Our Primary Problem

Paul Craig Roberts, in a recent column, stated:

The obscene wars of aggression, the obscene profits of the offshoring corporations, and the obscene bailouts of the rich financial gangsters have left the American public with annual budget deficits of approximately $1.5 trillion. These deficits are being covered by printing money. Sooner or later, the printing presses will cause the US dollar to collapse and domestic inflation to explode. Social Security benefits will be wiped out by inflation rising more rapidly than the cost-of-living adjustments. If America survives, no one will be left but the mega-rich. Unless there is a violent revolution.

(Roberts, by the way, was an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, and was also formerly editor of the Wall Street Journal. I note this so that the reader doesn’t assume, on the basis of his comments quoted above, that Roberts is some sort of “left-winger.”)

I have no reason to question Roberts’s comments on the direction of our economy. What I wish to focus on here, however, is a development “in the works” that is having—and will be having to an even greater degree—effects that will be of an economic nature, true, but go beyond that. The “development” to which I am referring is that of “global warming,” an “event” that has already resulted in the extinction of some species, and can be expected to result in even more. With our own species quite possibly being among them!

Why? Because there is the danger that the negative feedback mechanisms that have been “working” to continue relative stability will soon give way to positive feedback mechanisms—resulting in the process of change “feeding upon itself” (what’s termed “runaway”), thereby resulting in accelerated change. If this occurs, at the very least life will be made very difficult for millions of people throughout the world; but beyond this probability is the possibility that of the numerous species that become extinct, ours will be one of them.

Given this possibility, it is essential that “global warming” be addressed soon—beginning yesterday! But doing so requires that we first obtain sound answers to several key questions:

1. What is “global warming”?
2. Why is it occurring?
3. What are the conceivable courses of action that might be taken to halt further “global warming”?
4. What are the “pluses” and “minuses” associated with each course?
5. Where should the leadership come from in pursuing the course(s) that would seem to be most advisable?

(Let me note at the outset here that my answer to question 3 does not call for a revolution! Which is not to say, of course, that one won’t occur anyway.)

My primary interest here is in addressing questions 3 – 5, but I must begin by saying a few words relative to the first two questions:

What is “Global Warming”

The first point that I wish to make here is the atmospheric phenomena associated with the term “global warming” include more than just warming. What is involved with “global warming” is, true, a trend in increase in the global mean (atmospheric) temperature. But, first, it does not follow from the fact of a global trend that warming is occurring at a constant (or constantly increasing) rate; nor does it follow that the trend for a given region will match that for the entire world. In fact, for some regions there may be an initial cooling trend, followed at a later point by a warming trend.

Second, more than just a warming global trend is associated with “global warming”: increased storminess, an increase in the number of severe storms, and greater unpredictability in weather conditions for any given region (so that the very concept of “climate” is becoming ever more meaningless). Thus, at least four different phenomena are included under the “global warming” umbrella, and each has its own particular consequences (of which I make but limited reference here).

Why is “Global Warming” Occurring?

During human history down to about 1750 CE the major sources of energy were animal and human power, and (burning) wood—with air flow being also harnessed (windmills), but being of minor importance. Beginning about 1750, however, coal came to be extracted and used as a fuel; and about a century and a half later petroleum began to be extracted for use as a fuel. Both of these fuels consist mainly of carbon, so that what their use as fuels involves, in effect, is the transfer of carbon from below the earth’s surface to the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide, CO2).

The problem with this transfer is that carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse” gas—meaning that its increasing concentration in the atmosphere has allowed more and more heat to be “trapped” in the lower atmosphere, eventually reaching a level of concentration such that one could say that “global warming” was beginning to occur. And even if humans, throughout the world, were all to cease putting this gas into our atmosphere tomorrow, it does not follow that “global warming” would cease: Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere would gradually decrease in their level of concentration, but it would take decades before a return to the pre-1750 level would be attained. Meaning that the “greenhouse effect” would continue for decades, even were our pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to cease tomorrow.

As I stated above, the most significant threat associated with “global warming” is that at some point in time “runaway” will begin (i.e., positive feedback mechanisms will begin to replace negative feedback ones). If (when?) this occurs, the phenomena associated with “global warming” will intensify at an increasing rate—making life increasingly difficult, resulting in many extinctions, and very possibly resulting in our own extinction (see, e.g., Lovelock, and his more recent book). Thus, “global warming” needs to be given the attention that it deserves. The chilling thought here is that we may have already passed the “tipping point,” so that it may not be possible prevent our eventual (by 2100 CE?) extinction. We must not, however, become resigned to that possibility—else we are surely doomed!

As members of the human species, we supposedly have a high level of intelligence, and therefore should be able to recognize the threats that are before us (“global warming” being the primary one). Despite that fact, however, there are many “deniers” among us—and we must not waste our time trying to “convert” them to a rational (i.e., science-based, rather than ideological) view. We must, rather, (a) identify the possible courses of action for addressing this problem, (b) determine the “pluses” and “minuses” associated with each course, and then (c) act on the most appropriate course(s), under the appropriate leadership.

Let us next, then, address the third question posed above, that of identifying possible courses of action in reducing, if not eliminating, the various threats associated with “global warming.”

Possible Courses of Action

I can think of just two basic possible courses of action:

1. The development, and widespread deployment, of energy sources other than carbon-based ones (and also other than nuclear energy, as the recent tragedy in Japan should convince us).

2. Way of life (WOL) changes such that dependence on carbon-based fuels is reduced eventually to zero (or nearly so).

The first of these two possibilities is the “obvious” course of action and the only one given attention in the mass media. Indeed, because information on wind power, solar energy (including passive solar), and biofuels has received a fair amount of publicity, I will eschew discussion of that option here in favor of the second option, that of way of life (WOL) change. In doing so, I would identify two suboptions:

1. Self-sufficient homesteads—“five acres and independence” (to allude to an old book by M. G. Kains).

2. Self-sufficient “intentional” communities.

Note here first that “self-sufficiency” implies reliance on a relatively small area for subsistence, with the further implication that that area would, of necessity, be limited in its resources: Given that it likely would contain no (accessible) fossil fuel, the residents of the area would need to rely on energy supplied by animals, humans, and biofuels (such as wood). How self-sufficient would a homestead or “intentional” community need to be before it would qualify as a truly “self-sufficient” unit? Given the virtual impossibility of being 100% self-sufficient—because some sales would be necessary to pay property taxes, and enough sales beyond that would be necessary to purchase certain essentials—I would be willing to categorize any unit as self-sufficient if it were 80% or more such.

The homesteading option would involve producing one’s own food, making that which would be necessary for one’s existence (e.g., housing), some production (for sale) beyond one’s needs so that one could pay local property taxes and make a few necessary purchases—and doing without that which one couldn’t produce for oneself or purchase on one’s limited budget. Although the grandparents of many of us were farmers, and were relatively self-sufficient, most of us now live in urban centers, and lack even an ability to do much gardening. But despite the fact that most of us lack the skills that would enable us to homestead successfully, an abundance of information exists for the use of anyone interested in attempting to establish a self-sufficient homestead.

The “intentional” community option would involve people establishing and moving to self-sufficient communities, and much of what I stated above regarding homesteading would also apply for this option. I should note that those taking this course would become a part of an important American tradition—which includes historical communities such as the Shaker communities, the Amana colonies, Oneida, New Harmony, Economy, Zoar, Nauvoo, and countless others—to say nothing of many contemporary communities, such as Twin Oaks. (See, e.g., Spann and Pitzer.) A magazine published by the Federation of Intentional Communities provides an abundance of information on contemporary “intentional” communities.

An advantage that this option has over the homesteading one is that it would allow for some division of labor, meaning that the work performed could be more efficient than that done by a homestead. Taking this course would also enable the production of some items beyond the capabilities of a homesteader. In addition, this option would permit more ready socialization with one’s fellows than would be the case with homesteaders—although the socialization opportunities available to a homesteader would depend on the closeness of the homestead to neighbors (some of whom might be fellow homesteaders).

Those designing an “intentional” community should not only do their planning using an ecological perspective, but recognize that (a) modern life does not accord with our “design specifications” as humans, (b) that fact is the source (direct and indirect) of basically all our problems (including health problems), so that (c) an effort should be made to plan communities with our “design specifications” in mind. Books such as The Paleolithic Prescription, by Melvin Konner et al., and Coming Home to the Pleistocene, by Paul Shepard, would be most helpful in identifying such “specifications.”

Comparing the Two Courses

In effect, I have identified three options, rather than two (given that I have identified two way-of-life suboptions); let us now evaluate each of them. Let us assume here three scenarios, the first involving just the alternate energy option being taken, the second just the homesteading option, and the third the “intentional” community one. Assume that in each case complete success is reached after 10 years, so that at that time our society produces virtually no atmospheric pollution (and that what occurs in this country also occurs elsewhere—so that little pollution is produced anywhere on earth 10 years down the road).

1. Were success to be achieved via the alternate energy route (i.e., the development and deployment of non-polluting sources of energy), some changes in the structure of the economy would be involved, but our basic way of life would be retained. Thus, the transition would not be terribly disruptive. A disadvantage, however, is that our society would continue to offer a way of life that was increasingly discordant relative to our “design specifications” as humans, so that the problems (e.g., of a health nature—physical and mental) associated with that “discrepancy” would continue, and become progressively worse.

2. Were success to be achieved via the homesteading route, a drastic change in way of life would be involved. Not only would all retail and service establishments disappear in the process, but so would all manufacturing operations. Government would be reduced to virtually nothing because of the lack of tax monies for its support—one implication of which being that the military would disappear! That fact would mean that our imperialistic adventurism would cease, along with the killing of civilians and “terrorists” associated with that adventurism. Cultural institutions would also disappear—such as libraries, musical groups, museums, educational institutions—because of a lack of an ability to support them. The elite would be unhappy with this situation, because they would have no one to “screw”—and would need either to start supporting themselves or die. The way of life provided by homesteading would be more “natural” than that currently provided, but less “natural” than that which could be provided with the third option.

3. Were success to be achieved via the “intentional” community option, a more “natural” way of life could be provided—given that humans evolved as members of small groups. However, life in a small “intentional” community would provide this only if attention were given to our “design specifications” as humans. Cultural institutions could be maintained to some degree under this option, but government would (as with homesteading) wither away to a significant degree—because of the lack of tax monies for its support. Given the latter, our country would, of necessity, cease having a military—i.e., legal killers—and thereby cease having enemies.

The Leadership Question

Ideally, all three of the courses identified and discussed above would be taken, and taken simultaneously. And note that these three courses are not mutually exclusive in that some of those taking the second and (especially) third options might also use some of their time pursuing the first one. The question that arises regarding these options, however, is: Under what leadership would they occur?

During the Great Depression the federal government played some role relative to the “intentional” community option (see Conkin), but cannot be looked to now for leadership with any of the three possible courses. If anything, the federal government (Congress in particular) appears to in denial regarding “global warming,” and President Obama’s leadership on the matter is virtually invisible. If anything, the crowd in Washington, DC, appears intent on adding to the problem rather than reducing it—not surprising, given its obsession with short-run profits. Even if Washington did undertake efforts to address the problem, its focus likely would be on supporting efforts to develop non-polluting energy sources. So that the discrepancy between our way of life and our “design specifications” would continue, and even intensity.

If the federal government should not be looked to for leadership, neither should the state governments, for they lack the necessary resources—both financial and intellectual. Thus, if any significant movement in the direction of lighter occupance of Earth is to occur, the leadership will need to come from private citizens and private organizations. But will it?

Conclusions: Prospects

Of the three possibilities identified and discussed above, the homesteading one has the least chance of being implemented: Few desire the drastic change in way of life required, and few have the courage/skills to even try it. The “intentional” community option is already being taken by hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this country, and might be taken by even more—given that many in our society are unemployed, under employed, or ill-employed. Some might argue, however, that this option will never “get off the ground” in our society because humans, by nature, are individualistic, selfish, and aggressive. Recent research, however, has turned this claim on its head (see, e.g., de Waal and Keltner). The reason, rather, that Americans are individualistic, etc., is that our society fosters such traits, and gives them “success value.”

It’s likely that research in developing alternate sources of energy will continue, despite the lack of support from the federal government; but doubtful that a switchover to such sources will be accomplished to any significant extent within 10 years.

In conclusion, there is good reason to question the claim that humans are an intelligent species. We know that we are in a precarious situation at present, and also know that there are measures we could take to reduce, if not eliminate, the threat posed by “global warming.” But I see little evidence that we—our governmental and corporate leaders in particular—are taking this threat seriously. Therefore, my best guess is that “runaway” will begin soon (assuming that it has not already begun), and that our species (along with many other ones, of course) will be extinct—or virtually so—by the end of this century.

Those species that manage to survive are likely to feel blessed at our disappearance!

Al Thompson is retired from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: ivor5367@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.