From Destabilizing the Biosphere to Restabilizing Our Relationships
by Randall Amster
There’s been a lot written in recent years about the concept of “global warming,” which is actually a misnomer in some ways; while the planet as a whole may be warming, the distribution of changes is not even throughout the system. In order to more accurately reflect the situation, many use the phrase “climate change” instead, intended to express the idea that it isn’t just about the net temperature increase of the planet but the rampant alterations in weather patterns as a whole.
Even this linguistic amendment, however, hasn’t fully addressed the issue, and still leads to counterarguments of the sort that insist the planet’s climate systems are always changing and that they behave cyclically regardless of human contributions. This view encapsulates not only an attempt at a scientific explanation, but likewise a quasi-theological one that renders humankind’s behaviors as inconsequential before the “intelligent design” embedded in creation.
Interestingly, this perspective is similar to the oft-invoked environmental worldview that accords “nature” primacy and relegates the actions of humans as imperfect, short-sighted, and otherwise out of sync with the natural rhythms of the planet. Both the “God’s plan” and “nature’s wisdom” approach ironically wind up excluding humans from the environment, and thus foster a sense of incapacitation when confronting the undeniable changes in our midst, regardless of their origins.
I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about these critical questions. Rather than yielding our power either to abstract processes, cyclical patterns, a master plan, or the view that “Mother Nature bats last,” I believe that we can and must include our contributions to these dynamics as part of the natural order of things, and further that we should utilize this insight to break out of a mindset of self-loathing and/or powerlessness in favor of one that gives us a key role to play in the planet’s future.
There are two specific moves we must make in order to accomplish this. First, there needs to be a paradigmatic shift in how we view our relationship to the biosphere. Specifically, we can’t think merely about climate or temperature, but rather in terms of the overall destabilization of the planet’s capacity to support human habitation. This narrows the focus to the changes in evidence as they impact human life, and further calls upon us to take responsibility for the continuation of the conditions of our own existence.
Second, we need to reintegrate humankind as part of nature. This doesn’t mean that every technological intervention is somehow “natural” or that we can excuse the impacts of our collective actions. Unlike most (if not all) other species, humankind possesses the unique capacity to reflect upon our conduct and gauge its level of integration with the balance of the biosphere. This quality accords us a special role in engaging environmental issues — one that must be exercised with due diligence in order to be viable.
In the end, I’d like to offer this shift (from change to destabilization, and from separation to integration) as a method for addressing not only vital ecological issues, but for harmonizing our diverse perspectives as well. The basic notion is to move from “climate change” as a generic concept to the more focused notion of considering the “destabilization of the planet’s capacity to support human habitation” as a rubric that could cut across ideological orientations. Surely, whatever differences we may possess in terms of causation, we can at least agree on the desirability of continued human existence.
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The premise is simply that we can and must take serious action in order to preserve the habitability of the biosphere — not in some abstract “save the Earth” sense, but more so to save ourselves. Indeed, the accumulated footprint of civilization in just a few centuries of industrialism has contributed to an escalating erosion of precisely the conditions required for us to survive. This is the paradox of the human enterprise, namely that too much of the very things that enable us to flourish can sow the seeds of our destruction. Our patterns of rapacious consumption, the disposability of commodities, the false externalization of wastes, and the extraction of vast resources for pleasure rather than purpose have pushed us to the limit of the planet’s carrying capacities.
The results are evident everywhere we look. Toxification, pollution, drought, maldistribution of food and other essentials, energy-intensive production methods, perpetual resource wars, increasing rates of industrial-age diseases, species extinctions, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of arable soils are all measurable phenomena. In addition, we have seen the rapid increase in overall planetary temperature and concomitant alterations in climate patterns. The polar ice caps are receding at an alarming rate, releasing methane and other gases that can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. And the oceans are rising and losing their capacity to support life at the same time.
We can list the negative effects of these processes ad nauseum, but that won’t bring us any closer to a solution. Mere knowledge of impending disaster seems to be a less-than-robust motivator for altering destructive behavior, since many seem convinced that the worst effects can be deferred to the future — perhaps one in which we have found high-tech “solutions” to the challenges before us. Others deflect the mounting crises by placing faith in the realm of either “divine origins” or some other “natural cycle” that explains and excuses our own contributions. This, however, represents an error of profound proportions, one that I maintain flies in the face of both scripture and science alike.
Simply put, we have to own up to the responsibility of what we have wreaked on the world around us in the name of progress, and likewise what we have visited upon ourselves in the process. The moving principle of continued human existence, whatever we ascribe to our origination, remains firmly in our own hands at this point. We can choose to exercise that power wisely, or perish in its misapplication. I believe deeply in our inherent capacity to realize the former, while there’s still time. This urgency is partly motivating today’s worldwide popular uprisings and occupy-style movements from coast to coast. “Occupy Earth” could well be the mantra of the moment, when these movements are taken together.
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As this analysis implies, in addition to ecological concerns there are the concomitant sociopolitical challenges before us, which necessitate critical engagement with the myriad “false solutions” being proposed to remediate the combined human impacts on the habitable biosphere.
It’s not debatable that conditions are rapidly changing and warming is occurring; as physicist (and former climate change denier) Richard Muller recently concluded in the Wall Street Journal, “Global warming is real.” The issue remains the matter of causation and whether it is human or natural/theological. I am advocating here that we move the discussion to the destabilization of the habitat, i.e., the self-realizing human effects of our collective actions on our own capacity to survive here. This goes beyond climate to consider issues of food, water, health, toxicity, degradation, extinctions, and the like.
But there’s another aspect to the story, namely the social, political, and economic realities that underlie many of the ecological effects we’re experiencing: consolidation of power, increasing stratification of wealth, production for greed rather than need, conspicuous consumption, corporate globalization, agribusiness, privatization, perpetual warfare. These are all drivers of environmental destabilization, even as they often present themselves as paths to prosperity (at least for those lucky enough to be on the “winning” side). Such forces also tend to pose as potential solutions to problems associated with destabilization, creating an ironic scenario in which the “fix” is supposed to be more of what got us into this mess in the first place. This sort of “doubling down” approach to crisis is more pathological than promising, and it threatens to push us all to the brink.
Consider that resource wars are explicitly touted as a means to secure material necessities in a world where supplies are diminishing, even as warfare is extremely resource-intensive and contributes greatly to further toxification and degradation in the process. Corporate agriculture requires massive energy and water inputs, and winds up displacing and decimating more people than it’s capable of feeding. Nuclear power leads to disastrous effects at every level, from the mining of uranium to uncontainable disasters. Geoengineers want to “seed” the atmosphere and manipulate more of the earth’s processes as a solution to the already-devastating effects of human manipulation of the environment.
These are downward-spiral practices, and they’re reflective of a deeper mindset of hubris and domination. Solving the interlocking problems of destabilization requires a reorientation of our mindset away from conflict and consumption toward collaboration and conservation. We have a software problem as much as one of hardware. People around the world are waking up to this fact and demanding a greater voice in determining the conditions of their lives, and of the biosphere as well.
This is the power and promise of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. We must take a “buck stops here” approach (double meaning intended) to the crises in our midst if our human experiment is to continue. If not us, who? If not now, when? These familiar queries beg us to consider “the fierce urgency of now” and take the reins of continued human existence while we still can.
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To conclude this meditation on a hopeful note, I’d like to focus on some basic viable alternatives and strategies for change that we can employ in our everyday lives and local communities. Before that, however, I want to be clear that the genuine solution to the problems of environmental degradation, climate change, and the overall destabilization of the habitat involves no less than completely remaking and restabilizing the nature of our relationships with one another and our collective engagement with the balance of life on the planet. But this is an aspirational aim, one that seemingly lies beyond the scope of our capacity to implement in our actual lives. So, we can instead focus our efforts around specific areas where individual and collective choices still matter.
Localize: Our patterns of consumption have brought us to the brink of survivability. The embedded costs of energy and transportation in our food alone would disable most of us from eating at all if they were reflected in the actual price. Rescaling our lives to support local economies is a crucial step toward restoring balance and realizing a sustainable society. We’ll still be linked with others, even globally, but the baseline of our lives must be rooted in our local and regional communities.
Basics: Not only the scale but the scope of our lives can be reframed to reduce our impact on the world. The necessary elements to sustain human life are relatively basic, and all the rest is excess and waste that threatens our very survival. We don’t have to return to caves or give up all creature comforts, but working to bring our lives closer to the level of need than want is crucial. Food, water, energy, and shelter have defined the parameters of human existence for eons, and with good reason.
Energy: The question of how to generate power is central to promoting sustainability. The coal-petroleum-nuclear economy has done apparent wonders for productivity and expansion, but the returns on investment are actually false profits when the real costs are included. If the subsidies given to fossil and atomic fuels were dedicated to green energy sources and their development, the world would change almost overnight. We can usher this change in by minimizing our energy consumption and opting for green sources right now.
Education: The single greatest driver of human behavior remains education. Beyond schools there are also the informal modes of cultivating societal norms, including most prominently the media. If these sources were recalibrated to include a few basic lessons, the ripple effects would be palpable. Indeed, we can use the channels of discourse to foster cooperation as much as competition, and interdependence as a complement to individualism. Teaching people to teach others multiplies the effect and helps build a sense of solidarity and the ethos of a shared human future.
In each case, we still hold great power to be proactive rather than reactionary. As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The road ahead will be arduous, but every great journey starts with a single step.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008). An earlier version of this essay appeared serially in the Prescott Daily Courier.