Sustainable Anything?

My on going reading has led me through Coupland’s Player One, Saul’s The Collapse of Globalism, and Wright’s A Brief History of Progress. I’m currently on John Birmingham‘s After America, an alternate history novel about what would have happened if a freak event had wiped out almost all of Continental North America on the eve of the Iraq invasion (if you like Tom Clancy, you’ll love Birmingham).

Alternate histories aside, there seems to be a rising sense of urgency in both fiction and non-fiction about the predicament we are getting ourselves into. I’ve long thought that the zombie apocalypse sub-culture (and believe me, there is one – Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead are just the tips of the iceberg) is a subconscious response to the impending Malthusian collapse we face.  I saw a version of this at the ROM the other week. How can we not see this ending in disaster? In our lifetimes?

The interdependencies of modern life make it inherently frail. We’re so isolated from the necessities of life that virtually all of us never give them a second thought. Food is never a problem, neither is clean drinking water. These things becomes immediate, panicky concerns when Walmart and all the rest aren’t delivering at the lowest possible price. We don’t have a grasp on what the actual costs of life really are; we are increasingly unprepared for a breakdown.

Human history has lasted for tens of thousands of years. All of those lifetimes were, with precious few exceptions, dependent on the individual being able to contribute to their own and their immediate society’s good. You didn’t get an extended childhood (into your early 20s) or a retirement where you could ‘stop’ working. Civilization grew out of our ability to sustain ourselves through increasingly complex group work, making these moments of non-responsibility possible. But as Wright mentions in “…Progress”, there isn’t a single example of a great civilization that hasn’t collapsed under its own weight. As an experiment in civilized growth, we seem incapable of recognizing our own unsustainability until it is too late. We seem intent on building civilization to the point where it can carry a large number of members who contribute little or nothing, or actively work to take more than they need. Wright’s case studies on Easter Island and the Roman Empire especially ring true – 2 successful civilizations that died under their own weight by destroying their own ecosystems. Wright’s conclusion is that we face a mass extinction when we finally exhaust the ability of the small planet we’re on to sustain the groaning weight of billions.

If we’re ever to truly develop a successful civilization, it must recognize our ability to overcome natural limitations, and it must recognize our need to self limit our own growth, even though that works against every evolved fibre in our animal beings. Some people appear to recognize this, but the vast majority of the human race does not. We will not have a civilization for millenia until we develop the self-discipline at an individual and societal level to recognize what an industrialized human being is capable of. If pursuit of technology and science are a pure goal, this understanding has to be at the basis of it, or else everything built will consume itself.

Nature is a wonderful system because it can balance itself. It can seem cruel (from a self absorbed human point of view), but it is sustainable, and had been for a billion years on Earth in many forms. It is nuanced, non-linear and complex, unlike our ridiculous systems based on simple greed, self-interest and insulated simplicity. Perhaps its time to start taking a serious look at how nature does its business, and create a human civilization that recognizes some fundamental truths.

I read an article in the Economist in which they suggested we can reduce population by increasing standard of living (this has already happened in many industrialized countries). Their solution to world overpopulation? Make poor countries more like rich countries, and they’ll have less babies (and more ipods). China tried this, and it worked… for a while, and now they find they can’t look after a massive bubble of aging population with too few children, and want to relax the one child policy (which is responsible for half a billion less people in the world today). The Chinese are richer than they have been, but in a population crisis. Economics won’t lead to a solution here. Neither will simplistic birth control measures.

So we can’t have less babies or we end up with many older people living much longer while not contributing. We are forced into a continuing growth bubble in a world that is running out of resources and is focused primarily on individual wealth rather than societal good.

Maybe we’ll get it right next time, after the impending crash.