Mar 072014

In a recent MAHB blog, Paul and Anne Ehrlich—reflecting on their paper last year on whether we can prevent civilizational collapse—describe what preventing collapse would require and give success somewhere between a 1 and 10% chance:

But what is crystal clear is that these changes are not remotely big or fast enough to make a real dent in the problem. Furthermore, there are no plans nor any tendency toward making the most crucial move required to lessen the odds of a collapse: a rapid but humane effort to reduce the scale of the entire human enterprise by ending population growth, starting the badly needed overall decline in numbers, and dramatically curtailing consumption by the rich. There is not even discussion about the obvious elements of the socio-economic system that support a structure embedding a need for perpetual growth—fractional-reserve banking being a classic target that requires investigation in this context. Virtually every politician and public economist still unquestioningly assumes there are benefits to further economic expansion, even among the rich. They think the disease is the cure.

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist. We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent. He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent. Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic. Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.” That could be the only thing that might preserve Earth’s capacity to support Homo sapiens in a post-apocalyptic future.

Apocalípico I by Mauricio García Vega

Not long after, Reverend Peter Sawtell, in his Eco-Justice Notes, reflected on “Doom and Gloom, Old and New,” applying lessons of the ancient prophet Jeremiah to prophets of today.

I’m not sure the style of Jeremiah’s message would be effective today. His pronouncement of horror wasn’t “effective” in 590 BCE, either. But there are at least four themes and messages in these verses that need to be lifted up, both for the prophets of today, and for those who dismiss the prophetic warnings.

  1. The proclamation of a prophetic critique is a long, lonely, ongoing task, and it must be embodied in the life of the messenger. Jeremiah’s personal life, renouncing marriage and children, was consistent with his public message. Those of us who speak words of warning today will be more credible, and harder to dismiss, when we are equally consistent. (Note the common attacks against Al Gore’s travel.)
  2. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the dire predictions of prophets and experts do come true. Jeremiah was right, just as climate scientists and ecologists have been accurate in naming the dangerous trajectory of our culture. We are seeing the first signs of unstable climate and ecological destabilization that are, indeed, catastrophic. Yet all too often today, I hear those who favor the status quo lump together all great warnings as failures and falsehood. (Alan AtKisson, in Believing Cassandra, addressed the way warnings can bring changes that avert the catastrophe—and then skeptics say that the predictions were wrong.) Doomsday predictions can be true.
  3. It is significant to me that Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the temple, the center of “God’s chosen people.” Jeremiah said that the city and the people would be demolished—and they were. Let’s remember that when people (including powerful politicians) reject the dangers of climate change with the implicit or explicit claim that “God would never let that happen to us.” If Jerusalem can be destroyed, and the covenant renounced by God, then we can have no expectation of miraculous divine deliverance from our self-inflicted crises.
  4. Jeremiah’s audience could not understand why he was dumping his doom and gloom on them. They saw themselves as good people, living presentable lives as members of their community in what they believed to be “ordinary times.” They were oblivious to how far they were outside of God’s law and the covenant relationship. They assumed that ordinary life, business as usual, was morally OK. Brueggemann wrote: “Jeremiah’s contemporaries are so detached from the claims of Yahweh, however, that they are unable to recognize the realities that the prophet regards as perfectly obvious.” The parallels to our situation—where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal, even by Christian scholars—are painfully clear, at least to me.

For those of us in the sustainability sector—at least those of us who are honest brokers of the data—reflecting on Sawtell’s thoughts is valuable. Yes, perhaps our warnings will prevent collapse or the Earth will prove more resilient than we could predict, but the odds of collapse are high. Finding ways to better communicate this “truth” to those who don’t understand their own trespasses (or in Sawtell’s words, “where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal”) is the challenge for all of us in the sustainability movement—at least until the doom and gloom arrive. And then we’ll have other, more pressing challenges, like surviving, and picking up the pieces of civilization.

 March 7, 2014  Posted by on March 7, 2014 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Feb 272014

Earlier this week, in The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, I compared the modern Olympic games to a plague of locusts:

Over the past few weeks, reading through the atrocities committed in the name of this global competition brought to mind an apt metaphor for the Olympics. To me, they seem almost like a biblical plague of locusts. They swarm periodically – currently every other year – consuming everything in their path. But the difference is that a locust plague doesn’t permanently devastate the landscape.It’s true that locusts eat crops and trees, but the insects are themselves edible, and the excrement they leave behind enriches the soil for years to come (like a forest fire). The Olympics don’t compare. In most places the Olympics swarm, they consume parkland, homes and communities, and replace them with concrete scars in the form of stadiums and hotels that rarely find much use after the horde of tourists depart. There has to be a better and more sustainable way to design the Olympics.

And while that may be a strong comparison, when we look at the ecocide caused in the name of celebration in Sochi–from the 6,000 acres of National Park built on to the damage that the Mzymta River – the spawning grounds of 20% of Russia’s Black Sea salmon – took, I don’t think it really is.

The three Sochi Olympic mascots, conscripted after being displaced from Sochi National Park.

So I suggested a new way to organize the games, from reducing their frequency to shrinking their overall participation (both in athletes and spectators). Plus I offered a new set of games that’ll help prepare us for the turbulent times ahead.

I would propose replacing many of the current games at the Olympics with ones that are relevant for our ecologically constrained future. Is flipping several times in the air after launching from a ski jump the skill that humanity should hone and celebrate as the climate starts to superheat? And will this event even be possible as global warming makes the availability of snow at the games more and more uncertain?

Should we instead substitute a new game of who can plant 25 trees the fastest? Or how many solar panels a contestant can affix to a roof in 10 minutes? Or who can weld a bicycle out of a box of spare parts the quickest? Or run to a well, fill a bucket with 20 gallons of water and run back without spilling – a challenge many of the world’s people today could deeply relate with? Or even who can navigate an inflatable boat down a turbulent river picking up trapped passengers along the way, an increasingly relevant skill given the growing number floods, hurricanes and other climate change disasters?

While I doubt the Olympic Committee will implement any of these ideas, I found them fun to consider. If you have other suggestions for new events, please do add them in the comments.

 February 27, 2014  Posted by on February 27, 2014 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Feb 212014

Below is an essay I wrote for Adbusters’ “Big Ideas of 2047 issue.” It starts with the premise that we didn’t intentionally degrow to a sustainable future but are suffering through the ecological and economic collapse that seems more probable every day. Enjoy!

Now that the nonprofit environmental sector has for the most part gone bust—it was, after all, supported primarily by surplus wealth held by rich individuals and foundations (much of which vanished as the Ponzi-esque global stock market crashed)—many of us “professional” environmentalists are now looking for work. Might I suggest considering the following jobs, as they all have significant growth potential in the years ahead:

Bicycle rickshaw driver (Image courtesy of Mabacam via flickr)

10) Taxi Driver

Very few people will be able to afford a car any longer. Public transportation will shrink as other government services do. Getting around will become increasingly difficult. Shuttling people around in a car, small truck or bus would provide a guaranteed income. It’s a tried and true method in many developing countries already.

9) Teacher

No downside here—teaching is a respectable career in good and bad times. Of course, public schools will probably become even more chronically underfunded, so teaching may become an informal sector job. The job may pay in barter—housing, food, doctor and dentistry services—but you’ll probably get by. And you might even be able to center the curriculum around ecological values.

Midwife helping with home birth (Image courtesy of amcdawes via flickr).

8) Doula or Midwife

In boom times or bust, people get pregnant. But fewer people will have health insurance, so they will choose to deliver their baby at home. Not a bad development overall, considering the social and environmental costs of the current birth industry—from America’s 31 percent caesarean-section rate to continuing overuse of formula. Both jobs are relatively secure but do require some training.

7) Small-scale Farmer

Not just crops in your front lawn or in the abandoned parking lot on your street, but raising small livestock—rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs and, most importantly, bugs. Shepherding thousands of crickets or mealworms to exchange with your neighbors will provide a good form of barter currency. This isn’t an easy life, especially in a climate-disrupted future, but will be an important part of a robust economic foundation for any family.

6) Artisan

In the post-consumer era, gone are the days of buying a new T-shirt or chair for $5 at the local Walmart. Most people will be back to wearing clothes until they’re just fabric, and making chairs out of scavenged milk crates. Local artisans will once again make things their neighbors need. The life of the artisan will be pretty secure, since you’ll only be making stuff your community really needs; and satisfying too—as you create something beautiful with your own hands. E. F. Schumacher would be proud.

5) Trash Miner

Long hours going through a mix of food waste, baby and pet crap, toxic household chemical residues, and the occasional valuable scrap of metal–it’s not easy or even all that safe. But you’ll be cleaning up decimated landfill sites and providing higher quality materials than are left in most remaining mines, making this both a green and well-paid job.

4) Death Midwife

As systems breakdown, more people are going to die. And few will be able to afford today’s “traditional” funeral that costs consumers an average of $10,000. More people will choose to bury their loved ones at home without any of the toxic trappings—casket, embalming fluid, plastic vault, and so on. Being a trained Death Midwife to help families cope, and to navigate the legal hurdles of burying their loved ones naturally, will be a rewarding and useful career path.

Forager Mark Miller with his find of black trumpet mushrooms (Image courtesy of alexander.steed via flickr)

3) Urban Forager

You ain’t gonna get rich collecting pounds of acorns, black walnuts and dandelion greens, but no matter how bad it gets you’ll have an inside track on surviving. Most people don’t know how to process acorns to make them edible. While they are queuing up to buy the few loaves of bread available at the supermarket, you’ll be making acorn flour pancakes and feeling comfortably full on meal that is higher in nutrients.

2) Eco-preacher

Foundations may no longer be issuing grants but donations to church communities continue in good times and bad—as these institutions provide community security and emotional support. If the environmental movement were to evolve to focus more on building local fellowship, providing basic social services—daycare, economic aid, free clinics, garden plots—and use these efforts to spread an ecological philosophy, perhaps they’d find the resources necessary to continue their essential work, and more importantly, over the course of the ecological transition help spread a new eco-centric culture that could help provide a more sustainable model for life on a hot planet.

1) Political Revolutionary

You might have considered this when you had a comfortable salary to support the efforts, but when you had that comfortable salary, the risks probably didn’t seem worth it. Now that Earth’s systems are rapidly unraveling and a corrupt nexus of corporations and governments continue to dig out fossil fuels from a warming Earth, perhaps it’s time to consider more radical strategies. Maybe join up with a few other jobless friends, squat in an empty house in Detroit, write a manifesto, and build a new political party while doing a bit of urban farming? Or even better, run for office and try to recapture the political system for the 99%. It’s not an easy lifestyle but it may pay off in the long-run.

 February 21, 2014  Posted by on February 21, 2014 Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Dec 242013

On this Christmas Eve, just a reminder of the current state of the world: it’s bad enough that even Santa and his global HQ are threatened, as this Guardian article about the speedy melting on the North Pole reveals.

With that in mind I thought I’d recruit our love of Santa to describe a revolution in the toy industry that would get us a ways closer to a sustainable future. Fewer toys, shared toys, and toys that teach ecological wisdom rather than a love of war, the joy of consumptive lifestyles, and how cool earth-ravaging construction equipment is. Even toys that we grow instead of make out of toxic fossil fuels.

Read my full wishlist of demands to Santa at The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, but you can read a few highlights below:

First, recognizing how full our planet is, why keep producing so many new toys? Instead, why not facilitate ways to better share toys amongst more families? The average toy is only played with for probably less than an hour a day, then discarded rather quickly. So perhaps it would be better to have toy libraries where families could borrow toys instead of buy them. In 2010, there were 4,500 toy libraries distributed across 31 countries. Each of these libraries results in fewer parents buying fewer toys and instead borrowing them – reducing the total number of toys produced, as well as helping children learn the valuable lesson of sharing. If you could put your support behind the global toy library movement, I’m sure it would really take off….

So please Santa, revamp your workshop. Create new product lines that celebrate living in balance with Earth, that are made completely sustainably and sold in ways that encourage borrowing instead of buying. I recognize this is no easy gift to grant, but for someone who can deliver over a billion toys in just one night, I have no doubt that if anyone can do it, you can. And hopefully, once you and Rudolph light the way, other toy companies will follow.

3124443099_368a2915fe_b-santa-wanted - Copy

Perhaps when ecocide becomes illegal this will be Santa’s fate? (Photo by kevin dooley via flickr)

 December 24, 2013  Posted by on December 24, 2013 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Dec 042013

kuow949-tentcity - Copy

Tent city at University Congregational United Church of Christ, October 2010. (Photo by Jenna Montgomery)

As the human economy moves back within the limits of Earth’s systems—whether through proactive degrowth or unplanned economic contraction—the residential housing market in overdeveloped countries like the United States will surely evolve.

Without planning it could take a similar tack as the former Soviet Union, where the poor were priced out of the increasingly valuable urban core. Or it could look more like Las Vegas or Phoenix during the housing crisis, where people just walked away from mortgages that were suddenly larger than the worth of their homes. Second homes could be abandoned, larger homes traded for smaller manageable homes, and the poorest could end up in tent cities like the one documented in Tent City U.S.A.

But hopefully, instead, we’ll work now to make residential neighborhoods denser so that they don’t become unnavigable without cars and cheap gasoline. What strategies could we use to do so? Should we work to add additional generations into family homes, or perhaps build smaller rental homes in backyards like many towns and cities in the Pacific Northwest are doing? Clearly not an either/or strategy. I explore both possibilities in a new Guardian Sustainable Business blog. Read more there.

 December 4, 2013  Posted by on December 4, 2013 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Sep 082010

Sacrifice has become a dirty word in environmental politics. But we sacrifice all the time. Two-thirds of Americans have sacrificed their waistlines and lifespans for cheap food and high profits for food companies, often without actively making this choice. Is there a way to reclaim the word to get people to start “sacrificing” to sustain a healthy relationship with Earth—or to at least stop sacrificing to the modern god of growth?

In popular culture, sacrifice conjures up ugly images of human dismemberment and the like (personally, I’ve got a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in my head—Kalima!). But at its etymological root, to “sacrifice” means to make sacred. And the act of “giving up something” in that ritual context is not simplify to practice extreme altruism; rather, it begets something more—whether closeness to one’s deity or respect, honor, or gratitude.

During times of drought, the Olmeca-Xicalanca people made ritual sacrifices of children—something we believe we’re beyond today; however, we are actively (albeit often unintentionally) making children in other parts of the world into unwilling sacrifices of our worship of high consumption lifestyles (and all the externalities that these bring).

So why has sacrifice become a dirty word? Perhaps consumer cultures, which prioritize comfort above all else, have made us hesitant to sacrifice—and maybe even disgusted by the idea. The sacred act of sacrifice, ironically, has been made taboo by modern cultural norms.

Or perhaps the environmental community has failed to effectively describe just how much we currently sacrifice to maintain the consumer economy. I’m not just talking about long-term security, where climate change will inundate cities and coastlines at some point in the future. I’m referring to the sacrifices we make every day: to our physical health, as we grow fatter and sicker; to our mental health, as social isolation and chemicals in our environment trigger depression and neurological diseases; to our safety, as our mobile culture puts the rights of vehicles over pedestrians and as more drivers decide that it’s ok to text while driving even though studies suggest this is far more dangerous than driving drunk.

Is the solution as simple as encouraging people to “Stop Sacrificing”? In other words, encouraging people to no longer “sacrifice” their time by working long hours and commuting long distances so that they can afford more stuff, or sacrifice their money and health to boost the bottom lines of corporate purveyors of toxic products, from junk food and cigarettes to fancy cars and big homes. That approach seemed to work pretty well for, which aims to convince teens that cigarette companies are manipulative and therefore teens shouldn’t be companies’ sacrifice to profit, but not as well for the “voluntary simplicity” movement, which tries to get people to agree that less is more and to simplify their lives accordingly. (Maybe this variable success rate is simply due to their differences in tone.)

Or, is there an even deeper reason why the notion of sacrifice has become taboo? Maybe it’s because of the ongoing schism in the environmental community—between traditional environmentalists, who call on people to sacrifice their comfort and consumer freedom (a shift that is often interpreted as deprivation), and environmental optimists, who say that we just need to redesign how products are made and how energy is generated, and then we’ll be able to maintain our way of life as-is. When environmentalists say that all we need to do is tweak our energy systems and we’ll be able to maintain our consumer lifestyle, then why sacrifice?

Or, have we gotten so used to this way of living as consumers that although we make many sacrifices each day, they’ve become so naturalized that they don’t feel like sacrifices, whereas giving up our air conditioners and iPhones definitely would. Otherwise, why would Stan Cox, when writing about giving up AC in the Washington Post, receive death threats from unhappy District residents? But I’m living in D.C. without an air conditioner (or an iPhone for that matter) and I can say that it is not really even much of a sacrifice. Not in the big scheme of things—when considering all those living in abject poverty—nor even in the small scheme; our bodies naturally adjust to being warm all the time if we just let them.

Or perhaps we’re too far removed from the root of the word “sacrifice”—i.e., sacred—because of the rampant individualism that is embedded in consumer cultures. Maybe we are so completely disconnected from spirituality and a purpose higher than our own happiness that it’s hard to justify giving up any of the latest consumer comforts, because the only joy we now have is experiencing the newest product, TV show, or movie.

Honestly, I don’t have an answer. It’s probably a combination of all these factors, and many others (please add your thoughts in a comment below). But I do know that this question is thoughtfully and thoroughly discussed in The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice, from which I drew heavily to even ask the above questions. The book opens an important dialogue that the environmental community should actively continue—assuming that it truly wants to move people beyond unsustainable cultural systems centered on consumerism. But if we don’t deal with this word—by either reclaiming it or reframing it—then we won’t be able to usher in new, sustainable cultures: cultures that quite probably would resanctify certain types of sacrifice, while forbidding others. And if we fail to achieve this cultural shift? Well, then most likely we will have made Earth and future generations into our unwilling sacrifices. Kalima!

Originally written by Erik Assadourian in September 2010 for Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures blog.

 September 8, 2010  Posted by on September 8, 2010 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »