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Are We Yeast in a Wine Vat? Reflections on Sustainability

From Bill O’Reilly to Bill Moyers there is consensus that a return to growth is the remedy for what they see as an economic recession. Their political divisions arise over how to rekindle demand and consumption, with the right favoring a market led recovery and the left typically advocating massive government stimulus spending.

Were I to meet O’Reilly or Moyers I would ask, “Since we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, why is economic growth the solution and not the source of our dilemmas?” The failure of media, political, educational, scientific, and cultural leaders to consider this question illustrates what Joseph Campbell calls the power of myth. Questioning growth is at odds with our faith in the American Dream, whose main promise is that future generations are entitled to a higher material standard of living than their parents enjoyed.

Deflating our national myth, professor of ecology C.S. Holling tells us, “The growth phase we’re in [which envelopes US history] may seem like a natural and permanent state of affairs -and our world’s rising complexity, connectedness, efficiency, and regulation may seem relentless and unstoppable [Tom Friedman’s flat world] -but ultimately it isn’t sustainable…We need ever-larger inputs of high-quality energy to maintain this complexity. In the meantime, internal tectonic stresses -including worsening scarcity [peak oil] of our best source of high-quality energy, conventional oil- are building slowly but steadily.”

Holling points to a choice: recognize these ecological forces, or resist them –trying through government policy to rekindle growth- and face collapse, which can be sudden, punctuated, or a slow inexorable decline. He and his colleagues have developed a model of the life cycle of ecological systems that also applies to human socioeconomic activity. It has four main phases which I have modified for this discussion: 1) system growth based on resource exploitation (r); 2) conservation of the system (K); 3) system collapse or release of potential for reorganization (omega); and 4) reorganization of a new system (alpha).

He writes, “The adaptive cycle exhibits two major phases (or transitions). The first, often referred to as the foreloop, from r to K, is the slow, incremental phase of growth and accumulation. The second, referred to as the backloop, from Omega to Alpha, is the rapid phase of reorganization leading to renewal” or collapse.

Conventional wisdom locates us in a recession, but my argument is that we are at the apex of the growth and exploitation phase. Unfortunately, the American Dream is a major impediment to comprehending our situation. On the one hand, our nation prospered economically living out this mythology that encouraged us to consume the earth’s resources with abandon; instructed us there would always be a “next frontier” (first physical and then metaphorical) into which we could expand; and appeared to unequivocally demonstrate –during the 19th and 20th centuries- that technology and human ingenuity were the only meaningful constraints to progress and wealth creation. Therefore, we concluded that we had mastered nature. On the other hand, the obdurate empirical reality of 2010 is a contracting economy increasingly unresponsive to the policy nostrums –actually they are iatrogenic- to end a deep recession.

Our predicament is not political, fiscal, or economic, per se; ultimately, it is one of sustainability, a concept that incorporates these dimensions and integrates them with ecological realties.

A needed step to building a sustainable society is demystifying our national myth; this will unleash innovation informed by an understanding of ecological processes and limits. However, this demystification probably will not come before a collapse is well underway. We need to visit our cultural archetypes once more for an illustration. O’Reilly, the jingoistic, crude and comically naïve realist, and Moyers, the subtle, multicultural egalitarian, share the procrustean belief in economic growth as the destiny of Americans. Our major institutions abetted by a willing, ill-informed and apprehensive media are presently, like Ptolemy, adding epicycles to explain the planets’ “eccentric” movements –in our case, why the latest plan to restart growth did not work, who’s to blame, why the next stimulus plan or tax cut will work, why there really are “green shoots” out there, and so on. Unlike Ptolemy we cannot endlessly delude ourselves because a myth is no match for a decline in the flow of cheap energy and matter.

There are two modal approaches to sustainability at play in the USA. The predominant model, “Sustainable Growth,” is a derivative of the American Dream. Michael Pollen has derisively said it suffers from “terminal niceness,” in that it presupposes that the status quo is, with a little jiggering, sustainable. Its metaphysics are in classical economics, not in ecological science. Indeed, sustainable growth is a creation of public relations and reassures us that “environmental problems” can be solved through measures such as “green growth,” or carbon markets. This simply assumes growth is sustainable and waves away the deeper ecological pressure on the current social system we live within. Fundamentally, it fails to engage the impossibility of constantly accelerating economic activity within a finite earth system.

Much less known is “Supply-side sustainability,” which leads us to redesign our institutions to operate in confluence with the earth’s natural systems and available resources. Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra, colleagues of Holling, suggest we:

1. Manage for productive systems rather than for their outputs.

2. Manage systems by paying attention to the larger environments in which they are nested.

3. Supply what functional systems lack and no more.

4. Align organizations and systems with (natural) ecological processes –don’t fight or insult nature.

5. Understand the problem of diminishing returns -complexity necessitates more energy and resource inputs for smaller returns.

I want to end by asking, How might we introduce supply-side sustainability into the national consciousness as an alternative to the American Dream? The federal government is the obvious choice. But it comes as no surprise that this branch of government, though it still has some dedicated public servants in office, is a propaganda mill and in fact a symptom of our inability to diagnose the crisis. “Too Big To Fail” dinosaurs of the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) economy, along with the Congressional-Military-Industrial-Complex (CMIC) and the healthcare industry, have captured it. Obama, the current personification of governmental unresponsiveness, campaigned on “hope,” which was an efficacious marketing tactic except that –along with “change”- it planted the seed of a promise for a social transformation. Instead he’s revealed himself to be not a transformative leader, but a transitional figure. Hope meant –I think- taking on power, not putting on the people. (Without diverting too deeply into psychohistory, it impresses me how many times I’ve read that while at Harvard Obama was mocked for unleashing impassioned and eloquent rhetoric in the service of the most trite status quo positions.) From the ecological viewpoint, he is no more self-aware than yeast in a wine vat. Ironically, he is not an agent of “change” but resisting release and renewal -and thereby bringing on collapse. (To put this concretely, the financial houses should have failed; that would have been “creative destruction;” painful in the shot-term, perhaps, but ecologically unavoidable and necessary in the long-term.)

The local level of government is one viable source of developing consciousness of supply-side sustainability. Although some cities are mired in one-party rule, corruption, and localized versions of regulatory capture, it is far easier for a local community to oust ineffective or corrupt politicians than to do so at the state or national level. There are several cities, San Francisco; Portland and Eugene; Ore, Bloomington, In., that have addressed peak oil and related sustainability issues explicitly. Where these efforts go is open to question, but it is significant that no state government or the federal government has explicitly planned for or discussed peak oil.

Another possibility is foundations, which ideally serve as a vanguard and nurturer of innovative economic development, various health and social services, and artistic and cultural expressions. The possibilities to team up with local government and not-for-profit entities are well known. But foundations, too, have their own sub-culture and status hierarchy, and agendas that are not always philanthropic. In any case, most small foundations are in an excellent position to promote projects and initiatives that are based on supply-side sustainability. There biggest threat is already unfolding: declining endowments. They may now have a clock ticking on their institutional viability, but they nonetheless have an opportunity to leave their mark and transform themselves in the process.

Finally, I’ve not said anything about the localization movements, such as Transition Town. This is partly because of space limitations but mainly because they are “doing their thing” and nothing I’ve said here should be taken as dismissing their commitment, example or embodiment of supply-side sustainability.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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