Ecological Illiteracy Makes Bad Politics
“It’s going to be a bumpy ride in any case – though a lot bumpier if we do nothing.” – Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth (2011), loc. 4933

We’re doing nothing. As a culture, I mean, in response to “the fifth great turning in human history” (Heinberg, loc. 4991). The first four – of which the first constituted humanity’s harnessing the power of fire; the fourth and most recent is the Industrial Revolution – “entailed overall expansion”. “Now,” writes Richard Heinberg, “we are participating in the turning from fossil fueled, debt- and growth-based industrial civilization toward a sustainable, renewable, steady-state society”, which “will be characterized by an overall contraction of society until we are living within Earth’s replenishable budget of renewable resources…” (loc. 4999-5014). 

Somehow, it has become controversial to acknowledge that infinite growth, of any kind, is impossible on a finite planet. Actually, perhaps it’s not even controversial, as “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries” (economist Tim Jackson, quoted in Heinberg, loc. 4332). In other words, we’ve become so entrenched within the reality envisioned by traditional economics, wherein “the environment is a subset of the economy” (loc. 4315), that any notion which stems from a skepticism concerning the possibility of infinite economic growth doesn’t even register. Skepticism towards growth isn’t even worth responding to. 

One silver lining of the political black hole represented by the Trump presidency is that people seem more comfortable sharing their more general political imaginations: not only what they envision society looking like in the long-term but, and probably far more often, what they would like society to look like in the long-term. On a mass level, this has manifested in things like the push from the “Left Wing Of The Democratic Party” for single-payer healthcare, despite the complete impossibility of this ever coming to pass under present circumstances (if I’m wrong about this, I’ll have no problem admitting it, and in fact I’ll be ecstatic). In sum, from the kinds of things people say, and the kinds of solutions they see as “realistic”, it’s quite obvious that our society at large is ecologically illiterate. 

In the 2008 documentary “Blind Spot”, which I highly recommend and to my knowledge is still free on YouTube (search “Blind Spot documentary”), the physicist Albert Bartlett says that contemporary humans are actually “innumerate” – by which he meant that we globalized humans are illiterate regarding numbers. Specifically, he said, we don’t understand exponential growth. Bartlett was more concerned with outright population growth, but it’s quite clear (as I’m sure Bartlett would also agree) that the deepest source of our global metacrisis is overuse. The default state of globalized culture simply requires the exploitation of too many resources in timespans that are far too short. There’s no widely-recognized political movement acknowledging this problem, and as such no set of political solutions that currently has any mainstream momentum behind it has any response whatsoever to the question, “What do you do when your culture hits ecological limits to growth?” In fact, every currently existing set of potential political solutions would only send us ever-deeper into the hole dug by the “infinite growth” fallacy. 

Energy: that “indirectly observed property” which is so central to all other phenomena that it doesn’t even really seem appropriate to call it “a phenomenon”. Particularly in the form of petroleum, certain human demographics are using far too much of it: “too much” in the sense that its fundamental scarcity has long-since started to seriously affect how oil is priced, and how it has been priced has in so many cases (so often silently) wrought havoc on all other aspects of the economy. Most recently, we’ve seen this with the 2008 financial crisis, where, besides all the widely-discussed factors like the housing bubble and derivatives markets, “…the oil price spike had also played a critical (if largely overlooked role in initiating the economic meltdown” (loc. 464). 

Any transition to localized economies will necessarily entail a process where ultimately, humans living in ground-level zones of production, on a daily basis, will be using zero or almost no fossil fuels. Now, in the above quote, Heinberg refers to “Earth’s replenishable budget of renewable resources”. In a truly sustainable community, this is what human beings would turn to for their sources of energy. 

For all existing mainstream politics, the problem here is quite simple: in discovering what seem to be the typical political ideas of our day, from anywhere on “the spectrum”, almost everyone seems to predicate their worldviews on the assumption that 1) America’s current rates of consumption will continue indefinitely; 2) their own personal rates of consumption will stay the same or increase, in whatever their personal selected area of consumption happens to be. Having these ideas twenty years ago would’ve been foolish; having them today is sheer madness. 

To reiterate what I wrote in last Friday’s afternoon post, we’ve been imprisoned in the peak oil trap, in the first place, because of the mindset of financialized militarization evolved out of thousands of years of urbanization, which culminated in the global Anglo-American hegemony in the contemporary world. Again, these processes are nothing less than wholly interconnected. To quote Chalmers Johnson’s Dismantling the Empire, 

In fact, the purpose of our overseas bases is to maintain U.S. dominance in the world, and to reinforce what military analyst Charles Maier calls our “empire of consumption”. The United States possesses less than 5 percent of global population but consumes about one-quarter of all global resources, including petroleum. Our empire exists so we can exploit a much greater share of the world’s wealth than we are entitled to, and so we can prevent other nations from combining against us to take their rightful share. – p. 122

Napoleon said “Armies move on their stomachs”, and U.S. mass food production evolved inextricably with the contemporary U.S. military (Heinberg, loc. 3153). In a world of entirely localized systems of agricultural production, it’s hard to envision how endlessly escalating militarization like we see now would be possible. Of course this isn’t to say that humans wouldn’t form militias, etc.; the point is the endless growth of the military and all it entails wouldn’t be logistically feasible. 

The Tao says, “And even though a sapling might be small/No one can make it be his subject.” It would require an enormous shift in our consciousness to learn to appreciate “living small”, but one great advantage to such living is that it’s much less susceptible than cultures of endless growth to being overtaken by the worst aspects of dominance hierarchies, especially when compared to our own era of Homo colossus.

No other movement seems to concern themselves with such matters; so why should you listen? First, I try to point far more to the sources than to myself, and the one thing I’m quite confident of is that the sources I’ve found are the most comprehensive and diligent when it comes to the intersection of politics and human ecology, mainly because they’re the most reliable available of those that aren’t tainted by being under the imprint of some mass media corporation. Basically, if you believe environmental crises are the most significant ones we currently face, from what I can gather – and I spent a great deal of time and effort on this – the sources I’m referencing are who you want to be listening to. 

Moreover, none of this is cause for panic, as panic won’t help any of the problems we’ve been addressing. It’s cause for thought and communication, and ultimately, I’m sure we all hope, solidarity.