Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
March 30, 2005

Optimist or Pessimist?

The UN has come out with its Millenium Environmental Assessment.

The Financial Times' pessimist take: World ecosystems in danger, UN warns

Cod_catches

Meteor Blades' optimistic outlook: The Gloom-and-Doomers Say There's Hope

Which side are you on?

More content from the pessimists:

World ecosystems in danger, UN warns
The world's sources of fish and fresh water are so rundown that they can no longer sustain current or future demands, according to a first international report card on the world's environment published today.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched by the United Nations in 2001, said that the unprecedented changes humans had made to ecological systems in the past 50 years to meet demands for food, water and energy had helped to improve the life of billions.

But it found that 15 out of 24 types of support provided to humans by the environment were being degraded and the harmful consequences could become significantly worse in coming decades.

Overexploitation of natural resources was increasing the likelihood of abrupt changes such as the emergence of new diseases, sudden alterations in water quality, the creation of "dead zones" in seas, the collapse of fisheries and regional climate shifts.

The study also warned that ecosystem damage was a "road block" to achieving the already elusive 2015 millennium development goals to eradicate poverty and hunger, improve health and environmental protection.

The UN has already warned that in the absence of a dramatic mindshift and an increase in aid flows, the world will miss the 2015 targets on health and poverty.

The project to examine the state of forests, oceans, rivers and farmland and their impact on human wellbeing was carried out by 1,300 scientists in 95 countries.

More from the optimist side:

The Gloom-and-Doomers Say There's Hope

Prognostications of disaster - from Malthusian population scenarios to nuclear holocaust - have proved wrong in the past, so we can expect an outpouring of rightwankery labeling this latest report pessimistic buncombe. It was, after all, commissioned (primarily) by the United Nations, which is about as popular among rightists as Ann Coulter is at a mosque.

So, if you're one to venture into reactionary territory on the blogs or other media, count on reading rips of the Millennium Assessment smattered with epithetical references to Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Julia Butterfly Hill, David Suzuki and the Club of Rome.

What will be missed in all this chatter, I'm can just about guarantee, is that accompanying the report's gloomy assessment is a brighter possibility: if we take action the crises can be overcome.

Posted by Jérôme à Paris on March 30, 2005 at 12:05 UTC | Permalink

Comments

Any action will cost someone money; ergo, no action will be taken.

Posted by: Tim H. | Mar 30 2005 14:26 utc | 1

Hope, obviously, is useless without action.

As I've noted elsewhere, 100 years from now, assuming that annual global population increase drops from the current 1.9% to 1.5%, there will be 26 billion people on the planet. One way or another, I don't think that will happen. But one way it won't is pretty dire to think about - even if you're not a mountain gorilla, redwood tree or underground pool of fossil water.

My optimism is tempered. A hefty proportion of the educated world still doesn't understand what their overly consumptive lifestyles means for the planet and most of the uneducated (and undeveloped world) dearly wants to adopt that lifestyle. If the radical action the Millennium Assessment scientists say is necessary to bring the planet back into balance is deemed beyond doing, then the planet itself will take radical action.

As I wrote in my essay linked by Jerome, I and the older cohort of my generation will be dead before the most severe of the predicted catastrophes arrive. So it's easy for me to wager on optimism. If I'm wrong, I won't be around to pay off.

Posted by: Meteor Blades | Mar 30 2005 17:44 utc | 2

Hope, obviously, is useless without action.

As I've noted elsewhere, 100 years from now, assuming that annual global population increase drops from the current 1.9% to 1.5%, there will be 26 billion people on the planet. One way or another, I don't think that will happen. But one way it won't is pretty dire to think about - even if you're not a mountain gorilla, redwood tree or underground pool of fossil water.

My optimism is tempered. A hefty proportion of the educated world still doesn't understand what their overly consumptive lifestyle means for the planet, and most of the uneducated (and undeveloped world) dearly wants to adopt that lifestyle. If the radical action the Millennium Assessment scientists say is necessary to bring the planet back into balance is deemed beyond doing, then the planet itself will take radical action.

As I wrote in my essay linked by Jerome, the older cohort of my generation will be dead before the most severe of the predicted eco-catastrophes arrive. So it's easy for me to wager on optimism. If I'm wrong, I won't be around to pay off.

Posted by: Meteor Blades | Mar 30 2005 17:45 utc | 3

Those people who think about their ecosystems in concrete terms may well be able to achieve a sustainable lifestyle. A majority, I fear, tend to think of ecosystems in an abstract sense. They are completely disconnected with changes in supply and demand which are mediated through improved technology and harvesting techniques. Most people view natural resources as an infinite resource that should be provided at constant cost, not realizing that such demands force suppliers to continually increase loads on the environment. As long as that mindset persists and technology permits, nature will not find a sustainable balanced equilibrium. I sure technology’s bounty will someday diminish – to the surprise of many.

Posted by: aschweig | Mar 30 2005 17:48 utc | 4

Stone Age: Iron Age: Bronze Age: Dark Ages: Colonial Age: Industrial Age: Oil, Gas and Coal Age: Colonial Age again: Dark age.......last one out?

No need to switch off any lights.

Posted by: Cloned Poster | Mar 30 2005 17:54 utc | 5

Mahathir warns of a dollar catastrophe

Posted by: Nugget | Mar 30 2005 18:59 utc | 6

I tend to vaccilate between the two extremes, sort of an environmental bipolar disorder. My one bright beacon is the youth of our nation (not all of them granted) more than we may realize are wise beyond their years and will rise to the struggle for sustainability and balance. Conservation has been a mainstay for many kids now reaching their majority and they have good heads on their shoulders. They need encouragement and support from us, and the wisdom of our experiences in the environmental movement. Never forget, according to the Hopi eleders, we are the ones we've been waiting for.

Posted by: SME in Seattle | Mar 30 2005 19:36 utc | 7

I tend to vaccilate between the two extremes, sort of an environmental bipolar disorder. My one bright beacon is the youth of our nation, (not all of them granted) more than we may realize are wise beyond their years and will rise to the struggle for sustainability and balance. Conservation has been a mainstay for many kids now reaching their majority and they have good heads on their shoulders. Our youth need encouragement and support from us, and the wisdom of our experiences in the environmental movement. Never forget, according to the Hopi eleders, we are the ones we've been waiting for.

Posted by: SME in Seattle | Mar 30 2005 19:39 utc | 8

I am a pessimist.

Everytime I venture out of my door I see oodles of americans on a continuing buying spree of largely unneeded.... stuff.

Conservation isn't even remotely in their thought processes. And it needs to start here, in the industrialized world.

I agree with Meteor Blades- at some point the planet itself will take action. It's not going to be pretty.

Posted by: fourlegsgood | Mar 30 2005 22:26 utc | 9

Agreed, 4LG (and great to see you again...)

The species has already had its single spasm of easy resource extraction - if Gaia takes her revenge on us, and our precarious hi-tech civilization collapses, it will never return. Our descendants will be scavengers...

If technological advancement always outstrips ethics, this may help explain the lack of SETI success.

Or maybe it was always only us. What a gift to piss away on religious wars and mindless consumption.

Posted by: OkieByAccident | Mar 30 2005 23:24 utc | 10

[warning! it's long!]
O I could be such an optimist (of the David Suzuki variety) if only I could discount the massive weights of inertia, corruption, and ignorance tilting the scales so far against us. it is maddening. it is not that there is "no hope" or "no way out." there are perfectly good avenues of hope and blinking EXIT signs all around us and we studiously ignore them.

http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/05-2om/McKibben.html>Mc Kibben's recent essay kind of covers the ground.

there is so much cause for optimism in our rapidly-increasing understanding of soil biology, of the functional use of fungi and invertebrates in waste processing, of permaculture (all too often rediscovering things that other cultures knew and practised millennia ago)... we can get more yield per acre from sustainable ag practise than from fossil farming; and we keep destroying family and peasant farmers, around the world, in favour of the less productive method.

as a species we are capable of inventing the bicycle (a truly innovative device and huge energy-saver), the hot-air dirigible, the focusing lens, the aerofoil sail, all the mechanisms we moderns dismiss as "clockwork". we're bloody clever! we moderns have been artificially made stupid, sub-competent and passive by our total-convenience lifestyle, but we have the capacity to be enormously inventive, creative, ingenious, handy. cause for optimism!

to mention just a few small examples: we already know of simple, practical, biotically-based ways to build or retrofit houses that are 5 or 6 times more efficient to heat. most of these methods are "illegal" under current building code. try to implement them in the average us town or burb and you will be punished with months of permit wrangling and tens of thousands of dollars in special fees.

we know how to install and use composting ("dry") toilets, saving potentially 100s of mio gal of potable [aaaaargh] water per year. and most of our "planning" departments consider them illegal or sub-code. admit that you have installed one in the average town or burb in the us and you are in for the same trial-by-bureaucrat mentioned above. we are actively discouraging and preventing citizens from innovating and discovering less wasteful technologies.

we know how to transport heavy goods (and passengers) by rail and water, saving enormous amounts of energy. so -- we deplete our rivers to the point where they become unnavigable, and tear up our railroads, and do our best to bankrupt our already-risible passenger rail network. we are running short of good farm land, so we pave more of it over for dead-end carburbs. we are politically and economically captive to foreign oil reserves; so we go out of our way to promote, build, market the most inefficient private vehicles we can envision, actively worshipping at the altar of profligate waste.

we know how to do all kinds of things right -- "right" meaning "in an adaptive, survival-oriented, frugal, sensible way" -- and yet we prefer to do everything as stupidly and wastefully as possible... I guess because it tickles our egos and makes us feel important and "wealthy".

thus I remain a pessimist -- a pessimist perpetually maddened by the proximity of optimism, like a starving castaway with a tin of food and no can opener, on an isolated atoll with no sharp rocks handy. optimism is so damn close -- "another world is possible" -- we can see it through the window, almost touch it, almost get our hands on it, but there is a phalanx of heavily armed plutocrats and their hypnotised disciples and rentathugs in between, telling us that we can't go there. and history suggests that they will win. faced with the classic choice, "Adapt or Die," they will make like the Greenland Norse, refuse "manfully" to adapt, and take us all down with them. when we were within arm's reach of a saner way of living -- no miracles or space aliens or perpetual motion engines required.

-------

I'm reminded of M John Harrison's surreal, poetic, elegiac, elliptical sci-fi novel The Pastel City in which a grim unstable feudalism survives in the post-industrial, post-space-age ruins of a far-future England.

hard-bitten miners brave the toxicity and desolation of the Rust Deserts and the Metal-Salt Marshes to recover scraps and relics of the fallen civilisation; travellers ponder an artificial constellation left in their night skies by ancestors whose technological prowess is long forgotten, unable even to read the alphabet in whose letters which the Name Stars are configured. [maybe it will be the infamous "orbital Coca-Cola billboard"?]

our greatgrandchildren, I fancy, will excavate and mine our old "city dumps" and other industrial middens for metal, plastic, glass. I wonder if they will loathe and hate us when they reflect on all that we giddily threw away -- like a drunken, gambling-addicted father in a Victorian morality tale -- leaving them in relative resource poverty. or will they perhaps, having lost historical continuity, regard us as mythical ancestors with magical powers beyond their understanding?

if so, what will they make of the magisterial wastelands we have left behind us -- the cracked obsidian craters of our nuclear tests, the poisonous blazing-aquamarine waters running off our old copper mines, the great tilted slabs of our silent airports, the gaunt enduring armatures of our skyscrapers, the vast barriers of our embanked roadways? what legends will they tell each other about the mysterious, sickly lands around our abandoned hot ponds, the probable deltas of desolation downstream of Hanford and similar sites?

will they hammer the shells of our old automobiles into armour for their agrarian wars, I wonder, starting the old story all over again?

or will they look back on us, from their immensely clever bamboo-and-paper houses, surrounded by their perpetual permaculture gardens, reading by the light of genetically-enhanced fireflies :-) and feel sorry for us... because we made our world so clunky, so unnecessarily ugly, sordid, wasteful, conformist, uncreative and graceless? I wonder in my happier moments if they will look back at the SUV, the passenger jet, the office cubicle, and ask themselves as we now ask of the corset, the bustle, the long woolies of the Victorian Brits -- how the hell did living, breathing human beings resign themselves to such imprisonment, such stifling, such bondage?

Posted by: DeAnander | Mar 31 2005 0:24 utc | 11

Right on comrade.

dry toilets. I'm going to do one tonight.

Posted by: slothrop | Mar 31 2005 1:56 utc | 12

I'm surprised, as self-proclaimed nature boy, how much I do not know about techniques of managing a better less-impactful way of life. I mean, this knowledge is obscured by our culture in a deep way. I know more about what I have no interest in at all: automobiles, fastfood, military strategy, american idol. All that stuff I just breath in, like a cultural osmosis.

Posted by: slothrop | Mar 31 2005 2:04 utc | 13

the cracked obsidian craters of our nuclear tests, the poisonous blazing-aquamarine waters running off our old copper mines, the great tilted slabs of our silent airports, the gaunt enduring armatures of our skyscrapers, the vast barriers of our embanked roadways?

De, have you thought of writing distopian future sci-fi yourself?

I tend towards pessimism myself lately, though I try to fight against it. In another of your posts you asked:

Is anyone under the age of 30 feeling the same tendencies to despair, anomie, an inability to imagine the future (or a fear and reluctance to do so) -- a paralysing inability to address the question of What's To Be Done?

Well, I'm 27 and ambivalent about the possibilities of a sustainable and pleasant existance for myself and my children. Perhaps I'm prematurely old. I hold out a little more hope for my country (New Zealand) than yours as I think we may have slightly longer to jump out of the handbasket-to-hell than you do.

Posted by: Oliver T. | Mar 31 2005 2:24 utc | 14

@slothrop despite having good intentions of shutting up and not usurping more bandwidth I must agree that, yes, less-impactful ways of living -- and ideas about same -- are heavily deprecated and obfuscated in the culture... derided and feared actually... not surprising as they all involve, ahem, buying less stuff. which is heresy, and must be extirpated.

Stossel (the limblowhard of ag and food) and his repeated attempts to demonise and "dangerise" organic produce is a good example. people in cars who yell "Hippie!" and "Get off the f**king road!" at cyclists on US streets. teenagers who learn to call the city bus the "loser cruiser" and believe it is a social stigma to ride it. people who believe that not eating meat every single day is an unthinkable degradation of their lifestyle -- even if the meat they do eat is so stuffed with hormones and antibiotics and injected with adulterants that it almost qualifies as lab waste. it all adds up to a phobia, a cultural rejection, of the very idea of low-impact living. The American Way of Life is not negotiable. we can either be ourselves -- heroic, imperial, wealthy -- or we can suffer enormous loss of face and "live like peasants/heathen."

the corporadoes did a really, really, really good job of burying the brief sustainable-counterculture movement of the 70's. with ridicule and caricature [aided to some extent by the natural loopiness of humankind which expressed itself in communes and collectives just as vividly as it does today in the prayerful gaggle outside Terri's hospice], with erasure and historical revisionism, with the help of police harassment and accelerating enclosure of "public" space and corporate media control, they pretty much "disappeared" the whole live-lightly cultural thread that flourished oh-so-briefly, along with its (ironically) very traditional values of materials re-use, ingenuity, home-building, low energy use, historicity, frugality, sharing, etc. those ideas are still out there, but you have to know where to look. they will only appear in the corporate media as part of a "humorous" freakshow story.

specifically on the composting loo topic, google for "Sun-Mar" or "composting toilet" or "sawdust toilet" or "Biolet" or "Joseph Jenkins"... I believe this technology is far better accepted in Euroland than the US. backward again, alas.

for an interesting review of the "owner-built home" movement and the sustainable architecture subculture, and their survival into the present, the recent book Home Work is a treasure trove. the original -- classic -- book Shelter is long oop I think.

the "smaller/lighter is more beautiful" movement is still around, just invisible to the media (except for occasional public pillorying and pelting with tomatoes). only the highest-tech edge of it (folks like the Lovinses) get any air time -- imho because they support the grandiose technocratic mythos, whereas the humility and third-world ingenuity of the low-impact crowd really hurts the Amurkan ego. buckyballs are Way Cool, but mass transit is for losers and composting toilets are 'eeeew gross!'

googling for "intentional community" may turn up examples of persistent low-impact advocates banding together to build or convert apartment buildings or condoplexes (in the city) or create eco-villages (in less urban areas) with a view to reduced resource consumption and more human/shared/green space. [it will also turn up the usual percentage of lifetime SCA members who want to form communities with others who wear wolfskin vests, carry broadswords, and try to speak extinct Scandinavian dialects. to the corporate media, they're all the same -- misfits, freaks, fantasists.]

also google for "urban gardening", "green roofs," "bioneers," "hermetia larvae", "eisenia fetida," "straw bale building," "papercrete construction," "water harvesting," and discover a lot of very ingenious people trying to be smart without being destructive... this list of googleable topics could easily get to be pages long, but you get the idea... little grains of determined crunchy hopefulness in the stodgy pudding of despair.

Posted by: DeAnander | Mar 31 2005 2:40 utc | 15

De, have you thought of writing distopian future sci-fi yourself?

I don't have to write it. I'm effin' living in it...

OK I really am shutting up now... [scrambles out of bar in a defensive crouch]

Posted by: DeAnander | Mar 31 2005 2:45 utc | 16

lol @ DeA

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Mar 31 2005 3:13 utc | 17

i'm optimistic that things will get pretty crazy round here in the "civilized" parts of the world. ;-)

that FT article seems more optimistic of a reading of the rpt than the guardian & independent takes on it.

DeAnander mused: we know how to do all kinds of things right -- "right" meaning "in an adaptive, survival-oriented, frugal, sensible way" -- and yet we prefer to do everything as stupidly and wastefully as possible... I guess because it tickles our egos and makes us feel important and "wealthy".

commerce & governance are inseperable, namely b/c those who are most driven or in positions to exploit and turn a buck also make the rules. so long as we continue to internalize the laws and rules of a system that is designed to consume & exploit everything, and i do mean everything, for the benefit of an elite minority of the earth's inhabitants, their control will continue to shape our future. it's long past time that this mechanized, abstracted view of our relationship to nature ends. we're too intelligent to commit ecocide & genocide for a bunch of ignorant, greedy dreams or masters. fuck 'em. any system, be it economic, social or philosophical, that rewards destructive behavior needs to be dumped. abandoned. buried. period. we don't have a whole lot of time to debate it any longer. to paraphrase russell means - there are two cultures on this planet. one industrial. one indigenous. one is a culture of death. the other, a culture of life. a pox on the house of those who try to tell you otherwise.

here's a gateway link to a bunch of resources on "paleolithic" technologies that heinberg mentioned in his latest book. poked around some of them and they looked useful. perhaps we could start a thread here or a le speakeasy w/ lifeboat supplies in the form of a link-tank.

Posted by: b real | Mar 31 2005 4:16 utc | 18

here

Posted by: b real | Mar 31 2005 4:19 utc | 19

Re intentional communities, also check www.cohousing.org for ecovillages (mostly urban, some rural) across the US and in some other countries. The movement started in Europe (Denmark and Netherlands iirc) and spread across the pond in the '90s. I live in one that includes an organic farm but is unfortunately in a large Southern city. No wolfskin vests or extinct dialects, though.

Posted by: liz | Mar 31 2005 6:10 utc | 20

More "fuel" for the pessimists.

Posted by: beq | Mar 31 2005 16:43 utc | 21

@b-real that is one way cool link

Posted by: DeAnander | Mar 31 2005 20:39 utc | 22

http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/033105H.shtml>Libération chimes in, Patrick Sabatier:

The first step seems the hardest. We must radically change our method of calculating wealth and accept the idea that neither wealth nor development are measured by dollars per inhabitant. And accept the idea that we must integrate the price of services nature provides into our analyses. Nature, or rather its destruction, has a price. Sooner or later, we'll pay the bill. At this moment, humanity is threatened with bankruptcy.

gonna say it again -- economists must bloody well learn to subtract. and the Chinese are already one step ahead.

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 1 2005 1:08 utc | 23

beq,
like we needed more fuel :(

Seriously though, good link, lists much of the problems.

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Apr 1 2005 2:29 utc | 24

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