15 May 2011

Delusion and Denial Part 2: Ecology, Sustainability, et cetera

Western chorus frog in hand

I yelled at the Lorax, “Now listen here, Dad! All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad!’ Well, I have my rights, sir and I’m telling you. I intend to go on doing just what I do! And for your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering on biggering and biggering and BIGGERING and BIGGERING; turning MORE Truffula trees into Thneeds which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs!”
--- Theodor Geisel

 It is possible that in the backwards Bizarro world, “wants” means “needs” and “growth” means “sustainability,” but here in the actual world that we occupy there exist certain immutable biochemical and physical principles, whether we want to believe in them or not. Economics, politics, and law all have fundamental principles that are wholly human constructs and wholly alterable, yet we refuse to change them and pretend instead that they are absolute. On the other hand, science has fundamental principles that cannot be altered by humans, yet in our magical thinking even the “best and brightest” of us believe that scientific principles can be modified. In thinking so, we are perilously approaching our ecological limits. The public discourse about these scientific principles, where it even occurs, continually places them in the context of economics and politics – as if they are equivalent. Though the atrocious sociopolitical and economic conditions throughout the world certainly do need to be addressed, these issues are portrayed as the primary, if not the singular problems that our global society faces. In reality, all of these issues are secondary to the issue of ecology; for without a biome, without ecosystems to sustain life, we have no society, no politics, no economics, no homo sapiens.

In the world of interdisciplinary environmental studies, academics and organizations like to believe that their purpose is to address these issues of primacy, to help find “win, win” solutions to the criminal raping and pillaging that human civilizations have committed on the earth. Yet, they commence at a starting point that ensures their inevitable failure. Even those who acknowledge the dire environmental emergency that we face on the planet consign themselves to ruin because they refuse to conform to the reality that they themselves know and have studied.

The following comprise some common erroneous premises that many environmentalists/environmental scientists agree upon, which ensure our certain doom. Predicating research and activism on any one of these illusions merely enables us to deny the inevitable:

1. We need more (energy, fuel, goods, etc.)
I once read that a group of émigrés to America from the African continent were taken to the Mall of America in Minnesota and had to be escorted out because they were so overwhelmed with grief and discomfort to witness such a spectacle. Their reaction seems reasonable and rational. I have no idea why we do not all feel this way when we enter any large scale store any day. I often go into a supermarket or department store and feel ill thinking about how many items are present in that one store; probably enough to supply the needs of the entire city – forever. I cannot find any quantitative statistics on such a thing, as no one seems to care about our gross overabundance of material items, but we must have more consumer goods than the people on the planet could ever actually consume. And yet, there are dozens or more of these stores in my city alone. And yet, we keep producing more goods (or “bads” as I like to call them). And yet, millions of people still do not have the basic necessities they need. These items of necessity certainly do exist on the planet in plentiful abundance for all people, but they are not made for people, they are made for profit.

So, industrial nations continue to produce more bads, even though we need no more, and we continue to buy more bads, even though we need no more, and we continue to utilize precious natural resources.

There are renewable and nonrenewable resources, of course. Ecologists would say that if we just utilize renewable resources, then we can continue to produce more forever. But when renewable resources are consumed faster than they can be renewed, they become non-renewables. This is how we persist. With all of the political discussion of production, consumption, economy, and jobs, we too often deny that we live on a finite planet with finite resources – and even infinite resources that we have made to be finite. These will run out, and due to our continual neglect, they will run out faster than we can probably imagine. This way of life is not sustainable.

2. We must work with corporations
Emblematic of this idea that corporations are inevitable in our lives is the fact that at our annual Earth Day celebration, my environmental studies school invited the CEO of Stonyfield Farm to speak. Though Stonyfield Farm is an organic dairy corporation, it is still a corporation. It supplies products to Walmart, with the idea that selling organic products at Walmart promotes sustainability, since organic farming is certainly more sustainable than conventional farming and since Walmart supplies more products to more people throughout the globe. But selling more products, of course, organic or not, is not sustainable. Industrial organic agriculture is not sustainable. Flying, shipping, and trucking packages and products all over the globe is not sustainable. The corporate model of endless growth and constantly increasing rates of growth is incompatible with finite resources on a finite planet. Beyond the atrocities that corporations commit in the context of labor exploitation and increasing poverty, their basic model of business is not ecologically sustainable, no matter which way you slice it.

3. We need industry
Numerous reports have demonstrated recently that the solution to hunger throughout the world is small-scale organic agriculture. If you have ever grown a garden and/or shared your vegetables with friends and neighbors you know that unless you are visited with some agricultural calamity/disease, you almost always have more food than you can ever eat. Industrial agriculture is not necessary to supply the needs of the planet; in fact, it is only necessary to fill the coffers of industrialists. How one can possibly conclude that shipping packaged food throughout the globe and selling it to people through middlemen is the best way to provide this basic necessity of life is beyond comprehension.

Industry consumes raw materials and energy and emits harmful pollutants that last for eons in the environment. Industry simply fosters more use, more consumption of finite resources, more waste, and more profits for the rich. In an absurd and illogical manner, we actually use energy to gather and disseminate our energy supplies (coal, gas, oil, uranium). You cannot keep using energy to gain energy. Moreover, industry creates unbelievable, incomprehensible amounts of waste. Just look at the industrial wastelands of abandoned factories. Does that seem sustainable?

Have you ever seen or learned about a landfill? In a streak of creative insanity, some inane “genius” decided it would be wise to dig a large hole, bury all of our used or broken products (most of which cannot decompose, or at least, not quickly or safely) and cover them up for all eternity within our soils. Oh, and wait! These things might be somewhat toxic and might seep into our waterways, so we will line these holes with plastic (another product made from oil and also highly toxic) to prevent the waste from mixing with our clean water and our soil. Brilliant!

And these are but just a few examples of industry.

Needless to say, industry and industrial infrastructure are entirely unsustainable.

4. Science and technology will save us
Last year I went to a talk by economist and political activist Jeremy Rifkin. He explained the work he was doing in Europe, where they were dismantling large scale electrical infrastructures and replacing them with small scale, local “renewable” energy designs. Though, in theory, these designs appear to be a terrific solution to our energy problems, in reality, they are mere stop-gap measures. To deem them sustainable is to be delusional. A student remarked that even these small, local, renewable systems required not only inputs of materials - often rare-earth, extremely non-renewable materials (not to mention materials often garnered through slave labor) - but constant maintenance, which rendered them unsustainable in the long run. When asked how to deal with these quandaries of sustainability, rather than denying them, Rifkin merely remarked that it would be up to the next generation to figure out those solutions. And herein lies the magical thinking of science and technology. Though, of course, solar panels on one’s roof to power one’s home are far less harmful that nuclear power plants, they are not sustainable. Nor are wind turbines or hydroelectric plants (particularly those that require dams). To think that they are is simply ridiculous.

Likewise, in education, nearly all teaching now requires computers. Computers are in classrooms, lessons are provided through PowerPoint presentations, grades are monitored via online databases. In fact, I think every field of work in the western world also now requires computers and probably internet. We keep updating our technology and purchasing NEW! FASTER! MORE FLASHY! computers that keep our minds more idle than ever, keep us more occupied with more nonsense than ever, and keep our real interpersonal interactions more remote than ever. These computers require the input of many precious metals and rare-earth materials. They are called rare because they are rare. To assume that we can continue to produce and use  computers, internet, and cell phones is to be completely deluded. But we seem to believe we will go on like this forever.

The other day a nuclear physicist spoke to my environmental toxicology class. Having no knowledge about toxicological mechanisms or biology (or none that she demonstrated), she simply declared that not only were new (still hypothetical) third and fourth generation nuclear plants safer than the old, but that they were completely safe, period. In addition, she stated that we must not only built more nuclear power plants, but that we must find ways to recycle the waste as well as remove it for “clearance.” Clearance of radioactive materials is a euphemism for creating consumer products from low-level radioactive materials. She proclaimed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not allow this low level radiation to be released to our environment if it were not safe for us. Her unfounded, unsupported words are the kind of industrial, corporate, ideological propaganda that is allowed to be imparted as knowledge to students. Not one thing about what this woman said was supported by scientific toxicological evidence – or common sense - and not one thing that she said established how on earth nuclear energy could possibly be safe or sustainable. What she demonstrated was nothing but illogic and ultimate human hubris. Yet most American politicians of both major parties tout nuclear as a safe and sustainable energy of the future, just as they tout offshore drilling as safe in spite of the glaringly obvious evidence to the contrary.

Finally, of late, science has played a crucial role in maintaining the status quo while examining and modeling systems. For example, conservation biology attempts to conserve natural systems and organisms while maintaining our industrial infrastructures. Science continually measures the harm stemming from alterations in ecological systems due to climate change. Science studied the pattern of movement of the oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP/Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. It studied the harm to wildlife following the disaster. It modeled the movement of radioactive material through the air emanating from the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. In short, science has tremendous capabilities to monitor our ruin. Yet science has done little or nothing to prevent our ruin. On the contrary, the need for scientific authentication of harms enables corporations to perpetuate those harms as science seeks the means of measuring and proving them. Prevention of ruin does not require science, it requires ethics and common sense actions, such as those found in the Precautionary Principle.
5. Climate change is the most important environmental problem facing the planet
Noted biologist Paul R. Ehrlich gave a speech here in Madison last year, in which he stated that climate change might not be the biggest problem facing humanity today – it might actually be toxics. For many, it was just another one of Ehrlich’s notions to dismiss, as he was the scientist who wrote of the crisis of overpopulation in 1968, but we have not suffered the effects of any such problem yet, right? While the population has not collapsed, how easily we neglect the more than two billion people on the planet without potable water and the billions who do not have adequate food supplies. Yet most will tell you that Ehrlich was far off in his dire predictions of calamitous overpopulation. That is because science favors Type II statistical errors – false negatives - rather than Type I errors – false positives. So the fact that the human race has not yet met its carrying capacity, as Paul seemingly predicted, makes his false positive an egregious error. However, science is highly tolerant of false negatives, even though these result in death and destruction daily. One of the major false negatives that we deal with every day is in the realm of toxics.

As physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva remarks:
I think one of the most tragic moments of human evolution was when, at the beginning of the scientific revolution, a bunch of men just decided that knowledge was reliable only when it was made totally unreliable. And you could define as totally objective that which had nothing to do with reality. But abstract categories became primary qualities, and primary qualities were reduced to secondary qualities about which you could not be certain. You couldn’t be certain about smelling rotten food or tasting chemicals in your food? … Can you imagine? To be reduced to that level of uncertainty that our most basic indicators of relating to the world - through our eyes, through our ears, through our nose, through our tongue, through our tactile sense – all of that knowing was … erased. And then we were put out with measuring … abstract constructions.  And I believe that has been a very big reason why not only have we ended up destroying so much of the world, but it’s also a reason why we’ve ended up creating so many illusions.
Of our many illusions, one of the greatest is that toxic substances are doing little harm. The other day I heard a report from Fukushima in which a government official stated that just because the radioactive releases from the nuclear power plant were odorous, it does not mean they were harmful. This notion flies in the face of evolutionary biology. In fact, malodor is indicative of harm, and is a means of detection that organisms have adapted to protect themselves from harm! Likewise, we are constantly told that carcinogenic substances – such as radiation – are safe at certain “acceptable levels.” And based upon what is now occurring in Fukushima, those acceptable limits can be arbitrarily increased when they are reached, as the Japanese government has been doing with limits to radiation exposure.
Interestingly, despite all of the evidence of carcinogenic exposure in our environment – radiation from nuclear sources such as power plants and medical diagnostic technologies, industrial chemicals in our air, food, and water, toxic substances within our cosmetics and consumer products - we somehow have come to believe that the cancer we suffer is mainly due to inheritance. While it is certainly true that cancer is genetic – in that it nearly always involves a mutation/alteration of our DNA – to equate cancer to heredity is not only to deny what is obvious all around us, but also to deny evolutionary biology. It is clear that lethal inherited traits – such as cancer – would, according to evolution and natural selection, inevitability be discarded from the population or at the very least decrease in incidence if they were solely hereditary.

Indeed, according to biologist and science historian Nancy Langston, women who possess the so-called “breast cancer genes” BRCA1 and BRCA2, who were born before 1940 (before the boom of synthetic chemicals), have little to no increased risk of cancer. Only those women with these genes who were born after 1940 have an increased cancer risk. In their cases, an increased risk does not inevitably mean cancer – which it would if their inherited genes were the cause of the disease. Thus, the genes allow for more susceptibility to the effects of carcinogens; so the fundamental causal factor here is not the gene but the toxic substance.

Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald concurs with this assessment that cancer is not hereditary, yet he differs by hypothesizing that cancers are ultimately caused by viruses. Again, that is a nice notion to allow us to continue with our industrial pollution and toxification, but it flies in the face of evidence to the contrary. Though some cancers may be in part caused by viral infections, as in the case of human papillomavirus (HPV), and while it has been demonstrated that animals with impaired immune systems are more susceptible to carcinogenic effects, to deny the existence of carcinogens and to deny that our cancers are being caused by these substances is the ultimate form of delusion. Ever hear of mesotheliaoma? This is a rare form of cancer caused almost exclusively from exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, most forms of cancer are neither so rare nor so clear in etiology. It is a convenient consequence of polluting the environment with so many toxic substances to which we are exposed that precise disease causation is often too complex to assess. But to deny that many, if not most, cancers are derived from our carcinogenic toxification of our environment is completely and utterly delusional.
Similarly, to deny climate change – the effects of which any of us who have lived more than thirty years (which is the temporal definition that distinguishes climate from weather) have witnessed with our own senses  – is to be living in Bizarro world. It is absolutely absurd and fatalistic. But also, how convenient to pin all of our environmental troubles on climate change! And even more, how convenient to reduce all of these troubles to one basic element: carbon. What an easy way to delude people into believing that solutions are simple and that we can continue as we are, if only we reduce our carbon footprint through advanced technologies and cooperation with corporations! Meanwhile, as we develop and enhance these wonderfully low-carbon technologies (such as natural gas, nuclear and “clean” coal) we slowly die from cancer and other preventable syndromes resulting from our synthetic chemicals and pollution in our toxic environment.

6. We cannot “go back”
When I became a vegetarian almost twenty years ago, so many people asked me what I would do to substitute for the meaty things I once ate. Would I now eat veggie burgers, soy bacon, vegan steaks - the assumption being that these sorts of foods that I once ate and once wanted were also foods that I could not give up and needed? Thankfully, having grown up in an Italian family I had witnessed a plethora of healthful, gourmet, delicious meals that required no meat whatsoever, and I knew that I could have an even more abundant variety of delectable foods available to me as a vegetarian. Just because I had eaten meat did not mean I could not “go back” to a seemingly simpler diet.

But as a student in environmental studies, I have heard the continual mantra that we cannot go back. It does not seem to mean anything. In actuality, as Derrick Jenson often notes, the only sustainable technology is stone-age technology. To call anything else sustainable is delusion. The only sustainable substances are those that re-enter our natural biogeochemical cycles. Thus, anything synthetic or processed is generally unsustainable. Food that is closest to the earth (unprocessed) and lowest on the food chain is nearly always healthiest and most sustainable; materials that are manipulated mechanically rather than chemically are nearly always less toxic and most sustainable. Not only is it wrong to say “we cannot go back,” in fact, if we want to survive, we must go back.

We are the only species on the planet who attempts to magically defy the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. We are the only species on the planet who does not seem to know how to live sustainably – or who wants to delude ourselves into thinking that we do not know.

Truthfully, I used to be more cynical about people. But I do not actually believe that everyone is so delusional, that everyone is in such denial. For example, do we not realize that all of the waste we have dumped into our oceans (take for example, the oil from spills, the endless ships that have sunk, the planes that have crashed, the radioactive materials that have seeped from industry, the run-off from all of our wastes on land), our oceans that sustain a multitude of organisms, is akin for these marine species to dumping drops of crude oil, batteries, electrical equipment, etc, into our own soup or our own bathtubs? It is no way to sustain life. It is all pretty obvious. Everything about our unsustainable lifestyle and society is obvious.

I do not actually think the delusion and denial is as pervasive as it seems. It seems pervasive since the corporate media perpetuate conventional wisdom as manufactured and dictated by their corporate paymasters. People are just fearful – fearful of change, fearful of being different, fearful of dissent. Thus, a “spiral of silence” ensues.

What I have learned from the recent political protests in Wisconsin is that when enough of the more courageous people have the guts to speak out, the more fearful are apt to follow suit. So what the more courageous need to do is identify our idiocy, our excesses, our wastes, our injustices, our unsustainable practices as exactly what they are. We need to put an end to our perpetual corporate manufactured phony positivity; we need to stop labeling the truth-tellers as “Debbie Downers.” The social, economic, and health effects of climate change, the health effects of toxic industrial technologies, and our inevitable ecological collapse do not only affect those who seem pessimistic – they affect all of us.

Do I believe we can prevent the collapse? No I do not. The earth will go on, but most organisms, particularly humans, probably will not. But do I believe that we can prevent as much harm as possible to our fellow humans, as well as our other fellow organisms, whom I love, on the way down? Absolutely. I think that may be the only moral imperative that we have left. After all, evolutionary biology has also shown that altruism and cooperation are inherent traits in organisms.

We cannot pretend that our hybrid cars, our long-life mercury lightbulbs, our energy star appliances, our “clean” coal and nuclear power, or even our solar voltaics, are sustainable. Nor can we pretend that endless economic growth, population growth, industrial technology, and job creation are sustainable. Delusion and denial do us no good. What we can do is acknowledge that unless we drastically alter - even stop - our way of life as we know it immediately, we are in for a tremendously difficult and challenging future as a species. Thus, perhaps all we can do is work our hardest to minimize our deleterious impacts on our ecosystems, to fight injustice, to destroy corporations and industry, to enjoy the beauty of the earth and its biota, and to, as much as possible, help all others who need our assistance as the inevitable ecological suffering unfolds. And, we can tell the truth.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

I love it! Good stuff. Please keep it up.

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