The Doomer World View vs. History and Sustainable Views

Posted: March 28th, 2011 by: h2

Now and again it’s worth looking at some of the points raised on issues of sustainability and the end of life as we know it.

I see as a given that our current system is going to change, and change fundamentally, as resource depletion continues to alter the ease with which we extract, and waste, non-renewable, or not quickly enough renewable, raw materials. I find myself tending to agree with John Michael Greer (aka: the ‘Arch Druid’) re the time frames over which the ensuing changes will occur, mainly because Greer’s views tend to match reality as we find it documented in our histories.

Greer also makes an effort to study actual history and related areas that touch on these questions, unlike most of the other commentators out there, and he also is pushing out information that tries to help deal with the issues, which you’ll see at the end of this essay, is really the core difference between those prophets of doom and those who will actually find the way forward as our present grows into the future.

However, I also believe that significant portion of people who think we will see a sharp steep global collapse are simply confusing a drop in available consumption levels with the end of all life (aka: The End of Life as We Know It).

A Realistic View of Real-World Change

The way this so called collapse (better called: change, adjustment, alteration in prevalent mythologies and deeply held cultural biases) develops will be regional, not global. I’ve thought that for a while now. This is, by the way, another reason I don’t consider myself a ‘doomer’. Regional alterations do not make for a unitary moment of doom, they are something we have seen throughout history. Remember, Italy in its center was largely empty after the Roman Empire moved its center to the east, and the Barbarians had invaded one too many times. Then time moved on, and Italy wasn’t empty any more. Norway’s northern regions were emptied of Norwegians after the black plague, but NOT of human habitation, the Saamies (Lapps) were happy to move back in and occupy the land with their nomadic reindeer herding way of life until very close to the modern era. There is, I think you have to agree, a certain ethno-centrism involved in the belief that the failure of a single means of human social organization is somehow ‘doom’, when for others, it might be the ticket to the possibility of living a real life again, freed from the bonds of industrial non-sustainable production. It all depends on your point of view.

The notion, presented by Greer, among others, that changes will occur in staircase form I think doesn’t require much of a leap, since changes are coming in staircase form already. Just as an example: Colin Campbell (retired petroleum geologist, and prominent peak oil observer and analyst) points to the technical peak of global oil extraction as being marked by extreme social, economic, and political volatility. I look around myself in 2010 and find just that. Resource wars ongoing, political instabilities, ongoing. So that part seems pretty much right on.

The Real Turning Point

I don’t like getting into more sci-fi speculations, but to me, it’s fairly obvious that the reason 1970 was the real turning point for the global human culture based on non-sustainable resource exploitation is that is when the global population went into serious overshoot, beyond carrying capacity. The real warning flag back then was the requirement of instituting industrial, non-sustainable farming techniques, called, in Orwellian style, the ‘green revolution’ in order to avoid famine and provide enough food stuffs to feed the now clearly non-sustainable population numbers created by ceaseless population growth.

This topic used to be something people were aware of, but now industrial non-sustainable farming, perversely named ‘green’, is considered as ‘normal’.

The Myth of Perpetual Consumption and ‘Growth’

The real problem, and this is what Oscar Guardiola-Rivera (a Columbian author/intellectual/historian) also notes, is the notion that we can continue growth based economic systems based on relentless and brutalizing extraction of all available materials, when the quantity and qualities of those materials grows less, ie., when they peak in qualities and quantities. I would say most of our primary raw materials are now in this state, but we ignore it, pretending that brown lignite is somehow equal to anthracite, or tar sands equal to sweet light crude, or leaching gold out of rock with acids equal to finding raw gold ore, or silver, etc.

It’s also important to review the term ‘growth’, which really doesn’t mean growth in any normal sense, it means consumption of finite raw materials. Growth is what you see plants and animals do through their lifespans. What we call ‘growth’ is actually much more accurately understood by a term like speed of destruction. Or, as I outlined in some earlier postings, the rate of excavation in the process of digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the pit we are creating for ourselves. The more ‘growth’, that is, the further down we have gotten.

But growth itself, and capitalism, isn’t monolithic, that is, even though overall system growth may halt, the individual components of that system will keep on searching for new avenues to grow in, like ‘green’ things that aren’t green, but the overall system will not be sustainable within its current model or core biases because that growth is currently only possible by consumption of raw materials in a non-sustainable manner.

What I’m learning however from George Soros’s book, The Alchemy of Finance, is that it’s a serious mistake to believe that a current core set of core underlying socially generated biases are going to last. Since we cannot see beyond these biases in general, and since they shape what we do, our actions, and create the results, the core notion of the so-called doomer position really is just noting that our current core biased world view is not going to last. Which it can’t, since it’s based on resource extractions done in a way that guarantee failure long term, and now, increasingly, in the short term as well, as we hit extraction limits of more and more key resources, particularly those that fuel the system, oil and coal.

But there’s nothing new in this situation, this is how capitalism works, and how it has worked ever since it appeared. Ruin, strip out, profit short term while handing long term costs to the social body, who have to take care of those costs for all time, basically.

It is, however, important to keep one thing in mind: We live, here, today, in a tiny blip of history where production and extraction occur globally. So we are all tied in to some degree to the heavily flawed (non) logic of this way of organizing social life and resources.

Just as you really can’t fully choose to not participate in this current system, so too will we not have a real choice of how we interact with the systems that bumpily arise to replace them, in whatever manner that happens.

Population Overshoot

There’s been a fair amount of population overshoot on the planet, however, this is really not a very big question in my opinion, really it’s just this overblown western self, the ego, that views itself, and all other overblown selves like it, as the essence of existence. A few plagues and famines, a drought here and there, a crack in heavily non-sustainable food production methods, loss of natural gas based fertilizers, the bank reclaiming one too many farms, and the numbers drop. This too will happen regionally. The formula here is very simple: any country that today, here, now, depends on food imports to sustain its bloated population numbers is going to experience population reduction. There is no point in pointing to how the stuff is distributed, that is how it is distributed, each region views human rights and the laws governing socially acceptable distribution of the social generated materials differently.

Given the clear tautology that non-sustainable means cannot be sustained, not, can be sustained if we want since we don’t want to live sustainably, how these population adjustment events occur will be seen as they occur, I’m not worried about that part to be honest, I’m more worried about the damage we are doing long term to our ecosystem, the long term waste products we are leaving behind, etc.

Our Real Legacy to Future Generations

Even global heating doesn’t worry me that much, since it’s basically just going to shrink the land mass area that humans can live on sustainably, although of course, the cost will be far higher long term than mere problems for humans in the future. We are also wiping out species after species, and sometimes now even entire ecosystems.

In terms of history, the 1000 years it will take to recover CO2 levels, and so restore more or less normal temperatures to the ecosystem, is not that big a deal. However, the multiple tens of thousands of years the nuclear wastes require is another story, that is the most grotesquely selfish and irresponsible thing that human beings have ever done, period, bar nothing. Even numbers like: 10,000 year half life are so deceptive, since that’s only half of the material gone or degraded, the true number is closer to 100k years before the stuff is degraded enough and in enough quantity. This is simply inexcusable, to create this type of waste to feed our greedy desire for cheap and easy energy for a mere 50 or so years.

But it’s not just the 1000 years of global heating that is the legacy we leave behind. The massive species extermination we are now directly responsible for, and which can only advance as global heating increases and bloated human populations gut more and more of our ecosystems by means of the tools industrial techniques create, that too has to be considered as one of the worst things ever done, but that’s going to happen no matter what, we are not going to stop ourselves until it’s too late. We can, however, today, choose to stop the nuclear error, thus removing at least one of the evil deeds we leave as an unwelcome legacy to our future generations.

A Closer Look at the Doomer Position

When we take a closer raw doomerism, it’s useful to note that we have a roughly 2000 year history of apocalyptic cults. These cults are generally connected to Christianity here in the European West (West as opposed the East, Asia and the Americas, in this context). For example, in the years leading up to the year 1000, there was virtual certainty among those in the know that 1000 would be the end of days.

To me, all that doomerism is, is the humanist form of this same cult, and is, in my opinion, largely motivated by an excessive attachment to a non-sustainable way of life. Freud, who I generally dislike intensely, had noted something he observed in hist patients that he named the death instinct. While I reject this as an instinct, I have started to suspect that he may have found something in our own culture’s underlying biases that in fact looks very much like just such an intinct.

I believe a look into the history of such apocalyptic cults would be quite interesting, as well as revealing. Could it be that some of us have had a sense of the impossibility of our project for millenia now? This would not surprise me, after all, humans evolved not in large scale centralized cultures, but in smaller ones, living in direct contact with the ecosystem, and its natural cycles, large and small, local and regional (the seasons, for example, would always be central to any worldview that lives with its ecosystem, rather than off it). Given such an evolution, a sort of built in sense of what actually works at some level would not at all be surprising, and so living in violation of what works could very well trigger responses that even someone as clueless in any larger sense as Freud could pick up on.

Here’s a very good comment re this problem from Guardiola-Rivera:

The former (the view of the native people’s) is based on a forward looking ethic that involves reading history as a cycle of destruction and creation, in which the creation of future environments remains our collective responsibility. The latter (Euro style ‘progress’ and exploitation) is backward looking and contains its own delusion, and idea of regeneration in violence and accumulation, a self-reproducing drive to live the myth of El Dorado in a frozen present of permanent abundance and near useless renovation. And if the future is simply more of the same, then nothing we can do would make the slightest difference. The result is irresponsibility and the spoiling of Nature, as well as a sense of social paralysis (my emphasis)
What if Latin America Ruled the World, pp. 184

As you can see, there is nothing new in the doomer view, it’s always been with us here in the West, that’s why Christianity puts heaven into the future instead of here, in the present, as all other serious religions do, it’s why our science comes up with its big bang instead of seeing a constant stream of expansions and contractions, occurring well beyond our tiny, restricted, limits to perceive, since the time frames are just too big. So that forms how we think too, deeply, we here in the self-styled ‘modern’ age, actually believe that things start and finish, instead of cyclical change, which is what all sustainable societies have to see in order to be sustainable. It’s amusing to see a people and culture that views itself as so sophisticated and smart take on such a childish core conception of reality. Doomerism is simply mistaking a change for the end times, the inflection from expanding raw material extractions to diminishing raw material extractions. That view is almost built in to us, so it’s an easy mistake to make.

You’ll observe, however, that nobody who is engaging in real world activities that strive to avoid the issues Guardiola-Rivera warns us about in his statement ‘irresponsibility and the spoiling of Nature, as well as a sense of social paralysis’ have a doomer view. Turn off the TV folks, the real world is out here, and always has been. Hats off to the new generation of young organic farmers, to the farmers’ markets that are growing incredibly quickly in popularity, and in number, and to the localizers, to the permaculturalists, to everyone, that is, who is working to shape a sustainable tomorrow today rather than pine about the doom that is coming tomorrow.

There might be concern, worry, a pressing sense of urgency, but what there is not is the self-indulgent social paralysis that can be the only logical outcome of adopting the doomer’s perspective. The question is simply, are we willing to begin creating tomorrow today? Or will we insist on attempting the foolhardy project of perpetuating that which cannot be perpetuated?

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