The Browning of the World

There are a lot of seemingly disparate things happening at various levels of scale in the world outside my window these days. But there is one color that describes them more than any other.

My world is browning. As deserts grow and forests shrink, as smog, soot and dust clouds fill the skies horizon to horizon, as average heat levels (represented by yellows, oranges and browns on maps where they are most intense) increase, you start to see that color everywhere, eating away at the greens and blues of our old picture of the planet. What is the color of drought, which has struck the place where I live with an intensity not seen for 500 years? Brown. What is the color of oil slicks on oceans and chemical spills in rivers and mudslides on denuded hills? Brown. What is the color from space of barren ranges that were once clothed in glaciers and yearlong snows? Of flooded rivers filled with the irreplaceable topsoil, thousands of years old, which washes into them every year from giant monoculture farms? Brown. Our gentle euphemism for the toxic waste dumps that fester at the edges of cities and towns is “brownfields.”

The world’s human population is browning too. Northern European and European American populations, never a majority in the world, are losing even the percentage share they once had, while overall their proportion of the world’s income and consumption of its resources remains grossly, disproportionately large. But the ranks of global billionaires are browning as well, for whatever you think that’s worth (it’s currently worth about as much for the 2100 of them as what 2 billion of the rest of us possess). And the mostly white middle class, shrinking in my country, is growing in many others, like India, China, and Brazil, while desperate poverty there is shrinking – for the time being.

There was a bumper sticker I saw once: The Meek Will Inherit the Earth… When It Is No Longer of Any Value. The background was a cratered moonscape, from which a rocket was taking off.

I read a lot about decline in environmentalist quarters these days, but I feel what is meant in some of them is not just the decline of biodiversity, forest ecosystems, coral reefs or arctic ice but some kind of generalized Spenglerian societal decline – and this makes me suspicious. Spengler and Malthus, European misanthropists who hated the mob and feared the poor, haunt the writings of the mostly middle class white men who today write eco-survivalist and Peak Oil blogs, even if they dare not speak their names. They haunt the cheerful doomsaying of James Lovelock, who has conveniently decided that world will inevitably descend into barbarism by the end of this century, primarily because the world’s peoples are not smart enough to do what he says they should, and throw up nuclear reactors in every backyard. I must wonder what he means by barbarism, when I look at everything from consumerism to mass incarceration to constant war – things which are fundamental to the civilization he thinks we should preserve.

James Howard Kunstler, nowhere near as bright as Lovelock, is our American equivalent; he likewise keeps predicting imminent, terminal societal collapse (which he often muddles with economic collapse, when example after example – Russia, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, even the US – shows they are not the same). He also fears the mob and has an old school nativist’s hyperventilated picture of dark-skinned peoples’ innate barbarity.

But even the stolid NASA recognizes, as a recent report warns, that it is the greed of the rich, not the “barbarism” of the poor that brings down civilizations. And population growth is most effectively reduced by reducing desperate poverty and increasing education – but that’s apparently too complicated for the Malthusians to understand.

The decline of ecosystems, the decimation of species, the obsession with reductive, mechanistic views of nature and exploitative, expansionist economies were not generated, by and large, by the brown peoples who are now taking on a larger role in wielding the tools of industrialism that (some of them) have only recently begun to profit from. And the market economy shell game on which they have started making wagers offers them extremely limited means to alter its rules. India and the “Pink Tide” governments in Latin America have begun to discover this to their peoples’ chagrin. Adopting the Northern world’s model of progress, as they are finding out, carries an enormous, irreversible cost. So there is much resistance to it in the brown world. Not everybody just “wants what we have,” as the common view here has it. In fact, from Bolivia, where the average person consumes perhaps 1/20th the total resources of her analogue in the US, comes the old-new idea of buen vivir (the good life): a life in which the health of your human community and its surrounding ecosystem are more important than the amount of money you make or things you own.

Throughout this dense, large, variegated, browning world, pitched battles are raging. They are not being waged by violent, insensate mobs, for the most part. And their outcome is not guaranteed.

So I have this to say to all the preppers and survivialists and apocalypticists: there are hundreds of millions of people who have already been living in the future you so fear. They have spent generations living there. It is their present and their past. They wait in long lines for poor services. They live in cramped quarters, with regular power outages, swept by heat, cold, and darkness. They cannot get enough food, decent health care or clean water, and so many of them are chronically ill. There is often violence all around them. The landscapes in which they eke out their living are degraded to the point of exhaustion. The powers that be care nothing for them and live at a remove, protected by guns, stealing everything there is to steal and keeping it for themselves. Why do they have so many children? ask the nativists. Many, many of their children never reach adulthood, and children who can survive to earn are the only guarantee that their parents won’t starve. What would you do? But you have never had to make that choice.

How have they survived, all these long years? How do they survive now? Are they fundamentally degraded by the horror of their poverty? Some survive by rapaciousness and crime, doubtless. But all, or even most? Anyone who has actually lived in the brown world has seen what much more widely characterizes its “culture of poverty.” It is still marked by the frequency with which people help one another, whether they are intimately known or strangers. And this is done out of an ethic of reciprocity that has been banished from the rich North. In Central America once, where I lived for five years, I wandered lost in a small, dusty, somnolent town where I knew no one, and a woman set aside her work to guide me. It took hours to find the people I was looking for. When I expressed regret for having taken so much of her time, she shrugged and said succinctly “Today it’s you, tomorrow me.” And I glimpsed a worldview utterly different from the one in which I had been schooled.

Many people who live in the brown (red, black, yellow) and poor world survive because they have retained social skills that fully consumerized societies like ours have almost destroyed. And they have retained a faith in the regenerative powers of nature that we have lost, and the long view that the great living world is always stronger and smarter than man. And thus kept the ability to perceive the enduring, mystical power of their planet’s biosphere even in some of its most degraded landscapes. If you leave your mental bunker and go out into that world with humility, you will find – more than you would have believed possible – creativity and resourcefulness and a determination to improve not just one’s individual life but the lives of all who suffer. You will find many people there more attuned than you or I to the uses of plants, the meanings of birds, the voice of the wild. Who also know better than we how to provide their own sustenance from the land, having done it for generations.

When you speak of inevitable decline, of the fallacy of progress in that context, you had better be very clear what you mean by progress – because the idea that you could deny someone’s faith that her child will not be malnourished one day because of the disaster your civilization’s greed has wrought is not just false but despicable.

The world is warming, the Sixth Extinction is happening. Greed is on the march everywhere. This is our tragedy. It is no doubt an existential threat. But the browning world is not simple, it is not even, it will not all go one way. The whole consistency of the future is not reducible to the linear progression of a few simple trends, overwhelming as some of them may seem now.

Linear thinking, either straight upward to inevitable progress or straight downward to global catastrophe should have no place in the mind of anyone who claims to be an ecologist. Ecological systems and human societies are densely complex, dynamic phenomena, and there are some very sound scientific insights now about how such systems actually behave that leave no room for linear thinking. Sometimes simple rules may apply (such as that when you continually add heat to a closed system it becomes more chaotic) but they lead to complex, unpredictable results. Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogene has said, “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to shift the entire system to a higher order.”

The living world is being irrevocably degraded now – but what new equilibrium will be struck after the chaos of this human epoch, no one can tell you – and if anyone tries to, particularly if he expresses contempt for the struggles of people who never experienced the material comforts that our civilization literally sold its soul and its global habitat to obtain – you should not believe him.

Islands of dynamic order, resilience, diversity and beauty exist even now within the frenzied turbulence of the global industrializing world, on its fringes and deep in the heart of its browning centers as well. They will continue to exist, and may even grow more numerous during in this century, thanks to the potential of living things for intelligence, determination, and creativity. New order thrives on the edge of chaos, says the biologist Stuart Kauffman, echoing Prigogene. And this will still be the case whether or not a purported de-industrialized future arrives in the North in a century or two – or in a decade, or in a thousand years – as a result of current overreach.

In the meantime, the browning world is here, and we are all in it. There is no separate peace for the paranoid, the nostalgic, and the smug. Those in the declining North who really want to find better ways to face the future could do worse than expose themselves more to the brown world – it lives within your own borders after all – and find the islands there where resilience is the touchstone, and surviving (and even thriving) are being practiced, with reciprocity, by old hands, with much longer experience of deprivation than yours.

The emerging islands of resilience are, and will be, islands with porous borders, always subject to intrusion and change by larger forces. Nothing in how their destinies will play out is predictable or written. But I commend you to them – we should all identify and join and help to build these islands wherever we are. They are not survivalist bunkers. They are urban gardens and worker co-ops, knowledge centers, conservation guilds, and barter clubs. They are permaculture projects and seed banks. They are only invisible if you refuse to look for them. And in the disruptive chaos created by a civilization of suicidal greed, they are the best any of us can be, together.

Christy Rodgers is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in San Francisco. She blogs at What If? Transformations, tales, possibilities Read other articles by Christy, or visit Christy's website.