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Two words this week: limits and…respect. -KS

A Timely Reminder of the Real Limits to Growth

Bill McKibben, yale environment 360
Let’s play doctor. I’m sitting there in a white coat looking at my clipboard and I say: “Hmmm, your cholesterol is going up. If you keep eating this way, you’re going to have a heart attack some day.” You hear that, and you stop on the way home for a bacon double cheeseburger.

But now imagine I’m sitting there in my white coat looking at my clipboard and all of a sudden I whistle, and say: “Your cholesterol is off the charts, man. You’re in the zone where people have heart attacks all the time. You better hope you get it down before the stroke.” You hear that, and you stop on the way home for some Lipitor and a pair of running shoes.

We’ve known for a very long time now that, in some vague way, we were headed for trouble. Limits to Growth was published in 1972, and its assorted charts and graphs made remarkably clear that, as the authors of that seminal book put it at the time, “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

But “the next hundred years” must have seemed a comfortingly long time, because — though Limits to Growth was the biggest-selling environmental book of all time, with 30 million copies sold — it wasn’t enough to divert our trajectory.

I thought of Limits to Growth last week, when Nature published a lead article by a large and illustrious team headed by the Stockholm scientist Johan Rockstrom. Titled “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” it set boundaries for nine interlinked planetary thresholds, arguing that if we crossed them we risked destroying the “unusual stability” that has marked the Holocene, which is the name scientists use for the last 10,000 years, the period when civilization arose.
(1 Oct 2009)

Liberal Education, Stewardship, and the Cosmopolitan Temptation

Mark T. Mitchell, The Front Porch Republic
When speaking of the proper care for the natural world, the word that best describes our efforts is stewardship. Stewards are care-takers. They lovingly guide, protect, and cultivate that which is under their care. In the language of stewardship the concepts of indebtedness, gratitude, love, and responsibility all find their proper places. But it is not only in the context of the natural world that the concept of stewardship has meaning. When we examine the topic of liberal education the idea of stewardship is indispensable. For as inheritors of a civilization, we are its stewards. And because the gifts of civilization are tender plants requiring constant nourishment, our task as stewards requires perseverance, courage, and, ultimately, faith that succeeding generations will take up the mantle when we are no longer able to bear it.

Liberal education, then, can be seen as one aspect of the stewardship of civilization. But what does that mean? It sounds so grandiose, abstract, and perhaps even vain. What is it, precisely, that liberal education should attempt to steward? First, when we speak of liberal education in terms of stewardship, this implies that there is a specific content to liberal education. This flies in the face of some notions of the liberal arts that places the ability to question at the center: “a liberal education will induce in the student a disposition to question received truths and the critical thinking abilities necessary to evaluate various standpoints in light of his or her personal convictions.” Such a conception of liberal education puts the individual learner at the center and assumes that by an act of mere judgment and will, each individual can and should develop a set of personal beliefs by which to grasp the world. On the other hand, in asserting that there is a specific content at the center of liberal education, I am claiming that the first disposition is not dubiety or suspicion but submission and trust. One must submit to the authority of a master in order to fully appreciate the subject matter at hand. One must enter into the world of the past in order to understand it, and to enter the past is to submit, at least temporarily and provisionally, to its prejudices and demands. Understanding requires, in the first instance, sympathy. Criticism comes later, after sympathetic understanding has been achieved.

What is it we are attempting to understand? To whom or what must we submit in order to understand? Broadly speaking, the content of a liberal arts education is the cultural tradition of the west. In order to understand it, we must submit to the works represented therein. The content matters, for the end of a liberal arts education, rightly conceived, is the formation of a soul. Its goal is the inculcation of certain tastes, whereby a person comes to prefer good things over the bad just as a connoisseur of fine art or wine or chocolate comes, through exposure to excellence, to prefer the superior to the inferior. The inculcation of tastes, directed toward the good, entails a re-orientation of loves. The person who has never experienced the sublime will not realize what is lacking in the pedestrian stream which flows all around.

…In other words, a liberal education should teach students how to be human beings and how to live in some particular place. If a course of education cultivates a hatred for home, it has failed. If it cultivates a dissatisfaction with the local, particular, and the provincial in favor of distant, abstract places where cosmopolitanism drowns out the loveliness and uniqueness of local customs, practices, stories, and songs, then the education has failed. To be well-educated is to be educated to live well in a particular place. It is to acknowledge the creatureliness of one’s existence and thereby to recognize our many debts of gratitude and the scale proper to a human life. A successful liberal education cultivates stewards who are disposed to love their places and who are equipped to tend them well.
(6 oct 2009)

Decline of a tribe: and then there were five

Guy Adams, The Independent
They are the last survivors: all that’s left of a once-vibrant civilisation which created its own religion and language, and gave special names to everything from the creatures of the rainforest to the stars of the night sky.

Just five people represent the entire remaining population of the Akuntsu, an ancient Amazonian tribe which a generation ago boasted several hundred members, but has been destroyed by a tragic mixture of hostility and neglect.

The indigenous community, which spent thousands of years in uncontacted seclusion, recently took an unwelcome step closer to extinction, with the death of its sixth last member, an elderly woman called Ururú.

…Then, in the 1980s, their death warrant was effectively signed: farmers and loggers were invited to begin exploring the region, cutting roads deep into the forest, and turning the once verdant wilderness into lucrative soya fields and cattle ranches.

…As a result, frontiersmen who first came across the Akuntsu in the mid-1980s made a simple calculation. The only way to prevent the government finding out about this indigenous community was to wipe them off the map.

At some point, believed to be around 1990, scores of Akuntsu were massacred at a site roughly five hours’ drive from the town of Vilhena. Only seven members of the tribe escaped, retreating deeper into the wilderness to survive…
(13 Oct 2009)
People as endangered species. -KS

Last Call at Descartes’ Bar and Grill

D.W. Sabin, Front Porch Republic
The urge, some might say mania with which our species has attempted to distance itself from Nature is a defining occupation and it appears to be quickening in this mechanized modern era, despite oft-discussed presumptions of the new “Green” Politics. Though we cannot yet cheat death, we negotiate with it as a matter of course and are forever engaged in the Methodological Skepticism of Cartesian thought. We enthusiastically exult in a brazen presumption that Rational Deductive Thought will somehow finally make the Devil fold in this poker game we have been playing for several hundred years and consequently, through the dualism of our so called “external mind” mankind shall finally become master of all we survey. Cartesian methodical deduction replaces mere perception in this brave new world and we humans……who, according to Descartes were unique in the life of the planet as being the only organism to possess that smoky thing called a “mind”……. will ultimately possess an encompassing intellect to match our insatiable will. Science, this labyrinth of categories and dissection is now revealing it’s inner mysteries at a scale unimaginable just 50 years ago. We are finding that the farther we penetrate into the atomic and sub-atomic …ehh, shall we say: “minutosphere”, the less there is to see until matter vanishes and we are confronted with either the unsettling emptiness of anti-matter or the stark interstices between chains of matter that pass in the void but do not go bump in the night. We long ago began to indulge our insatiable curiosity to know everything we can possibly know about what this world “is”.

…For over 400 years, we have been on an exploration to define what is different and discreet in life and have been eternally in search of reasons why we are apart from and over the natural world. Now, dimly triumphant, we seek to make nature over in our own image, for our own multifarious and changeable reasons. This skeptical and essentially antagonistic mindset has run us up to the brink on many levels. It is time that we re-order our search toward an ethic of similarity and through this effort, redefine man as a cognitive force of life that is capable of balancing both technos and spirit into a nous that neither fears nor worries about death because we are fully immersed within the unending cosmos we were created to embrace…
(1 Oct 2009)

The Vindication of a Public Scholar

Tom Turner, Earth Island Institute
It is 3:30 on a February afternoon at the Hyatt Classic Residence, an elegant retirement home adjacent to the Stanford University campus, and the auditorium is packed with people listening with rapt attention to a tall, slender man. He speaks rapidly into a wireless microphone with a gruff, forceful voice that still has a tinge of his East Coast youth. Ceaselessly striding back and forth across the stage, stopping only occasionally for a sip of water, he explains that he must keep moving or his back will give him fits. He has no notes. He has given variations of this talk many hundreds of times.
The speaker is Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population biology at Stanford, and a resident, with his wife, Anne, at the facility. During the last four decades, Ehrlich has been attacked – sometimes from within the scientific community, but mostly from outside it – for speaking out about the big environmental issues that face humanity, most notably the ever-increasing number of humans. Though buffeted by controversy, Ehrlich has lost none of the zeal that has made him a lightning rod for the sort of anti-science ideologues who held sway in the federal government for the past eight years. He isn’t shy about speaking his mind. “Mellow” is the last word you’d use to describe Paul Ehrlich.

He regales his audience with a short summary of human evolution: “We all came from black ancestors” and “Language with syntax is what separates us from all other animals.” The themes come from the Ehrlichs’ latest book, The Dominant Animal, which is a fascinating examination of human cultural evolution and other topics. He then moves to the present: “Nothing has happened on climate change except talk.” He’s concerned with studies that suggest the altered climate will require major revamping of our water delivery systems – dams, canals, reservoirs – for irrigation and direct consumption, and that we don’t have enough backhoes or enough gravel for constructing the sea walls that will have to be built as a defense against rising tides. He speaks for an hour, scarcely drawing a breath. After the talk, he is surrounded by people wanting to ask questions…

…The Population Bomb was an immediate sensation, eventually selling some three million copies. The radio host Arthur Godfrey, a major figure back in the day, sent a copy to Johnny Carson, who invited Ehrlich to appear on “The Tonight Show” – which he did, more than 20 times. During Ehrlich’s first appearance, Carson allowed him to make a pitch for a new organization he had helped establish. It was called Zero Population Growth (ZPG), and Ehrlich gave out the address and asked people to join. Two days later, more mail arrived at the Los Altos, CA post office where ZPG was located than on any previous day in history. ZPG quickly grew to 600 chapters and a membership of 60,000. Ehrlich was eventually invited to become a correspondent for NBC News, with which he would travel the world, sometimes taking six months to produce a five-minute piece. The young Stanford prof was becoming downright famous. His explosive book had made many people scared about Earth’s future – and had made many others angry.

…Reflecting on the warnings he made 40 years ago, Ehrlich acknowledges that he and Anne underestimated the success people would have developing higher-yielding grains, and how that spurred further population growth. But he also points out that there have been perhaps 300 million deaths since Bomb was published that were caused in large part by malnourishment and undernourishment. He claims that the success of the “green revolution” of the 1970s is already running into the difficulties he and others predicted, while global hunger is now increasing. And he likes to remind people that Bomb included a carefully worded caveat about the scenarios it sketched out: “Remember, these are just possibilities, not predictions. We can be sure that none of them will come true exactly as stated, but they describe the kinds of events that might occur in the next few decades.”

For all of the things the popular book got wrong (or had mistimed), it got many other issues right. The book, which was about so much more than simply population, remains impressively prescient. “All of the junk we dump into the atmosphere, all of the dust, all of the carbon dioxide, have effects on the temperature balance of the Earth,” the Ehrlichs wrote, long before the risk of global warming was understood. The book spoke of the scourge of pesticides and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And it made this outrageous assertion: “If our current rape of the watersheds, our population growth, and our water use trends continue, in 1984 the United States will quite literally be dying of thirst.” This was clearly premature, but here’s what the Web digest Earth Week, a valuable summary of scientific observations, said on March 7, 2009: “A warming and drying climate across the southwestern United States could eventually make major cities in the region uninhabitable. . . .With severe drought from California to Oklahoma, a broad swath of the Southwest is basically robbed of having a sustainable lifestyle.”

…Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and now head of the Earth Policy Institute, argues that what the Ehrlichs did in The Population Bomb was recognize earlier than most the threat of rapid population growth from an ecological point of view. It’s still a huge problem, though it has essentially disappeared as an issue, he says. “Some say Paul was and is wrong about this,” Brown says, “but most don’t realize how tenuously we’re still here. The population is sustained by unsustainable trends – overfishing, pollution, soil erosion, dying coral reefs. Not one has been turned around. Could food shortages bring down civilization? That’s what happened to the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Easter Islanders.”…
(Summer 2009)
More info about the The Population Bomb.