Category Archives: Environment

Will our domination be our downfall?

For those of us who’ve been paying attention to the general state of the world and human society, it’s readily apparent that we as a species have sent ourselves hurtling into the depths of a global crisis that has the potential to wipe ourselves out along with many of our fellow Earthlings. So how exactly how has this happened?

It’s easy and certainly well justified to point our finger at the many harmful industries that have emerged from our society—fossil fuels, unsustainable agriculture, overfishing, mining, the military complex, etc. (have a look at this list of Harmful Practices Critiqued for a more extensive list). And yet what if there is a deeper cause that we can point to—a common “seed” that underlies all of these harmful industries and practices?

I believe that there is such a seed, one that is surprisingly simple to name and yet highly elusive, difficult for many of us to grasp. In a nutshell, I would say that this seed is a domineering attitude that appears to have increased in magnitude over the past 10,000 years or so of our evolution. In recent years, our collective eyes have begun to open to the great harm and even horror wrought by our ongoing efforts to dominate each other. But as the even larger horror of the accelerating global ecological collapse has become increasingly apparent, many of us have come to recognize that our domineering attitude is also probably the leading culprit.

I suggest that we drop down even one more level on this causal ladder and ask oursevelves, what is it that feeds humankind’s urge and sense of entitlement to dominate each other, our fellow Earthlings and the Earth? And I would say that just as the justification of one human group to dominate another is typically fueled by that particular group’s belief in their own superiority, so it is that humankind’s general belief in our superiority over other living beings fuels our ongoing desire and entitlement to dominate the Earth and our fellow species.

It’s readily apparent that pervasive among contemporary society is the strong belief that human beings are superior to other species, which in turn has spawned a number of closely related beliefs, such as: “The Earth belongs to us,” “We made it to the top and are entitled to do what we want,” “We are the most important/valuable species on this planet,” “We have dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures,” etc. This belief is so insidious that it even reveals itself within seemingly virtuous beliefs such as, “We are stewards of the Earth,” or “We need to work hard to manage the environment/ecosystems.” So strong is this belief in our superiority that I would say that very few people even regard it as a belief; rather, it is generally seen as simply a fact of life.

But let’s take a moment to scrutinize this belief more closely. In particular, let’s look at what I believe are the major core assumptions that maintain and reinforce it.

Assumption #1—We are the most intelligent species on the planet

Initially, this assumption may appear self evident. Certainly it’s true that we humans are an extremely inventive and productive species—the signs are everywhere, in our vast technology, our sprawling cities, our complex cultures and societies. If we define “intelligence” broadly as “the capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to the meeting of our needs,” then at first glance, it would appear that we are indeed very intelligent when compared to most other species.

However, I feel that there are three serious problems with this reasoning that need to be addressed—I’ll call them problematic sublevel assumptions: (1) that because the products our own intelligence are so much more readily apparent to us than those of other species, then our own intelligence must be superior; (2) that we really are as intelligent as we generally consider ourselves; and (3) that superior intelligence (at least as we see it) must imply superior worth and a general sense of entitlement to dominate those species with less intelligence. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these in turn:

(1) Since the products our own intelligence are so much more readily apparent to us than those of other species, then our own intelligence must be superior.

Let’s approach this by first taking a more intuitive/spiritual tack…

Take a moment to remove the anthropocentric blinders off and look around at the world—I mean really look around at the world. Take in this incredible web of life composed of billions of complex living organisms living together in symbiotic harmony. Take in this complex dance of creativity and adaptation that has gone on continuously for billions of years, and which is far more complex than any human mind could ever fathom, let alone replicate. Think about it—with our vast knowledge and technology, we haven’t been able to replicate even the simplest single-celled organism.

So if this awesome intelligence and creativity hasn’t come from us, then where is it coming from? Some spiritual and philosophical traditions conjecture an omniscient, omnipresent source of intelligence and creativity simply inherent in the fabric of existence; others say that a more personal God or group of Gods/Goddesses play a prominent role; and still others say that an incredible stroke of “luck” has set the wheels/physics of the universe turning in just exactly the right way for this evolutionary flow of life to unfold.

Despite all of these differences, there is one answer to this question with which virtually all scientific and spiritual traditions agree—that this intelligence did not originate from humankind, but that rather humankind has originated from it. Philosopher Alan Watts offered the following helpful analogy: Let’s turn the word “apple” into the verb “to apple,” as in “An apple tree apples.” In this way, we can say that “the universe peoples.” The universe also “dogs,” “frogs,” “starfishes,”  “cockroaches,” “forests,” and “mountains.” This vast intelligence is the source of humankind’s much narrower intelligence. Certainly we have access to this intelligence, as it is our source after all, but we can say the same thing about every other living being on our planet and in our universe. From this perspective, how can we really say that our own intelligence is so superior, so special?

let’s move on now to the cutting edge of human science—don’t our latest discoveries in neuroscience and biology clearly reveal our superior intelligence?

Within the fields of these and related scientific traditions, it was initially postulated that intelligence is essentially correlated with the number of interconnections between the neurons of a brain. In the most simplistic and reductionistic terms, this theory says that a neuron functions more or less like a computer bit—it acts like a switch that either fires or doesn’t fire depending upon the signals it receives from its fellow neurons, which in turn determines the firing/not-firing of other neurons. And as more and more neurons are connected together in this way, an increasingly complex web of linear and circular causality forms and ultimately emerges into increasingly complex forms of intelligence. And since the human brain has more neural connections than the brain of any other species discovered on Earth (it’s estimated that we have approximately 100 trillion such neural connections), then we must therefore be the most intelligent species.

However, our understanding of this has evolved in recent years to embrace a much more complex picture. First of all, we now recognize that the intelligence (as defined above) of an organism is based on far more than simply the activity of the neurons of the brain (or more specifically, the cerebral cortex). As brought to the forefront by the pioneering work of Candace Pert among many others, we now understand that every cell in our bodies are individual living organisms in their own right, with each actively communicating with the other cells of the broader organism, and with each contributing their own intelligence to the overall intelligence of the entire organism.

We also now know that a number of other species have brains much larger than ours—both in size and in the number of cerebral cortical neurons and interconnections. For example, both the brain size and overall (full body) neural count of African elephants are about 3 times those of humans; and the long-finned pilot whale, a type of dolphin, has more than twice as many brain (cerebral cortex) neurons than humans, and likely a correspondingly far higher count of interneural connections.

So while the evidence mounts that an increase in intercellular connections does correlate with a general increase in intelligence (i.e., the capacity to gather knowledge and apply this to meet one’s needs), it is becoming well established that the neuron cell is not the only intelligence-generating cell in the game. All other living cells within an organism contribute to the intelligence of the whole, but with each kind of cell specializing in a particular kind of intelligence (i.e., retaining specialized sets of knowledge, developing specialized sets of skills, and applying these to specialized needs/functions essential to the organism).

Furthermore, we can say the same thing about the connections that exist between living organisms themselves—bee and ant colonies, flocks of birds, herds of deer, etc., clearly demonstrate much greater intelligence than can be found within any individual member of these groups. This concept is often referred to as swarm intelligence—a phenomenon that is very well established but the details of which we are only just beginning to grasp. And this brings us to a particularly profound concept within our exploration of intelligence within contemporary biology and evolution—what I believe is a real mind-bender, a game-changer, really.

So you know those simplest of all living organisms—the bacteria that we often think of as being little more than “germs”? They’re so simple that they don’t even have a nucleus, let alone anything remotely akin to what we tend to think of as a brain. Now let’s take a moment and expand our view backwards in time. Based on ever accumulating research, the bacteria (technically called prokaryotes, but the term “bacteria” suffices for this discussion) are the very first living organisms to have come into existence on the Earth, coming into existence over 4 billion years ago. They adapted and evolved over a vast amount of time, first converging to become nucleated single-celled organisms (protozoa, algae, etc.), with further convergences resulting in multi-celled organisms (fungus, plants and animals), which finally brings us to well… us.

Swarm intelligence demonstrated by leaf cutter ants (aboveEli Duke, CC BY SA-2.0) and a self-organizing flock of birds (below) [/caption]

Let’s now take a moment to look at our own bodies. The leading edge of our own science has brought us to quite a startling conclusion. Our entire body and every cell within it is essentially composed of an extraordinarily complex colony of bacteria culminating from a very long line of the Earth’s very first bacteria evolving ever more complex relationships with each other. This doesn’t even factor in the many trillions of “exotic” bacteria living within our gut, with whom we are also symbiotically engaged in order to digest our food among other essential processes to sustain our life. Let’s take a moment to let this seep into our sense of superiority for a moment.

Now let’s take a moment to look around—wherever we happen to be located, right here and now. Every single plant, insect, animal, mushroom, and other living form we see or can imagine shares this same basic feature with us. Just like us, they also are embodiments of what we think of as the most simple (“least intelligent”) living organisms having converged into more complex forms. The entire web of life, in other words, is the grand culmination of a mysterious universal life force emerging first into the simplest living cells (bacteria), and then spreading across the entire surface of the Earth, merging together and emerging into the extraordinary array of symbiotic communities of single-celled and multi-celled organisms that we call “organisms,” and ultimately forming the living ecosystems of the Earth.

Finally, let’s extend our view spatially across the surface of the Earth. In addition to the colonies of bacteria that have come together in various ways to form individual living beings, the entire surface of the Earth—the entire biosphere—is filled with these little guys. Actually, it’s more accurate to flip this statement around—this extensive web of bacterial life is itself the fundamental nature of the biosphere. Lynn Margulis, acclaimed microbiologist, puts it like this: “Bacteria initially populated the planet and never relinquished their hold.”

Now let’s weave back into this story the principle that intelligence emerges from the symbiotic interactions among living cells and living beings, and that greater interconnectedness generally results in greater intelligence. Firstly, there are untold trillions of bacteria hooked together in what is well established to be the far largest self-organized living system on the planet, what many refer to as the ultimate superorganism of the Earth; and secondly, we know that the bacteria communicate with each other very effectively, and even in ways that other kinds of cells can’t—such as being able to instantly (without sexual reproduction) share with each other bits of their genetic material and the information coded within them, and even doing so across bacterial species, genus and even family lines.

Many people, even many scientists with a particularly reductionistic bent, have come to recognize that this global bacterial superorganism is far more intelligent than we could ever imagine, and that it plays many crucial roles in maintaining the conditions for life on this planet. As the Gaia Theory has evolved (the well established theory that the entire biosphere acts as a unified and extraordinarily intelligent organism in her own right), a number of people have conjectured that it may be appropriate to consider this bacterial superorganism as being akin to Gaia’s “brain.”

One prominent lifelong bacterial geneticist, James Shapiro, has summarized this emerging understanding of our bacterial kin in this way:

The take-home lesson of more than half a century of molecular microbiology is to recognize that bacterial information processing is far more powerful than human technology….These small cells are incredibly sophisticated at coordinating processes involving millions of individual events and at making them precise and reliable. In addition, the astonishing versatility and mastery bacteria display in managing the biosphere’s geochemical and thermodynamic transformations indicates that we have a great deal to learn about chemistry, physics, and evolution from our small, but very intelligent, prokaryotic relatives”.1

Furthermore, in addition to this bacterial superorganism, there are other vastly intelligent living systems at play whose behaviours are still far beyond our own comprehension. For example, there are the myriad mycelial networks that facilitate the communication and exchange of essential nutrients among the plant and fungus life of most of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems; and there is the complex interplay among many other kinds of micro-organisms and inorganic elements that has successfully regulated the Earth’s temperature, oxygen, atmospheric composition and ocean salinity and pH levels for billions of years.

The mycelium of a fungus spreading through soil (outside) (Nigel Cattlin / Alamy); Microscopic view of mycelium — 1 square mm (inside). Bob Blaylock, CC BY-SA 3.0[/caption]

In summary, the more we begin to grasp the intelligences of other living organisms and living systems, the more clear it becomes just how limited (and un-superior) human intelligence actually is.

(2) Are we really as intelligent as we consider ourselves?

To answer this question, let’s return to our working definition of intelligence, but add one key emphasis: “The capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to sustainably meet one’s needs.” Considering the key quality of sustainability and now being able to compare human intelligence with the much broader and much older intelligences found in living systems such as bacterial superorganisms and mycelial networks, challenging this particular assumption is relatively straightforward.

In contemporary society, it is well established that the Earth is entering its 6th largest extinction event (in the past billion years of complex life), and that it is we, the human species, who are causing it. Our behaviour is changing our climate in extremely dangerous and unpredictable ways, and we are decimating the Earth’s oceans and terrestrial ecosystems, due primarily to completely unnecessary eating habits and farming practices, along with other problematic behaviours. We consider it acceptable to generate energy by boiling water with extraordinarily concentrated radioactive materials (i.e., nuclear power), the leak of which we know will devastate the local environment for hundreds and even thousands of years. We have over 14,000 nuclear weapons ready to detonate, with the plan to continue making more, and with some countries actively threatening others who also possess such weapons. We continue to pour millions of tons per year of toxic chemicals into the environment and even onto our own food. And the list goes on…

So at first glance, observing that the human species has managed to inhabit nearly the entire planet, and that our population has grown over 1000-fold in the past 10,000 years, it may appear that we are indeed extremely intelligent. But when we consider the fact that it is very clear that we cannot continue to exist much longer with our present behaviours, and yet we persist with them anyway, this belief in our intelligence being so superior becomes very doubtful indeed.

(3) Superior intelligence (at least as we see it) must imply superior worth and entitlement.

Hopefully by now, the case has been made well enough that considering our intelligence to be so “superior” to that of other living species and living systems on this planet is highly problematic at best, which then makes this final argument in favour of humankind’s superiority moot.

But for those who still find themselves hanging on to the belief in our superior intelligence, I’ll say a few words about this final point—that superior intelligence must imply superior worth and entitlement. This argument is often used to justify our exploitation of other species and the Earth, in general, and even the exploitation of one human group by another (i.e., racism, sexism, slavery, etc.). Fortunately, human society has evolved quite a bit in recent years with regard to recognizing the problems inherent in exploiting other human beings (though it is certainly still a major problem!). Many of us have been able to see the enormous suffering that this attitude causes, both to those who are exploited and also to the exploiters’ own sense of integrity and ability to live in a peaceful society.

And now it’s beginning to dawn on many of us that the exploitation of other living beings and living systems is at least as problematic as the exploitation of other human beings. The living systems of the Earth are clearly collapsing, and if we maintain our course, we will certainly collapse right along with them. So let’s honestly re-evaluate this assumption: Is the global catastrophe taking place right before our eyes the result of the sense of entitlement by the intelligent; or is it a result of a sense of entitlement by the ignorant…?

Assumption #2—We represent the pinnacle and/or cutting edge of evolution

This second primary assumption that props up the belief of human superiority, particularly by those who believe in the theory of evolution, is that the human species represents either the pinnacle or the cutting edge of evolution.

From a purely anthropocentric perspective, this is certainly true. We are the latest “model” in our own particular evolutionary lineage. But for those of us who may believe we’ve reached some kind of a pinnacle (a kind of climax in our evolutionary journey), where is the evidence that our evolutionary lineage must stop with us? And why would the process of evolution on the Earth move along so persistently for billions of years, and then suddenly stop with us? (…unless, of course, we manage to wipe out all life on Earth, but that is another story.) And for those who believe we may not have reached such a pinnacle yet, but that we must certainly represent the cutting edge of the Earth’s evolution, let’s keep in mind that there are millions of other evolutionary lineages taking place within this vast Gaian tree of life, many of which are far older than our own particular branch, and many that will likely continue to evolve far after we are gone. What makes our particular branch so special?

Assumption #3—We are essential to manage/maintain life on Earth

From the perspective of Gaia theory, all living beings and living systems existing on the Earth are merely manifestations of her, merely different aspects of this one unified organism. So they all play important roles in some way at any given point of time in her evolution. However, just as with our own physical bodies, some parts are simply more vital than others.

For example, our physical body could lose a toe or even an entire leg and most likely continue to survive. But if we lose both of our lungs, then the loss would be too great and our body would certainly die. Likewise, Gaia has evolved to where she has become highly dependent upon terrestrial plant life (particularly tropical rainforests) and microalgae within the open ocean to generate the oxygen necessary to maintain her life. These essentially act as her “lungs” providing this essential nutrient to the other parts of her organism. If these systems were depleted enough, it is possible that Gaia could die, or would at least be forced to regress to a much more primitive state. On the other hand, if humankind were to go extinct, our loss would probably be much more akin to Gaia losing a little toe, or more realistically, only sustaining a small cut to her little toe—certainly not terminal to the organism. In the big picture of Gaia’s life, spanning over 4 billion years now (that’s 4,000,000,000+), humankind in its current form (Homo Sapiens) has emerged only about 200,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, if Gaia were 80 years old, humankind would have emerged onto the scene about 36 hours ago.

So it’s really impossible for us to make the case that Gaia needs us. Actually, at this point, the case is all too easily made that this “little toe” of humanity has become cancerous and is now acting as a direct threat against the life of the entire organism—of all life on Earth. If you were Gaia, would you not seriously consider cutting off that cancerous toe? (btw, I’m not advocating for the extermination of humankind—I’m just pointing out that as we broaden our perspective, we should naturally find ourselves moving towards a much more humble position).

Assumption #4—Our religious scriptures say that we are superior

Granted, I find it a bit more difficult to challenge this particular assumption than those above. When a person’s convictions are based solely upon what they have read or what somebody else has told them, and they have chosen to abandon critical thinking or deep personal reflection, then there’s not likely to be much potential for a paradigm shift. However, even within the religious scriptures and creation stories found within different cultures and spiritual traditions around the world, we find a very interesting theme that many (most?) of them share—and that is the recognition that our sense of superiority has gone hand in hand with our separation from our source of abundance and vitality.

In the West, this theme is probably most well known as illustrated in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, which then led to their being banished by God from The Garden of Eden. Essentially, the story goes that Adam and Eve lived for many years as members of a thriving and abundant ecosystem. But then they became tempted to “eat the fruit” which shifted their paradigm from one of harmonious unity to one of disharmonious duality—the “knowledge of good and evil.” One way of interpreting this story is to see it as a metaphor that represents the moment when humankind replaced their value for living in harmony with the natural world (as merely one member of a thriving ecosystem) with a dichotomous value system—inferior/superior, better/worse, more/less valuable, more/less worthy, mine/yours, and of particular relevance to this article here, humans/nature.

For those who have studied the theory of human evolution, this theme has clear parallels to the historical moment when humanity abandoned its indigenous roots extending back hundreds of thousands of years. At this point of time, about 10,000 years ago, humankind is believed to have generally “stepped out of nature” to embrace a much more dualistic mindset—humans vs. nature, human superiority vs. other species’ inferiority, the Earth and other living beings as being ours to own as property and personally dominate, exploit, etc. And we can look around now and clearly see where this path has taken us—initially to enormous short term abundance and population explosion, but ultimately heading right off the cliff of our own extinction.

So even within scriptures that are often used to justify the superiority of humankind and our entitlement over other species, we find upon closer inspection this common core theme of a paradise lost, or of a deep ignorance having gripped us. As soon as humankind stepped out of their niche of living at one with the Gaian system, and attempted to instead place themselves outside of and superior to this heretofore unified living system, we ultimately lost our paradise.

So to Summarize…

Are we unique? Yes! Do we have unusual capacities and skills never before seen within the life of the Earth? Almost certainly. However, we can also say the same thing about every other species present and past.

As for our superior intelligence? Humankind does appear to possess a somewhat unusual form of intelligence combined with an upright posture and opposable thumbs, the combination of which makes all kinds of interesting technologies possible. However, considering the broad definition of intelligence as “the capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to sustainably meet one’s needs,” humankind has clearly not demonstrated a degree of intelligence anywhere near as advanced as that of other living systems on the Earth. To the contrary, humankind, or at least in its present form as manifested within contemporary society, has demonstrated an unusually profound ignorance, having made the terrible choice of attempting to remove itself from the Gaian system, which, of course, is just as impossible and futile as a little toe attempting to sever itself from the larger body.

As for our general sense of superior worth and our associated sense of entitlement to do what we please with our fellow Earthlings and the Earth in general? Well, as discussed above, from the perspective of Gaia, there are clearly other species and living systems far more vital to her ongoing survival than the human species…

This leaves us then with the question of our own continued survival. If humankind is not as intelligent nor superior as we have come to believe, and if it is true that our attempt to leave the Gaian system has been a very bad one, then what does that mean for our own future? I believe that the answer to this question lies within a close reflection upon our past.

Looking historically, the evidence is quite compelling that our departure from living harmoniously with the Gaian system coincided with an intensification of the belief in our fundamental “superiority,” as well as our fundamental sense of entitlement to exploit other species and the environment to our own very narrowly perceived needs. And if we track our progress over the centuries since we have adopted this belief, what do we find? We do indeed see that we have been able to experience tremendous benefit initially, in the sense of an explosion of our population and the capacity to survive on most of the surface of the Earth. But in recent generations this short-term benefit is finally revealing the very serious long-term harm of this belief system and its associated behaviours. Though the ride may have been good to many (and hell for many others) while it lasted, the writing is becoming all too clear upon the wall:  We have been “superior”ing our way to our own demise.

So what to do? We may not be superior to other species, but like all species, we do have our own unique capacities. And as humans, we appear to have an unusually strong capacity for productivity (both creative and destructive), self-awareness and self-reflection. What would happen if we shift the focus of these attributes to the serious attempt to return to the “Garden of Eden,” to establishing a harmonious niche as simply one species among many on this diverse and abundant planet?

I like to think that this would be possible, though certainly very challenging. What if we take our capacity for self-awareness/reflection/transformation, and work on shifting our paradigm to…

(a) expanding our understanding of ‘the self’ to contain all other living beings and the entire Gaian system;

(b) cultivating an equal compassion/regard/respect for all living beings, beyond simply other human beings and companion animals who are personally close to us;

(c) humbling ourselves in the face of Gaia—recognizing that she has a wisdom far deeper, older, and broader than our much more limited personal minds could ever fully grasp…

…and closely related to this, (d) reorienting our efforts at personal and human surviving and thriving to be much more in line with Gaia’s wisdom and natural behaviours.

This would entail shifting our focus from “managing” the environment (Gaia has demonstrated that she can do this perfectly fine without us, thank you very much) to managing ourselves—(a) stopping our destructive behaviours, and (b) simply stepping back from as much of the Earth as we can, and making space for Gaia’s own capacity to heal and regenerate herself.

In summary, then, it appears that the more our limited human minds begin to grasp the much vaster and more intelligent minds at play on the Earth, the more apparent it becomes that we simply need to lose the superiority complex and graciously re-engage openly and compassionately with our fellow Earthlings.

In other words, isn’t it about time that we got over ourselves and re-join the party?

• You can learn more about Paris Williams’ latest work and the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious living at cncl.info

  1. as quoted in Buhner, 2014.

Renewable Energy Is Not the Answer; Nuclear Is

“It’s always a good idea to start by asking about the facts.” So advises Noam Chomsky. “Whenever you hear anything said very confidently, the first thing that should come to mind is, ‘Wait a minute, is that true?’” De omnibus dubitandum—doubt everything—was Karl Marx’s motto and should be the motto of every thinking person. Question even or especially what the tribe most takes for granted.

In the era of climate change, when fossil fuels are known to be driving civilization straight into the ocean, the idea that liberal and left-wing tribes take most for granted is “Renewable energy!” It is shouted confidently from every public perch. Renewable energy, scaled up to replace fossil fuels and even nuclear, is declared the only possible salvation for humanity. It has such obvious advantages over every other energy source that the world has to go 100% renewables ASAP.

Obviously!

But wait a minute—is that true?

Let’s try to shed the religious thinking, look objectively at the facts, and come to a conclusion about this most important of subjects: how to power the future and hopefully save the world.

Renewable energy emits greenhouse gases

First, consider the claim that renewable energy has no carbon emissions. This is true, in a sense, for wind and solar farms (as it is for nuclear energy), which in themselves emit virtually no greenhouse gases. It isn’t true for hydropower, however, which in 2016 produced 71% of all electricity generated by renewable sources. According to one study, hydroelectric dams worldwide emit as much methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as Canada, from decaying vegetation and nutrient runoff. Another study concluded they produce even more carbon dioxide than methane.

“These are massive emissions,” one expert comments. “There are a massive number of dams that are currently proposed to be built. It would be a grave mistake to continue to finance those with the impression that they were part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

And yet in every scenario projected by renewables advocates, hydropower is absolutely essential. For instance, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s famous—and deeply flawed—proposal to run the U.S. on 100% renewables by 2050 assumes the country’s dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity, over 16 times their current capacity of 80 gigawatts. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the maximum capacity that could be added is only 12 gigawatts, 1,288 gigawatts short of Jacobson’s assumption.)

The International Energy Agency projects that by 2023, wind and solar together will satisfy a mere 10% of global electricity demand, while hydroelectric power will satisfy 16%. Nearly all the rest will be produced by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Burning biomass, too, which is a renewable energy source, releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. “It does exactly the opposite of what we need to do: reduce emissions,” says an expert in forest science and management.

Even leaving aside hydropower and biomass, the use of wind and solar dramatically increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to nuclear energy. This is because, given the intermittency and the diluted nature of solar and wind energy, a backup source of power is needed, and that source is natural gas. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a guru of the renewables movement, himself acknowledges this fact:

We need about 3,000 feet of altitude, we need flat land, we need 300 days of sunlight, and we need to be near a gas pipe. Because for all of these big utility-scale solar plants—whether it’s wind or solar—everybody is looking at gas as the supplementary fuel. The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants.

The burning of natural gas; i.e., methane, emits about half as much carbon dioxide as the burning of coal. So natural gas is better than coal, but not nearly good enough if we want to solve climate change. Even worse, many millions of tons of unburned methane are leaked every year from the American oil and gas industry—and methane is more than 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. So these leaks cancel out much of the environmental good that wind and solar farms are supposedly doing.

In other words, the fact that wind and solar farms typically operate far below their capacity (because of seasonal changes and the unreliability of weather) necessitates that a more reliable power source “supplement” them. In fact, as researchers Mike Conley and Tim Maloney point out, strictly speaking it is the renewable source that acts as a supplement for the oil or natural gas plants linked to the renewables. A solar farm with a capacity of one gigawatt, for instance, will on average operate at only about 20% of its capacity, which means that if a gigawatt of energy is really to be produced, the majority will have to be provided by the “backup” fossil fuel plant(s).

The upshot is that an anti-nuclear and pro-renewables policy means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

California is a good example. Like other states in the U.S and countries in the Western world, it has been closing its nuclear power plants—despite their safety, reliability, effectiveness, and environmental friendliness. The carbon-free nuclear plants have been replaced with renewables + natural gas, which is to say, they’ve been replaced mostly with natural gas (prone to methane leaks). After it closed the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013, California missed its CO2 emissions targets as a result.

In New England, after the premature closing of the nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee in 2014, CO2 emission rates rose across New England, reversing a decade of declines. When Massachusetts’ last remaining nuclear plant, Pilgrim, closed last month, much more electricity generation was lost than the state generates with all its solar, wind, and hydropower combined. Several new fossil fuel plants and a couple of small solar and wind farms will take the place of Pilgrim, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

In their new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist give other examples. Between 1970 and 1990, due to its construction of nuclear power plants, Sweden was able to cut its carbon emissions by half even as its electricity consumption more than doubled. Germany, by contrast, emits about twice as much carbon pollution per person as Sweden despite using one-third less energy per person, because it has chosen to phase out its nuclear power while introducing renewables.

This means that Germany has simply substituted one (relatively) clean energy source for another, while doing virtually nothing to decarbonize. Its energy production remains dominated by coal, and greenhouse gas emissions are around a billion tons a year.

A more sensible policy would have been to build more nuclear plants and phase out coal. Or at least to let the existing nuclear plants continue to operate while adding renewables, which then would have displaced coal.

ExxonMobil likes renewable energy

The fact that renewable energy directly and indirectly causes far more greenhouse gas emissions than nuclear should already tell us it isn’t a solution to climate change.

Indeed, the willingness of the oil and gas industry in recent years to promote and invest in renewables is itself significant. Over the last three years, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies have invested over a billion dollars in advertising and lobbying for renewables. “Natural gas is the perfect partner for renewables,” ads say. “See why #natgas is a natural partner for renewable power sources,” Shell tweets.

By pretending to care about the environment, these companies not only burnish their reputations but also are able to associate natural gas with clean energy, which it very much is not. The formula “renewables + natural gas” thus serves a dual purpose. In fact, it serves a triple purpose: it also distracts from nuclear power, which, unlike renewables, is an immediately viable alternative to oil and gas.

Nuclear power, not renewable energy, is what the fossil fuel industry really fears. The reason is simple: the energy in nuclear fuel is orders of magnitude more concentrated than the energy in oil, gas, coal, and every other source. (Which is why nuclear reactors produce vastly less waste than everything from coal to solar.) If governments invested in a global Nuclear New Deal, so to speak, they could make fossil fuels largely obsolete within a couple of decades. Not even Mark Jacobson’s wildly unrealistic $15-20 trillion 100% renewables plan envisions such a fast transition.

Because of the diffuse and intermittent nature of wind and solar energy, all the world’s investment in renewables didn’t prevent the share of low-carbon power in generating electricity from declining between 1995 and 2017. Western countries’ shuttering of nuclear power plants in these decades was a disaster for the environment.

Another way to appreciate the disaster is to consider that global carbon emissions are actually rising, even as the world spent roughly $2 trillion on wind and solar between 2007 and 2016. (This is similar to the amount spent on nuclear in the past 55 years.) So much for the gospel of renewable energy!

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has been smiling on the sidelines, giving millions of dollars to groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and many others that work to kill nuclear power and thus exacerbate climate change. (Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are particularly active in the war on nuclear—and they refuse to disclose their donors. Could it be because they receive an unseemly amount from oil and gas companies?)

We have eleven years

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, we have eleven years left to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has called on global leaders to “demonstrate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and achieve net zero global emissions by 2050.” They’re supposed to meet in New York in September 2019 to answer this call.

The only conceivable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the scale called for is to aggressively embrace nuclear power. It is cost-competitive with all other forms of electricity generation except natural gas—although if you take into account the long-term environmental costs of using natural gas (or oil or even renewables), nuclear is probably the cheapest of all.

A worldwide rollout of nuclear power plants on the scale necessary to save civilization would certainly take longer than eleven years, but we can at least make substantial progress by then. If, that is, we pressure our governments to stop subsidizing oil, natural gas, and the renewables they go hand-in-hand with and instead massively invest in nuclear.

It’s time to stop doing the bidding of fossil fuel interests and get serious about saving the world.

Matters of Water: Dubious Approvals and the Adani Carmichael Mine

When a company wields such power that it can cause a Minister to rush an approval process, cut corners and make significant errors, it is cause for serious concern.

— Kelly O’Shanassy, Australian Conservation Foundation, June 12, 2019

While the proposal is of a diminished monster, the travails over Adani’s efforts to open up the Galilee Basin in Queensland to mining have yielded fruit. Brute corporate strength, and the customary cowering of politicians, has seen an Indian mining giant gain approval for the construction of the Carmichael mine.  Many a stick and carrot were procured in the endeavour, and the outcome of the ballot box in May, returning a pro-coal Coalition government, was always going to have some propulsion.

The environmental aspects of the case have been gradually sidelined and placed in storage.  Prior to the federal election, Queensland’s Labor government was expressing reservations, suggesting stonewalling and vacillation.  A divide between the metropolitan centre and the rural areas was being teased at the federal level: areas where a mining development might create jobs was touted as a drawcard; the metropolitan centre was deemed indulgently green, coffee-sipping and distant.

The drawcard aspect was trumpeted by the Queensland Resources Council: “The Adani Carmichael mine is one of six in the Galilee Basin that could create tens of thousands of jobs in construction and operation and deliver billions of dollars in royalties over their working lifespan.”  At the same time, there were concerns about irreversible environmental damage, the sort that could only be dealt with by means of management plans.  The versions, and delays, proliferated.

This left the state Palaszczuk government, despite a fear of wobbling, still keen to let the Queensland environmental regulator decide, a vain attempt to keep politics out of the equation.  The season was not a good one for the thorough minded. The federal government had essentially muzzled the then Environment Minister Melissa Price prior to the election, weighing upon her to approve aspects of the project.  It was then left to the state government to consider the water management plans.

All sense of permitting the regulator to engage in its quest unmolested were banished by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.  The electoral outcome at the federal level had unhinged her.  She was “fed up” at delays at both federal and state level. The Environment Department was given the due hurry up.  Last Thursday, the approval for Adani came through.  Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch, rather unconvincingly, suggested that the process had been robust and cognisant of “some of the most rigorous environmental protections in the country”.  Former general manager for water allocation and planning in the Queensland government Tom Crothers saw it differently.  “Science has been thrown in the bin for political expediency.”

Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who remains cocooned by environmental denial and coal rich nirvana, was visibly delighted at this next stage in the Adani saga.  “It has been more than 50 years since a new coal basin has opened in Queensland, so this development is of huge importance to the economic future of Queensland.”

Adani Australia’s chief executive Lucas Dow expressed his “excitement” as well he might but seems to have put the cart well ahead of the horse in terms of the number of jobs promised.  A number he previously subscribed to was 1,500 direct jobs, to be made in north and central Queensland.  Another 6,750 indirect jobs would spring forth during “the ramp-up and construction phase”. But numbers, as they can in any induced fantasy, vary.

Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie has claimed that a hundred ongoing jobs could be assured while Federal Nationals MP Michelle Landry, despite championing the mine as a creator of votes in her seat of Capricornia, professes to having no idea about numbers.

Not all pro-coal voices have warmed to the decision.  Alan Jones, who rules the Sydney airwaves from the 2GB radio station made the obvious point that the Queensland Environment Department “would have been under massive political pressure to approve Adani’s groundwater management plan.”

There are, however, several knotting twists.  No actual digging of coal will take place till pipeline and railway matters are sorted out, though box cut mining may take place at the site itself.  Then comes the understanding that the mining company will do further work over the next two years to identify alternative sources of that most precious of resources: water.  Giving Adani approval to mine may be tantamount to sentencing the Permian aquifers (Colinlea) to extinction, a point that featured in the Queensland Environment Department’s order that the mining company install a new bore.  Further approvals will be needed regarding the impact on the Doongbulla Springs.

As Jones points out, “hydrogeochemical analysis of groundwater from different springs” will be undertaken, suggesting that approval, while it has been granted, has been done in circumstances of considerable ignorance: “no one seems to know what will happen to [the] groundwater.”  The new bores will also be subjected to isotopic analysis and air sampling.

The contingent nature of any such analysis has coloured the overall assessments, further suggesting the dangers in any continuation of the project. When the Queensland Environment Department consulted the scientific bodies of CSIRO and Geoscience Australia, it received little in the way of certitude.  Both “confirmed that some level of uncertainly in geological and groundwater conceptual models always exists.”

Another twist is a legal one. When Price had the federal portfolio, she decided, all too conveniently, to ignore the “water trigger” feature to the pipeline element of Adani’s proposal, one that would require 12.5 billion litres of water a year.  Deemed an essential feature in assessing the impacts of large coal and coal seam gas projects on water, Price avoided it altogether. This led to a challenge from the Australian Conservation Foundation in December 2018.

The case duly expanded to incorporate an additional dimension.  Wading through public submissions, especially in the order of 2,200, takes time, and expedient politics, by its nature, resists care and consideration.  One tends to rule out the other.

In an underreported feature of the approvals, last week’s legal victory of the ACF in the Federal Court against the assessment of Adani’s North Galilee Water Scheme shifted focus back to the federal government.  As ACF’s Chief Executive Kelly O’Shanassy put it, “The government conceded it did not properly consider more than 2,000 public submissions from Australians with concerns about the mine and the water scheme.”  Submissions had also gone missing. The environmental laws had been applied with carefree shoddiness.  The result is that the proposal will return for consideration by the new Environment Minister, Sussan Ley.

The road is a potted one, but the opening of the Galilee Basin will be, not merely an environmental crime but one inflicted with irresponsible futility.  Sensing that point, the banks and insurers have already ruled themselves out in funding the venture.  Indian demand for coal will diminish, however much it is being heralded now as a moral entitlement to development, and the white, albeit dirty elephant that is Adani’s mining project will remain a travesty of optimistic human barbarism.

Zero Waste: The Global Plastics Crisis

Plastic pollution is everywhere. It litters beaches, clogs up oceans, chokes marine life, is ingested by seabirds that then starve to death, and has even been discovered embedded in Arctic ice. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink (bottled and tap), and last year plastic was found in human stools for the first time. Friends of the Earth report that, “recent studies have revealed marine plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined.”

According to the United Nations Environmental Agency the world produces around 300 million tons of plastic each year, half of which is single-use items, food packaging mainly. Of this colossal total a mere 14 per cent is collected for recycling, and only 9 per cent actually gets recycled; 12 per cent is incinerated releasing highly poisonous fumes.  The rest – nearly 80 per cent – ends up in landfill, or worse still, is illegally dumped or thrown into the oceans; around eight million tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans annually, and while some of the environmental damage plastics cause is clear the full impact on marine and terrestrial ecosystems is not yet apparent.

Plastic recycling rates are appalling and considerably lower than other industrial materials; recycling of steel aluminum, copper and paper; e.g., is estimated to be 50 percent, and plastic doesn’t disappear.  It just gets smaller and smaller, reducing over hundreds or even thousands of years into tiny micro-plastics and nano plastics.

A Wakeup Call

Levels of plastic waste vary from country to country; based on the 2018 report ‘Plastic Pollution’, daily per capita plastic waste in the United States, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, Kuwait and Guyana is over “ten times higher than across countries such as India, Tanzania, Mozambique and Bangladesh.”

Unsurprisingly, given its huge population (1.3 billion) and large manufacturing sector, China produces the greatest amount of plastic waste in the world, 59.8 million tons per year. However, at just .12 kilograms (4 ounces) per capita per day, this equates to one of the lowest levels of per person plastic waste in the world. The USA (population 327 million – 25% of China) is responsible for 37.83 million tons per year, or .34 kilograms (12 ounces) per person per day, three times that of China. America also produces “more than 275,000 tons of plastic litter at risk of entering rivers and oceans annually.” Germany produces 14.48 million tons per year, which at .46 kilograms (just over a pound) per person per day is one of the highest levels in the world, but unlike the US, Germany has one of the highest recycling rates in the world – recycling an estimated 48% (US 9%) of its plastic waste.

Since the 1980s recycling has been regarded as the environmentally responsible way to deal with the colossal levels of rubbish humanity produces. Throughout developed countries collecting recyclable household waste has become widespread, but for decades the laborious job of actually recycling it has been exported, mainly to China. But on 31st December 2018, China announced it would no longer be the world’s garbage tip, stating, the Financial Times reports, “that large amounts of the waste were ‘dirty’ or ‘hazardous’ and thus a threat to the environment.” The “National Sword” policy introduced by the Chinese government has resulted in China and Hong Kong reducing plastic waste imports from G7 countries, from 60% in the first half of 2017, to less than 10% for the same period in 2018. Overall recovered plastic imports to China have fallen by 99%.

China now only wants waste that does not cause pollution and meets certain cleanliness criteria. It’s a massive change to the recycling model that was long overdue and has caused chaos on many countries in the west, with large amounts of waste that should have been recycled being burnt or stockpiled. Desperate to find an alternative distant dumping ground to China, huge amounts of plastic waste have been shipped to south-east Asia. Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, where the largest quantity has gone; according to Greenpeace, imports of plastic waste to Malaysia increased from 168,500 tons in 2016 to 456,000 tons in the first six months of 2018, most of the rubbish coming from UK, Germany, Spain, France, Australia and US.

The influx of such large quantities of toxic waste into these countries has led to contaminated water, crop death and respiratory illnesses. In May the Philippines forced Canada to take back “69 containers containing 1,500 tons of waste that had been exported in 2013 and 2014,” The Guardian reported. Other countries have responded in a similar way, with outrage: Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have all introduced legislation to stop contaminated waste arriving in their ports. The Malaysian environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, said, “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world. We will send back [the waste] to the original countries.” Containers of illegal rubbish from Spain have been returned and a further 3,000 tons of illegally imported plastic waste from US, UK, Australia, France and Canada has also been shipped back.

The steps China has taken and the understandable anger of south-east Asian countries should serve as a wake-up call to western states, whose complacency and arrogance is fueling the environmental crisis. It is time that developed countries stopped exploiting poorer countries and accepted responsibility for their own plastic (and other) waste. In addition to recycling their own rubbish, developed nations, who are largely responsible for the environmental crisis, need to be cooperating with poorer countries, where most mismanagement of waste occurs, helping them to design efficient waste management systems and financially supporting such schemes.

If plastic pollution is to be reduced and effective recycling systems established, cooperation is essential. Recycling needs to be recognized as an environmental necessity, a social imperative and funded by government accordingly. As a business it is conditioned by business methods and motives; corruption and illegal practices abound, profit becomes the primary considerations and costs as obstacles to environmental sanity; it is a great deal cheaper; e.g., to incinerate plastic waste, or dump it in a forest or the oceans, than it is to recycle it, which is labor intensive.

How to shop: Zero waste

The power to bring about fundamental changes through responsible policymaking, investment in green technologies and education rests with governments; they have a duty to act urgently and radically.

Certain fundamental steps need to be taken: drastically reduce plastic use; eliminate single-use plastics altogether; recycle more – 9% is shameful. Invest in high-tech recycling facilities/waste management systems; ensure plastic products can be recycled; introduce national recycling standards (in the UK; e.g., what local authorities will/will not accept varies) as well as worldwide agreements, with countries that lead the way on recycling, like Germany and Sweden being widely consulted.

In a positive move last year at the G7 summit, five countries – UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the EU – signed the Ocean Plastics Charter. They pledged “to increase plastic recycling by 50% and work towards 100% reusable, recyclable or recoverable plastics by 2030.” The USA and Japan did not sign. Plastic is the third largest manufacturing industry in America, producing 19.5% of the world’s plastic. President Trump didn’t even attend the G7 climate change and environment talks.

Individuals also have a crucial part to play in dealing with plastic waste and making politicians enact the radical changes required.

We can all reduce the amount of waste we produce; aim at Zero waste, embrace simpler, environmentally responsible lifestyles, shop in Zero waste shops, where customers take their own containers and refill them from large dispensers. Western supermarket chains are responsible for colossal amounts of plastic waste and need to radically change the way their products are designed, packaged and sold. In the UK, Waitrose, which has 5% market share, has introduced a pilot scheme in an Oxford branch where food dispensers are being trialed, encouraging customers to use refillable tubs and jars, their own or those freely provided by the shop.

It is a common-sense move that all supermarket chains in western countries need to adopt, it is the environmentally right way to shop and, logically, products not sold in plastic should be less expensive. Zero waste shopping should be the aim, plenty of customers want it, and the environment is demanding it. Plastic pollution is one aspect of the global environmental crisis, a crisis rooted in consumerism and a socio-economic system championed by developed nations, which promotes greed, selfishness and division. Radical systemic changes are required together with changes in lifestyle and values if the environmental vandalism is to come to an end and the planet is to be healed.

The Permafrost Nightmare Turns (More) Real

Permafrost covers 25% of the Northern Hemisphere. It is the world’s largest icebox, and its landmass is 4.5xs larger than Antarctica, 6.5xs larger than the United States.  It is stuffed full of carbon locked in frozen ground accumulated over eons, which, by way of contrast, makes coal power plant emissions look bush-league.

Most notably, permafrost has an image of permanence and slow/gradual change, “the sloth of the north.” But, that slothful image is now out-of-date. Global warming has changed the equation. Nowadays, permafrost disintegration is officially hot news.

Scientists that have long studied the gradual thawing of permafrost are now experiencing a dramatic switch from their former “eyes wide shut” viewpoint; i.e., refusing to see something that’s in plain view because of preconceived notions. That slothful image of yesteryear has been shattered via numerous studies.1

Gradual permafrost thaw is now passé: “Turetsky and an international team of researchers are looking at something very different: Rapid collapse of permafrost that can transform the landscape in mere months through subsidence, flooding and landslides.”2

Based upon observations as recorded by the Turetsky research team, a climate crisis has already set in. It is here now: “We work in areas where permafrost contains a lot of ice, and our field sites are being destroyed by abrupt collapse of this ice, not gradually over decades, but very quickly over months to years,” said Turetsky.

According to team member Miriam Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist: “This abrupt thaw is changing forested ecosystems… resulting in a wholesale transformation of the landscape that not only impacts carbon feedbacks to climate but is also altering wildlife habitat and damaging infrastructure.”

“It’s happening faster than anyone predicted,” Turetsky.

Still, the scientists behind the study remain optimistic that something constructive can be done to limit the dangers implied in the details of their study, to wit: “If we can limit human emissions, we can still curb the most dangerous consequences of climate warming,” blah, blah, blah.

Most scientists and media sources claim it’s still not too late to do something to mitigate climate change. But, lingering questions remain, like what, when, how and who?  Where’s the leadership? When it comes to fixing the blistering pace of climate change, talk is cheap whereas only action counts.

In that regard, there is a well-defined approach to the climate crisis as well as answers to the aforementioned Turetsky study, which clearly delineates big time trouble right around the bend. Indeed, when the world’s largest landmass literally crumbles apart, as stated in Turetsky’s study, “right in front of our eyes,” then alarm bells should be going off all across the land, especially in the office of the president responsible for one of the world’s largest permafrost regions, Alaska.

Under current climate conditions, the danger of runaway global warming and subsequent burn off of mid-latitude agriculture cannot be overstated. The implications are dreadful. Still, the provocative question remains “is it too late” as publicly stated by some climate scientists, without doubt the world’s most disturbing Debbie Downers, and unfortunately, verily truly, they have scientific evidence that backs up their predictions. Hopefully, fingers crossed, they’re wrong.

Still, the movement to fixit has “legs,” and it’s important to remember that nobody knows what the future holds. The big fixit could work!

For answers about what to do in the face of the climate emergency, hands down, the best essay extant is Margaret Klein Salamon’s “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: Introducing the Emergency Climate Movement”.

Here’s a snippet:

At the end of 2018, the dam finally burst and the Climate Emergency Movement has emerged, finally, as a powerful force. This movement tells the truth about the scale of the crisis, and demands a “Green New Deal” or a WWII-scale climate mobilization — a 10-year transition to zero emissions plus drawdown. Led by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and the Justice Democrats in Congress, the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, School Strikers, and Extinction Rebellion in the streets, this movement has burst forth with tremendous force and momentum. As of the time of this writing, more than 500 cities in 4 countries have declared a ‘Climate Emergency’ and most of the major Democratic Presidential candidates have stated that they support the Green New Deal.

Here’s another snippet:

Working in coalition with international allies and on-the-ground leaders, The Climate Mobilization has helped to spread this campaign to 500 local governments around the world, representing over 50 million people; it is now growing at a compounding rate. Because of Extinction Rebellion’s impact, as well as the work of the British Green Party, more than 50 UK cities have declared climate emergency and commit to emergency speed decarbonization. London declared a climate emergency in mid-December, committing to transform its economy to carbon-neutral by 2030. Non-governmental organizations have also declared Climate Emergency. University of Bristol became the first university to declare a Climate Emergency. The XR-affiliated campaign Culture Declares a Climate Emergency has supported hundreds of British cultural institutions and artists in declaring a climate emergency. The Climate Mobilization plans to help spread this into the US as well.

Throughout the world, and at astounding rates of growth, nearly as rapidly as climate change itself, people are organizing to fight the climate crisis. Already, remarkable success is happening around the world, which is highlighted in Salamon’s essay.

Even more fascinating yet: Out of the blue, the leadership question has been answered. It’s the people, en masse!

All of which points to a distinct probability that “The Climate Crisis” will be a determining (maybe “the major”) factor in the upcoming 2020 election. Just look at recent headlines: “Will 2020 Finally Be The Climate Change Election?” (Buzzfeed), “Climate Change Suddenly Matters in the 2020 Race” (Politico), “Climate Change Could Become a Top Issue in 2020 Election” (Time).

Postscript:

Margaret Klein Salamon is an invaluable guide to this new moment.

— Bill McKibben, Author and Movement Leader

Salamon’s work continues to lead the conversation.

— Michael Mann, Climate Scientist and author

No one has been more inspiringly clear-eyed about the climate emergency or what it demands than Margaret Klein Salamon.

— David Wallace Wells,  author The Uninhabitable Earth

  1. For example, Merritt Turetsky, Canadian Research Chair in Integrative Ecology, University of Guelph, “Rapid Permafrost Thaw Unrecognized Threat to Landscape, Global Warming Researcher Warns,” Nature, May 1, 2019.
  2. Ibid.

Why Do We Think We Own The Earth?

We are now in climate crisis.  Almost every week another major scientific study hits the news, telling us we are losing this, destroying that and completely obliterating the other; whole ecological systems under threat while those with the power to take the hard decisions twiddle their thumbs and set ‘to-do’ dates that will be all too late to have any impact.  As a recent report notes: ‘Much scientific knowledge produced for climate policy-making is conservative and reticent.’  Policy makers do not want to face the inconvenient truth.

The trouble is that, even if we could somehow halt catastrophic climate change – now looking unattainable – we are also, by the way we live, destroying the ecological systems that keep us and all the earth alive, something equally catastrophic.  Plastic in the sea has nothing to do with climate change.  The loss of topsoil and soil degradation is mostly to do with industrial farming methods.  The destruction of forests is due to financial greed and while it will greatly exacerbate climate change, satisfying the desire for more money comes first.

People who think they ‘own’ the earth are those destroying it.  They are also often the ones who do not believe in climate change.  Surely the rich will always have enough money to buy what they want.  But you can’t buy what you have destroyed.

Many people understand the word ‘environment’ as being something ‘green’ when it is simply a term for our surroundings.  Of course, we should protect green/natural environments, but what we must really protect is the ecology of those areas.

Ecology is the way things work; it is how all life combines to support itself; it is true biodiversity, the balancing of living systems to the benefit of those systems.  It is a whole thing, or it should be, but we keep destroying bits here, there and everywhere. Then wonder why the whole doesn’t seem to work any more.

We can’t pick and choose with Nature.  We can’t say ‘I want to protect that species because it’s useful, but exterminate this one because it gets in my way.’  We accept all of Nature, or we accept nothing.  And we should include ourselves in that, yet we prefer to stand outside – and rule.

How did we arrive at this state of an arrogant claim of ‘ownership’ of the earth?  Let us go back to the ‘beginning’ – Genesis, in particular Genesis 1, verses 27 and 28.

  1. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
  2. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

This, of course, is the Authorised Version of the English Bible, also known as the King James Bible, published in 1611.  Probably the most printed book in the world, the writing, though now very old fashioned, is beautiful.  It has affected and added greatly to the English language.  No modern translations can equal its power.  More importantly, people remember the words and unfortunately it has done a far better job than subliminal advertising.

Consider those words ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over…’  How many people over the last 4 centuries have been taught them, read them, heard them in church?  Missionaries have carried them across the world, spreading the underlying message: ‘We humans own the earth.’

The Authorised version has been updated and put into modern language many times, but out of 27 bibles in English, 23 still use the word ‘subdue’; 13 use the phrase ‘have dominion over’.  The alternatives for subdue and dominion are ‘govern’, ‘rule’, ‘rule over’, ‘reign over’, ‘be masters over…’, ‘be its master’ or bring the earth ‘under control’.  The more recent American bibles make the message clear.  The Contemporary English Version, published in 1995, says:

Have a lot of children! Fill the earth with people and bring it under your control. Rule over the fish in the ocean, the birds in the sky, and every animal on the earth.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all use Genesis in their thinking, but this isn’t just about monotheistic religions.  Pretty well all religions put humanity first.  That’s what they’re there for, to help us believe in ourselves as a species; to believe that some higher being or beings will look after us, the humans; put us, the humans, first.

It is easy to see how the West, propelled by men whose lives, regardless of their appalling acts, were based on the bible, has fulfilled the message.  Human population has been, for many years, expanding.  We do cover the earth and there are too few places left that are not under our control.  And our expanding population means an ever-growing demand that the earth must provide for us, even as we destroy the ability of the earth to provide what we need, let alone what we want.

In modern secular society people can be too wrapped up in consumerism to think about whether humans have the right to own the earth.  There is a lot of angry (and justified) discussion about how a very few people own most of the earth.  ‘How unfair!’ we cry.  But if we take that money, power and property away from the ultra rich, we will not give it to the earth where it belongs, but to ourselves, the common man.

It shows up in all shades of political thinking.  Most political parties (barring the alt-right) will claim some desire to help protect the environment, by which they mean ‘manage’.  Take this example from a Socialist Party’s leaflet, with the headline ‘There is only one world’:

… the world’s natural and industrial resources must become the common heritage of all humanity so that they can be used to directly meet the needs of the world’s population…

How did ancient man arrive at this attitude, this arrogance that became the rule so precisely displayed in Genesis?  It wasn’t always like this.

Hunter-gatherer societies, as described by anthropologist Douglas Fry, were small nomadic groups leading relatively stress-free lives, and they did not struggle to find the food they needed.  Then farming took over, in what Jared Diamond called ‘the worst mistake’ in history.

If you grow your food you have to stay in one place in order to care for your crop – your crop, and therefore, perhaps, your land.  That one simple act changed how humans thought and lived.  It created tribes with chiefs; it created ‘territories’ and fights over land; it created civilisations with growing populations, armies and a land bled dry by overuse; civilisations that inevitably collapsed.

Growing food certainly meant more people could be fed but, as Diamond points out, ‘Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.’

The modern world believes it has a ‘right’ to the earth and all it contains, while native peoples believe they have obligations towards the earth that feeds them.  Being indigenous does not mean being perfect in the way humans treat their environment.  Despite having an intimate relationship with their environment, and a deep sense of reverence for the earth, indigenous people still altered the land to enable the way they lived.

For the Algonquin peoples, living in the northeast states of America, ‘natural resources were not just passively foraged; they were actively managed, through such practices as regular burning to clear deadwood, produce pasture, and encourage the growth of nut trees and fresh browse.

Their sometime neighbours, sometime enemies, the Iroquois farmed as well as hunted, but ‘when cornfields lost their fertility or wood and game became scarce, every decade or so’, the people moved to another location.  Really?  Ten years to empty your environment?  There was room enough to do that then.  There isn’t now.

Time and again civilisations have collapsed, often for the reasons that possibly ended the Mayan culture: overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought.  The Chaco Canyon culture died, it seems, not just because of environmental stress, but of a rigid belief system: ‘the Puebloan people survived only by letting go of tradition’.

But now our civilisation is global and we are collapsing on a global scale.  This time we have nowhere to move and start again.  Forget that dream of relocating to another planet.  We haven’t the time or resources left to go wholesale into space to live on another earth-like planet.  And if we haven’t learnt from our mistakes here, another planet would be trashed.

We humans are proud of our intelligence, our inventiveness, our technology.  That pride in ownership, that greed for more control, and that push to provide more and more goods for ever-eager consumers, using resources that become less and less, has led to the ruination of the planet and now, more than likely, to our own extinction.

Now universities are studying possible technical fixes, geo-engineering, in the hope that we can bring climate change under our ‘control’.  But the danger there is that if some of these fixes appear to work, then everyone will say ‘that’s alright then’, and carry on as before in our earth-damaging way.

In humanity’s desire to own the earth, there are several things we won’t own.  We won’t own the waste we create.  We won’t own the carbon emissions emitted by other countries on our behalf.  We won’t own our mistakes, or the misery they create – and we won’t own our responsibilities.

We are losing the topsoil all across the earth.  Soon, the soil that grows our food (and the food of many other life forms that populate this little planet) will be dead.  This is too big for a technological ‘fix’.

Rivers are struggling.  Some will dry up as the glaciers that feed them melt. There will come a day when there are no more glaciers and the earth will lose its major source of fresh water.  This is too big for a technological ‘fix’.

Left alone, rivers have clean water, are full of life and their regular flooding has benefits.  The Nile Delta, now endangered, once owed its reputation as ‘the bread basket of the world’ to its annual floods.  But the majority of the world’s great rivers are no longer free-flowing.  We have rerouted them, dammed them, constrained them, polluted them with antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and poured human and animal sewage into them or drained them of their waters to irrigate ‘our’ land.  We have done everything except to allow them to act naturally.  This is too big for a technological ‘fix’.

With a possible major sea level rise, the oceans, poisoned and stripped of most life, will take over land that the human race has claimed as its own.  This also is too big for a technological ‘fix’.

All life has its own form of intelligence which allows it to survive by fitting in to the whole ecological system.  The natural environment should be a thing of beauty, full of busy life, something that both inspires and calms.  It has become a bleak and empty place, where you return from a walk over the hills with a mental list of the things you haven’t seen – because our collective ego has killed them.

For far too long, humanity has regarded itself as ‘outside’ Nature.  We think we are exceptional.  Our ‘intelligence’ rarely produces long-lasting benefits to anything but ourselves.  God forbid that we should be just one form of life among many, with no more ability to survive than the rest of life.  How could we, being who we have become, face that loss of importance?  There is only one thing that makes humanity truly exceptional; our desire to own and control everything, partnered by our horrible ability to destroy what we try to control.

Can we learn from Chaco Canyon and the Pueblo people?  Is it too late to ditch our rigid world view, our superiority, our belief in our ‘right’ to own and control our world?  Can we, before our much-vaunted ‘civilisation’ crashes and we die, learn instead to live kindly with this earth?

It’s Time to Embrace Nuclear Energy

It is a tragic irony of the contemporary environmentalist movement that in its opposition to nuclear energy, it is doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry and increasing the likelihood of climate apocalypse. This is the inescapable implication of the new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist. The anti-nuclear stance to which Green Parties, for example, are so fervently committed may seem enlightened, but, in fact, it is dangerous and destructive. What an informed environmentalist movement would demand above all is a rapid and globally coordinated acceleration of nuclear power plant construction, ideally at a rate of 500 or even 750 new reactors a year. This would set us on track to completely eliminate fossil fuels from the world’s electricity generation within a couple of decades, as well as displacing coal as a heat source for buildings and industrial use. We would be well on the way to making the planet livable for our descendants.

A Bright Future is hardly the only recent book to make the case for nuclear power. Others include Gwyneth Cravens’ Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, Charles D. Ferguson’s Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know, and Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham Jr.’s Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. What these and other books make clear is that the “green” shibboleths about nuclear energy’s being dangerous, polluting, proliferation-prone, wasteful, vulnerable to terrorist attack, and excessively expensive are vastly overstated. The truth is closer to the opposite—although in the United States, because of the byzantine regulatory environment and the multiplicity (rather than standardization) of reactor designs built and operated by private companies, the economic costs of building a reactor are indeed very high.

The advantages of nuclear power

A Bright Future is framed by two contrasting stories: that of Sweden and that of Germany. From 1970 to 1990, due to its construction of nuclear power plants, Sweden was able to cut its carbon emissions by half even as its economy expanded and its electricity generation more than doubled. Germany has taken a different path, which has led to its emitting about twice as much carbon pollution per person as Sweden despite using one-third less energy per person and having approximately the same per capita GDP.

What Germany has done is to install large capacities of renewables, mostly wind and solar power, such that by 2016 they made up more than a quarter of electricity production and 15 percent of total energy production. At the same time, however, Germany cut nuclear power by roughly an equivalent amount, which means it only substituted one carbon-free source for another. CO2 emissions have hardly decreased at all, in fact, going up slightly in recent years. German energy remains dominated by coal, and greenhouse gas emissions remain around a billion tons a year.

Decades of anti-nuclear propaganda have colored public attitudes in the West, but, as Goldstein and Qvist explain, nuclear energy has many advantages. For one thing, like renewable sources, it produces no carbon emissions (although over its entire life-cycle, from mining materials to decommissioning the plants, there are some emissions—as with renewables). Unlike solar and wind but like coal, it provides baseload power, which is to say it reliably and cheaply generates energy around the clock to satisfy the average electricity demand. Renewable sources can be more flexibly deployed to match changes in demand, so they have an important role to play during periods of peak energy use, but they also tend to be intermittent and unreliable, unlike nuclear.

Goldstein and Qvist give abundant evidence for the latter claim. “As a rule of thumb,” they note, “nuclear power produces at 80–90 percent of capacity on average over the year, coal at around 50–60 percent, and solar cells around 20 percent.” In 2013, Europe saw an entire month in which solar produced at only 3 percent of capacity because of the lack of sunshine. Wind is somewhat more reliable than sunlight: at a massive 2,700-acre wind farm in Romania, for example, which has 240 wind turbines each as tall as a fifty-story skyscraper, production in 2013 was a little less than 25 percent of capacity. And the total capacity of this enormous wind farm was 600 megawatts, a fraction of a large nuclear power plant.

In fact, the amount of space and material needed for a solar or wind farm to produce as much energy as a large nuclear plant is mind-boggling. Take the example of Ringhals, a plant in Sweden. On just 150 acres it can produce up to 4 gigawatts of electricity, 24/7. A wind farm that was to produce as much energy would require three times the power capacity because wind is so variable. That is, it would require about 2,500 wind turbines 650 feet high, spread over 400 square miles. And its energy production would be intermittent, sometimes much higher than demand and sometimes much lower.

A solar farm equivalent to Ringhals would need a capacity of at least 20 gigawatts and would cover 40 to 100 square miles. “Imagine driving down a highway at 65 mph, with solar cells stretched out for a mile to the right of you and a mile to the left. It would take you about half an hour before you got to the end of the solar farm.”

Think of the environmental (and aesthetic) costs of building scores of such immense wind and solar farms to replace both coal and nuclear.

Waste and safety

Another advantage of nuclear energy is how little waste it produces. Public fears about radioactive waste are absurdly disproportionate to the reality. In the United States, “the entire volume of spent fuel from fifty years of nuclear power—a source that produces one-fifth of U.S. electricity—could be packed into a football stadium, piled twenty feet high.” Spent fuel rods can be safely stored in water for several years, becoming less radioactive, and then transferred to dry storage in concrete casks that contain the radiation. They can remain in these casks for over a hundred years. Longer-term storage, for hundreds of thousands of years, can involve burying material deep underground, as the U.S. military does for its waste from nuclear weapons.

To rebut the concerns about radioactive waste, it surely suffices to point out that spent fuel has been stored around the world for almost 70 years with apparently no adverse health effects at all.

Other energy sources produce waste as well. When the life of solar cells is over after twenty-five years, their waste remains toxic for many decades and requires special handling for disposal. Coal waste, both solid and airborne, is not only orders of magnitude more voluminous than nuclear waste—as is true of solar waste, too—but is also toxic for centuries, and contains radioactive elements. Goldstein and Qvist observe, in fact, that if you live next to a coal plant you’ll get a higher dose of radiation than if you live next to a nuclear power plant. (Humans are continually exposed to small doses of radiation that have zero or negligible health effects.)

In general, nuclear power is incredibly safe. Three famous nuclear accidents have occurred: Three Mile Island in 1979, which had no health effects because of the containment structure that surrounded the partially melted core; Chernobyl in 1986, which caused a few dozen deaths in the short term (though possibly 4,000 in the long term, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency) and was the product of terrible reactor design, terrible on-site errors by operators, and terrible bureaucratic incompetence and secretiveness by the Soviet government; and Fukushima in 2011, which caused no deaths from radiation exposure. (The authors investigate this question in depth and conclude that, on the worst possible assumptions, several people might eventually get cancer because of the accident.)

How does this record stack up against other energy sources? Coal kills at least a million people every year from particulate emissions that lead to cancer and other diseases. It also has a terrible safety record, including toxic wastes that are usually located near poor communities and coal-mining accidents that still happen multiple times a year around the world.

Methane, or natural gas, not only emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal but also is liable to explode from time to time, killing anywhere from several people to hundreds (as when 300 children were killed in an explosion at a Texas school in 1937). And fracking, to extract oil or gas, has negative impacts on public health and the environment.

Oil, too, is less safe than nuclear (leaving aside Soviet incompetence). It spills and it blows up, as with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and oil trains can derail and explode, as happened in Canada in 2013, when 47 people were killed.

Hydroelectric dams are not at all safe. If a dam fails, thousands of people downstream can die. In Banquiao, China in 1975, for example, 170,000 people died when a dam burst. Dam failures have killed thousands in the U.S.; just in 2017, crises in California and Puerto Rico forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Imagine if nuclear energy had a record remotely comparable to coal or hydropower! Worldwide, the whole industry probably would have been shut down long ago.

An uncertain future

A Bright Future is far too rich to do justice to in a single article, but Goldstein and Qvist also address the issues of possible terrorist attacks on power plants and, in more depth, nuclear proliferation. Regarding the latter, the record over the decades since nuclear technology was developed is reassuring, due in large part to the very effective IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But even if nuclear energy weren’t as remarkably safe as it is, we should ask ourselves if it would still be worth including as a major part of a “diversified portfolio” of clean energy. Why are we willing to tolerate so many deaths and risks from coal, oil, hydropower, and natural gas while demanding none from nuclear? (And even then, nuclear has a bad reputation!) Even if a fatal accident occurred from nuclear power every year or every few years, might that not be an acceptable cost if the benefit were a massive mitigation of climate change? We accept risks in every other sphere of life, as when driving cars, living near seismic fault lines, riding airplanes, etc. It’s odd that we rail against nuclear energy because it isn’t 100 percent risk-free.

The simple fact is that we can’t solve climate change without accelerating the construction of nuclear power plants. Since the energy in nuclear fuel is millions of times more concentrated than wind or solar power, nuclear power can “scale up” much faster than renewables. “What the world already knows how to do in ten to twenty years using nuclear power,” the authors write, “would take more than a century using renewables alone.”

And yet in the U.S., reverse action is being taken. Nuclear power plants are being shut down prematurely for political reasons, as in Vermont, California, and Massachusetts, and producers are often abandoning plans to build new plants after facing endless litigation, regulation, opposition from anti-nuclear groups, and competition from cheap and highly subsidized fossil fuels. When a plant is shut down, what that means, first, is that renewables that are introduced afterwards are not contributing to decarbonization but are simply replacing a clean (and far more powerful) energy source. Second, fossil fuels have to fill most of the gap, which causes a rise in carbon emissions.

For example, after the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closed in 2014, carbon dioxide emission rates rose across New England, reversing a decade of declines. When Massachusetts’ last remaining nuclear power plant, Pilgrim, closed last month, much more electricity generation was lost than the state generates with all its solar, wind, and hydropower combined. Several new fossil fuel plants will mainly take the place of Pilgrim.

Thus, Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear groups with money and political clout can congratulate themselves on exacerbating climate change.

Globally there are bright spots for nuclear energy, mostly in the developing world. Goldstein and Qvist discuss this topic in detail, placing some hope in Russia, China, and India, which are much friendlier to nuclear power than the U.S. They also devote a chapter to “next-generation technologies” that are being developed, such as thorium reactors, which have advantages over uranium, and fusion, which has advantages over fission.

But despite these (and other) bright spots, and despite the book’s overall optimism, after I had finished reading I couldn’t help feeling very, very worried about the future. We know how to address climate change. But the vast funds of the fossil fuel industry and the anti-nuclear movement, together with mass ignorance, may yet doom us in the long run. We have, it seems, a decade or two to wake up and demand government action.

Renewables, yes. But even more important: nuclear power.

From Glyphosate to Front Groups: Fraud, Deception and Toxic Tactics

Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason has just written to the Editor-in-Chief of the British Medical Journal and the British Medical Association Council Chairman, Chaand Nagpaul.

Her purpose is to not only draw attention to the impact of biocides, not least that of glyphosate, on health and the environment but also to bring attention to the corruption that allows this to continue.

Along with her letter, she enclosed a 13-page document. Readers can access the fully referenced document here: European Chemicals Agency classifies glyphosate as a substance that causes serious eye damage. It is worth reading in full to appreciate the conflicts of interest and the corruption that has led to the rise in certain illnesses and the destruction of the natural environment.

By way of a brief summary, the key points raised by Dr Mason and her claims include the following.

  • The European Chemicals Agency classifies glyphosate as a substance that causes serious eye damage. There has been a massive increase in the use of glyphosate in recent years. An increase in cataracts has been verified by epidemiological studies in England and by a 2016 WHO report.
  • There are shockingly high levels of weed killer in UK breakfast cereals. After testing these cereals at the Health Research Institute in Iowa, Dr Fagan, director of the centre, said: “These results are consistently concerning. The levels consumed in a single daily helping of any one of these cereals, even the one with the lowest level of contamination, is sufficient to put the person’s glyphosate levels above the levels that cause fatty liver disease in rats (and likely in people).”
  • The amount of glyphosate in tap water in South Wales has increased tenfold in a very short period.
  • Glyphosate is largely responsible for the destruction of biodiversity and an increase in the prevalence of many serious health conditions.
  • There are massive conflicts of interest throughout various agencies in the EU that ensure harmful agrochemicals like glyphosate come to market and remain there.
  • In fact, a global industry has emerged to give ‘advice’ on biocides regulation. This results in regulatory bodies effectively working to further the commercial interests of the pesticide industry.
  • The European Food Safety Authority sanctioned increased maximum pesticide residue levels (MRL) at the request of industry (Monsanto in this case, to 100 times the previously authorised MRL).
  • The Washington-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is used by corporate backers to counter public health policies. Its members have occupied key positions on EU and UN regulatory panels. It is, however, an industry lobby group that masquerades as a scientific health charity. The ILSI describes its mission as “pursuing objectivity, clarity and reproducibility” to “benefit the public good”. But researchers from the University of Cambridge, Bocconi University in Milan, and the US Right to Know campaign assessed over 17,000 pages of documents under US freedom of information laws to present evidence of influence peddling.
  • ILSI Vice-President, Prof Alan Boobis, is currently the Chairman of the UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (CoT) (2015-2021). He was directly responsible for authorising chemicals such as glyphosate, chlorothalonil, clothianidin and chlorpyrifos that are destroying human health and creating a crisis in biodiversity. His group and others have authorised glyphosate repeatedly. He and David Coggon, the previous Chairman of CoT (2008-2015), were appointed as experts on Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA), a group allied with the agrochemical industry and is fighting for higher pesticide exposure.
  • Jean-Claude Juncker the President of the European Commission who, against a petition from more than 1.5 million European citizens, re-authorised glyphosate in December 2017 for a further five years. He set up the Science Advisory Mechanism, aiming to put industry-friendly personnel on various committees.

There are many more claims presented by Rosemary Mason in her report. But the take-home point is that the reality of the agrochemical industry is masked by well-funded public relations machinery (which includes bodies like the UK’s Science Media Centre). The industry also subverts official agencies and regulatory bodies and supports prolific lobby organisations and (‘public scientists’) which masquerade as objective institutions.

When such organisations or figures are exposed, they frequently cry foul and attempt to portray any exposure of their lack of integrity as constituting an attack on science itself; no doubt many readers will be familiar with the ‘anti-science’ epithet.

The industry resorts to such measures as it knows its products are harmful and cannot stand up to proper public scrutiny. And under a system of sustainable agroecology that can produce plentiful, nutritious food, it also knows its markets would disappear.

Motivated by fraud and fear of the truth emerging, it therefore tries to persuade politicians and the public that the world would starve without it and its products. It co-opts agencies and officials by various means and embeds itself within the policy agenda, both nationally and internationally.

And now, with increasingly saturated markets in the West, from Africa to India the industry seeks to colonise new regions and countries where it attempts to roll out its business model. Whether, say, through trade agreements, the WTO or strings-attached loans, this again involves capturing the policy ground and then trapping farmers on a financially lucrative chemical (-GMO)-treadmill, regardless of the consequences for farmers’ livelihoods, food, public health and the environment.

Ozone-Depleting CFCs Return

In August of 1987 the world came together after a panic-attack over ongoing depletion of atmospheric ozone, aka: The Ozone Hole.  Subsequently, global agreements to stop ozone depletion became the first ever “universally ratified treaties in UN history.” The world banned CFCs.

Thereafter, an era of good feelings about ozone restoration swept the world community and 25 years afterwards Science News magazine reported: “Ozone Hole at Smallest Size in Decades” d/d October 26, 2012.

Glory hallelujah!  As a glorious Great Exhale spread across the land, similar to releasing pressurized air out of a humongous balloon, wheezing and hissing for days on end, in celebration of The Shrinking Ozone Hole! It was the first time in history that people celebrated a Shrinking Hole, and for good reason.

Ozone molecules are crucial to sustaining life. Those feisty powerhouse molecules shield the planet from destructive Ultraviolet B or UV-B, which can become big-time killers if left unchecked. According to NASA: “Without ozone, the Sun’s intense UV radiation would sterilize the Earth’s surface” which is a gentle way of saying “Mass Extinction.”

The problem is multiplied as CFCs have a lifetime in the atmosphere of 20 to 100 years, thus, one free chlorine atom from a CFC molecule can do a lot of damage by destroying crucial life-supporting ozone molecules over lengthy periods of time.

Sadly, the world must now reconsider holding its collective breath once again. On May 22nd, 2019, the same Science News magazine that broke the good news and celebrated “A Shrinking Ozone Hole in 2012” newest headline reads: “Emissions of a Banned Ozone-Destroying Chemical Have Been Traced to China.”

As it happens, CFC-11 was, and is, used in manufacturing foams for construction materials, refrigerators, aerosol sprays, blowing agents, packing materials, solvents, and other consumer goods.

The Montreal Protocol of 1987 called for phasing out production of chlorofluorocarbons by 2010 when CFC-11 production was banned. However, by all appearances, China never got the memo.

Atmospheric observations, as well as on-the-ground investigations, have discovered a link of illegal CFC-11 in manufacturing districts in China. It should be noted that there are substitutes for CFC, but CFC-11 is less costly, easier, and faster than substitutes.

Ergo, it’s simply mind-blowing that “costs and profits and markets” supersede careful husbandry of the planet. Actually, more to the point, ignoring the CFC ban goes well beyond mind-blowing; it’s (1) criminal, (2) insane, (3) underhanded, and (4) deplorable, beyond reproach!

Air samples collected in South Korea and Japan point a very big fat guilty finger directly at eastern China where CFC-11 emissions averaged 6,400 metric tons annually from 2008-2012. That number increased to 13,400 metric tons annually from 2014-17. Additionally, on-the-ground investigations by the International Environmental Investigation Agency confirmed the atmospheric tests of Chinese manufacturing of CFC-11, the infamous killer of the world’s precious ozone layer.

Dismally, it’s not only China. There are additional increases of CFC-11 detected from other parts of the world that have not yet been specifically identified. Those signals come from parts of Asia, Africa and South America.

According to the most recent Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018, Executive Summary, commissioned by the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Environment Programme, NASA, NOAA, and the European Commission:

There has been an unexpected increase in global total emissions of CFC-11. Global CFC-11 emissions derived from measurements by two independent networks increased after 2012, thereby slowing the steady decrease in atmospheric concentrations reported in previous Assessments.

As for the timing of CFC’s impact on ozone molecules, there’s a lag effect, meaning it takes two to five years for CFC molecules to become exposed to ultraviolet radiation, resulting in chlorine molecules that then seek and destroy ozone molecules. Zap!

It’s the chlorine from CFC-11, as well as similar molecules, collectively referred to as chlorofluorocarbons that destroy thousands of atmospheric ozone molecules per chlorine atom. Therefore, disproportionately, one chlorine atom searches, finds, and zaps thousands (1000s) of ozone molecules; keeping in mind the fact that one atom is a sub-component of a molecule.

Appallingly, and sure enough, chlorine atoms have been turned loose once again to feast on precious ozone molecules located at 6 miles to 30 miles altitude, widely dispersed hither and thither to an extreme.

Remarkably, if all of the ozone molecules that are scattered in a 24-mile zone of atmosphere could be squeezed together into an encircling dome over Earth, it would be no more than the thickness of one copper penny. It’s true!

All of which brings to mind the astounding realization that the planet is, and always has been, very resilient over millennia of earthquakes and asteroid collisions but in certain crucial aspects, meaning life support systems, it can be dreadfully fragile.

Are cheaper consumer goods really worth it?

Reclaim Our Power or Face Extinction: The Choice is Ours

Do you find yourself unable to nod off to the sweet bliss of ignorance or denial when contemplating the catastrophic state of the world? Do you find yourself feeling deeply concerned about the enormous harm occurring to humans, our fellow Earthlings and this beautiful planet, our home? Do you find yourself feeling deeply concerned about our future—for humanity, our children/grandchildren, and our fellow living beings?

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, and if you’re not willing to “ask your doctor” for a pill to push these thoughts and feelings away, then it’s likely you’re finding yourself struggling with one or both of the following dilemmas:

(1) How do I find the courage to continue trying to make a positive difference in the world when so much is broken?

…and (2) How can “little me” make any real difference in the face of it all, especially considering that a select group of extremely self-centered individuals seem to hold all the power?

And if humankind has any chance at all of making it through the next few decades, let alone transitioning to a genuinely sustainable society, then I think we have no choice but to face these dilemmas head on.

I think that we really have to begin by addressing the first dilemma, because it’s hard to do much of anything at all, let alone enjoy our lives, when our spirits are being crushed by such despair and hopelessness. I think that Joanna Macy, the pioneering deep ecology teacher, healer and activist, offers a powerful way to work with this dilemma in her definition of “Active Hope”:

Active hope is not wishful thinking. Active hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or some saviour. Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life, waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. You and we all are capable of falling in love with life at the moment when it needs our response….

It is a readiness to engage and a readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others, a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love, a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, ready to discover that again and again….[Seeing] active hope as a verb, it is something you can do even when you’re feeling discouraged.

In other words, even when the future seems completely hopeless, by embracing our strength, our love, our values, our spirit in this here-and-now moment, then that’s enough to make whatever life we have left one worth living. And regardless of what may become of humankind or the Earth, we are still all destined to die someday, and we still have this life to tend to. If more and more of us can make the transition to living this way, then it may well be that such an attitude is humankind’s best chance for survival. And even if it’s already too late to save humankind, at least by living this way, we can still make the best of the time we have left.

The second dilemma we face, then, is, How can “little me” make any real difference in the world in the face of so much inequality and devastation?

In order to address this dilemma, I think that we first must start by openly and honestly facing the reality of our situation, as difficult as that may be to do.

Evaluating our Challenges

There are a number of very “inconvenient truths” that I think we must first come to terms with before we can do the hard work of contributing to the positive evolution of humankind. Actually, let me reframe this and say that the very act of openly acknowledging these truths, facing them head on, and working to transcend them is the first step in humankind’s evolution to a sustainable form. So what are these inconvenient truths?

A form of essentially unbridled plutocratic capitalism has worked its way into virtually every corner of human society. While there may be some degree of genuine democracy still gasping for breath within some of these systems, for the most part, what has developed is an increasingly globalized plutocracy that has become corrupt to the core—a system that prioritizes competition over cooperation, and personal profit above people and planet. It is a system devoted first and foremost to maintaining and increasing the wealth and power of a very small minority of wealthy individuals.

And, as an inevitable by-product of such a system, there exists a ruling class of obscenely wealthy and powerful individuals who essentially own most of the world’s resources and governments, and who strive with all their power to maintain and increase their personal wealth and power, feeding their apparently unquenchable greed for such by virtually any means imaginable. If you think I’m being overly dramatic, try spending a day hanging out in an industrial slaughterhouse, trekking across the Alberta tar sands, or picknicking within one of the many war-torn regions of our planet unfortunate enough to contain resources that the ruling classes drool over.

The system has evolved in such a way that the more power/wealth we have, the more comfortable we become with the status quo, and the less compelled we are to work towards a more harmonious and equitable world. Hence, the world has evolved to the point where the large majority of the global population live in relatively abject poverty, requiring nearly all of their willpower just to maintain their day-to-day survival; a moderate number of the population live in the “middle class,” typically devoting much of their personal time and energy to increasing the profits of their employers and the ruling class, but generally not being miserable enough to push for major change; and finally there is that very thin sliver of pie at the top that rules the roost; i.e., the ruling class.

Most of us, to varying degrees, have become personally conditioned and desensitized by having been raised within such a broken system. Most of us have developed a general condition of learned apathy and helplessness, and for the most part, we have become generally desensitized to the enormous pain and dysfunction within the world around us.

Given the fragmented and isolated nature of such a broken system, many of us have unsurprisingly become personally addicted to certain harmful behaviors—the excess consumption of products we really don’t need or that are built on the backs of exploited and poverty-stricken people; eating foods that are harmful to the environment and other sentient beings; burning excessive fossil fuels; and numbing away our unpleasant feelings with alcohol and drugs (recreational as well as prescribed—the rulers are more than happy to help us out with this, so long as they get paid for it—“just ask your doctor…”).

Finally, no matter how you look at it, the prognosis for humankind is very poor. To begin with, there is the serious risk of a major (possibly nuclear) world war as the various ruling factions become ever more desperate to maintain their grip on their power and the rapidly depleting resources of the world. And even if we set this issue aside, the multiple disasters taking place within the broader living systems of the Earth—accelerating climate change, habitat loss and species extinction—are extremely urgent. So urgent, in fact, that a number of highly educated ecologists and climatologists have concluded that it’s already too late—that a number of tipping points have already been set in motion, and that the Earth is likely to become uninhabitable for humankind in the very near future. Some are (slightly) more optimistic, but the general consensus is that the situation is seriously ominous.

Evaluating our Strengths

In spite of what appears to be an extremely difficult if not impossible hand to work with, I believe that we still do have a lot going for us.

For one thing, we’re still here, and the major Earth systems are still mostly functioning, though certainly somewhat beleaguered. But I don’t think there’s any doubt about it—if humanity has any chance of pulling through this crisis and remaining a member of the Earth community beyond the next few decades, then we’ve really got our work cut out for us. We all have to really buckle down, face our challenges head on, acknowledge (and appreciate) our strengths and resources, and especially for those of us fortunate not to be living in abject poverty, we also have to be willing to make a number of sacrifices.

Here is a summary of what I feel are our most pertinent resources:

We have our “basic goodness.”  In spite of the widespread ignorance, disconnection and desensitization caused by having been raised within such a broken social system, most of us have personally experienced the fundamental “basic goodness” that lies within us, fleeting and/or buried as it may be at times. This consists of our capacity to recognize and actually feel within our bones our interconnectedness with each other and with all living beings; and to experience the genuine compassion, kindness and care that naturally emerges when we do so.

If you find yourself feeling a bit skeptical about this one, take a moment to reflect on a time when you felt deeply connected to a loved one, a child, a companion animal, or a beautiful sunset or wilderness landscape, even if you have to reach way back in your memories. Hopefully when you do, you can feel at least a hint of these “unitive feelings.” These feelings of love, compassion and kindness emerge in us naturally, spontaneously, when we feel deeply connected to another; and when we allow this awareness of connectedness to expand to embrace all other beings, then… well, it’s beyond words, really; and if anything can save us, this is it.

Human beings are extraordinarily innovative, imaginative and productive. Looking around at the state of the world today, it’s certainly justified to suggest that these particular qualities of ours have actually gotten rather out of hand. But what if we find a way to marry these qualities with our capacity to experience deep interconnectedness and compassion for others…? What if…?

Human beings have the capacity to self-reflect, to be aware of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and impulses, and to reflect upon the consequences of our actions prior to acting them out. Granted, we often neglect to do so and simply let our impulses and auto-pilot behaviors run the show. But we do have this capacity nonetheless; and just like a muscle, it’s one that gets stronger with practice.

Solutions

Now that we have made an assessment of our most essential challenges and resources, let’s turn to the issue of solutions. How can we harness our strengths and resources to address the very serious challenges that face us? In particular, how do we shift our course to a long and prosperous future, one that is harmonious with our fellow Earthlings on this wonderful planet? How do we address the dysfunctional behaviors of ours that have led to this disharmony and destruction? And how do we address the dysfunctional system that continues to reinforce such behaviors?

First of all, understanding and dealing with the ruling class…

Let’s start by looking more closely at the system of unbridled plutocratic capitalism that is surely one of the largest thorns in humanity’s side when it comes to any movement towards positive evolution.

As mentioned above, both the primary fuel and the toxic by-product of this system is an extremely wealthy ruling class. First of all, I want to say that I personally identify as a humanistically-oriented psychologist (among my many other identities), and I have faith that there is a “basic goodness” that exists within all of us, even those who have been deeply wounded and/or corrupted in various ways; though for many of us, it may take a lot of healing and/or effort to uncover that “goodness.”

Even when I reflect upon the nature typical of so many of those in the ruling class—someone who justifies the hoarding of millions or even billions of dollars while so many others in the world can barely feed their family or send their kids to school, or someone who justifies the bombing of thousands of innocent people in order to increase their personal wealth or power—I still do my best to remember that although they may have become completely lost in their own greed, fear and disconnection, there is still a human being with the potential for goodness lying somewhere beneath that mess.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that the rest of us should continue to condone such behavior, and allow such individuals to continue doing so much harm. Au contraire, for those of us who haven’t lost contact with our compassion towards others, I feel it is nothing less than our duty to humankind and all other life on this planet to do our utmost to prevent these people from causing so much harm. This is the concept known as the “protective use of force” within the Nonviolence philosophies.

But then the problem arises—even if we would really like to stop such harmful behavior, and even if we can find the courage to do so, how do we stop the behavior of people who are essentially the acting rulers of human society?

In order to answer this question, I want to suggest that we turn this question on its head and ask ourselves, How exactly is it that the ruling class has managed to co-opt the remaining 99+% of us to do their bidding? The answer, I believe, is relatively simple. They are masters at blowing on the embers our own potential for fear, greed and disconnection; at crushing our potential for compassion, connection, mutual empowerment and kindness; at skillfully sowing seeds of animosity and hatred among us; at widely spreading misinformation over and over again via mind-numbing news, television programs, commercials and other media; and by tossing well-placed “breadcrumbs” to maintain the loyalty of those members of society that they most desperately need in order to continue enforcing the status quo (particularly the judges, politicians, police, soldiers, and psychiatrists, among others).

As a seasoned and well-traveled psychologist myself, having studied human nature through the lenses of a number of different worldviews and cultures, I feel confident in saying that this is not conspiracy theory—this is simple human nature, and the ruling classes know exactly what they’re doing. As human beings, we have the intrinsic capacity for compassion, empathy and kindness, and for experiencing the profound unity and interconnectedness among all life on Earth—what I and many others refer to as “basic goodness,” among other similar terms. You could say that these virtuous qualities come “wired” into us.

And yet we also have the capacity to experience overwhelming hatred, fear, greed and helplessness. When we feel threatened or experience scarcity, it is these latter qualities that typically come to the fore. Again, this is well established psychological and neurological science. And the ruling classes have developed great mastery in cultivating these latter qualities among “the masses.” In fact, it was pioneering psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s own nephew, Edward Bernays, who first formally developed the concept of “propaganda” and played a prominent role in educating the ruling and corporate classes in exactly how to use propaganda and other forms of misinformation to shape the behaviors of “the masses” for the benefit of further enriching the wealthy and further disempowering and dividing the rest of us.

So we’ve simply got to face this unpleasant truth—the ruling classes know exactly what they’re doing with regard to maintaining and increasing their wealth and power, and they are very well skilled at blowing on the embers of our hatreds, fears and ignorance. However, I believe there is a crucial piece that they are missing, what I would call their Achilles heel.

Those individuals at the “top” who are so dedicated to maintaining and enhancing their personal power and wealth? By the very nature of being in such a position and having cultivated such a toxic frame of mind for so long, they have also been intensely blowing on their own embers of hatred, fear, greed and disconnection. I venture to say that these qualities have become so exaggerated and entrenched for most members of this class that most of them have completely lost sight of the more noble aspects of their own nature—the capacity for love, compassion, kindness and the interconnectedness of us all.

Research shows that the richer you get, the more your happiness depends upon personal power, status, and personal achievements; and the less able you are to experience the much richer happiness that is associated with love and compassion for others and an appreciation of the wonder and beauty of the world. And for this very reason, I would say that most of the members of this class and the system that they perpetuate are completely blind to the fact that the hell and suffering that they bestow upon the rest of the world is also fuelling their own misery—certainly in the future, but even to some degree in the present.

Even while these individuals revel in their wealth, they are only further isolating themselves and fuelling their fear and greed with their behavior—they are certainly not fostering compassion, love and kindness, which involve far more pleasant states of mind. In essence, then, the ruling classes have become deeply addicted to their drive for wealth and power, and when combined with their vast power, their addiction is causing enormous harm—to human society, to the Earth, to our fellow Earthlings and ultimately to themselves. Of course, these people are human, and they deserve our compassion and kindness as much as anyone, but their destructive behaviors must somehow be stopped.

So this brings us back to the question of how do we stop them? Well, for their sake and ours, their destructive behavior simply has to be stopped; and that means that we simply have to find a way to take our power back (remember, “simple” does not mean easy!) So how do we do that? Let’s start by looking at strategies that we’ve already tried:

Will we have to violently revolt? The history of humankind is filled with bloody revolutions—when the poverty-stricken lower classes finally became so fed up with being enslaved and exploited by the rulers that they put their lives on the lines, grabbed their pitchforks, their swords, their guns, or whatever weapons they could find, and violently revolted. But even when such revolutions have succeeded, the end result has typically been little more than a transfer of power from one set of self-centered rulers to another.

No, many of us have come to feel strongly that if we truly want to evolve into a nonviolent, equitable and sustainable society, then the means to do so must also be nonviolent, or we merely perpetuate the same violent, self-centered and authoritarian system. I think that Martin Luther King, Jr., stated this principle well when he said:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.1

So then what about grabbing our signs, raising our voices, and loudly protesting against the system/government/corporations/rulers?  While such a strategy is (or generally intends to be) in line with the principles of nonviolence, I would say that the benefits of such strategies vary widely depending upon their intent. If the intent of such protests is to build connection and solidarity among “We the people,” and to alert each other to the destructive behaviors of the ruling class, then I would say, Yes! protesting has demonstrated itself to be an effective strategy for this, and for healing the many ruptures within our society, and to counter the harm caused by the “divide and conquer” strategies of the ruling class.

However, if the intent of such protests is to try to persuade the ruling class to more seriously consider our needs, or to intimidate them into changing their behaviors, then I would say that this approach will most likely just fall on deaf ears. Sure, they may throw out a few “breadcrumbs” to quiet “the minions”; but otherwise, members of the ruling class are far too content with the status quo and far too addicted to their personal wealth and power to be so easily persuaded to share more of that wealth and power with the rest of us than they absolutely have to.

What about trying to change things from the inside?  As much as I would love to see this work—virtuous individuals pushing into the higher echelons of politics to try to make a difference—the reality that so many of us have painfully witnessed is that in the large majority of cases, such individuals are either slandered or intimidated out the door, are effectively side-lined and muffled, or they themselves become personally corrupted and co-opted into the system. Sure, occasionally the rare virtuous individual has managed to instill some positive change using this strategy, but in the larger scheme of things, what we typically get are more “breadcrumbs for the minions” if we’re lucky.

Reclaiming the power that we already have…

So what’s left?  We shake off this trance of learned helplessness, and recognize that we already have the power. Our so-called leaders have essentially become a bunch of lost addicts perpetually seeking their next “fix.” And in the same way that attempting to appeal to reason is generally ineffective for someone gripped by a serious addiction to drugs or alcohol, so attempting to persuade the ruling classes to drop their addictions is also likely to be largely ineffective. What generally is an effective means for helping an addict to come out of their addiction is to support them in coming out of their isolation and in developing authentically loving connections with others. So if we really want our leaders to come out of their addictions, then I think the only way is for “We the people” to lead by example—to stop allowing the ruling class to blow on the embers of our fears, hatreds and disconnections, and to begin cultivating our compassion, connections and kindness. As for the “leaders”—well, they have a choice—they can ether join the party or get out of the way.

So what does this look like in more practical terms? In simplest terms, I would say that we each need to do the difficult work of taming our own “wild” minds in the same way that we would tame a wounded and wild animal—with persistent yet loving discipline. First of all, we face the hard reality that those who have been raised in this society (in other words, all of us) have developed certain fears, addictions and disconnections that contribute to the perpetuation of a highly dysfunctional and destructive human society; and then we actively begin taming our own “wild” minds to reign in our destructive impulses and addictions, and to actively foster compassion, empathy and kindness towards ourselves, our fellow humans, and the other living beings with whom we share this world.

To get more specific, this entails:

Actively and regularly connecting in a more mindful and kind way with our own inner experiences—our feelings, impulses, needs and values. Examples for this kind of work would be contemplating/reflecting/reading/writing about our interests, our concerns, our values, our passions; or getting in tune with our bodies via yoga, meditation, exercise, mastering a physical sport, art or music.

Actively cultivating our kindness and compassion for and connection with others. Examples of this are consciously considering the consequences that all of our actions and purchases have on other people and living beings; spending time in heartfelt dialogue with others, making sure to practice empathic listening and heartfelt expression; having fun with other people and animals; spending time in the outdoors.

…and refusing to support the harmful practices and organizations with our money/purchases or our precious time. This would involve things such as actively boycotting products that are violent/exploitative of other people, other Earthlings and the environment; and being selective about the kind of work that we do and who we work for. Of course, our individual circumstances vary, so we simply have to do the best we can with where we’re at.

  • I think it’s important to acknowledge that those of us who are wealth-wise in the global “middle” are in the best seats for fostering real change—on one hand, it’s less likely that we have become as hopelessly addicted to wealth and personal power as those in the upper classes; and on the other hand, we aren’t so overburdened by simply trying to find the next meal, clean water, and a warm/safe place to sleep as are those in the poorest classes.
    …..Furthermore, the purchases and consumption habits of the middle-class, as well as the fruits of our labour, are an enormous source of wealth and power for the ruling class and fuel for the continuation of this broken system. Our collective refusal to continue supporting these harmful industries would deliver a huge kick in the gut to this plutocratic system, and possibly even a fatal blow (please forgive the not-so-nonviolent metaphors); and at the very least force the ruling class to adopt less harmful behaviors in order to maintain their profits.
  • Another key point that needs to be mentioned here—when it really comes down to it, the ruling classes are only able to continue enforcing their power through the threat or use of violent force, combined with a steady stream of misinformation (i.e., the police and military being the front lines of this, with the justice system, various “secret services,” the mental health system and the corporate media providing close back up). Yet most of the individuals employed within these systems are not themselves members of the ruling class, though they generally are targets of customized misinformation campaigns, and/or enjoy certain privileges involving additional personal power, wealth, job security and other enticing breadcrumbs to maintain their loyalty.
    …..This situation opens up a tremendous vulnerability for the ruling class—one they certainly don’t like but about which they have no choice. Imagine for a moment if a movement of virtuosity and compassionate civil disobedience were to take hold within any one of these social control agencies. Remember that old expression—“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came”? What if the police and judges began coming forward and saying, “Enough! We’re not going to let people rot in prison for nonviolent crimes,” or “No! We’re not going to treat people differently based on the color of their skin or their country of origin.” What if the psychiatrists and psychologists began standing up and saying, “Enough! We’re not going to keep enriching the pharmaceutical industry by putting more and more adults and children on their brain-damaging drugs.” What if the soldiers handed in their guns and their drone remote controls and said, “No Way! I’m not going to kill any more people for the sake of making the rich richer.” What if…?
    …..The good news is that such movements are starting to take hold, but the bad news (and not surprisingly) is that there has a lot of resistance against them with ever increasing crackdowns on whistleblowers and other dissenters. Here are a few of the more well-known examples of courageous dissenters that have almost certainly generated some inspiration among others in their respective fields:  (ex) Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg,  and (ex)US Army soldier Chelsea Manning, (ex) CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden, About Face: Veterans Against the War, and Psychiatrist Dr Peter Breggin.

We have the option to bypass the rulers and their broken system altogether and create our own “imaginal cells.” There is an intriguing process that occurs within a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly that may offer insight into how humankind as a whole may make the transition from a “voracious caterpillar” to a “lightly treading, pollinating butterfly.” Dr Sailesh Rao of Climate Healers puts it like this:

When a caterpillar nears its transformation time, it begins to eat ravenously, consuming everything in sight. The caterpillar body then becomes heavy, outgrowing its own skin many times, until it is too bloated to move. Attaching to a branch (upside down, where everything is turned on its head), it forms a chrysalis—an enclosing shell that limits the caterpillar’s freedom for the duration of the transformation.

Tiny cells, that biologists call “imaginal cells,” begin to appear. These cells are wholly different from caterpillar cells, carrying different information, vibrating to a different frequency—the frequency of the emerging butterfly. At first, the caterpillar’s immune system perceives these new cells as enemies, and attacks them, much as new ideas in science, medicine, politics, and social behavior are viciously denounced by the powers now considered mainstream. But the imaginal cells are not deterred. They continue to appear, in even greater numbers, recognizing each other, bonding together, until the new cells are numerous enough to organize into clumps. When enough cells have formed to make structures along the new organizational lines, the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed. The caterpillar body then becomes a nutritious soup for the growth of the butterfly.

To analogize this with the evolution of humankind, we can say that these imaginal cells represent the many groups of people around the world who are choosing to bypass the dysfunctional plutocratic system altogether, taking strides towards much more connected, mutually empowered and environmentally sustainable communities. One particularly promising movement in this regard is the steadily increasing rate of eco-villages and sustainable intentional communities popping up around the world. See here, here and here for examples and more information. See here for a compelling little video illustrating this concept.

Finally, to get even more specific with regard to effective solutions, the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious Living (CNCL) has developed the Conscious Living Resolution, which is a list of here-and-now strategies we can all begin to incorporate into our lives, starting today. Given the vast inequality of the world and our individually unique circumstances, each of us will have a different starting place with regard to this list—which of these strategies we’re ready to begin adopting and/or strengthening, and which may appear too daunting at the moment. We simply invite each person to mindfully connect with the suggested strategies on this list, and see what naturally resonates with you, and which of your “edges” you feel that you’re ready to push. And, of course, feel free to follow your own internal “nonviolence and conscious living” compass to add other strategies to this list that resonate for you.

To Conclude—Reclaiming our power and our future is what naturally happens when we reclaim our lives

Speaking for myself and many others I know who have ventured down this path to varying degrees, I can say that this is not an easy path. We’re human, we make mistakes, we become overwhelmed by our feelings and impulses at times. Breaking harmful habits and addictions and challenging our long-held beliefs and perspectives can be extremely difficult and humbling. But have faith that the rewards are likely to far outweigh the difficulties. After all, regardless of what may become of humankind in the future, we still have to live with ourselves and each other right now. Do we want to continue living in a society (and with states of mind) based mostly on fear, hatred, greed and disconnection? Or would we rather work towards a society and a personal state of mind based more on compassion, connection and kindness? Sounds like a no brainer to me!

There are certainly no guarantees that humankind will be able to pull through the extraordinarily destructive social and ecological patterns that we’ve set in motion. But as long as we’re still here, we might as well give it all we have to maintain our existence and fight for a world worth fighting for.

And if that doesn’t ultimately pan out, well… at least we can do our best to go down smiling.

Find out more about the work of Dr Paris Williams and the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious Living at cncl.info

  1. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967, p. 67.