From Start to Finish: Why We Won and How We Are Losing

We label as “crazy” those members of the human species whose behavior we find hard to understand, but the cascading crises in contemporary political, economic, and cultural life make a bigger question increasingly hard to ignore: Is the species itself crazy? Has the process of evolution in the hominid line produced a species that is both very clever and very crazy?

James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012).

Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).

Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall ends his recent book about the Masters of the Planet with such reflection:

[A]part from death, the only ironclad rule of human experience has been the Law of Unintended Consequences. Our brains are extraordinary mechanisms, and they have allowed us to accomplish truly amazing things; but we are still only good at anticipating — or at least of paying attention to — highly immediate consequences. We are notably bad at assessing risk, especially long-term risk. We believe crazy things, such as that human sacrifice will propitiate the gods, or that people are kidnapped by space aliens, or that endless economic expansion is possible in a finite world, or that if we just ignore climate change we won’t have to face its consequences. Or at the very least, we act as if we do (p. 227).

We humans routinely believe crazy things, but are we a crazy species? Does the big brain that allowed us to master the planet have a basic design flaw? Given the depth of the social and ecological crises we face — or, in some cases, refuse to face — should we be worried about whether we can slip out of the traps we have created?

Reading Tattersall along with recent books by two thoughtful analysts on resource depletion and ecological degradation, those answers seem quite obvious: yes, on all counts. We’re in more trouble than we want to believe, and we are not as well equipped to deal with our troubles as we imagine. But I find some consolation in thinking about our current troubles in the context of our evolutionary history, which can help us understand why the vast majority of people are firmly committed to denying, minimizing, or ignoring the data about our troubles.

A good first step in moving beyond a focus on crazy individuals to the crazy species to which we all belong is the age-old question, “what makes us human?” Tattersall’s primary answer is that modern humans are defined by symbolic reasoning:

[F]or all the infinite cultural variety that has marked the long road of human experience, if there is one single thing that above all else unites all human beings today, it is our symbolic capacity: our common ability to organize the world around us into a vocabulary of mental representations that we can recombine in our minds, in an endless variety of new ways (p. xiv).

Tattersall also reminds us that while other animals can be cooperative, modern humans have a unique style of “prosociality” that leads us to care about the welfare of others in a much more expansive fashion than other primates do. Within the human family, we have the capacity for a deeper sense of empathy that is generalizable. We also have a history of eliminating competitive species; Homo sapiens have created a hominid monoculture:

From the very beginning of hominid history, the world had typically supported several different kinds of hominid at one time — sometimes several of them on the very same landscape. In striking contrast, once behaviorally modern humans had emerged from Africa the world rapidly became a hominid monoculture. This is surely telling us something very important about ourselves: thoughtlessly or otherwise, we are not only entirely intolerant of competition, but uniquely equipped to express and impose that intolerance. It’s something we might do well to bear in mind as we continue energetically persecuting our closest surviving relatives into extinction (pp. 197-198).

Our hominid monoculture has of late been fond of other monocultures, particularly in the arenas of agriculture and energy. Large chunks of the modern world are dependent on an increasingly narrow range of plants for food and a dwindling source of concentrated energy from fossil fuels. The two revolutions that have created us so-called civilized moderns — the agricultural and the industrial revolutions, which are now intimately linked in our dependence on fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture — are producing some unexpectedly unpleasant and revolutionary consequences. We’re running out of the resources on which our mass-consumption “lifestyle” is based, and the production of that lifestyle has unleashed destructive forces we can’t contain.

We may not be driving ourselves into extinction, but we are creating conditions that make our future frightening. Our symbolic reasoning capabilities, impressive as they may be, are not yet developed to the point where we can cope with the problems our symbolic reasoning capabilities have created. And, what’s worse, those capabilities seem to make it difficult for us collectively to face reality — call that the delusional revolution, perhaps the scariest revolution of them all. The message transmitted and/or reinforced by the culture’s dominant institutions (government, corporations, media, universities) seems to be: (1) it’s not as bad as some people think, but; (2) even if it is that bad, we’ll invent our way out of the problems, and (3) if we can’t invent our way out we’ll just pretend the problems aren’t really problems. In short: deny, minimize, ignore.

Before dealing with the obvious limitations of that strategy, let’s review the reality, starting with Michael Klare’s lucid account of The Race for What’s Left. Chapter by chapter, Klare methodically demonstrates why his subtitle is not hyperbole; these are, literally, the world’s last resources, and the competition for them will only intensify. While resource competition is not new, this stage of the game is without precedent: “The world is entering an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity” (p. 8). There are no new frontiers to exploit, technology’s capacity to extract always-more is limited, and there are now more competitors than the traditional imperial powers. Add to that the implications of global warming and climate disruption, which are not completely known but clearly destabilizing, and Klare’s conclusion — “The race we are on today is the last of its kind we are likely to undertake” — seems reasonable (p. 18).

The common glib response to this — “people have long been predicting the end of things, and they’ve always been wrong” — is a thin reed on which to lean. Past assessments of resource depletion may have been off a bit on the timing of the draw-down, but they haven’t been wrong. Consider this short summary of Klare’s survey:

–Deep-water oil and gas drilling is touted as a savoir, but it comes with much greater risk of environmental and political calamity.

–The opening of new resources in the Arctic, which will become more accessible as global warming melts ice, comes with ownership disputes that will not be easily resolved and increased chances of military conflict.

–The tar sands, shale gas, and other “unconventional hydrocarbons” require heavy energy inputs and create more problems in the production process. Klare quotes Howard Lacorde, a Cree trapper, reflecting on the tar sands: “The land is dead” (p. 103).

–The main victims of evermore intense mineral mining are indigenous people and natural landscapes, raising troubling questions of how many people and how much land we are willing to sacrifice for industrial development.

–On rare-earth minerals, China was willing to ignore environmental dangers to lower costs, and other countries with deposits — Canada, Australia, and the United States — dropped out of the market and can’t restart easily.

–And then there’s the resource we can’t live without — food. The global “land grabs,” particularly in Africa, by wealthy countries are exacerbating the loss of arable land due to desertification and urbanization. Welcome to “peak soil,” part of the era of what some are calling “peak everything.” Klare suggests we get used to “the end of ‘easy’ everything” (p. 210).

In the first seven chapters of the book, no reader is likely to accuse Klare of avoiding difficult realities. In his final chapter, however, he fails to confront forcefully what all this means. Klare points out that we can’t end our reliance on these materials overnight and that, although the transition has to start now, developing new technology will be expensive and it is cheaper in short run to keep the old. There are incentives for people, corporations, and countries to compete in the race for what’s left, and he acknowledges that the “race to adapt” won’t immediately replace the “race for what’s left”:

In the short term, no doubt, those who prevail in the age-old struggle for finite resource supplies will still enjoy substantial economic and political rewards, but as time goes on those rewards will prove harder and harder to come by, while the price of failure will be increasingly high. On the other hand, those who focus on the new energy and materials technologies will have to pay high start-up costs but will see greater benefits in coming decades (p. 233).

It may be true, as he writes, that eventually “power and wealth will come not from control over dwindling resource supplies, but from mastery of new technologies” (p. 227). But he seems unrealistically confident that “ultra-efficiency and the adoption of renewables” will somehow win out:

At some stage, however, the economics of innovation will outperform the economics of procrastination — especially when the price of oil and other finite resources becomes substantially higher, as is certain to happen (p. 228).

He argues that the countries that do this will gain competitive advantages by being freed up from supply disruptions and military needs.

Like the current scramble for the world’s last remaining resources, the race to adapt will spell doom for slow-moving companies, and it will cause a grand reshuffling of the global power hierarchy. But it is not likely to end in war, widespread starvation, or a massive environmental catastrophe — the probable results of persisting with the race for what’s left (p. 234).

Those are nice notes on which to end — hopeful without being naively optimistic. But there’s one problem: time is most definitely not on our side. If he’s right about the data, the time frame for these shifts is far less than is likely required for an even moderately smooth transition. We’re not talking about problems for the slower companies or a mere reshuffling of the world hierarchy, processes for which we have historical precedents, but instead massive change of a very different order. Whatever we think we know about how this is going to unfold, it’s best to assume things won’t be predictable or pretty. After such a straightforward account of the data, Klare’s timid “race to adapt” rhetoric seems inadequate, even silly.

James Howard Kunstler is willing to be blunter. Despite my distaste for some of his odd political/cultural rants (more on that later), Kunstler is refreshingly uninterested in spinning a bad situation. He is willing not only to read the data about resources without illusion but also to assess the state of the culture without the triumphalism so common in the affluent world.

Let’s start with the question of time remaining. Kunstler writes that when people ask about the time frame for the “long emergency” (his phrase for our moment in history), he tells them that “we’ve entered the zone.” He’s not claiming a crystal ball and isn’t interested in specific prediction, nor does he have a tidy list of solutions. Instead, he points out that we can’t expect to tackle problems until we recognize them: “The most conspicuous feature of these times is our inability to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us and what we’re going to do about it” (p. 2). Kunstler rejects the demand people often make that analysts and critics must always present “solutions.” What people typically want is not a serious conversation of what obviously has to change; the first step in talking about real solutions is to recognize we humans must dramatically reduce our consumption of energy and materials, effectively ending the lifestyle of widespread affluence subsidized by cheap energy. Because that’s hard, people are “clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts” (p. 7).

Kunstler avoids the popular term “collapse,” which implies dramatic destruction, and prefers “contraction.” But whatever the term, there’s no avoiding that we have “no credible model of a postindustrial economy that would permit our accustomed comfort and convenience to continue as is” (p. 10). Borrowing from anthropologist Joseph Tainter, who argues that societal collapse often results from an overinvestment in complexity that has diminishing marginal returns, he avoids rescue remedies that assume we can invent our way to paradise simply because we want that to be true. “Innovation cannot be an end in itself,” he writes, “and we have made ourselves prisoners to a cult of innovation” (p. 52). He not only rejects techno-fantasies such as vertical farming in skyscrapers, but recognizes that lots of good projects aren’t going to get us all the way home. For example, urban gardens can’t replace large-scale farming — fresh produce is great, but humans live primarily on grain crops (wheat, rice, corn, beans) that won’t be grown in community gardens.

Dreams of replacing the concentrated energy of fossil fuels are just that, dreams. There’s nothing wrong with sensible research on, and production of, renewable energy. But whatever might eventually come from those sources, “we must be prepared to live differently. We are not going to run the familiar infrastructures of modernity on any combination of wind, solar, et cetera” (p. 184). Forget the rescue remedies: “our vaunted ingenuity has not produced a revolutionary energy resource to replace the cheap fossil fuel that modernity absolutely requires in colossal amounts” (p. 188).

To think clearly about what to do now, we need to think honestly about what is achievable:

Our longer-term destination is a society run at much lower levels of available energy, with much lower populations, and a time-out from the kinds of progressive innovation that so many have taken for granted their whole lives. It was an illusory result of a certain sequencing in the exploitation of resources in the planet earth that we have now pretty much run through. We have an awful lot to contend with in this reset of human activities (p. 196).

Kunstler is clear-headed in his analysis of resources, but he turns both too rosy and too cranky when he starts talking politics. The too-rosy glasses come on when he reflects on U.S. history and gives into golden-age talk about the good old days when capitalists weren’t so greedy and politicians were nobler. He holds up odd examples of great presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt (yes, a conservationist but also a racist supporter of eugenics and a particularly nasty imperialist) and John F. Kennedy (a conventional politician of limited courage in confronting domestic opponents and dangerous macho posturing on the world stage).

The too-cranky comes when he dismisses anyone with a critique of patriarchy and white-supremacy as “race-and-gender special pleaders” (p. 91). He also can get downright strange, at one point claiming that when working-class people began to prosper in a post-World War II era of economic expansion, culture suffered because “lower ranks of American society were able to despotically impose their tastes on everybody else,” which “drove truth and beauty in the arts so far underground that the sheer memory of it, let alone truth and beauty themselves, may be unrecoverable” (pp. 223-224). Much of pop culture is corrosive, but he appears to think this problem is centered not in, for instance, profit-driven media but the very limited democratizing of society in recent years. He has disdain for multiculturalism, which is understandable given the lukewarm version of “diversity talk” that dominates the culture, and he makes the reasonable point that some common culture will be essential for a society facing these challenges. But rather than struggle to understand how we can make sense of the reality of living in a society that has changed culturally, and will continue to change, he seems to prefer to sink into nativist rhetoric.

Kunstler’s crankiness is not a trivial concern, but it shouldn’t obscure the important point he makes: Under conditions of some abundance, we may find it relatively easy to talk about universal human rights (even if we rarely respect them) and solidarity (even if we rarely practice it). In good times, humans can do a reasonable job of coming together across differences in race, ethnicity, culture, and ideology to work toward common goals. But whatever limited success we’ve had to date may tell us little about what will happen in a time of contraction and intensified resource competition. Strive as we may to act on the better angels of our nature, the devil may be in the devolution of First World societies, when people accustomed to affluence find themselves facing hard choices. Those who are used to proclaiming the moral superiority of Western “civilization” may find that moral resources of that civilization will be less robust than triumphalism has long asserted.

So, what is to become of us? Tattersall reminds us that the biological process of evolution isn’t going to save us; there are too many people crammed too close together for any genetic novelties to emerge that might improve us. We are going to face these problems with the brain we have today, the same one that got us into this trouble. Tattersall holds out some hope for our cognitive abilities, for the possibility that human innovation isn’t over. He argues that:

this exploration of our existing capacity is far from exhausted. Indeed, one might even argue that it has barely begun. So, while the auguries appear indeed to be for no significant biological change in our species, culturally, the future is infinite (p. 232).

Certainly human innovation will continue, but Klare’s and Kunstler’s books remind us that human innovation is not a get-out-of-collapse-free card. To date, the dominant culture in the United States has been unwilling to confront the reality of multiple ecological crises. In our current presidential campaign, the Republicans simply deny there is a problem, while Democrats acknowledge some aspects of the problem but spin techno-fundamentalist fantasies to avoid the hard choices. If we look honestly at the ecological realities and the political liabilities, it’s difficult to continue to talk about hope in naïve ways, maybe even to talk about hope at all.

Although he’s often portrayed as a doomsayer, Kunstler ends his book with about as sensible a comment on hope as I can imagine:

I certainly believe in facing the future with hope, but I have learned that this feeling of confidence does not come from outside you. It’s not something that Santa Claus or a candidate for president is going to furnish you with. The way to become hopeful is to demonstrate to yourself that you are a competent person who can understand the signals that reality is sending to you (even from its current remove offstage) and act intelligently in response (p. 245).

I’ve heard people try to escape this challenge by saying, “Well, species go extinct, and humans are no different.” True enough, but there’s a lot of human suffering between today and our eventual extinction. And if we are a uniquely prosocial species with unique capacities to not only live in the world but think about it, glib remarks about extinction are appropriate only for sociopaths. Instead, let’s live up to our own bragging about ourselves, and try to be both morally and intellectually honest.

One good first step might be to stop bragging, to resist the temptation to always telling a story about Homo sapiens that casts us at the hero. Tattersall recounts how a first-rate evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, once erroneously proposed there was only one highly variable hominid species instead of several. Tattersall’s describes Mayr’s thesis as:

intuitively a very attractive proposition to members of a storytelling species that also happens to be the only hominid in the world today. It is somehow inherently appealing to us to believe that uncovering the story of human evolution should involve projecting this one species back into the past: to think that humanity has, like the hero of some ancient epic poem, struggled single-mindedly from primitiveness to its present peak of perfection (p. 87).

But Mayr turned out to be wrong, and Tattersall offers it as a cautionary tale. In another section he points out that in paleoanthropology, the order of discovery of fossils has influenced our interpretation of them; the fact that older fossils often were discovered after newer ones is crucial to understanding the development of the field:

[I]t should never be forgotten that everything we believe today is conditioned in some important way by what we thought yesterday; and some current controversies are caused, or at least stoked, by a reluctance to abandon received ideas that may well have outlives their usefulness (p. 26).

That’s good advice in any endeavor. The idea that human innovation will save us — summed up in the truism that “necessity is the mother of invention” — may be one of those received ideas that we need to jettison, asap. Because we’ve invented our way out of some problems in the past doesn’t mean that will continue to do that indefinitely, especially since the unintended consequences of those inventions keep piling up.

In the end, the science that helps reveal our past or create our present is likely to be inadequate in providing the moral guidance we need for the future. These are times when I find religious language to be helpful, no matter what any person’s particular beliefs about theology. One way to sum up the human predicament is to think of ourselves as cursed, with consciousness. Back to Tattersall:

Other creatures live in the world more or less as Nature presents it to them; and they react to it more or less directly, albeit sometimes with remarkable sophistication. In contrast, we human beings live to a significant degree in the worlds that our brains remake — though brute reality too often intrudes (p. xiv).

That reality is getting more brutal by the minute. Homo sapiens have the gift of an amazing symbolic capacity which has allowed us to create a wondrous world in which we cannot live much longer if we remain on our current trajectory. In one of humans’ more popular origin myths, we once were banished from a glorious garden as a result of that symbolic capacity, and after that banishment we sharpened our symbolic capacity and created civilization, which has never stopped being a source of problems. The unintended consequences of civilization now leave us a choice: use the big brain to face our problems or continue our denying, minimizing, and ignoring. The former path is uncertain; the latter is guaranteed to end ugly.

Will this send us back to the garden, hat in hand, asking for a second chance to understand our place in Nature rather than trying to rule over Nature? We once gave up the Tree of Life for a bite at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To suggest we rethink our relationship to that second tree is not an argument against knowledge but rather a reminder of our limits.

We may not be godlike in our ability to know good and evil, but we can, as Kunstler recommends, do our best to understand the signals that reality is sending and act intelligently. The same consciousness that brought us to this place in history provides the vehicle for getting us out. We are stuck using the asset that got us in trouble to try to get out.

This suggests to me that there is, indeed, a god: the God of Irony.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.