuse to make the situation worse, it could make a huge difference.

Perhaps all the difference in the world.

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9 Responses to THE REAL WAR AHEAD

  1. Rob Paterson says:

    DaveWhat a fine post – hard to follow with a comment other than please keep it upCheers Rob

  2. trish says:

    hi, just found your site, I’m a arctic scientist with a professional interest in climate change and natural resources and I’ll be coming back to read your posts in more detail when I get a chance!

  3. Jon Husband says:

    I agree with Rob – nothing to say but “more of your usual fine work”.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, guys. Hope the readers who implore me to provide more ‘practical’ posts will stay tuned for tomorrow’s followup. Trish, welcome, and may I say your blog is absolutely stunning — are you sure you’re not an artist rather than a scientist? And that photo of the fern leaf — amazing — you should enter it in a contest.

  5. Kevin says:

    Although I agree with most of your post, the “us” vs. “them” tone makes me uncomfortable. In reality, “them” are “us”.Corporatism: It makes it sound like corporatism is an entity outside of ourselves. It’s not. It’s a system which we all participate in and benefit from (at least in a sick, short-sighted way). It’s appealing to look at corporatism as a bunch of greedy, evil men in suits wringing their hands, plotting about how they can best undermine the sustainability of everyone elses earth, and surely those people *do* exist, but most of the people making and carrying out the policies doing the damage are regular people doing their jobs, just like you and me. Just this morning I helped close a deal which will, if everything goes according to plan, increase the efficiency and productivity of a client, enabling and promoting more mindless consumption. No one at that meetng has a goal to destroy the earth, yet together, we *are* the greedy men in suits plotting the destruction of the world.Monoculture agriculture: This too is not a “them”, not the result of a big scheming factory farm, but rather the result of our choices. I believe is well documented, and pretty clear to most people, regardless of their actions. This is also relativly easy to opt out of to a large degree compared to opting out of corporatism. Unfortunatly, in a sick way, most people equate the ability to opt out by “eating organic” as a result of being wealthy and successful in the corporate world.Salvationist religions: I can’t say much about this, except that I see this as a little different than the others you have mentioned above. Whereas if I am putting my time, money, and effort into an unsustainable corporate or agriculture system, that system grows stronger as a result, and the ability to damage is increased. By my participation, I am part of the problem. With religion however, my beliefs have never hurt anyone so far as I can see, and they are completely in-line with my ecological goals. So much so in fact, that opting out of my religion in the same way that I try to opt out of the other two “thems”, would be hard to do. As my church does not subscribe to the birth control policies you alude to, the only problem I see is that it does not use it’s influence enough to promote it’s techings which support evironmental stewardship, and in turn I don’t give any money to the church, because I feel it can do more good elsewhere.But in the end, my point is, depicting all these as the evil “thems” makes it so easy for people to ignore the instinct that is telling us that we are headed in the wrong direction. Most people I talk to know enough of the facts to realize that we are in trouble, yet, they don’t equate it with their own actions. Instead of a healthy sense of responsiblity, they are feeling anger at the evil old men in suits that have nothing to do with them. Anger is good, but I think we have to be angry at ourselves, not the “thems”.And finally, I’m looking forward to tomorrows post!

  6. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi KevinMaybe “evil” is not the idea because to be evil probably requires a choice and hence an understanding of what is really the consequences of what we do.In an extreme view, it is clear that many of those that participated in the Holocaust did not think that they were doing something wrong let alone evil. They thought the opposite! It would be hard now in Germany or Poland to do it again.,So nearly all of us, me included got up every morning and went to work, or went shopping or went to church not recognizing that we were participating in activities and in institutions that dehumanize our society and that desolate the biosphere. Maybe when we are all unconscious, there is no evil. BUT when we wake up and can “see” the consequences of corporatism where all is sacrificed to an abstraction or the effects of salvationist religions that denigrate nature, that enable people to put up with hopeless lives and that cause conflict globally – then not acting might be called evil.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin: You’re right, there is too much implied ‘us vs. them’ in this article. We are all caught up in this folly, and seduced by civilization’s promises. But it is unawareness of alternatives, and lack of imagination, that makes us complicit. We have no one but ourselves to blame.

  8. Don Dwiggins says:

    Dave, I’ve been meaning to ask you a bit about instinct, given your prominent slogan, and this seems to be a good opportunity to probe what you mean by the word. My own candidate for the list is learning, both individual and group. On a superficial level, these two would seem to be opposed: instincts are hardwired (or are they?), while the essence of learning is to create new “wirings”.On a deeper level, though, perhaps instincts are the result of slow “long wave” learning, on an intermediate scale between biological evolution and individual “surface learning”. As such, consulting your instincts is in effect tapping into cultural wisdom. (At least as long as you can distinguish between your instincts and such things as wishful thinking, denial, prejudice, etc.)(This triggers thoughts of Michael Polanyi’s “Tacit Dimension” — his theory that much of our knowledge is “below” the formal, expressible level. For details, see his book by that name, and some related works. There was an interesting thread of discussion on the learning-org list about this, I think last year. If Polanyi is right, it raises an interesting question: can you manage tacit knowledge? 8^)There’s a lot to discuss here, too much for this little text box. I’ll just finish by offering a complement to your slogan: “educate your instincts”.BTW, thanks for the link to Final Exam. I’m in the thick of reworking it, and hope to have the new stuff up by the end of this month.

  9. Gregory Wilson says:

    Where are you ? I am working on the emergence of social reform and it’s relationship to tyranny and classism.I have some questions about the formation of religions around 700-500 BCE in terms of turning inward and social reform.I am studying that time period looking for origins of social justice struggles. I read in the story of the Path to Compassion that Siddhartha’s motivation for turning inward was social reform. And likewise the Hebrew prophets. What was going on during that era of time to produce this kind of religious expression? Rev. Gregory Wilson

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