Why I Hate Earth Day II: The Road to Hell in Baby Steps

A number of commenters to my previous post argued that I'm being unfair to Earth Day - of course, there's greenwashing. of course people are cashing in, but underlying the greenwashing, there's something good and serious and worthwhile there and I'm being churlish to deny it.

And in some ways, I agree that both points are true - I am a little churlish about Earth Day, and there are some good things about it. For example, because Earth Day is an established "holiday," (it comes in after Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and probably before Father's Day and Groundhogs Day in minor holidays by my estimation ;-)) communities will often invest some money in a public festival. Kids learn that we take environmentalism at least as seriously as we take getting Dad a new necktie once a year, and sometimes they actually learn something. Grownups might change their lightbulbs or read the free papers on how to save electricity.

But I'm sticking with my point. There are two reasons. The first is that I don't think that the greenwashing is superficial, but fundamental. That is, we live in a society where 70% of the economy is based on consumer purchasing. It is not just a case of individual retailers "cashing in" or "greenwashing" - we live in a society that tells us that we can make a fundamental difference by purchasing very marginally different products.

And most Earth Day programs send the same message. They say "you too can make a difference...and it will be convenient, mostly involve shopping and won't change your life. Here, take some baby steps, change your lightbulbs, plant one tomato" and come listen to some folkie music! I understand why this message is the mainstream environmental message - it is friendly, it is warm and fuzzy, it is accessible. And for forty years it has been offered in various forms and we've seen the results - we're consuming more resources than ever before, our planet's situation is far more precarious than it was 40 years ago, and there are real doubts about whether we can actually live with the results.

Has our Environmental Consciousness Made Things Better?

Most people will say that in fact, we've made enormous progress on the environment. Look at the wild turkeys! Look at the results of the clean water act! Per capita, we're emitting fewer pollutants! Guess what, we've got the lead out of our paint! The rivers in the US don't catch fire anymore. Consider an AP story from today, headlined on yahoo as "Dangers to the Planet Now Largely Invisible!"

Pollution before the first Earth Day was not only visible, it was in your face: Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. An oil spill fouled 30 miles of Southern California beaches. And thick smog choked many cities' skies.

Not anymore.

On Thursday, 40 years after that first Earth Day in 1970, smog levels nationwide have dropped by about a quarter, and lead levels in the air are down more than 90 percent. Formerly fetid lakes and burning rivers are now open to swimmers.

The challenges to the planet today are largely invisible -- and therefore tougher to tackle.

"To suggest that we've made progress is not to say the problem is over," said William Ruckelshaus, who in 1970 became the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency. "What we've done is shift from the very visible kinds of issues to those that are a lot more subtle today."

Well, yes, this true and it is good, except that the dangers aren't actually invisible unless you are lucky enough to live in the rich world. If you live with the heavy smog of newly industrialized cities in the Global South, pollution isn't something that is far away. If electronic waste leaks mercury and heavy metals into your groundwater, pollution isn't magically invisible - you can see the vast piles of e-waste from the rich world, who have made their troubles better, largely by shifting things out of sight,.


In the net, quantities of nearly every major pollutant have risen, not fallen over the last forty years. Air traffic has risen by a factor of six, with all associated pollutants. We recycle 38% of our paper, but we're turning trees into paper at double the rate of 1970. We have doubled the number of fish we extract from the ocean and tripled our fossil fuel consumption.

Our cheerleading about what we've accomplished in America is true, as long as we don't consider other people's children to count as much as our own. As a recent UN State of the Earth Report assesses:
From a global perspective the environment has continued to degrade during the past decade, and significant environmental problems remain deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric of nations in all regions. Progress towards a global sustainable future is just too slow. A sense of urgency is lacking. Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient to halt further global environmental degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues-even though technology and knowledge are available to do so....

In the future, the continued degradation of natural resources, shortcomings in environmental responses, and renewable resource constraints may increasingly lead to food insecurity and conflict situations. Changes in global biogeochemical cycles and the complex interactions between environmental problems such as climate change, ozone depletion, and acidification may have impacts that will confront local, regional, and global communities with situations they are unprepared for. Previously unknown risks to human health are becoming evident from the cumulative and persistent effects of a whole range of chemicals, particularly the persistent organic pollutants. The effects of climate variability and change are already increasing the incidence of familiar public health problems and leading to new ones, including a more extensive reach of vectorborne diseases and a higher incidence of heat-related illness and mortality. If significant major policy reforms are not implemented quickly, the future might hold more such surprises.

We are not making rapid policy reforms, nor are we making rapid reforms of our way of life. And this is the central problem that we face - at the same time we affirmed once annually our commitment to the environment, we also affirmed our basic commitment to an affluent, high consumption way of life - and began to export that way of life through a combination of media and neo-liberal economic policies. Ultimately, it isn't just the greenwashers who said that no fundamental changes are necessary, that we should just buy new, green stuff.

Science is no respecter of persons

Meanwhile, for the most part mainstream environmentalism has supported this idea - the fundamental assumption is that people will not change their lives, so we must tell them that all that is being asked of them is a little bit. The problem with this statement is that the laws of biology, physics and chemistry are no respecters of persons, or intent, or what we are comfortable with or politically willing to do.

We know for a fact that at this point only extremely strong and rapid action could avert crossing critical tipping points. In fact, there's a good chance that even those strategies won't work. Consider the climate modelling performed by Andrew Weaver and other scientists at the University of Victoria, which showed that only a rapid 100% reduction in industrial emissions actually prevented us from crossing the 2 degree tipping point.

But that's just one study, isn't it? Well, consider the aggregate analysis of the IPCC, released to almost no press attention this fall as "The Copenhagen Diagnosis" - it was almost immediately ignored, because it is so much more fun to read hacked emails. The depressing conclusions were that everything is happening much faster than projected even in 2006, that emission rates are rising faster, and that unless we act radically very quickly, we are facing a worldwide climate disaster - from The Guardian's report:

The essence of the new report is that things are grimmer than the IPCC has reported. And it's not like the panel has been painting a rosy picture--its 2007 report concluded that the warming-induced melting of the Greenland ice sheet could create significant sea-level rise in this century. IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri said at the time, "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

The new diagnosis finds that arctic sea ice is melting 40 percent faster than the panel estimated just a few years ago. Another startling finding: Satellites have found that the global average for rising sea levels was 3.4 millimeters per year from 1993-2008. The IPCC estimated it would be 1.9 mm for that period--short by 80 percent.

The report's authors (who include the preeminent Stephen Schneider) write that "if global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly." If you're keeping score, 2015 is just over five years away--somewhat less comforting than the distant "2050" you used to hear so much about.

In a time when the correspondence of scientists is hacked and stolen and as a matter of political strategy, some will no doubt dismiss the group's research entirely. And even IPCC fans may question whether its decision-making process is swift enough to remain relevant. It certainly seems that events are outpacing the political system's ability to deal with them.

Or we could talk about energy supplies - we knew back at the first Earth Day in 1970 that we had to get off fossil fuels - or shortly after we did, because US oil peaked, and our political problems with OPEC forced us to recognize that fossil fuels were not infinite - but we didn't do anything much about it. After a period of active conservation, it was Morning in America again, and we needed to boom - and export our boom all over the world. And so we have done virtually nothing to shift our economy and our systems over to renewable energy sources. Because of this, we are facing a crisis - we know this.

For example, the US Department of Energy knows this - one of their main analysts recently affirmed this, although the DOE declined to answer questions (note, original article is available through the link, but is in French). The Pentagon has recently reaffirmed DOE, Army and other state agencies that observe that we are facing an imminent supply crisis. and we know from the Hirsch report (which was commissioned by the DOE) that a transition to renewable energies would take 20 years of WWII-style national investment and effort *before* the peak. Listing the international agencies that have also warned of supply crises, including the IEA, would take more time than I'm willing to devote here.

Greenwashing Isn't Just for Corporations

The central message of most Earth Day celebrations is that if we all do a little, we'll make the world a better place. But the fact is that that's not true, and as much as we like to hear such a friendly, fuzzy message, we can't make it factual just by wanting it to be true. The blunt reality is that unless we all do an awful lot, very fast, we're facing disaster. We use the word "sustainable" casually, to mean "well, we can probably do a little more of this if we cut back a little now." But we are facing a sustainability crisis in the deepest sense - if we don't make massive changes and quite rapidly, our children's future is in question - and the children of billions of people around the world.

The rhetoric of baby steps and we each have to do our tiny part masks the fact that only a massive collective effort can succeed. It is not accident that climate change and peak oil activists always invoke WWII - because we know it is possible to invest everyone in a vast international project, given sufficient motivation, but as long as even the folks on the side of the planet insist on using warm fuzzy rhetoric and not telling the hard truths, we'll find ourselves bang up against people who say "even you don't think this is a big deal, so why do it at all."

Baby steps haven't gotten us very far - our cloth bags and our CF bulbs haven't done enough. It is time to admit that we can't live the way we are for very much longer, and it is time to change the rhetoric. Now it is possible that Earth Day could, actually, result in that kind of changes - but so far, it hasn't. It has pleasantly helped propagate the idea that because we're not ready to deal with things as the laws of reality require, we don't have to, that we can do only what we are comfortable with.

We do not like to acknowledge that we may not have the time, resources or leisure to do things in comfortable, pleasant ways. We do not like to acknowledge that if everyone on the planet can't live like us, that means we have to change our lives, and soon - we like to think that the rest of the planet doesn't really mind if we take more than our share. Well, they mind. We like to think that we can have what we want and be oblivious - that we can choose not to know what the real state of our planet is. But all these things are lies, and if you believe in the truth, it is better to know the truth and begin to go forward from reality than to live in the world of polite lies. That is just another kind of greenwashing.

I know, right now, you are thinking "geez, she's depressing, she wants me to feel guilty." But no, I don't. I think guilt is an empty emotion, a weak emotion - "Oh, I shouldn't eat this cookie..oops, I'm really bad because I ate the cookie, I really shouldn't eat another one..." I have no truck with guilt, and frankly, no interest in it. I'm interested, instead, in action and what is possible, in the taking of responsibility, the acknowledgement of truth and the making of real change. So no, don't feel guilty. Do things that matter.

Last night, I was reading Wendell Berry's latest book of poems, "Leavings" and came upon this one, which I think eloquently forces us to look at our own assumptions about what is permissable, and what our choices are costing others - others who live now, others who are our children and grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, and who too have a stake in our future:


1. How much poison are willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

This, of course is the operative distinction - when we speak in generalities, when we think in baby steps, of course we're for saving the planet and doing our part. And when we speak in generalities of course we believe we would not choose to do harm. It horrifies us to think that our way of life does so much damage in human lives and ecological harm - so we choose to think that because we do not mean it, because we do not intend it, we are not wholly responsible, and we need only take a few small baby steps. It is the bad corporations, the bad people who don't care, the evil cartoon anti-environmentalists.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying you are bad, or I am. But our way of life is so destructive right now that it cannot be managed in small increments. We know we can make changes in larger increments - we know this because people do it, I've done it, and so have those who participated in the Riot for Austerity or other radical change drivers. Odds are your grandparents did it during WWII - your parents or you. We know it is possible, and we have the science to prove that it is necessary, but we're still telling the wrong story.

If it were just that products were being greenwashed, Earth Day would be a grand thing. Who cares about flies in the ointment? But there's more to it than that - until we change the basic story that we are telling "we've made progress, and all we need is just a little tiny bit more help from you..." we're all greenwashing.



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So... what should we do? I don't think "You all have to change your entire lifestyle right now because we're screwed" day is going to go over too well with people. Huge change like what's really needed is just not going to happen. I guess I still think a little change is better than nothing at all, and those are our only options.

Americans are the problem: Americans don't believe in physical reality. They believe in a psychotic god who hates humankind and is going to destroy the human race in a year or two, and then take Christians, body and all, to a supernatural dimension where it's 1950s L.A. for eternity. Big cars, fast food, no "other" people, just Christians. They think this is a terrific scenario for life on earth. They are nuts, and the rest of us are suffering the loss of planetary integrity because of these selfish idiots. We've got to stop giving in to this plague of ignorance, and stand up for reason: no more pandering to religious fanatics!

I really do agree with your overall point. I'm old enough to remember the first Earth Day, back when I was in grad school. It was a hopeful period back then, and the Nixon Administration and Congress actually passed some legislation that had some real potential for dealing with the problems of the time. But they were so much simpler than the problems we're having to face up to now.

Over the years I've become rather sour about smashing up cars. And I'm really not convinced that changing to compact fluorescent bulbs is going to accomplish anything: not when China is opening up a new coal-fired power plant every week! My wife and I have moved over the years to reduced consumption and growing our own food. But I agree that the effect of Earth Day is to generate warm, fuzzy, feelings and not rock the ship on consumption. Consumer spending has continued to increase on an ever-wider range of silly good over the past 40 years, even while we continue to celebrate Earth Day, have our wars, and ignore real social problems.

But really, two things are needed: reduced population and major policy changes. Substantial new laws requiring that everyone - consumers, businesses, gov't agencies - reduce their consumption of goods and energy by significant amounts are necessary, but probably not sufficient, not in the time that we have left.

Yes, the IPCC has been majorly understating the rate of GCC for the past 15 years. So the next two or three decades are going to be extremely interesting as we see the confluence of water shortages, soil erosion and degradation, GCC, and fossil fuel shortages. We WILL be living in interesting times.

While America (and Americans) are certainly not without blame, I don't think you can exactly paint them as the sole problem. Consumerism isn't a solely American phenomenon - Europe, while certainly no America in terms of consumption, is still a consumer based society which is essentially raping the planet (and has been since before America was "discovered" (insert pithy Pratchett quote about what being discovered means here, I'm too lazy to look it up)). China and India are well on their way to being just as bad (if only because they outnumber the US and America) as they climb steadily towards a more western diet (ie meat at every meal) and higher standards of living (ie more consumption) and the sad fact of the matter is, the way the world works now, every country that moves from developing, to developed, is likely to cause equal problems (albeit that I see this as probably the better long term solution because that transition generally then results in reduced birth rates, which in the long term is the only feasible way I see to make any meaningful impact on resource consumption - the issue here being whether population growth rates drop before resources run out, or whether both drop at exactly the same time - looking at population age distributions for much of Europe you can expect a pretty hefty decline in population to kick in eventually - which hopefully can eventually become a widespread phenomenon.

Adrienne, well, I'm not convinced it could be less effective than the current model ;-). What I'd do is what I do all the time - try and implement both political responses and actually try and get people to do really radically different things (and do them myself).

Ewan, you are right, it isn't a purely American issue by any means, and if I rhetorically have implied so, I shouldn't have. But the reality is that I don't think population limitation alone is sufficient - first of all, we're going to bang into our resource crisis before we can see a substantial difference in impact by population - it takes decades. Second of all, the Global South isn't going to achieve the levels of development that the Global North has - and so the fundamental disparity between impacts still has to be addressed by dealing with consumption of resources. The reality is that there's good evidence that if you made everyone on the planet but the US, Europe and Australia disappear, we'd still cross the critical tipping points.

Yes, population is part of the issue - but you can't get to at the problem there. Either we alter our consumption sooner or we watch our children alter their involuntarily and painfully. Those are the only choices.


I see your point. Truly, I do. And it paralyzes me to the point that I feel like ripping out my CFC light bulbs and paving over my garden and forgetting all my obviously inadequate efforts to live a little bit lighter and going shopping for crazy luxury items. In another state. By plane.

And then drink Scotch and eat chocolate.

No, I'm not about to do those things (except maybe the booze and chocolate part) but if small efforts are pointless, and if most of us aren't able or ready to make the dramatic ones that are apparently necessary (I can't figure out how to give up my car without never seeing my mother, for instance), it feels like we're all doomed and we might as well party on the way out.

It's always the same rationalization: Americans aren't the whole problem, but the fact is we HOG the earth's resources and dump our waste everywhere for other people to live with. What Americans don't get is that this is a CONCEPTUAL problem. Americans don't really accept that trashing the earth is a problem, because Americans operate in a supernatural mind set, ie, MAGICAL: something will always save us from consequences. God, money, science - we think we are immune from consequences. We believe in supernatural salvation. Guess what? The forces that actually determine physical reality aren't conscious and can't be negotiated with: they ARE - and humanity will suffer radical change. Famine, death, reduced population, cultural collapse, civil war. The sad part is, we have the ability to change how we do things, but not the intelligence or will.

Sharon, you're Earth Day blogs are fantastic! Western society has made a mockery of itself and it's capitalistic greenwashing. The time for environmentally conscious baby steps has come and gone. Large, significant, LIFE CHANGING steps are the only answer to counteract the mob mentality of consumerism and what future generations face. Sadly, along with consumerism we encounter a lack of self awareness, where short term rewards trump any long term benefits. I remember when "living in the moment" became trendy, which has sorely taken a toll on balancing immediate and future wants (wants being the key word, since most consumers can't distinguish between wants and needs).

From an evolutionary perspective, how this plays out will be most interesting.

Keep on' keepin'on!

Sharon - my response should have been more aimed at bomoore - as it was largely his point that I was criticizing, and which then sent me off on my rather aimless rant about popn etc. My hope remains that in the long term some sort of stability due to population shifts - if your two choices are all there are, and if the timescales are what you state, then frankly it matters not one jot what anyone does, the next generation is going to have to deal with the hangover from the 20th and early 21st century - everyone might as well go out and party as stated, because at the end of the day will it matter that it is 0.0001C cooler, or that oil reserves lasted for an extra 20 days? People in the west simply don't have the will to do what is necessary, in the numbers that are necessary, to make a difference if the scenario is as bad as you're stating. (I sincerely hope it isn't that bad, and am willing to keep doing my little bit (and expanding on my little bit as and when I can)in the hope that I'm right, although with the expectation that I probably am not)

Bomoore - I wasn't attempting to rationalize consumption because it isn't all the fault of Americans (on a personal level I'd love it if all the blame was American, as I'd be off the hook rather than part of the problem) but simply to point out that blaming it all on the US (or on any given population) isn't particularly meaningful or helpful.

You are absolutely right. There has been too much "here's the big scary picture but you can help by buying this to put a band-aid on it". People would like to help the environment but they don't want to give up their comforts (they worked hard for them). It assuages their guilt to do little things and environmentalists push those little things because it is better than being called a crazy person that wants you to give up all the things you worked for.The inconsistent messages from various lobby groups do not help either.
Let's face it, we as a species have lived nearly 65 years with the probability of nuclear annihilation that could happen in 30 mins. A doomsday scenario that could happen in 15-60 years can not compete with that. So until we can not do so anymore people will eat, drink, and spend $ until there is nothing left while laughing at those who voluntarily do not. Hopefully a paradigm shift will occur soon that will change that mind set, but I have little hope of that happening without a kick from mother nature.

The blunt reality is that unless we all do an awful lot, very fast, we're facing disaster.

Like what? Isn't your lifestyle really little more than a hobby, Sharon, subsidized by book royalties & a SUNY salary? If you were to seriously attempt to live on the resources your property could supply sans fossil fuels & outside income, how would you pay your property taxes?

We're facing disaster, whatever we do or don't do. Why is it that we're always on the "brink," that we'd better do something ("an awful lot") "very fast"? What if the time for doing "something" was around the dawn of the industrial revolution, if not circa the dawn of agriculture? What could be done now, if, as I contend, the time for taking action to avert demographic & environmental catastrophe was before the carrying capacity of the biosphere was exceeded, i.e., when human population was in the vicinity of .2 ~ .5 billion? What then? And why the reluctance verging on phobia to even consider that my prediction of imminent population collapse - cogently expressed and firmly grounded in everything we know about population dynamics and ecology - simply can't be correct?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

DD, with great difficulty, but that's precisely the scenario I'm preparing for ;-). I suspect at some point SUNY employees will simply stop being paid, and I think I've got a couple of years max of anyone wanting to read my stuff before it becomes all too true and far too boring ;-).

That said, however, there are billions of people who both live at a tiny fraction of the impact of the average American and also do pay their property taxes and rent.

Of course the time to do something was always yesterday or thirty years ago or before agriculture was developed. But there are ranges of different outcomes - we are going to have to live in a depleted, warmer, more toxic and poorer world. But there are a lot of grey areas here in how bad, how soon and most of all, how we respond. We're not going to agree on this one.

And no, I don't want you to give my books as gifts for earth day. I don't want to be associated with earth day shopping ;-).


As someone said, Human beings don't adapt until they have to. What is the point of saying for the billionth time, "It's not all our fault." How stupid; what is this a middle school cafteria? Let's take care of what is our fault!

Teresa, I know that mood - been there too (especially after a week of reading my in box ;-)), and really, drunkness and chocolate are comparatively low impact if done right ;-) ;-).

But more accurately, ok, you can't get rid of the car - yet, but realistically, most of us can drive less than we do now, even without totally abandoning parents. And if you set getting rid of teh car, or even just driving it a lot less as part of your goals, you'd probably find that there were more ways than you think. I know this again, from having done it and from having watched a lot more people do it through the Riot for Austerity.


Sharon, I hope you don't think I'm picking on you, specifically or personally. I approve of the way you live, like your blog, your writing, and, to the extent it's possible for someone only known from the internet, I like you. But I don't think that you fully realize or acknowledge the enormity of the situation we face. Well, maybe you do but I don't think that many of your readers do.

Humanity and the biosphere are facing a major mass extinction crisis. Biodiversity is being decimated... no, 'decimated' isn't correct since it means casualties on the order of one in ten. At the end of the Permian the Ocean Planet lost something like nine out of ten species. While I don't expect the anthropogenic extinction pulse to quite rival the end-Permian event, I am talking about a 5 ~ 7 out of 10 loss of species, across all taxa. Such an event means the collapse of ecosystems that provide the goods & services upon which our very lives depend. Upon which the very food we eat and air we breathe depend. This decline in biodiversity and ecosystem integrity has been occurring since the end of the Pleistocene and has accelerated with human population growth and technological innovation. It has by now picked up a momentum of its own and will proceed regardless of what we as a species or as individuals do or don't do, and it will play itself out over the period of the next few decades to centuries. I'm not alone in making such a prediction nor is it ill founded.

Now, just how does someone prepare for such a thing as mass extinction? I have nothing against living as close to nature as possible, growing as much of one's own food as possible, nurturing and husbanding fruit, nut and fuelwood trees, learning to care for animals, preserving the fruits of the harvest & slaughter, and enjoying the rewards of one's labor. In fact, I've strived to live in such a matter for most of my adult life. As a biologist who knows how to farm in a semiarid environment, knows how to care for livestock, grows a large garden every year, heats with wood, has planted many fruit trees, has paid off the mortgage, etc., I'm as well suited for 'self-sufficiency' as anyone. But could I support myself without fossil fuel inputs? Without transportation & trade networks to bring from afar the resources I can't do without? Without truck & trailer for hauling the organic compostables that provide me with O-NPK? No. Hell no! I couldn't even heat my home without a chainsaw, and only with great difficulty without a gasoline powered hydraulic wood splitter & chipper/grinder. Not even with a strong adult son to do all the heavy lifting. And my children & granddaughter are even less equipped to survive the implosion than I am.

The outcome is that we as individuals will die and we, as a species, will go extinct. Shortly. Perhaps not "shortly" from the perspective of months or years but from the perspective of ecological or evolutionary time - which is to my mind the proper perspective from which to consider outcomes and the consequences of actions - so "shortly" as to be, like, NOW.

Is this a grim or "doomeristic" way of looking at the situation? I don't think so. We are apes and behave like apes. How could we not? Apes largely freed of the constraints of pathology, parasitism & predation, and given fire to play with, will inevitably exceed carrying capacity and precipitate a mass extinction pulse. Language & culture & memetic transmission of acquired traits, rather than somehow serving to assuage this consequence instead greatly fosters it. Such is reality and reality is to be embraced not shied away from. Enjoy your downhome lifestyle because of the good food & fellowship it provides, NOT because you erroneously believe that it will 'prepare' you to avoid the shitstorm that's coming. Kick back, I say, and watch it all unfold. Enjoy the spectacle. And when the time comes, die well. This is my message to you and to your readers.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

I'm thinking of renting a booth for the local earth day festival, and basically make a big poster that says: "Want to be green? Live small."

Actually, I just might do that.

DD: Is it possible that Sharon's readers think about proactive intervention rather than siding with debatable absolutes, especially in terms of predicting the future? While I understand your points and can agree with some of them, I can't help but notice what humans have predicted in the past and what actually has come to fruition (not to mention the amount of innovation that has occurred without prediction from the past). Personally, I'd rather try out new solutions or work to find solutions for your children and granddaughter, instead of pointing out the problems but never doing anything about them. Regardless, to each their own. :)

fruityb, DD is actually doing something. He explained he is living a sustainable lifestyle and has been for most of his adult life. That is something isn't it? More than a lot of people I should say.

The truth is not only inconvenient, it's also uncomfortable. People don't like facing uncomfortable truths. No one knows what is going to happen in the near or far future. It most likely is going to be very ugly - but in a way you can't worry about it now, because you'd be paralysed depending on how doomerish you think it will get. I think DD is right to say to watch it all unfold - prepare if you must (and yes that is what we are doing too) but you can never prepare for everything, there will always be something you hadn't planned for. That's where human resilience comes in - when TSHTF, some people will be able to cope/adapt, others won't. Some people will fight to survive, some people rather die as they won't be able to cope. Until then, by all means, do enjoy a different lifestyle, do enjoy powering down, and take every day as it comes for tomorrow might not be as rosy.

Go Wendell Berry!

State briefly the ideas, ideals or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Ursula Leguin said it first, in The Ones Who Walked away from Omelas. I urge everyone to read it.

By Southernrata (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

6. Name the choices. I have been looking hard for them for 40 years. The only one I have found that helps is to die.

Thank you for the Wendell Berry, and the blog posts. I've been reading about peak oil and climate change seriously for only a few months now, after a manuscript on climate change came across my desk and I felt I simply didn't know enough to evaluate it well.

But I mostly work with poetry and it is very nice to be reminded how well that form of writing can take really uncomfortable questions and make them into a powerful statement.

As have a number of posters, I find Sharon's post a little disheartening. Yes the scale of the problem we face is daunting, but those of us who hope our children will live as well as we have (or at any rate, not much worse) simply have to find a way of making those in power change what they are doing. On the way to doing that we must refute those who argue that nothing useful can be done -- that way lies passivity, fatalism and ultimately a worsening of our environmental practice.

I feel troubled when Sharon says: We do not like to acknowledge that if everyone on the planet can't live like us, that means we have to change our lives, and soon ...

The fact is that the people in the parts of the developing world that are living in grinding poverty are less interested in how well we are living than living in dignity and we ought to make it possible for them to do so, up to and including at our own expense, if it comes to that. Our acts of self-denial, if they are demanded, ought to be an expression of our determination to see our fellows live at least as well as we would expect, at a minimum, ourselves.

I think it not at all clear where that point is, but I am sure of this. If we are banking on selling first worlders on sustainability and global equity, we had better not associate that with living like the people we oughty to assist. If we do, our program will be as secure at if we'd invested cash with Bernie Madoff. Both fear and greed will be arrayed against us and the greenwash will become even less convincing than it is now. We will fail abjectly. That would be disastrous.

We must show that eradicating poverty and achieving sustainability can be reconciled with all of us living in dignity -- all 9 billion of those we will have by 2050 if it comes to that.

It is possible: Not certain, but possible, like most everything else in life.

By Fran Barlow (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

And why the reluctance verging on phobia to even consider that my prediction of imminent population collapse - cogently expressed and firmly grounded in everything we know about population dynamics and ecology - simply can't be correct?

Well, I can't speak for anybody else, but as for myself... I have considered that. Yes, it's a distinct possibility. But, if it's really that bad, then we're all totally fucked and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it, therefore there's really no point worrying about it. It goes in the same category as comet impacts and supercaldera eruptions.

I very seriously doubt that the human race is headed for extinction. I doubt that even a major comet/asteroid impact would wipe out all of humanity - there's just so many people in so many different places that some groups of homo sapiens would survive almost anything that didn't wipe out the entire biosphere.

Compared to an "instant" disaster like that, changing climate and other ecological changes are more manageable.

I think that people in general change when they have to. I certainly can't blame people anywhere in the world for wanting a physically better life. The most basic motivation behind "consumer society" is the desire for a physically more comfortable and healthier life. It's hard to blame anybody in any part of the world for wanting that. Not many people will voluntarily embrace a more difficult and less secure life unless they have no choice. If it must happen, it must happen, even though I see it as a tragedy.

Fran, I think observing that everyone cannot live like Americans (which is simply a biological fact and not up for debate) is not the same as condemning everyone else to grinding poverty. Instead, what we need is a much less resource intensive lifestyle that also meets basic needs. We know this can be achieved because there are places where it exists - places with long lifespans, low per capita expenditures, low resource use and high quality of life. But it is fundamentally impossible to ask others to stabilize their lives at these levels unless some affluent humans like us are willing to make basic structural changes.

And the truth is those changes are inevitable - you can want things for your children, and perhaps even get them individually, but they are not happening for all children. Real wages and standards of living for Americans have been declining since the very late 1970s, when I was 6. The incredibly high unemployment and debt rates for under 30 Americans do not project an affluent future for them.

But the good news is that there is more than one kind of having less. You see this kind of less in stories of the past when people speak of growing up poor but not realizing it, or observe that they had little money, but wanted for nothing. Jeremy Seabrook, in his book about World Poverty observes of the huge difference between people who live on $2 a day but need little money because they can meet many of their needs at home and those who live on the same but depend on cash for food, education, medicine.

The other reality is this - at this point we have no means of hoping for better for our own children without doing harm to our grandkids, potential or actual, and to other children further out. We can't hope for our kids to have what we have - we simply have to create something worth having that offers an alternative.


I'm an American living in the UK, so I speak from personal experience.

Unfortunately, people here do not believe me when I say that they, for the most part, live much better lives than do many Americans, with less money, less stuff, and more freedom. Some of them are trying to get more money and more stuff, but that just shows the effectiveness of the American lifestyle marketing machine.

I mean, y'all believe it, too? That those of you living in America live a better life than people outside the U.S. -- that lifestyle marketing machine works damn well.

There's an Earth Day for you to celebrate. The day you stopped believing you were better off 'cuz you have more stuff. You're not.

Changing your life style is all good, whatever you feel you are doing to help the future but I just do not think anything is going to make a difference. People are infested with self-delusion, addiction, and are generally apathetic or lazy. I do believe in making changes - not because I think it is going to save the world from a die-off, but because it may help me save myself and some others. I do think a big die-off is probably inevitable and I think those who survive will be the ones who are able to easily adapt. I would not get angry about Earth Day festivals or cloth bags being loaded into SUVs. Die-off is coming anyways. You must practice acceptance. And then train for adaptability.

Anna, thank you for clarifying what I already understood from DD's post. I clearly see what he's doing and I'm quite aware of how uncomfortable people are with some inconvenient truths. I read his perspective of things to come and his opinion is not unusual. There are people who understand where the current path is taking humans, yet they also understand the importance of adequate communication (especially online). Unfortunately, DD's message is lost when he insinuates the lack of knowledge reader's possess. If he wants to paint a scary picture, by all means, have at it. But to push his stance with unwarranted and somewhat snide commentary (such as possessing some phobia for not accepting his message of complete species extinction), AGAIN, his message is lost. The importance of the information he's providing (which is EXTREMELY significant) is quite overshadowed by his derogatory way of putting the information out there and his decisive do nothing solutions.

I essentially agree with Sharon's post.

Then the big question is what to do.

Be an example to others of what to do.

Live on less.
Reduce your consumption.
It's not easy ... I struggle with this every day.
But I do not own a car, and I've gradually been improving and expanding my garden for several years.

My neighbors see this, but do not do the same.
I'm not going to try to convince them ... it would be a waste of time.
Eventually they will respond to the force of increased costs and deteriorating living conditions.
Whether it will be enough is unlikely, but I'm not sure what else to do.
Look what happened on Easter Island.

in the stages of death and dying, american is in denial. there's a few more stages after that, but i think the denial will take us to the point of no return (as stephen says, look at easter island).

as for me, i've made the single most largest and most important decision i could to reduce my own planet trashing: i refuse to have kids. i do other things (vegetarian, drink shade-grown coffee whenever i can find it, don't own a car or tv, recycle, etc.) but my refusal to reproduce is the best way to reduce resource consumption i can name. of course, i am far from perfect (can't grow my own vegetables in the city, i have a laptop, pets, etc.) so i am sure i am still contributing in my own way to the ultimate destruction of earth.

The following prose poem by W.S. Merwin also speaks to issues raised in Berry's "Questionnaire: . . .

Make This Simple Test

Blindfold yourself with some suitable object. If time permits remain still for a moment. You may feel on or more of your senses begin to swim back toward you in the darkness, singly and without their names. Meanwhile have someone else arrange the products to be used in a row in front of you. It is preferable to have them in identical containers, though that is not necessary. Where possible, perform the test by having the other person feed you a portionâa spoonfulâof each of the products in turn, without comment.

Guess what each one is, and have the other person write down what you say.

Then Remove your blindfold. While arranging the products the other person should have detached part of the label or container from each and placed it in front of the product it belongs to, like a title. This bit of legend must not contain the products name nor its generic name, nor any suggestion of the products taste or desirability. Or price. It should be limited to that part of the label or container which enumerates the actual components of the product in question.

Thus, for instance:

âContains dextrinized flours, cocoa processed with alkali, non-fat dry milk solids, yeast nutrients, vegetable oil, dried egg yolk, GUAR, sodium cyclamate, soya lecithin, imitation lemon oil, acetyl tartaric esters of mono- and di-glycerides as emulsifiers, polysorbate 60, 1/10 of 1% sodium benzoate to retard spoilage.â


âContains anhydrated potatoes, powdered whey, vegetable gum, emulsifier (glycerol monostearate), invert syrup, shortening with freshness preserver, lactose, sorbic acid to retard mold growth, caramel color, natural and artificial flavors, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bisulfite.â


âContains beef extract, wheat and soya derivatives, food starch-modified, dry sweet whey, calcium carageenan, vegetable oil, sodium phosphates to preserves freshness, BHA, BHT, prophylene glycol, pectin, niacinamide, artificial flavors, U.S. certified color.â

There should be not less than three separate products.

Taste again, without the blindfold. Guess again and have the other person record the answers. Replace the blindfold. Have the other person change the order of the products and again feed you a spoonful of each.

Guess again what you are eating or drinking in each case (if you can make the distinction). But this time do not stop there. Guess why you are eating or drinking it. Guess what it may do for you. Guess what it was meant to do for you. By whom. When. Where. Why. Guess where in the course of evolution you took the first step toward it. Guess which of your organs recognizes it. Guess whether it is welcomed to their temples. Guess how it figures in their prayers. Guess how completely you become what you eat. Guess how soon. Guess at the taste of locusts and wild honey. Guess at the taste of water. Guess what the rivers see as they die. Guess why the babies are burning. Guess why there is silence in heaven. Guess why you were ever born.

By Rob Content (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

As the old saying goes: "right on". I've been watching this for 30 yrs now. Ten years ago, I came to the realization that the Universe really doesn't care if humans disappear. In fact, our loss won't even be noticed. I, long ago, accepted the label "too pessimistic to talk to" and "doomer". In spite of all the chatter to the contrary, there are times when catastrophe is the reality.

I go about my business living a low level lifestyle but I don't kid myself, even that is extremely destructive. I live the way I do because it's who I am. Spend almost all my time alone and, as I get older, wonder at the marvel of it all.

Cynical, apathetic, doomer or realist, who knows. Personally, I think this road is a dead end.

"The supernatural realm is a product of the human brain. It exists nowhere else. It is our mistaken belief in the supernatural as the source of reality that causes us to create havoc in the natural world. The brain does not create reality; it creates ideas about reality, most of which are innaccurate." From WHO DO I THINK I AM?

I very seriously doubt that the human race is headed for extinction. ...there's just so many people in so many different places that some groups of homo sapiens would survive almost anything...

Look at all those caribou on that island. They're all over the place and I don't see any wolves to eat 'em. They've got it made! There must be plenty for all those caribou to eat even though I don't see much vegetation. Oh well, there's so many caribou that nothing could possibly happen to them all.

I simply would not believe how dense people can be if I didn't see it with my own eyes all the time online.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

This might be sort of off-topic, but I feel that I should give a contrary opinion on the issue of "consumer culture". A lot of people seem to think that there is something inherently selfish and stupid about modern consumer culture I disagree. Like I said in my previous post, it's basically an expression of the common desire for a safer, more comfortable, less difficult, more secure, and all-around better way of life. I certainly can't blame people for wanting that, and I don't think that anybody else can reasonably do so, either. If people are wrong for wanting a more comfortable way of life, then was it a mistake for my ancestors to come to the US because they wanted something a little more secure than a life as poor laborers? It just doesn't make any sense to me to condemn people on these grounds.


i refuse to have kids.

Sorry to hear. You're intelligent, well educated and love birds & other critters. Whatever genetic contribution there may be to your decision to remain childless dies along with your phenotype, while people shy on intelligence, education and knowledge & appreciation of nature spawn like Mola the ocean sunfish. grrl, in the course of your studies did you ever read R.A. Fisher's "Genetical Theory of Natural Selection" (1930)? While I don't expect most people to have read it, it wouldn't surprise me if you have. The entire second half of the book explores the implications of IQ and fecundity being relatively strongly negatively correlated. The implication & consequence is the idiocracy we live in today.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

...was it a mistake for my ancestors to come to the US because they wanted something a little more secure than a life as poor laborers?

Just about any Native American you ask would say that it indeed was a mistake.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

DD - while I think it is probably inevitable that at some point humans will go extinct, I don't think it is necessarily going to be down to the looming environmental crisis, at worst I'd guess we'd be looking at a pretty severe bottleneck, because we're not going to get to a state of having absolutely nothing to eat (as I believe is the case with Caribou, or deer as I recall from final year pop biology) but only having enough to eat to support a vastly reduced population - which, at the end of the day, means that we'll have a vastly reduced population but not necessarily complete extinction - I don't imagine for instance that the fertility of the corn belt will decline such that it can support zero human population, what I can forsee happening is population increasing to a level where export is no longer a possibility, regardless of absolute catastrophic failures in food production around the world, I equally don't see anyone at any point being able to come in and take, by force, the resources still able to be grown in the first world (whereas I categorically do see that developing nations are likely to tear each other apart, and in turn be torn apart by developed nations).

Now if you take the longview, as you appear to, then yes, at some point it is a statistical inevitability that Homo sapiens will at some point go extict, (I forget the average species lifespan but if I'm not mistaken it's generally on the magnitude of 1-10million years?) - the only way I see the looming food/resource shortage leading to extinction, rather than reduction, is if someone gets an itchy trigger finger and fighting over resources unleashes nukes.

But could I support myself without fossil fuel inputs? Without transportation & trade networks to bring from afar the resources I can't do without? Without truck & trailer for hauling the organic compostables that provide me with O-NPK? No. Hell no! I couldn't even heat my home without a chainsaw, and only with great difficulty without a gasoline powered hydraulic wood splitter & chipper/grinder. Not even with a strong adult son to do all the heavy lifting. And my children & granddaughter are even less equipped to survive the implosion than I am.

Yes, hell yes. Would you be comfortable doing so? No. Could you do it? I believe so, or if you couldn't some subset of people could - we existed as a species for enough time that all the contrivances you speak of are not too dissimilar to the famed layer of paint atop the eiffel tower for which the whole thing was surely built (ish).

Good post Ewan. Thanks.

What I expect is for human population to crash but not immediately all the way down to extinction, at least not in the southern hemisphere. I expect that isolated relict populations will persist for several generations before demographic stochasticity, Allee effects, and the synergistic interaction of novel and severe environmental stressors take them down one by one.

The native fertility of the US "cornbelt" is already gone and its current productivity relies on massive inputs of I-NPK & biocides. These inputs will no longer be available nor will fuel for traction. Also, soon center-pivot irrigation will be required to maintain agricultural productivity in the American Midwest. Capital for financing the establishment of irrigation infrastructure won't be available.

Limited or regional nuclear exchanges are to be expected as famine induced social unrest unfolds. The real danger is from the deployment of strategic pathogens against staple cereal grains & legumes, recombinantly engineered for enhanced transmissibility and virulence.

My reply to people who maintain that they, or someone, will be able to feed themselves & family sans fossil fuel inputs is: Are you doing so now? Let's see you do it. Let's see anyone do it. Let's see it be done under survival conditions. Let's see it be done when people who aren't doing it are starving. Let's see it be done under conditions of rapid, deleterious climatic and other environmental change. Let's see it done while ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems, are collapsing.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

Actually I believe there is a lot that one can do that is meaningful, but it requires real sacrifice and real commitment to a better future, and very little in terms of short term gratification or reward. Imagine that, heroic actions?

1) Live a lifestyle that is measurably sustainably and globally equitable. It is not impossible. I do so, and do so not only for my benefit but to set an example of what is possible. The fact is that people DO follow good examples when they see them. Much of the issue and helplessness that many feel is simply paralysis from not being able to see the possibilities.

2) Advocate--it's not enough to do the right thing, you must help others do the same as well.

3) If nothing else, break out your inner Noah. Plant trees, build ecosystems, and restore and enrich what you can, for some of that may survive even if you don't.

I provided a link to my group in Hawaii of people doing just that and setting what I see to be good examples. On the whole, it's not enough, but it's real and growing rapidly. I think a lot can be done once one makes the commitment to doing. It's certainly high time for that.

Anyway, hoping that's "hopeful." Hoping to meet a few kindred spirits as well.

I'm not convinced that the native fertility of the corn belt has gone to the extent it couldn't support a relatively large human population - if I recall correctly a field mined for nitrogen one year still has approximately 100lb/ac residual nitrogen in certain areas - sure you're not going to get 300 Bu/Ac corn out of this, but I reckon there are vast swathes of land which could yield 50-100Bu/Ac pretty sustainably - and that's if you kept the corn model, which would obviously not be the best idea.

Categorically a widespread infrastructure collapse precipitated by a lack of fossil fuels would set production back massively, but I honestly don't figure you'd be looking at zero productivity - you'd have productivity which in the current climate wouldn't make the land worth farming, but at the end of the day once the crap hits the fan ANY amount of productivity is better than zero productivity - people lived off of hopeless (by today's standards) harvests since the dawn of ag and I'm betting that more people than you'd think could probably do so (whether or not I could is debateable, I'm pretty sure I'd be dead within 9 months of the cessation of modern medicine probably accelerated by poor diet and stress) - I'm convinced that practically all my relatives on my father's side of the family would adapt pretty easily as other than for a decade or two they've essentially all lived a relatively low input lifestyle using peat for fuel and getting more than enough out of their gardens to survive (although not necessarily enough to thrive) given that humans managed to surivive through the entire pre-ag era, survived without ag even during the ag era, currently survive without ag (albeit very small populations) etc etc I don't see extinction as inevitable - sure stochiasticity in population size increases the risk, but given that 90%+ of the global popn is gone anyway stochiastic movement may just promote a repetition of the cycle - areas devoid of human life for a few generations may well become exploitable again so populations which move stochiastically up in pop'n can move in and adapt.

Roll on another thousand years or so and we get to do the whole thing over.

"The outcome is that we as individuals will die and we, as a species, will go extinct. Shortly. Perhaps not "shortly" from the perspective of months or years but from the perspective of ecological or evolutionary time - which is to my mind the proper perspective from which to consider outcomes and the consequences of actions - so "shortly" as to be, like, NOW."

Although I do agree with DD in many respects, it's an overstatement to say we're going extinct. Bottlenecks are a regular occurrence in human history - if we survived Toba we're sure to survive whatever is next.


Sharaon ... thank you for your post@27 above. I should say that again, I do agree with some of the sentiment. I agree that at least as far as us first worlders are concerned, a far less resource-intensive lifestyle would make a measurable contribution to a more sustainable existence for all of us on the planet. Not the least of the benefits of such a state of affairs would be to underpin the kinds of economic and political system changes needed in industrial societies to transition to light footprint systems. That, if you get right down to it, is where cultural phenomena like Earth Day can fit in.

It is true that 6.8 billion going on 9 billion people cannot in practice live as Americans are living now, although one should note that not even most Americans are living like Americans do now. In America, as elsewhere, there is a pareto distribution, and we tend to know a lot more about the liefestyle choices of those in that top 20% or so than the other 80%. That is our dominant impression of life in America, of "consumer culture". Of course, large swathes of America and the rest of the world dream of living like those pareto privileged Americans, and so in a sense, those of us who call for a less resource-intensive existence are not so much up against reality as against the dream. It would be kind of like arguing against the right of some disadvantaged person to win the lottery. Of course, what is wrong is that life is any kind of lottery. It's even more wrong that part of the lottery chances reflect where you were born.

I think we have to get our sales pitch right if we are to have enough first worlders feel strongly enough about sustainability and equity to compel the changes that might achieve this. It is after all, quite as unsustainable for Somalis to live like Somalis or Sierra Leonians to live like Sierra Leonians as it is for Americans to live like Americans.

By Fran Barlow (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

...build ecosystems...

Jay, ecosystems aren't "built," they evolve. The organisms that comprise them co-evolve into a functioning ecosystem that is the product of a complex history of introductions & extinctions. Even if you have an inventory of every species and their relative abundances, you can't replicate a functioning ecosystem that has been destroyed. If you try, you will get an unnatural assemblage of a few thriving species out-competing everything else. Everything else that is in the process of becoming locally extinct. You won't get an integrated ecosystem that maintains its diversity. Not for thousands or tens of thousands of years.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

Grrl Scientist above ...

I would not at all presume to question your lifestyle choice on children. If you think it right for you, then it is right.

That said, I do see the irony. It is the positive side of Dunning-Kruger. Precisely because you understand the question of "the footprint" and have done the intellectual work to get there, you want to be ethically consistent and pro-social. Those who haven't done the work because they are not empowered or because they have no choice in practice will continue to contribute to the problem.

The world is not carrying too many humans because there are too many people as thoughtful and empowered as you are. The world is carrying too many people because women and girls in general but in the developing world especially are relatively disempowered, sometimes savagely so. It is overpopulated because productivity is too poor and because social provision in most places is too scant and because this predisposes reliance on traditional forms of mutual obligation -- i.e kith and kin. It is overpopulated because infant mortality is high and because subsistence agriculture persists.

The sooner we achieve equity acorss the face of this planet, the sooner we will begin approaching sustainable population.

By Fran Barlow (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

...if we survived Toba we're sure to survive whatever is next.

Toba blew to the northwest across central Indoeurasia 70K yrs bp, just about the time Homo sapiens was beginning the African diaspora. The mitochondrial coalescent has the time of the human demographic bottleneck well before that time, possibly at or near the time of speciation circa 125K yrs bp. Human population was apparently little impacted by the Toba eruption. The same can't be said for H. erectus and H. neandertalensis populations in the path of the ejecta fallout. In fact, it's theorized that population reductions of competing congeners facilitated the human colonization of Indoeurasia.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

Sharon: wasn't sure which of your posts to leave this on, since I referenced several of your posts in mine, but thanks for inspiring me to write. Ping!

I've long since been fed up with the "we can solve it" approach to climate change that involves CFLs and Prius drivers. It's stupid. Climate will determine how we evolve going forward. We were in the driver's seat for a short time, but that will end soon.
I appreciate your message, but you needn't rail on about how we need to start implementing austerity measures to save ourselves. Nobody railed on about the need for austerity measures in the face of WWII, and no one will need convincing once climate change hits. It will be all too apparent. You don't save yourself from a war. You go to war. You can't save yourself from climate change (it doesn't work that way). Perhaps we'll get by (in the U.S.) on a massive CCC-style program for the displaced and corn and beans for the rest of us who are not displaced by weather and/or water/food/fuel shortages. Perhaps you still believe that we have a chance at stopping the inevitable? Waste of emotional resources IMHO. You'll simply have to re-tool your emotional outlook in the coming decades.
We simply can't achieve the reduction of demand and supply (under current socio-economic systems) that are required to become sustainable. Our societal structures are based on growth. Plain and simple. Even efficiency measures simply fuel more growth (Jevons paradox). Unsustainable isn't a catchy corporate byline (i.e. "yay! let's all move towards sustainability together"). Unsustainable means something.
I agree with Ewan R. and Aaron. It's crunch time - that has a lot of inherent uncertainty in it. Outmoded viewpoints shaped in the lap of luxury (an array of decisions and choices are before me) and privilege (it's reasonable to believe my expectations will be met) are less than useless.

wingnut: "Nobody railed on about the need for austerity measures in the face of WWII"

Umm....How old are you, kiddo? And is your granny still alive? Maybe she can tell you about WWII. You can also look at the propaganda poster collections at Northwestern U and the New Hampshire State Library.


Sharon, great post and also many educated/thought provoking replies. I loved:

"Outmoded viewpoints shaped in the lap of luxury... and privilege..."

The fact is it is so hard for us to "grok" what a substantial reduction in our 'lifestyle' really feels and looks like.

I moved to Costa Rica almost 20 years ago, got poor and rode a bike on dirt roads in mud, rain, in the dark, lugging goods and produce to market, scraping by on pennies. Notwithstanding a deep leftist background and intellectual understanding of poverty, it afforded a whole new level of comprehension into why poor people often make decisions out of desperation or lack of options. AND they will often do anything to avoid sliding backwards--this should be considered relevant for the predicament of so many in the US who are facing the eclipse of the "American Dream."

On the positive side,my neighbors who are poor, know they are better off than their urban cousins. There is free time, fruit on the trees, dancing on the weekends and monkeys in the forest.


You're correct that there was plenty of propaganda about austerity back then. My point was perhaps not as well articulated as it could have been. Back then, the propaganda worked and civilians willingly made the necessary sacrifices. These days, austerity propaganda wouldn't work and it won't work until climate change begins disrupting our food and water supplies. Although, we do get plenty of consumption propaganda and that seems to work too.

Umm....How old are you, kiddo? And is your granny still alive?

I'm 37 and yes, my granny is still alive. She's quite old in fact. I still remember the Luftwaffe dress dagger my grandfather (father's side) brought back from Europe. My great grandfather (mother's side) was at Pearl Harbor and my other grandfather (mother's side) dragged a anti-aircraft gun into Europe with a team of men. I don't think these men needed government propaganda posters for motivation. That speaks more to my point. Austerity is a choice now. That choice is actually a luxury. Choose wisely and enjoy the luxuries you've come to expect. :)

Look at all those caribou on that island. They're all over the place and I don't see any wolves to eat 'em. They've got it made! There must be plenty for all those caribou to eat even though I don't see much vegetation. Oh well, there's so many caribou that nothing could possibly happen to them all.

I simply would not believe how dense people can be if I didn't see it with my own eyes all the time online.

Does this happen very often in nature? I thought that a food shortage usually meant a drop in population, not a total extinction. If a species went extinct every time they outstripped their food supply, how would any species exist for more than a few hundred years? Ewan R. already made this point much more thoroughly than I could.

These worst-case scenarios also seem to assume that all fossil fuel resources will disappear almost instantly, and that all of the negative effects of climate change will happen in a few years, and that there won't be any positive changes like areas previously unsuitable for agriculture becoming suitable. Won't we be looking at a relatively gradual change by human standards - several human generations (assuming a "generation" as 20 years). This is a very short time, biologically speaking, but on the scale of human experience, human institutions, and human behavior it's actually a pretty long time. Think of how much the economy and culture of the rest of the world have changed in the past 100 years, or even the past 40 or 50 years - heck, even the past 20 years. It would seem very strange to me if human society does not go through major economic, social, and cultural changes in the coming decades in response to increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and changing climate - changes that will result in societies that are much more prepared to deal with severe scarcity and environmental problems. While there almost certainly aren't any "magic bullet" technologies that will solve all the difficult problems, I find it difficult to believe that there won't be technologies that will help.

One reason that I can't be as pessimistic might be my interest in history. Historically, many people at different points of history have visualized both near-perfect utopian and hideous dystopian futures. Reality has almost always turned out to be somewhere in between. Individual human cultures and communities are often surprisingly resilient in the face of disasters that would seem to be enough to completely destroy them. If the change is severe, there will be a lot of suffering and pain and in the worst scenarios a lot of death as well, but cultures often pull through in a modified form. Even the Easter Islanders survived the total deforestation of their island - and not only survived, but developed a written language of their own in the period after their period of environmental disaster.

"I don't think these men needed government propaganda posters for motivation."

They sure did. That's why I said, go ask your granny--there were a great many political isolationists at the time who felt very strongly that the European Front was Somebody Else's Problem. After all, it was Japan who bombed us. As much as WWII is portrayed as the "Good" War on the teevee, it was nevertheless not at all unanimously supported at the time, not even in Europe where much of the fighting was going on. (Maternal Grandfather a WWII Marine, great-grandfather a WWI draft-dodger; Paternal grandfather a WWI draft-dodger, uncle a WWII Conscientious Objector because you could do that then.)

Just out of curiosity, why do you think propaganda works less well than it has in the past? I agree, incidentally, that it doesn't, I think we've become very cynical about all marketing efforts in general, but clearly *some* forms of marketing work quite well.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." - Pogo (poster by Walt Kelly), 1970, for first Earth Day.

Why is ETHICS absent from the debate? Ethical guidelines exist to unsnarl personal preferences, with the goal being decisions that produce the best outcome for all concerned. 1. Ethics courses have vanished from American education. 2. The idiotically simplistic "10 Commandments" (which are a statement of male property rights) are considered an adequate guide the use of modern technology and related human behavior.

The "right thing to do" is to take care of the planet TODAY. RIGHT NOW is the only time that action can take place. The past and future don't exist; we need to stop rehashing the past and guessing the future, two nonsensical efforts that resolve nothing.

Thank you Sharon for having the guts to point out what is obvious to anyone who has the courage to read the science and face these times. Our culture trivializes and marginalizes tough messages, and individually, we will not give up anything, it is not how our species is wired.

"Green" is the result of materialism's sorry negotiation with the sacrifice we must make. "Green" is the worst sort of meaningless generalization, a terrible deceit, and implies progress. Earth Day is "Green's High Holy Day". Both should remind us of Jeavon's Paradox, if we imagine we are more efficient or less harmful, we consume more, and end up net behind on both counts.

I quit blogging on environmental topics myself because I am certain it makes no real difference. The problem is our core sensibilities, our mindlessness, and probably, our wiring as a species. We act out of fear in the moment, not in terms of an abstract future doomsday. There is no political courage for radical change, no individual appetite beyond "green" gestures. This is how we are built and make sense out of reality.

The survival game is over for us, we passed our collective mental tipping point long ago, the environmental tipping point is inevitable, axiomatic. Our science scarcely understands our destructiveness, and we care even less. Maybe "homo sapiens V2" will get it right, if any of us survive and remake civilization.

Wingnut, if you read a good history of US involvement in WWII, you'll see that there was an enormously strong isolationist movement in the US, and that Roosevelt was not part of it ;-). The things Roosevelt did to move towards interventions in 1939 and 1940 made enormous difference in how able the US was to respond rapidly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And absolutely propaganda campaigns were necessary - and useful in implementing rationing without large scale hostility (the rationing board was actually popular, believe it or not). Today those messages would come through different media, but we take in just as much agitprop as anyone else, and buy it just as freely - after all, how else would we have gone to war in Iraq.


Disappointed in your name calling, guess I hit your buttons. This stuff is hard to face.

I think you know your argument for hope based on leadership in a radically different context, WWII, is nonsense.

If you look at the science, the verdict is that this environmental game is decided and we have destroyed the planet. 2 degrees of warming is already coming. World rice crops fail at about 1.5 degrees. We are already in collapse.

There are pie in the sky schemes that are not scalable and for which there is no political will. There is hope mongering all directions, but it is not based on anything concrete, just hope about hope, magical thinking.

Mobilizing people to sacrifice personally to defeat an enemy like Hitler is not remotely analogous to our current situation with the environment. People don't see the problem, and the major media all lie about it or confuse the issue with "fair and balanced" nonsense.

I know you know this. With 20% unemployment, nobody is going to care if what they do today will doom the next generation, they won't think that far when they are trying to suvive. Their issues are immediate, and they are being told that things are recovering.

Note how the environmental crisis is not part of the public conversation. Surveys place public interest in the environmental issue far down the scale of priority. Our politicians follow the polls, not an objective test of what is the most important issue from a scientific perspective for our survival.

So you must answer the question as to where the leadership will come from. There is no Roosevelt in our time. There is no accepted common enemy in the environmental crisis, most don't believe it is real. You have indicated some feel there is a two year window that must be hit, or it is over. Nobody in power is plugged into the issue and willing to do anything meaningful. The media wants to be "fair and balanced", with big money funding the liars.

The inescapable conclusion from what you know and have written is that this whole enterprise is failing. The worst part is that there is not one thing you or we can do about it.

It is now becoming clear that if everyone agreed on a course of action and implemented drastic changes tomorrow that it would probably not make any difference in the outcome (and they won't do it). Positive feedback loops have kicked in, and with atmospheric methane added in, we are at about 425ppm carbon in the atmosphere now and increasing at an accelerating pace. With survivability set at 350, how can that be fixed?

Wish it were different, but it is not. One can argue for hope for hope's sake, but that is only palliative. Maybe hope is all we can do anything about. There is no solution.

By Michael Dougherty (not verified) on 26 Apr 2010 #permalink

I thought that a food shortage usually meant a drop in population, not a total extinction. If a species went extinct every time they outstripped their food supply, how would any species exist for more than a few hundred years?

What typically happens is that a food shortage or other environmental stressor will drive a population locally extinct, and then the locality will be recolonized at a later date by immigrants from elsewhere. Where I live, for instance, there are no rabbits this year. What happened to them? I don't know. Tularemia outbreak perhaps. They'll be back next year or the year after, however, even though now they appear to be locally extinct. A few years ago canine distemper, or something, took down all the raccoons. They're back now and after my poultry. But what we're talking about in this thread is global population saturation by humans. When human population collapses there is no "elsewhere" to serve as as recolonization source.

One reason that I can't be as pessimistic might be my interest in history... Individual human cultures and communities are often surprisingly resilient in the face of disasters that would seem to be enough to completely destroy them.

Really? I read history as one long litany of environmentally induced cultural collapse, followed by replacement by invading cultures. Toltec --> Aztec --> Mextex --> Texico, etc. Paul S. I have considerable respect for historians & social scientists & those involved in the humanities, but unless you acquire a rather broad & deep familiarity with the natural sciences, and with biology & ecology in particular, I'm afraid you may be arguing out of your league.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 26 Apr 2010 #permalink

It is now becoming clear that if everyone agreed on a course of action and implemented drastic changes tomorrow that it would probably not make any difference in the outcome (and they won't do it). Positive feedback loops have kicked in...

You are absolutely right on the money, Michael, but I promise you, your message won't be a popular one.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 26 Apr 2010 #permalink

If it is true that the "little steps" approach to environmentalism is largely ineffective, then I would suspect that there is an underlying agenda involved in getting everyone on board with sustainable development. Maybe people are being conditioned for more government control.

In response to Lora and Sharon - my point is very simple, surviving climate change is going to be very immediate and real. Perhaps analogous to climbing Mt. Everest or jumping out of an airplane into a combat zone. It's real, it's immediate, and it has nothing to do with policy debates. You're still arguing about policy and it's implications in motivating the larger society to take the right path. The role of propaganda, isolationists tendencies of a nation under threat.... what does any of this have to do with finding enough food to eat or water to drink? Try doing something that pushes your physical and mental endurance, eventually you'll find motivation that isn't based on ephemeral systems-based externalities. I'm gently suggesting you invest your finite emotional capital regarding climate change in yourself, your family and your immediate neighbors.
BTW, I spent some time (3yrs) in climate research labs during my academic years (amateur sense of climate science) and presently audit GHG inventories for a living in the power, waste, retail and government sectors (good sense of the massive scale of the emissions problem). I also follow state and federal policy regarding carbon and climate (it's my business). I'm not an expert but I know enough to wager. My money's not on a system that has a fundamental inability to transform itself.

Perhaps you hate Earth Day for a simpler reason. For all its faults, its focus is on the earth, not on its supposed creator...like the other holy-days.

grrlscientist: "i refuse to have kids."

d's dog: "Sorry to hear. You're intelligent, well educated and love birds & other critters. Whatever genetic contribution there may be to your decision to remain childless dies along with your phenotype, while people shy on intelligence, education and knowledge & appreciation of nature spawn like Mola the ocean sunfish."

Why would anyone convinced of human extinction shortly as in now, want to encourage ANYONE to have kids? The horror of population collapse and human extinction isn't the future I'd want for MY kids (BTW, I don't have any children, have been shooting blanks for nearly 40 years).

There are a couple of ways to transmit a legacy, if that's what you call having kids: genetically and culturally. I opted for culturally. Grrlscientist appears to be doing the same - good for YOU grrl!

Your dire warnings of imminent demise not withstanding, reducing population pressure is a significant positive action, which should be applauded, not discouraged. Voluntary childlessness, a completely personal action, takes courage in the face of family, religious, political, cultural and biological pressures to procreate.


No kids here either. Thought we would adopt instead, but jobs moved us around far too much to provide a stable home for any children.

Sharon, you've made some excellent points that I hadn't considered before. I will have to think on it more carefully.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 01 May 2010 #permalink

They want to make us all ride around on stupid bicycles on earthday and they want us to turn off street lights over some bugs becuase a bug is more intellegent then they are

By SPURWING PLOVER (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink