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These Revolutionary Times

The language of revolution should be used as a last resort and against odds that can be beaten only with radical thought and action. It requires justification or, at the very least, explanation. The reader should understand that I am not prone to tirades or behaviors that could be described as radical. I have never participated in a public protest, and refuse to sign most petitions. In the classroom I offer both sides of a position and try to avoid showing my hand. I avoid confrontations and by disposition am a peacemaker—or, depending on one’s perspective, a wimp. I have a stable job, a long-term relationship and four children. I hope to someday spend the money collecting in my retirement account. In British America in 1775 I most certainly would have been a loyalist. More likely I would have never left England in the first place.

But something happened this year.

...Perhaps it was triggered by feelings of ineffectiveness and frustration. As an applied or practical philosopher—I know that sounds like an oxymoron—I avoid the dusty attic of our civilization’s past and prefer instead to spend time down in the basement where, like the basements of our own homes, all of the social, political and technological systems and foundations are located, and operate—or fail to operate—without our notice until it’s rather late. I’ve been down there now for two decades, and it seems to me that things are only getting worse, and ever more quickly.

I am also writing a book about the daunting social and cultural challenges we face in a world with too little carbon below the ground—in the form of oil and natural gas—and too much in the atmosphere—in the form of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. “Postcarbon” and “peak-carbon” are terms reflecting trends and discoveries that indicate the modern world will need to learn how to live without the vast pools of carbon energy that built and run it, and for which there is no equal. I live day-to-day with the exponential data of our times, and they have made me a student of the boundaries and limits of both living Earth and our human form.

And I just turned 50.

The birthday, the book and the frustration seem to have triggered a midlife crisis of the metaphysical sort that is probably not uncommon for philosophers. I have come to a perspective reluctantly, but of which I am now convinced and to which I am fully committed.

We are living in revolutionary times!

...“Yes, but isn’t revolution too much?” you say. “Why a change so radical? Who wants to take that risk?” Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet Common Sense, recognized this reluctance when he said that “until independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity.” In our own time it is fair to ask why a revolution is necessary when we have progress, increased technological efficiency and the organic, environmental and sustainability movements to help with the change ahead.

Here’s why.

What we commonly call progress has produced some of the very problems we expect progress to solve. Advances in agriculture and medicine have led to the exponential population growth, further stressing soil and water. Technological optimists promise solutions from greater efficiency, but efficiency has led to higher consumption and depletion of fossil fuels, and more atmospheric carbon. This is Jevons’ Paradox, named after the man who showed that as 19th century Great Britain became more efficient with coal, it consumed more of it. Even if every car in the world was a hybrid, and every light bulb a compact fluorescent or LED, growing demand for cars and light bulbs would dwarf savings. And new forms of energy will take time to develop. The late Cornell physicist and Nobel laureate Hans Bethe noted that no form of energy, from the draft horse to coal to petroleum to atomic power, ever became a fuel for commonplace technology in less than 50 years.

Sustainability, now practically a household term, is starting to set things right with a path toward living well in a limited world. But in current form this movement doesn’t require enough from us. It is too laden with a near fundamentalist belief in technological fixes, and stuck in old “the-Earth-is-a-machine” thinking. The problems it solves are inside the invisible cultural and social systems—the “isms”—that shape how we see the world and think about it, and that are rarely challenged except in times of social upheaval. These larger systems are off the sustainability table. Corporate giants Toyota, General Electric and Wal-Mart, for example, are touted for their eco-efficiency initiatives, but their profit motives and their use of advertising to increase consumption of their products are rarely questioned. Al Gore’s Nashville home is carbon neutral, but it’s also 10,000 square feet, sending the mixed message that extravagance can be sustainable. Without addressing deep structural changes in the larger systems, sustainability is like making one’s first-class cabin on the Titanic watertight while the hallway begins to flood. It might seem prudent at the time, but if the tear in the ship’s fabric is big enough and if the rivets are substandard—as historians now confirm—you will still end up at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

Sustainability itself is a tad presumptuous. The wise ones—Homo sapiens—have for 12,000 years whittled away at Earth’s vital and sustainable forces, mistaking human cleverness for nature’s creativity, and now insist that what the ecosphere has been providing all along is actually their job, that the great consumers of Earth can now become its benefactors without sacrifice of their high living standard. If Earth had eyes they would be rolling.

Central to the problems we face is our reluctance to see them as anything more than temporary downturns in the usual up and down cycles of economics and climate. They are not. World production of oil in the past three years has remained steady—85 million barrels per day— while the price has more than doubled in that time, and in early July had reached as high as $145 per barrel. A human slave, on the other hand—of which there are now approximately 27 million in the world, more than at any other time in history—can be purchased for a mere $40. Add another 3 billion people to the planet in 40 years while simultaneously trying to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent. Find livelihoods, food, fresh water and shelter, as well as education, health care and stable governments for these numbers without causing species extinction, soil degradation, civil wars, nuclear wars and mass migrations. Try running any of the world’s major cities—their subways, waste water plants, transportation, lighting and heating—for even a few days on low density solar and wind power.

...We live in revolutionary times brought by substantial and sustained failures of current worldviews and global systems to provide everyday people with lives of health and freedom from want and fear, and with prospect of similar lives for their children. These failures are the self-evident truths of our time: that billions were promised improved lives only to see them degraded; mass extinctions of species; overheated climate; and unprecedented running down of the ecosphere on which all life depends.

The worldviews and systems responsible for these failures go by many names: individualism, capitalism, scientism, materialism, corporatism and globalism, to name a few. What they are called is not important. Important is that they share two bedrock beliefs that have become the intellectual DNA of our modern minds: first, that the natural world is without limit in energy and materials, and its sinks for wastes and pollution; and second, that the human intellect is sufficient to understand, control and operate Earth as a luxury-machine for the exclusive material happiness of human beings, again, without limit.

It is now necessary to overturn these false and dangerous beliefs, to limit the power of their many adherents, and to usher in a new way of thinking and living in the world. This is our revolutionary moment...

...To state unequivocally, “These are revolutionary times!” is recognition that the world is changing in ways that we would not necessarily choose; that it must change even if it goes against what we would otherwise choose; and that we can no longer choose to resist it.

It is so much easier to hope for a miracle. But our best and most realistic hope lies in embracing the revolution before us. With vigor and creativity we must help create the conceptual scaffolding necessary to build a new worldview—in the words of the American founder John Adams, “to start some new thinking that will surprise the world.” Every category of human thought needs reorientation to recognize the boundaries of our sun-powered ecosphere. We need ecospheric science, spirituality and economics, ecospheric politics, education and technology, ecospheric justice, history and architecture, ecospheric engineering, agriculture and philosophy, and ecospheric conceptions of rights, property and happiness.

Here’s a rough draft of our ecospheric “to-do” list.

  • Reduce the industrialized world’s carbon footprint 80 percent by 2050.
  • Reduce human population 80 percent from its current level without famine, war, viruses or the loss of human dignity by 2110.
  • Eliminate the automobile as a form of personal transportation.
  • Create political and social systems that run on a solar economy.
  • Revise the scientific method so that it more accurately balances the goal of discovery with moral considerations and precaution.
  • Devise viable models of happiness and success that do not require economic growth and increased consumption.
  • Make the virtues of humility, cooperation, generosity, gratitude, kindness and thrift cool again, or hip, or bad, or the bomb, or whatever word or phrase you use to describe something really good and worth having.

This is the century where we get a couple of chances to move from the age of rapid depletion to something less rapid and less depleting. Ready or not, we will be carried as in a river overflowing with spring thaw. We will steer our lives and cultures at first with more hope than effectiveness, and with much fret and worry. We should consider it an exciting time, filled with opportunities to think big thoughts and to imagine wonderful alternatives; to help create a worldview where humans can feel at home on a planet that is very much alive, interconnected, filled with morally valuable species and with precious limit to how much it can provide; where human ignorance—Stan Rowe’s Homo ignoramus—about our living Earth will always exceed our knowledge; and where our curiosity promotes understanding—not subjugation—of Earth’s complexity, beauty and resilience...

If you’d like Vitek’s reading list, write to Joan Olsen at 2440 E. Water Well Road, Salina, KS 67401, or [email protected].

Editorial Notes: The entire PDF can be downloaded from the Clarkson University website here. From the Clarkson University website: "William Vitek is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Clarkson University. Vitek's research and writing is focused at the intersection of social practices and the environmental, cultural, and historical contexts in which they occur. He publishes in the areas of environmental ethics and civic philosophy. He is also a working jazz pianist." Vitek is also the co-editor of two books with the Land Institute's Wes Jackson, The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, and Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place. View Bill's blog here: www.clarkson.edu/~vitek/home.html

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