My problem is I feel compelled to do something about the stuff I read. This holiday season I finished off Jared Diamond’s 2005 bestseller, Collapse, How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail.
For those who haven’t read the wildly popular book (almost kidding), the ironically named Diamond takes us on an historical mining operation, uncovering the buried cultures of the Easter Islanders, Anasazi of the U.S. Southwest, Mayans, Norse Greenlanders and, of course, probing our modern trading nations.
There’s a pattern to his findings: cultures flourish, create complex vertical trading societies in which the wealth generated by the many is harnessed by an elite few who exploit the resources of the commons, over-tax their land and their people, and eventually fail, leaving the land barren and their societies in ruins. One of his key conclusions is that failing societies underestimate natural ecosystems, instead, tying themselves to traditions that limit new ways of thinking and innovation.
Diamond shows us that failing cultures are those most blinkered by their own paradigms or mindsets. He lists a few paradigms of our own at the end of his book. These include, “technology will solve our problems,” “if we exhaust one resource we can always switch to another” and “past gloom-and-doom predictions…have proved wrong. Why should we believe them now?”
I think we can recognize along with Diamond the false thinking in these views. A look at the environmental degradation and mass extinction of life over the past 50 years tells the actual tale of our “progress.” And the most real and present danger is putting economic progress ahead of protecting the natural environment from our own industriousness.
The biggest problem we face is the depletion of fossil fuels, which power everything we do, from production to reproduction. By 2040 or so, we will have run out of the easiest sources. To that point we’re already chasing the hard-to-get stuff right here in New Brunswick with natural gas fracking (which earned us a whopping $606,000 in royalties last year) and vastly more environmentally destructive tar sands in Alberta.
Canadians are also currently fighting a war in Afghanistan, not for democracy, but to secure the route for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline, which will provide an alternative to the existing Russian-owned pipeline and bypass troublesome Iran. The objective is to prevent either Russia or Iran from holding the West hostage to their energy routes. And that’s why our Canadian soldiers are dying, and why American soldiers have been dying in Iraq since 1991.
In other words, the paradigm is to take control of and exploit the last remaining fossil fuel reserves on the planet. The investment in this effort dwarfs by far any investment in developing alternative energy systems. Meanwhile, the petro-energy companies doing the work are among the most profitable ventures that have ever existed.
Our global economy requires 80 million barrels of oil a day to feed. This non-renewable resource allows us to enjoy a complex, interdependent trade economy that, despite its powerful output, also happens to be very fragile, as we saw in the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo that brought the world economy to its knees.
Today, we are entirely dependent on global trade to feed, clothe and support ourselves. Just 60 years ago we could have survived, albeit painfully, without world trade since much of what we needed we could still produce locally. Not any more.
The 1970s oil embargo is a prequel to what we’ll increasingly face over the next three to four decades and beyond. Meanwhile, we’ll also be dealing with the other side of our obsession with fossil fuel: the massive waste, over-consumption, chemical pollution on a global scale and, yes, climate change.
One would think a change in paradigm would be in order, perhaps something more in tune with natural ecological functions. But no. We’re still chasing the technological-innovation dream that leads us to this year’s biggest disaster (and one that’s not going away, except in the media), Fukushima.
So what’s the underlying problem and possible solutions? It’s simply the fact that we are merely another opportunistic species that has succeeded too well. We know how to invent tools to exploit the environment and our fellow creatures (including other humans) to produce offspring (7 billion and growing), wealth and social status. We’re just genetically hardwired to do it.
Can we change in the face of the looming collapse of our global civilization? Yes, I think so. But to survive, we are going to have to radically rethink what we’re doing.
First, we need a new ethical paradigm that puts environment above consumption. Second, we’re going to have to desktop, or re-localize, our economies. Third, we need to invest in and build alternative, non-polluting energy sources now. Fourth, we’re going to have to move from a 4-year political view to a 40-year political view, which would require abolishing both party-style partisan politics and corporately-dominated politics from our political systems. Those are not easy steps.
Can we do it? Can we redirect this Titanic fast enough?
Yes, I can hear it now. “Geez, man. It’s the New Year. Can’t you just lighten up a little?”
I guess I could. I'd just rather not have my grandkids singing "Auld Lang Syne" for civilization 50 years from now.