“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.” “We can no longer tinker about the edges. We can no longer continue feeding our addiction to fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow. For there will be no tomorrow.” ~ Desmond Tutu
I recall a time when I was 15, waiting for a bus at the edges of society in the Venezuela of the 80’s: I was sent by mom to buy and pick up some food for the chickens (we fed them with kitchen scraps but they were not enough). I saw something now I can’t remember, but I do remember the conversation I had with my friend: “there will be a time in the future where people would pay thousands of dollars for a broken jean”. We both laughed at the ridicule of the idea…now, when I see girls wearing pants that seem to have had a fight with some terrible tiger, I can’t but recall that conversation…and think the ridiculous times we have come to live in.
In one of his last posts (excellent as all of them!), John Michael Greer, also known as The Archdruid talks about Peak Meaninglessness and the different between tools (stuff that allows us to do things we can’t do by ourselves, or expand our potential) and prosthetics (stuff that replaces our human potential, something we could perfectly do by ourselves in normal circumstances).
In general, tools are good and help as long as they are ethic. And using Permaculture ethics to measure this, I would add that they are ethic as long they care for the Earth (and by extension, its ecosystems and inhabitants), care for People (all of us, not just a selected few) and finally, care for the Future (fair share and distribution, so future generations also have where and how to live!)…we could say the same about prosthetics, but adding that if a prosthetic, instead of improving your potential, it hinders or confuses it, then you are much better without: prosthetics may be seen as necessary (and even that is debatable) when there is a disability or another real impediment.
Our society, Greer argues, is full of prosthetics that instead of enhancing our lives, have made them stupid, boring and meaningless for a few (those who are made believe that they “need” or “want” them, such as girls spending lots of money to buy broken jeans) and miserable for most (those who work their lives to make this stupid stuff for us).
But Greer’s latest post goes even further: in The Prosthetic Imagination, he analyses the many tricks and lies used by the power that be to try to convince us that things are not there or not happening…he uses three examples: “unemployment rates” (official), “decoupling” and banning the words “climate change” from language (1984?) to show us how this works today…I could share a thousand similar examples, but I will stick to the wishful thinking (or prosthetic, as Greer probably would put it) created by “renewables”, “technology” ,“human ingenuity” and “control”…and the worst of them all: “the god-like universe”. All cover-ups and abstracts to replace critical and system’s thinking, avoid painful reality and worse: avoid TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
Bear with me…
Humans have an addiction: we (with some admirable exceptions) rather be comfortable than sacrifice “feeling good”…it is normal, that’s what cats, dogs, cows and many other animals do: bears, see lions, birds and insects, even plants: life seeks comfort and runs away from pain and misery. (that is, by the way, why so many plant, insect and animal species are moving north every decade, looking to adapt to the changing conditions imposed to them thanks of a rapidly changing climate and why we may need to rethink the narrow term “invasives”, see more about this in this excellent article here and here)
But there are addictions and addictions: humans (let me clarify: Western-like, mostly middle and higher class humans living in mostly developed countries) are addicted to the kind of lifestyle that is only possible because of a combination of:
- Fossil fuels, which allowed us to create (and run) much more tools (and prosthetics) than we truly needed
- Human and ecosystems’ inequity and misery (we can afford most of the things we were made to believe we “deserve”, thanks to the hard work of many low-paid, abused and displaced peoples and the widespread destruction of ecosystems and its inhabitants, with some even saying that “polar bears may be bad for the fossil fuel industry” (Uh?)
- Credit and subsidies: which allow big corporations and other institutions to get money to fund projects for which they plan to pay “in the future” (or never pay, such as the case for subsidies)…and regular people like you and me to pay for things we may not need (or want) and some things we need but we couldn’t really afford otherwise…
- Stories that convince some that “we deserve” certain things, that we are “the chosen”, or that we “have worked hard for it”…stories that separate us from the natural world as if it is something “out there” that we can dismiss and replace with technology and wishful thinking and stories that make us believe somebody or something cares for us (individually) and must then provide for all our wishes…
There is one single way out of (well, not “out of” but “through” if we want to be realistic) this messy, unfair and unsustainable state: it is actively taking responsibility by facing and accepting reality and then actively and consciously going against some of our addictions in order to create a better life for ourselves and others…
I will be discussing each one of the “prosthetics” I quoted above. While there are many others, these are probably the ones that create a real wall between us and what’s truly possible:
Many who accept that we are on the verge of not one but many collapses (due to the combined impact of climate change; peak resources such as water, soil, biodiversity and raw materials; pollution and social inequality) still think that “sustainable development” (the twin sister of “renewables”) will save us…
Renewables are not magic: wind turbines, solar panels and the like, all require raw materials to be extracted, manufactured and transported to build them. They don’t last forever, so their remains need to be “cycled” somewhere and many are highly toxic. They also have the problem of scale: in decades they haven’t been able to go beyond 13% worldwide (where they sit today) and many are unable to produce energy in a reliable and steady way unless this energy is stored (which creates then the problem of raw materials and technologies to build, store and dispose of batteries). They also require vast amount of land (space) to get as much energy as it is obtained from a small well or mine for fossil fuels…are we going to cover the Sahara desert with solar panels or worse, cut trees in the Amazon so we can put some there like it has been done in some areas?
People tend to avoid thinking on the full life cycle of “renewables”. They also tend to forget that the crisis is not ONLY about climate change caused by fossil fuels extraction, production and use, but by “peak resources”: we may be able to use some energy from renewables, but we will not be able to “create matter” such as replace the many minerals and other “resources” required to maintain the lifestyle we currently have or the lifestyle proposed by those championing “sustainable development”
How? Think about it…
We don’t really need a fridge, a washing machine and a dryer in every home…much less three TVs, microwaves, laptops, tablets and a lamp ready to shine on every corner…we really don’t “need” a car (or three!) parked in front of our houses, taking vacations overseas every winter and flying for conferences, visits and courses…
Instead of shaking our heads off trying to figure out how to scale up renewables, we may spend that time (and effort) so see how we can scale down our lifestyles and wishes…
Technology is not magic either: you can create all the designs and prototypes you want. But in order to be truly “sustainable” they have to pass two tests: ethics and raw materials (or resources).
If a technology hurts others (from humans to ecosystems and its inhabitants), then it should be discarded or at least reviewed. A technology that makes us lazier and unhappier in the long run, is hurting us: that’s what video games, TV and infinite access to Internet is doing to our kids and many of us, adults.
Also, all technology requires resources: technologies don’t exist on a “vacuum” and they can’t replace resources. So if resources are depleting, no technology will save us in the long run. An example are droughts: people in California and other draught-driven areas are pumping aquifers (because they have the technology and money to do that now) or dreaming about desalinizing sea water…the problem with these two technologies is that they not only push the problem to the future, they also worsen the situation: if you deplete an aquifer, you’ll end up destroying (even further) the water cycle; and if you put up together all the resources, technology and energy required to desalinize water, you are also increasing ecosystems degradation, pollution and greenhouse gases emissions…in other words, you are not solving anything, but worsening!
Again, the solution is getting real about what technology can (and can’t) and what technology is (and what is not)…and measure it towards ethics and systems’ thinking.
Human ingenuity is another “magical bullet” many cite when start running out of “solutions”.
“They will come up with something” as “humans always have made it and this time will not be different”…
The reality check here lies in two things:
- Who is “they”? and why are you not including yourself? (The famous bystander effect combined with the diffusion of responsibility)
- Humans have failed miserably in the past and entire empires and civilizations have collapsed because of lack of vision, abuse of resources and changes to their environment that they couldn’t overcome…where is that “always have made it” come from?
The thing is, is everyone’s responsibility to look for solutions and ways to reduce our (negative) and increase our (positive) impacts on the world and others…
Also, accepting that we may not make it this time (as we didn’t make it when the Sumerians, Romans, Mayans and Pueblans, to name only a few) is a sobering act: life is the wisdom of working towards a dream that may never crystallize…and so what? In our way, we may teach, inspire and be taught and inspired by others!
The solution is seeing things as they are: not all of us are deeply involved in creating solutions and many more have no clue at all…expecting that others would fulfill our needs and wishes is childish and, in any case, irresponsible.
The myth of control:
Part of the problems from the above beliefs is that we think we have some “control” over life, the planet, its resources and the future….we don’t!
We can only control (and that, with a lot of effort and to a certain extent) our own responses and behaviour…
Letting go of control (and the burden that comes with it) is a real liberator: it makes us to enjoy life and its up and downs more freely…and accept the so many things we can’t and should attempt to control.
When we think about “solutions” as a “one size fits all” or even a plan whatever it is, we are trying to control variables: this includes people, landscapes, entire ecosystems and even how things will boil down in the future.
Control is born in fear and arrogance, a sense of entitlement mixed with horror for uncertainty and “insecurity” of life itself…if we make efforts to become more compassionate and humble, we may start enjoying life and let go of the “controlling” ghost that consumes our lives and dreams of unsuitable “solutions”.
The “God-like” Universe:
I truly don’t know what to do with this one…but as I see it, it is the epitome of the “two-year-old syndrome”: “I want it now, I want it for me and I don’t want to take responsibility for how it would happen…”
Things don’t “appear” because of collective nightmare or dreaming: I have heard the craziest stuff around this: from people shutting off so they don’t “hear” bad news or words they “don’t want in their life” (I wonder if they know how selfish, immature and cruel they look like), to people saying that things “don’t exist if we don’t think about them” (Uh??!!). I have heard/seen people asking for “stuff” (I wonder what it would happen if this worked for all in the world, where the matter and energy to create all those things would come from, or how those things would be disposed of, or best: why in the world this should work for a few media-class “universe believers” and not for all the people dying of hunger, disease and poverty in Africa, Asia and South America???!!!)
I want to end this post saying that I am a dreamer myself: I dream of solutions and projects every single day of my life…but I also wonder hard how I can be part of the things I dream and how I can even make them happen.
I have been shedding myself off stuff I don’t need: prosthesis of body, mind, relationships and experiences…
I have been inviting more and more to my life, real stuff I make, real relationships and experiences. The process is long and tough as we have been born in captivity and fed with so many “prosthetic imagination” as well as prosthetics for many other things, as Greer wisely tell us…
Is this ever achievable? It might…but any long path starts with the first steps (and the willingness of keep walking)
With the last news of UN supporting divestment from fossil fuels in one side and NASA saying California has only one more year of water supply, we may need to think hard and quick on how we will go through this with dignity and ethics while keeping an open mind and accepting responsibility for the messes we have created.
“Live simply so that others may simply live.”
John Michael Greer is the author of many excellent books: The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age and Not the Future We Ordered: The Psychology of Peak Oil and the Myth of Eternal Progress, among many other (unrelated) books and an excellent blog I follow: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/
He also writes for Resilience.org, a website I highly recommend, although not always agree with some contributor’s articles or point of view.