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Resilience NYC Meetup Group Message Board › 2009 – The Year of Awareness & Action

2009 – The Year of Awareness & Action

William B.
Chester, MA
Post #: 251
Here is the body of my article that I read at this week's meeting:

I hear it all the time, from many quarters, that magic word “hope.” Indeed, we stand at the brink of a new administration in Washington, one that explicitly promotes hope along side another favorite buzzword, change. “Hope” was even in the title of our new president’s book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.” But an even stronger word hovers just out of range, barely below the surface, but suggested so forcefully by that very title. That word is denial.

Hope and denial, both the words and the supporting concepts that buttress them, reflect the basic problem of our age. And they are closely related. This will probably seem far-fetched to most, since our normal use of the words suggests a positive connotation for “hope”, and a very negative one for “denial.” And yet, they are concepts that feed upon one another, and, I would argue, cannot properly exist without the other.

One trouble with hope is that it is a passive state. Another is that it is the necessary result of short-term thinking. We hear of the many serious problems in the world, and we find ourselves hoping that “we” do something about it. Sometimes hope morphs into its sister concept, faith. In this instance, we not only “hope”, but maintain “faith” that someone, somewhere will do something about whatever problem is under consideration. That “someone” changes over time, bouncing around from one person or group to another. The current focus, of course, is on the miracle man of the moment, Barack Obama.

Denial, on the other hand, feeds into the “hope-faith” monolith, by negating or minimizing whatever problem is currently threatening to tickle the public consciousness. It is an extremely active state of mind, an activity of constant necessity to keep our deepening problems from reaching the state of awareness and the other darker emotions that might very well result from such a heightened clarity.

Even in this time of deepening economic crisis, the areas of hope and denial are the true growth industries of our time. Never before in recorded history has there been such a convergence of problems, meaning that the successful continuation of “business as usual” now requires a Herculean effort to maintain the proper levels of blind faith in our system’s ability to surmount all obstacles, and a sturdy and tenacious blind eye to the many problems at our doorstep. And what are these problems? I can identify nine major problem points:

1. Peak Oil and Energy Depletion – our modern civilization and the resulting explosion of population was built and depends upon a flow of cheap and abundant energy, the legacy of stored carbon deposits from eons before the appearance of homo sapiens. That energy, most in the form of oil, coal and natural gas, is no longer abundant, and thus cannot be considered cheap. And this situation will only get worse. Our modern infrastructure is largely dependent upon these ancient stores of energy, and nothing on the horizon will fill the void left when our petroleum legacy is finally exhausted.

2. Fresh Water Shortages – we are quickly running out of adequate fresh water sources. Ancient aquifers are being drawn down rapidly, well beyond the rate of replenishment. Climate change is also changing rainfall patterns, with the drier climates tending towards even drier conditions, and the “wet” regions now dealing with increasingly common violent storms and flooding, both of which add to the problem of fresh water supply. The biggest culprits are agriculture and industry, and that order. The truth is that, in our ardor for “greening” the world, we have chosen to grow our food in many areas that just cannot sustain the amount of water needed, especially given the nature of our modern agricultural methods.

3. Top Soil Erosion – this is a problem that almost never makes it to the Six O’clock News, and yet it is one of the most persistent threats to our survival that we face. Modern agricultural methods require intensive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, most of which rely heavily on fossil fuel sources in order to charge the soil with the nutrients that are necessary for prodigious harvest yields. But the soil is suffering. Synthetic nutrients need constant replenishing, while healthy soil involves an ecosystem that is constantly in the process of replenishment. Also, these synthetic chemicals are not permanently stored in the soil, but rather form an immense run-off each year, which creates dead zones in the oceans, and also carries away inches of formerly healthy top soil. Building healthy soil takes time. Depletion of top soil is a steady and relatively quick process, given our insane agricultural practices. When our petroleum reserves run low, what resources will remain that can grow enough food for a continuously rising population?

4. Deforestation – whether we’re talking about clear-cutting of forests for wood and paper harvests in the Pacific Northwest, or clearing of tropical rain forests for the expansion of cattle ranches in Brazil, or the disastrous Indonesian practice of clear cuts for paper AND massive planting of the newly barren landscape to grow biofuels, deforestation is one of the major blind spots of our culture. Forests are not just a collection of trees, but are in fact major ecosystems that develop over time, and that provide so many of the “services,” for lack of a better descriptor, that we require in order to merely stay alive. Forests are major carbon sinks, for instance. They also absorb much of the precipitation that falls, produce oxygen, and provide climate stability for regions that are both fortunate enough to contain them and possess the wisdom to preserve them. Removal of forests does alter climate, does reduce carbon absorption, and most often leads to desertification of a region. If you require proof, all you need to do is examine the history of the Middle East, noting that pine forests once covered Lebanon, Syria and Iraq (see also the deforestation history of Greece, Sicily, Italy…..the list goes on).

William B.
Chester, MA
Post #: 252
5. Pollution – once a major “hot-button” issue, pollution has largely left our consciousness, largely because, through political fiat and industrial effort, we’ve managed to eliminate much of the visible waste that used to mar our air and water. And what we can’t see we can safely ignore, right? But pollution is still with us, and in so many respects is worse than ever. The newly industrial countries, especially China and India, do not have our air quality restrictions in place, which gives those countries air they can (unfortunately) see, and many third world countries still dump their waste into their rivers and lakes, much like we used to do. But just because our waste is now (mostly) invisible doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Toxic particulates fill the air, from car and truck exhausts, coal-fired power plants, and many other sources, so no matter where you are in this world, chances are that you are taking in poisons with each breath. Our water supplies are contaminated as well, with not a single fresh water stream in North America that is not somehow polluted. Dioxin is a major culprit, as is the waste from the pharmaceutical industry, among many others pollutants. Indeed, we pass the bulk of our medical supplements into our toilets, which are flushed and routed to water treatment facilities that are ill-equipped to filter them out, which means that such things as antibiotics, pain medication and “mood enhancers” end up in the water supply.

6. Climate Change – through our use of fossil fuels, as well as our insane paradigm of endless growth that inspires our economic system, we are putting enough of our waste products into the air that our climate is rapidly changing. Average temperatures are up to levels unseen for tens of thousands of years, the polar ice sheets are in grave danger of melting, and there has been little or no change to our way of life to help compensate for this dire situation. Making matters worse, not only are greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, being released continually into the atmosphere, but toxic particulates are helping to complicate matters through the “dimming” effect. These particulates are helping to shield us from the even more dire effects of climate change, while simultaneously poisoning the wide strata of life forms that depend upon air for survival. Stop the particulates and the tempurature will rise even faster. Dump more particulates into the atmosphere, and we further the poisoning of our air.

7. Acidification of the Oceans – chances of hearing about this problem are rare these days, but the state of the oceans looms large in the near future. Our love affair with petroleum, the runoff from our incessant damaging of the soil, years of toxic dumping, all are causing the oceans to acidify. Our way of life damages and destroys many of the ecosystems that we know and love, such as the coral reefs, but it is the overall effect that is most frightening. The oceans are the lungs of the planet, even more so than the forests, and there is increasing evidence that the oceans will no longer be able to serve as carbon absorbers very much longer. This will increase warming, and climate change, in one of the insidious “positive feedback” loops that help define the modern era. It doesn’t help matters that so much of humanity relies upon the oceans for food (and conveniently forgetting about the other life forms on the planet that live in or around the oceans). We must at some point face the frightening fact that the oceans are dying.

8. Mass Extinction – by now this should come as no surprise, but there is increasingly strong evidence that we are living through the sixth mass extinction in the known earth history. According to one website, “If present trends continue one half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in less than 100 years, as a result of habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.” We will probably lose as much as a quarter of all mammals in the next 50 years. All primates except homo sapiens are now in danger of extinction, including our nearest “relatives”, the bonobo. Only ten percent of ocean mammals remain from pre-industrial levels. All large feline species are endangered. Many bear populations are stressed. Fish populations in the ocean have become alarmingly low, with some areas now “fished out.” The list goes on and on, and I haven’t even touched upon birds and the smaller life forms. The causes of the vast, vast majority of these dieoffs are found in human activities. Biologists will tell you that a diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem, and we are actively created a sparse living landscape. The resulting world will not be a healthy one.

9. Population – in 1960, there were 3 billion people in the world. Now there are nearly 6.8 billion, and the growth continues. Is this too many people? With “business as usual,” with our culture expanding with the same exuberance, the answer is a definite, unequivocal “yes”. Could the earth support this many people if we turned to more “sustainable” lifestyles? Maybe. And then maybe, or even probably, not. Can we continue to grow using more sustainable methods? I doubt it. Population must shrink at some point, hopefully through voluntary measures such as widespread birth control and a global recognition of the women’s rights. If we keep on the way we are going, population will definitely shrink, and not in a “good” way. World population is a problem that must reenter the public discourse, and soon.

In other words, we’re clearly up against the limits imposed by nature, and we’re still acting as if the finite nature of our planet does not apply to us.

I would submit to you that what we need now is not a renewal of hope, or of faith, and we certainly cannot afford to continue expending the energy necessary to keep the mirage of denial functioning. All the problems I’ve listed, and others that I’ve glossed over, need to be faced, by everyone. This is especially true since so many of the problems have no solution. A solution in these instances would suggest a way for us to “fix” a problem and return to whatever it was we were doing, and this is exactly what is not possible. There is no solution to unsustainable lifestyles, cultures and civilizations. Fundamental changes need to occur, and fast. Needless to say, “Reclaiming the American Dream” will not be an option.

Hope is not the answer, and, I would argue, is not even a coherent mental state at this point. The real answer is awareness and action.

William B.
Chester, MA
Post #: 253
What we need is a constantly realistic assessment of the very things we do in the course of our daily lives, and we need to get others to make the same assessments. We should not sit back passively and wait for events to overtake us. What is needed is mindful and consistent action. We need to get the word out, to strive constantly to make people aware of what we face, even those who will resist the reality of these problems. We need to open ourselves up to the inevitable ridicule that comes when people find their entitlements, profits and prejudices threatened. We need to be tenacious and courageous in spreading this vital information through the system in any manner that is available to us. And we need to connect with those groups already attempting to tackle the various problems. We can donate time and/or money, and we can always help to promote what they are doing.

In short, we must reject hope and denial, and instead embrace the opposite, awareness and action. Maybe we succeed, maybe we don’t, but the latter is the only possible road to a viable future.
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