Friday, June 04, 2010

The Future of Life - Why is this so hard for people to deal with?

It's a battle between two narratives:

Narrative 1:
The free market is the most economical system for bringing prosperity to the world and government regulation just screws things up.

Narrative 2:
The free market has many positive benefits, but it also commodifies our collective resources resulting in the catastrophic destruction of the Earth's species and if we don't stop this trend immediately, we will destroy those things that makes life possible on earth.

I am much closer to the second narrative than first.  One of the most persuasive arguments in Wilson's book (he favors Narrative 2)  comes in the chapter "How Much is the Biosphere Worth?" A 1997 study estimated the annual value at $33 trillion.
Ecosystems services are defined as the flow of materials, energy, and information from the biosphere that support human existence.  They include the regulation of the atmosphere and climate;  the purification and retention of fresh water;  the formation and enrichment of the soil;  nutrient cycling; the detoxification and recirculation of water;  the pollination of crops;  and the production of lumber, fodder, and biomass fuel. [p. 106]
Reading this book as oil floods the Gulf of Mexico and eight years after it was published, my basic view of the world was reinforced and my frustration with my fellow humans who choose to ignore the impact human population increases have had on the earth and who choose to ignore the impact of their gluttonous consumption of the world's resources.  It's as though we have been selling off pieces of our back yard garden where we've been growing our food and now we are taking the wood off our house for heating fuel without thinking about where we will get our food and where we will live in the future. When will we realize that consuming our resources like this can't end well?

I sympathize with people who cling to the material things that were part of the American dream as they were growing up.  But I'd also point out that happiness can be found at lower levels  of material consumption.  Sure, we need a basic level of comfort - housing, food, security, etc.  But where is that basic level?  How is it that generations of humans lived well without big screen televisions, without SUVs, without 2200 square foot homes, etc?  Are all these things worth an unsustainable exploitation of the earth's resources?  Wilson says strongly no.

My book group met Wednesday night to discuss E. O. Wilson's book The Future of Life.  It's a short (189 pages) but difficult book.  It's data heavy and could use, as one of the group members suggested, much better headings and titles.  For example, Wilson talks about biodiversity for much of the book and I was looking for where he was going to tell us why this is important.  It wasn't obvious.  I finally found it in the chapter called "For the Love of Life" which would more usefully have been titled "Why Biodiversity Matters."  

Wilson also doesn't do a good job of clearly telling us his key points.  They're there, but hidden in all the data.  I did read the book carefully, taking lots of notes, so I did get some of them.  But without Wilson spelling them out, I have to guess that these are the ones he thinks are the key points.

1.   Biodiversity* is shrinking.  We are losing species and genetic variety at a faster and faster pace every year.

2.  The Causes of Biodiversity are summarized as HIPPO;
Habitat destructionHawaii's forests, for example, have been three-fourths cleared, with the unavoidable decline and extinction of many species.

Invasive species.  Ants, pigs, and other aliens displace the native Hawaiian species.

Pollution.  Fresh water, marine coastal water, and the soil of the islands are contaminated, weakening and erasing more species.

Population.  More people means more of all the other HIPPO effects.

Overharvesting.  Some species, especially birds, were hunted to rarity and extinction during the early Polynesian occupation.  [p. 100;  Hawaii is just the example of what is happening around the world here]
I need to emphasize population because he spends a lot of time on this.  The increase in human population underlies the other four factors. 

3.   It's late in the game to stop this destruction of biodiversity but if humans become aware and have the will, it is possible.  The final chapter is called "The Solution."  I have problems with the idea of a "solution" in human affairs.  We don't solve issues as though they were math problems.  Rather we better balance the factors that affect the issue, and we may well unbalance it in the future.  And given the negativity of most of the book, one wonders whether the author really believes things can be changed or if the editors said it needed a happier ending.  But here are some of the things he offers in that chapter.

  • Ethics - Humans, he argues, have a genetic propensity toward fairness.  If people see that some people are destroying the planet by using more than their fair share, they will fight for fairness. (But what if they are the ones gaining unfairly?)
  • The way is to change people's narrative. We think of the environment (all of its resources) as capital.

    Having appropriated the planet's natural resources, we chose to annuitize them with a short-term maturity reached by progressively increasing payouts.  At the time it seemed a wise decision.  To many it still does.  The result is rising per-capita production and consumption, markets awash in consumer goods and grain, and a surplus of optimistic economics.  But there is a problem:  the key elements of natural capital, Earth's arable land, ground water, insects, marine fisheries, and petroleum, are ultimately finite, and not subject to proportionate capital growth.  Moreover, they are being decapitalized by overharvesting and environmental destruction.  With population and consumption continuing to grow, the per-capita resources left to be harvested are shrinking.  The long-term prospects are not promising.  Awakened at last to this approaching difficulty, we have begun a frantic search for substitutes.   
    This leads to two problems:
    • Economic disparity and
    • Accelerating extinction of natural ecosystems and species

    He suggests adding statistics that take into account the value of the biosphere into our  evaluations of economic assets and deficits as one way to change how we use our resources.

    He then goes on to list the action that can be taken to turn things around

    • Salvage the world's hotspots - those habitats that are both at the greatest risk and shelter the largest concentration of species found nowhere else.
    • Keep intact the five remaining frontier forests (combined Amazon Basin and the Guianas; Congo of Central Africa;  New Guinea;  the temperate conifer forests of Canada and Alaska combined;  the temperate conifer forests of Russia, Finland, and Scandinavia combines.)
    • Cease all logging of old growth forests everywhere.
    • Everywhere concentrate on lake and river systems, which are the most threatened ecosystems of all. 
    • Define and prioritize the marine hotspots of the world.
    • Complete the mapping of the world's biological diversity
    • Use most advanced ecosystem mapping techniques to ensure full range of the world's ecosystems are included in global conservation strategies.
    • Make conservation profitable.
    • Use biodiversity to benefit the world economy as a whole.
    • Initiate restoration projects to increase the share of the Earth allotted to nature.
    • Increase capacity of zoos and botanical gardens to breed endangered species.
    • Support population planning

There are other issues the book raised for me:

1.   What is a reasonable human population on earth where humans can live a comfortable live style that doesn't use up the Earth's resources?

2.   How do we get there?

3.  How do we get people to see the collective impact of individual behavior as we try to balance saving the biosphere and biodiversity with the market economy?

4.  How do we conceive the difference between the death of individuals and the death a species?

5.  How do we understand what is a normal rate of species extinction versus a human caused rate of species extinction?

All of these are addressed in the book to some degree, but need much more discussion.

Some group members expressed the bittersweet hope that the oil spill might help raise people's awareness of how our resource use endangers the planet. 

*From his glossary at the back of the book:

Biodiversty:  All of the hereditary variation in organisms, from differences in ecosystems to the species composing each ecosystem, thence to the generic variation in each of the species  As a term, biodiversity may be used to refer to the variety of life of all of Earth or to any part of it - hence the biodiversity of Peru or the biodiversity of a Peruvian rainforest.  (p. 213-214)

NOTE:  Blogspot sent out a notice that they have a new agreement with Amazon to enable bloggers mentioning books to automatically link to Amazon so that readers can easily buy the  book and the blogger would get a percentage.   I have resisted ads on this blog for various reasons - including aesthetics, conflicts of interest, and the fact that the size of my readership isn't large enough to earn me significant profits anyway.  But I thought I'd mention this.  There are some books I mention I wouldn't encourage my readers to buy.

But this one I think everyone should read.  Including our governor and mayor who strongly support economic development without calculating the costs to the biosphere of the projects.  Neither cares if we wipe out the Cook Inlet beluga whale population - which NOAA has declared an endangered species - if it means that we'd have to think more creatively to maintain our current economic situation.  But the governor has vetoed money that would have added about 1200 kids and about 100 mothers to Denali Kid Care health insurance because some of the money might be used for an abortion.  The intentional loss of one potential human being is more important to our governor, it seems, than the loss of a whole species.


  1. Nice post, but even if we figure out a sustainable population size and sustainable level of consumption, how do get to those steady states?

    And how do those "sustainable" states change as we run out of cheap oil, cheap coal, easily mined iron, copper, lithium salts, potassium, etc.?

    The perpetual growth path we are on will clearly consume the available resources, some of which are not recyclable (oil and coal), and some highly difficult (potassium). But any population size will eventually use these up as well.

    So what is the true goal? A civilization that lasts another 1,000 years instead of 200 years? 10,000 years? 100,000 years? How on earth :) can we decide that goal, for no matter how long a time we aim for, we'll run out of some resource before then.

    Not to go too sci-fi here, but perhaps the right goal is a civilization which learns how to survive 1,000 years on this planet before going off to colonize and exploit the rest of the solar system?

    A good contrasting view for your book club to read is "Mining the Sky" by John S Lewis. ( It's true we've limited resources on Earth, but amazingly there are sufficient resources for 1 trillion humans to thrive at today's level of consumption within the asteroid belt, and more than twice again those resources in the outer solar system.

    But certainly before we can dream that dream, we need to not destroy this lovely planet which we all live and share today.

  2. Here's a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think.
    George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that conservatives have been better than progressives at exploiting anecdote and emotion to win arguments. Progressives tend to think that giving people the facts and figures will inevitably lead them to the right conclusions. They see anecdotes as inadmissible evidence, and appeals to emotion as wrong.The same is true of scientists. But against emotion and anecdote, dry statements of evidence have little power. To make matters worse, scientists usually react to denial with anger and disdain, which makes them seem even more arrogant.
    In Texas last year, a member of a state committee who was trying to get creationism added to school science standards almost said as much when he proclaimed "somebody's got to stand up to experts".
    from; Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth

  3. Taking the bait! And The LIES are swallowed, hook, line and sinker ;-(

    Someone had written: "When I talk about people buying or being sold 'absolute junk' I'm not only talking about the material but also about the ideological. We are 'sold' on consumerism, the wars (Iraq), elections (the presidency), all manner of things. Unfortunately, so few people see that just because these ideas are on sale, that they don't actually have to buy them!"

    Sadly, the multitudes have bought The LIES ;-(

    The multitudes have taken the bait which is "ease of life", so-called, and The LIES were swallowed(believed),

    and sinker(science/technology/progress) ;-(

    This place they call the u.s. of a. is the "bait"master and they catch their "fish" in every nation of this world ;-( Yet in england, france, germany, japan, etc, in all nations of this wicked world there are those who have become disciples of the "bait"master and they also have found other "waters" in which to catch their "fish" ;-(

    And so it is that today there are multitudes in every nation under the sun that have taken the bait(ease of life), and swallowed(believed) the hook(money), the line(politics/religion/education) and the sinker(science/technology/progress) ;-(

    Tempted, hooked, reeled in, and held captive as they but serve "time" in the prison that is this wicked world ;-(

    Simply, they could not withstand the media blitz(krieg), or their own desires, and their "imag"ination got the best of them ;-(

    Some two thousand years past The Truth bore witness to the fact that, "the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one"! (1John5:19) Yet, the "fish" continue to seek out that "good" place in the world, when in Truth the world today is but the product of mankind's "imag"ination, a dry and thirsty land of mirages, nothing but shadows, vapors and smoke ;-(

    And in this wicked world, "image"s abound and are worshipped ;-(

    So why receive that which is of mankind's "imag"ination?

    Even when such is supposedly "free" there will always be a price to pay, for mankind's "imag"ination is destroying the earth(land, air, water, vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Light, Life, Truth, Love, Peace, Hope, Grace, Faith, etc.);-(

    Consider the time when there were no radio's, no tv's, no movies, no newspapers, a time when there was no way yet "imag"ined and then manufactured, that would allow someone to publish or display the vain "imag"inations of mankind to the "masses". Sadly those who rule in this wicked world, and who control the "media", consider the "masses" to be but the M in E=MC(squared);-(

    And yet today, here i am publishing(sharing) that which i believe to be from the heart, The Spirit within, not the vain "imag"inations of my fleshly mind, for i believe that which i share is of The ONE whose Voice i have heard and whose Power i have experienced in The Miracle that is receiving "the love of The Truth", and The Miracle that is New Life, Real Life, and The Miracle of healing more than once, and The Miracle of deliverance that sets me free, free from the "I" in me!(continued)

  4. i believe that which i share is of The ONE who revealed the lies that are of this world, it's 'god', and it's systems of religion, as i received evermore "a love of The Truth". HE is The ONE WHOM i know and believe is the Giver of Life, The ONE and Only True Living G-D and Father(Creator) of ALL!

    Father Help! and HE does.......

    In times past, when i would wonder why things were as they were, i questioned?

    Do you feel as i feel?
    Do you wonder just what's real?

    D you see the little child?
    Do you see them running wild?

    i see their doubts and i see their fears,
    i see their hurts and i see their tears.

    Now could be that's what i look to see,
    Yet what i see is real to me.

    Now am i alone to care and cry?
    Or must i close these eyes and surely die?

    Sadly, the children, or those who once were called children, today are referred to as "kids" ;-(

    Sadder yet, the reference is true ;-(

    Baby goats abound because their 'parents' feed them all sorts of "trash", and so it is that as they grow, they "eat" any and all things, no matter the dis-eases(no-peace) that causes them to be pill pushers, peer pleasers, or worse yet enslaved by the media ;-(

    "Where have all the children gone? long time pa-as-sing" ;-(

    Progress? As promised things are getting progressively worse and worse!

    For "evil men and seducers are waxing worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived".......

    Yet Hope IS Alive!

    For Miracles do happen!

    Hope is there would be those who would take heed unto The Call of Our Father(Creator) to "Come Out of her, MY people" for they will "Come Out" of this wicked world(babylon) and it's systems of religion, and they will no longer have their portion with those who are destroying the earth(land, air, water, vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Light,Truth, Life, Love, Peace, Hope, Grace, Faith, Mercy, etc.) ;-(

    And for those who have embraced "mother earth" and the oneness that is the natural Creation?

    Hope is they would also experience and embrace that Spiritual ONEness that is a common union with their Brother, The Messiah, and Their Father, The ONE and Only True Living G-D(Great Spirit), HE WHO is Creator(Father) of ALL!

    Family! indeed and Truth.......

    A Simple and Spiritual Life.......


    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this wicked world and it's systems of religion, for "the WHOLE world(not just a portion) is under the control of the evil one"(1John5:19) indeed and Truth.......

    Truth IS, a lie is not.......

    Abide in The Truth.......


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