Or, What Happens to your Mind when you Start Listening to Ecologists
Across the planet the lord of the Anthropocene strides, towering and terrible and carrying a smartphone. Picture him now: a 5G-enabled golem that’s part Bill Gates, part Elon Musk, part Donald Trump, with an asshole modelled precisely after the face of Jeff Bezos. Forget about political divisions: Swipe left, right, doesn’t really matter: Both directions, it’s rape the earth.
Behind this monster dutifully march masses of tiny simulacra who want to be as big one day as the creature they follow, harnessing industry, ingenuity and innovation, and making all other lifeforms bow.
The path being traced is a suicidal one. It leads to the undermining of the biophysical systems that allow our very own survival. The irony would be laughable if the universe had a sense of humor.
The rich men of the world don’t seem too worried, thinking that they can buy their way out of system collapse. That’s why you have Bezos breezily making unhinged declarations, such as this one at a 2016 Code Conference: “You don’t want to live on an Earth where we have to freeze population growth, reduce energy utilization….We want the population to keep growing on this planet. We want to keep using more energy per capita.”
The recipe for disaster.
The problem I face as a journalist — which is related to the reason I’ve started a nonprofit, Denatured, to fund my work — is that editorial gatekeepers believe too much in the march of Gates-Musk-Bezos. They are firmly in the camp of tech messianists and tech saviorists. And gatekeepers are the ones who hold the money for us freelancers. Alternative sources of support are needed.
There are of course noble exceptions to this rule in media. But the tendency is that if one approaches the leading newspapers — for example the greatest of the most prize-winning and self-congratulating, such as the New York Times — to suggest that the chief investigation of the 2020s and beyond should be how ecological disruption leads almost certainly to civilizational collapse…
…and if, as part of that pitch one suggests a critical reappraisal of humanity along the lines of ecologist William Catton’s understanding of Homo colossus, a fossil-fuel-evolved species whose world-spanning dominance is but a blip in time and is set to cease sooner than we can imagine…
…if one remarks that the seemingly significant present-day cultural productions of fossil-fuel-subsidized Homo colossus are pretty much a joke when measured against the costs he (and she – let’s not be sexist) impose so violently on other-than-human life…
…if one implies that maybe we wise apes aren’t the greatest show on earth and that the putative beauty of Whatever Cultural Production will never reach the same high quality as a free-running sweetwater brook in a forest…
…if one questions the you-must-be-crazy economic model of Homo colossus, which is endless growth – growth of industry, population, and consumption; if one mentions in the most self-censoring manner that our system of Endless Growth™ necessarily leads to climate derangement and widespread biophysical system disruption that ends in social chaos…
…if you bother to offer any of this in the air-conditioned towers of the gatekeepers, your career has veered into the territory of dead end. Go get the editors some coffee – they have the “politically feasible” on their minds.
But keep on pestering your betters, like the homeless nut on the corner, like Bartleby in exile.
Perhaps ask the gatekeepers something like the following: Wouldn’t it be better to stop growing the economy and instead take the vast wealth that exists today, right now, and spread it around equitably instead of condemning future generations to the tortures of a scorched earth?
Good luck with that.
Having spent a decade covering the hollowing out, neutering and stupefaction of an increasingly bureaucratized environmental movement in the U.S. – I wrote a book that explored the subject in its concluding chapters – I’ve found that in the mob of humanity the few wise and trustworthy people are the ecologists, those who understand the sophisticated big-picture workings of the laws of nature, which in the end are the only laws that matter.
Consider William Rees, an ecological economist, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and former director of UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. Rees should be one of the names known to North American households but is instead consigned to the ranks of the beleaguered minority that advocates “degrowth.” Degrowth is defined as a planned contraction of population and economies so that Homo colossus might shrink to the status of a mere animal living within the constraints of Earth.
The problem is that degrowth is not politically feasible.
Rees notes in a recent essay that the sense of what’s feasible is necessarily based on our fossil-fueled party of the past 150 years. The party entered its let’s-fuck-everything-that-moves phase only after 1990, with 50 percent of all fossil fuels burned in just the past 30 years. “[W]hile the present generation and other recent cohorts of H. sapiens take continuous growth to be the norm,” he writes, “the past few decades of explosive growth comprise the single most anomalous period in human history.” [emphasis his]
During this period of extreme carbon subsidy that supercharged exponential growth of GDP and led to environmental pillage on an unprecedented scale, the world played out the grand guignol called globalization. But it was a one-off. And it has produced a devastating situation called ecological overshoot.
…when in [ecological overshoot] the maintenance and growth of the human enterprise is achieved in part through the over-consumption of plant and animal biomass and the degradation of the ecosphere. Here is malignancy….Like any other ill-adapted parasite, [modern technoindustrial] culture is systematically – even enthusiastically – consuming the biophysical basis of its own existence.
Let that sink in. We are consuming the biophysical basis of our own existence.
Where are the editorial gatekeepers in this discussion, in what should be the debate of our lifetimes, on which the fate of humanity hangs? Where can we find in the mainstream press an authoritative and meaningful encounter with the biophysical limits of Earth and what this implies for our civilization?
The answer is nowhere, because any conceivable limits to humanity’s outsize ambitions are dismissed as a “thought experiment” irrelevant to the “real world” of governing growth-oriented societies.
And where are the climate scientists? With few exceptions – Peter Kalmus and Manfred Lenzen come to mind – they have not dared to question the doctrine that drives our carbon collision course.
I asked Kalmus why. “The claim that we need to shift from the never-ending exponential growth economic model to something new that could be described as an end to economics or even capitalism as we know it, is a pretty extraordinary claim,” he replied in an email. “I think a lot of scientists don’t feel comfortable making that claim, which is outside their field of expertise. However, I personally don’t see a viable way out of climate and ecological breakdown without a transition to degrowth, and I think more and more climate scientists are starting to agree with that.”
Yet they don’t speak their minds. It’s time. (While we’re at it, what about climate journalists, most notably the climate Substackerati – the celebrated Emily Atkins and the like? Not a word from them about growthism.)
Why also do so many of these people now embrace the notion of “green growth”? Green growth posits that material and population expansion can be decoupled from environmental impact in a world energized with wind, water, solar. But it’s a lie. As University of Lausanne ecological economist Julia Steinberger tweeted, “I’m not sure our public discourse in media & teaching has *quite* caught up to the fact that green growth is a fiction…deceased, gone…utterly cancelled by research.”
“Growth is comforting,” Steinberger told me, “because it aligns with currently powerful forces and structures in our economies: profit-oriented corporations, wealth accumulation and the power that comes with wealth.”
That’s why degrowth, which threatens wealth accumulation, is not at present politically feasible – an impasse at the center of which, as William Rees points out, is that the politically feasible is ecologically irrelevant.
The 1972 book Blueprint for Survival, published by the Ecologist magazine, put it another way: “If we plan remedial action with our eyes on political rather than ecological reality, then very reasonably, very practicably, and very surely we shall muddle our way to extinction.”
This is all a roundabout way of introducing you to Denatured and what I’ll be covering here:
The madness of the idea that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. The secular fundamentalist religion that growthism has become.
The overshoot inherent in our vast numbers. Growth leading to biophysical collapse that leads to social collapse.
The Gang Green environmental NGOs that have bought into growthism. The fight against Gang Green mounted by small grassroots groups built on integrity and truth-telling.
The state of environmental journalism — mostly a shameful embarrassment.
The babbling degeneracy called “popular culture,” with its caterwaul of commerce, that blinds the eye and clouds the mind with dreams of More-Bigger-Faster — the demon gods of growth.
The hubristic insolence of anthropocentrism, the demonstrably false belief that Homo sapiens is the flying center of the universe when in fact he is merely one species among many, dependent on all others for sustenance, but claims to be exceptional for his invention of (take your pick) poetry, music, dildos, advertising, nuclear weapons, flush toilets, space capsules, ball-gags, ballet, or what have you.
I will also of course discuss at length the prospects of the Green New Deal and the more important Real Green New Deal — real because it’s not based on a phony numbers game untethered from biophysical reality. Absolutely central to our collective future is a realistic appraisal of what renewable green energy can provide, and what it cannot.
There’s sure to be much else. I’m a naturalist who can’t help but spend a healthy amount of time in the wild as an antidote to the soul-sucking stupidity of this civilization of ours. There will be occasional wanderings up mountains, say through the bowers of the boreal forests of the high peaks of the Catskills, where I live. Or in the deserts and canyonlands of the American West, where I spent ten years working on my first book. Or in the sagebrush seas of the Great Basin, in Nevada’s loneliest country. And sometimes all this will matter quite a lot and sometimes not at all. You can decide.