A Challenge to Environmental Activism

We Must Question Everything

Looking at the world with perspective, it is clear that there are an overwhelming number of issues of concern needing general recognition and action. Most often, people moved to action by these concerns see the immediate need or danger with clarity: people are hungry, give them food; people are sick, give them medical care; a polluting industry is to build next to you, organize against it.  Actions that arise in such direct ways address immediate needs and must be supported and have the most immediate benefit on people’s lives. But, where one begins an analysis of a problem or issue can make substantive differences in approaches. Seeing primarily the most immediate and clearly addressable form of an issue can miss ways to address, with essentially the same amount of effort, the problems more globally. We are reaching the point in our social and environmental distress that missing opportunities becomes more and more costly. Some of the time the best place to begin is with questioning everything, and it is often best to begin at the beginning.

We must question everything: Pt 1 (Where to begin)

Humans have lived, in organic communities, with relative ease in well provisioned ecosystems for hundreds of thousands years; our species developed a variety of technologies from projectile devices that extended the reach of the arm by many meters; we captured fire discovering its many uses, many uses completely new to the universe. Since those times we have made millions of ‘new things’ from shovels to computers to space ships.

Now, our vast numbers and myriad inventions have organized into social and economic dependencies utterly disconnected from essential ecological dependencies, dependencies that have long informed all of many many trillions of living things over billions of years. This is simply the recognition of what are the most explosive changes in the nearly 4 billion year history of life on this planet; these recent changes have reshaped the planet’s surface physically, chemically and energetically more quickly and with greater magnitude than any previous biophysical events. Unremitting regular environmental violence has come with our huge human populations and the biophysically influencing pollutants and activities that have characterized the last 10,000 years of human history.

Each year’s production of new humans begins life with the technologies and behaviors of their time as the base experience of what is real. This sets the changes created by our species into a dangerous competition with the biophysical designs of planetary stability, and suggests the need to question everything that we have done.

We need to understand that our species has reached a point, in our numbers and in our powers over material and energy, that our actions compete in major ways with earth’s productive and buffering systems; we have been changing biological systems in major, unsustainable, ways for millenia, but have been able to move on from the damages done to new regions with adequate soil, materials, biodiversity and living space: that period of options is long over.

We need to use our best epistemologies, scientific and philosophical understandings, to try to understand how we have come to this place in our history; and we need to be ready to be surprised by the answers. 

We must question everything: Pt2 (If everyone made their mark, there would be no place left to write.)

For millions of years the biological world organized the behaviors and communities of ours and related species. Today, we organize and make judgments not from any ecological informing source, but by what has been accomplished within the designs of social valuing: a community or social system adapts a hierarchy of performable actions for which a variety of practical and social rewards are attained. A most underlying principle of social life in all human societies is to find ways of being valued, to accomplish something, either within the overarching social hierarchies or within the hierarchies of some part of society. It is my argument that this, almost completely unquestioned, social motive has been and remains the most destructive biologically created force in the evolutionary history of life on this planet.

I realize that such a statement is far outside of the central principles of my society, that it is represented by only a very tiny subset of values and ideas, and that such a statement is easily rejected out of hand. But, it should be obvious that the many billions of small and large acts of accomplishment, largely disconnected from ecological realities, result in vast and rapid changes to our world, almost completely without design or reason.

Yet, we, each of us, are moved to ‘make our mark’, to achieve in ways that distinguish us and, in the process, to add, incrementally, to the impact of the human species on total earth biophysical systems. The human animal has been doing this for all of its time as the dominant species, but for more than 99% of the nearly 3 million or so years that our genus has been tooling up its dominance, the communities and social organizations of the various species were embedded in the feedback systems of their local ecosystems, populations were small and impact was part of evolutionary adaptive processes. And note: there has never been before a single dominant species in the whole 4 billion history of life on the earth!

Today, our present species has rejected both recognizing and responding to ecological feedback information in favor of social and economic feedback; this is the ‘overcoming and defeating the forces of nature’ of which we are so proud. And today, we exist in many orders of magnitude greater numbers than any land animal of our physical size in the history of the earth; each using, on average, many times more resources per individual animal, while returning very little useful to the environment and much that is damaging; this is unlike every other species in the history of life.

The social motive structure of accomplishment is such a deep and ubiquitous expectation in all human societies, that it is almost impossible to imagine organizing human actions in any other way: Humans imagine and invent at a rate and in volumes vastly greater than evolutionary processes of environmental fitness; ours is an entirely new way of selecting, storing, manipulating and implementing information. What I am suggesting is that this ‘new way’ has reached its limit in its present form. The changes we have wrought confront destructively both environmental and social Reality. This is not, by any means, a new observation; what is a bit new is that the social motive of accomplishment is seen as the foundation of our dilemmas; our most revered and cherished motive is the most dangerous and destructive.

Further, the ‘social accomplishment’ of doing as little as possible for one’s self by one’s own direct action is a deeply distorting influence that has increasingly dominated human societies since institutional agriculture became the primary source of human nutrition. It means that wealth must be accumulated as a sort of violence to force others to do the ‘onerous’ and devalued things that ‘must be done’. Rethinking and remaking this institutional structure and expectation of human society, fundamental to all political forms presently on the planet, will require uncharacteristic understanding, selflessness and cooperation…to the point that there is considerable despair that it can be done.

But, accomplishment as human motive will not be removed; social hierarchy with its defining activities will not be removed. The human activities of imagination and invention will not be removed. BUT, changes within these givens must be imagined and must be implemented. ‘Accomplishments’ and social valuing can be measured against projections of long-term destructiveness to social and environmental systems. Material and energy use limits can become society-wide expectations…along with a shifting from personal material accumulation to various forms of personal non-material attainments.

These things are possible! Humans have the capacity to imagine, invent and implement imaginative thought. Up to this point these powers, while supplying us with literally incredible material accomplishments, have brought us to the brink of environmental and social catastrophe; still these capacities do have the potential to recognize the realities of the moment, can give credence to informed knowledge sources and imagine-invent-implement designs that reorder human habits and expectations. Individual humans and groups of humans have been making decisions that benefit community for as long as the species has existed; in fact, the valuing of the community over individual attainments or privilege has been fundamental to human survival, and can become so again.

A few millions of people are in the process of understanding these things and some of them are acting on them. While no viable solution to the present dilemmas may be forthcoming, we are the only animal that can even make the effort.

We must question everything: Pt 3 (Humans as Ecological Organisms)

All organisms in the history of life on the earth are, and have been, organized in such a way that physical form, physiology and behaviors of each species integrate these same qualities of every other organism in their space, and with the physical qualities of the total environment, creating the earth’s ecosystems. And in ecosystems, for every taking from the biophysical space there is some complimentary compensation made in return to make for a near net-zero input-output balance (while ecologists recognize that there can be wide deviations from input-output balance, over time such deviations follow homeostatic principles).

All forms of life on the earth, other than our species, have formed and existed within the designs of these fundamental principles; most, with every immediate exchange of energy and material; and the more complex, with delays of exchange limited to their lifetimes; only our species has, as a consequence of our specialized adaptations, put off the fundamental taking/compensation design for extended generations. It is increasingly clear that putting off the consequences of not compensating for our taking has reached the point of disrupting the services that the environment provides to living things.

In order to properly address how we might re-engage the fundamental designs of the biophysical space, and appreciate the absolutely essential need to do so, we must understand how it is that we came to violate that design as has no other organism in the history of life on earth.

Here is a ‘thumbnail’ sketch: Humans evolved adaptations for taking from the environment with greater and greater ease…as giraffes have adaptations for eating from the tops of trees… and, as we were ‘successful’ at easy taking, the natural forms of compensation attached to the taking fell away. There was, sometimes, recognition of our role in creating damage by our actions, without clarity, and humans made ‘sacrifices’ as a form of compensation, but these were sacrifices of things that humans valued, not actually ecologically balancing compensations.

As humans created new ways of taking from the environment using their expanded capacities of communication, finer and finer levels of detail allowed for individual experience to be shared with family group/community: learning became a group process rather than individual. As the communication of detail developed, the level of the recognition, selection and storage of environmental detail increased; and a new capacity developed increasing the rate of change: the comparison of observed details as speculative elements to be mixed and matched beyond the direct and immediate experience of them…imagination. Since the reader is a human and deeply possessed of this capacity, it is the water in which we all swim, it is easy to miss the incredible powers and changes to the earth’s ecology both implied and actualized.

With this new and powerful capacity to take from the environment, humans competed directly with nature rather than living within nature’s designs. There was no intention or agency in the competition; it arises from the different ways information is selected, stored and implemented and the many forms of previously ‘non-existent’ information that could be accessed. It is this competition that is the foundation of our present dilemmas and deepest deviations from the biophysical and social Realities to which every living thing must, and in our case eventually, answer.

There are three primary elements to our human situation: 1) our biological-physical designs and limitations including emotional, motivational, cognitive behaviors, 2) our human tool kit, which our imagination has actualized, a tool kit that has grown from a few sticks and stones to giant earthmovers, computers, space shuttles and atomic weapons… 3) our consciousness-cognitive capacities for social and economic adaptations to the huge increases of our numbers, our organizations and our relationship with the fundamental necessities of the living state.

The essence of what is needed to readapt and normalize toward an ecological existence becomes clearer from this formulation. The first, our native nature, isn’t optional, even though we have long treated it as optional. The second, our tool kit, is optional which, in the inverse of the first, we have treated as necessity. The third, our unique adaptability, makes clear that we must act with clearer appreciation of our nature and with selective control of technologies. Then it would be possible for our capacities of imagination to be devoted, in reality, to present dilemmas: we can’t act in biophysical reality when we don’t know who we are, what we want or need and when our only solutions are to make more poorly considered technical changes.

But, this is not to say that these are new understandings or that worthy efforts at explicating them haven’t been made; both understanding and explication have a long, long history: as humans began moving out of the neolithic, what was being lost as we moved away from ecological closeness was apparent to many humans and they wrote it down as some of the first uses of written language as seen in some early cuneiform religious texts. Early ‘civilized’ religions addressed these concerns, many times with common themes of restraint.

As each generation succeeded the previous, new life experience, by tiny increments, included more technology and less ecology. Concern for nature became more and more quaint, so that today it is possible to live almost completely within a human designed and created space with all needs and experiences filtered through human and technical actions. We can believe that the whole earth, even the universe, is here for human use. We can assume infinite economic growth without question; we can be told that the earth’s resources and environmental services are being used beyond capacity without any recognition of its meaning. The Reality-organizing property of ecosystems has been lost and not replaced with any comparable or efficacious informing source.

We are, therefore, the first pure contradiction in the earth’s, and possibly the universe’s, history: a biologically evolved creature with a biological adaptation that exceeds the parameters of biological systems and can be, and has proven to be, in direct competition with the fundamental principles upon which life is organized in the biophysical space. 

We must question everything: Pt 4 (Issues and solutions)

A seemingly obvious direct and simple mitigating response would be to intentionally design more activities around environmental experiences, especially, though not only, for children. But while a useful and relatively easy start, it is not nearly enough; such experiences tend to be perfunctory at best. We cannot narrowly train or argue our way to changes in our most fundamental habits: as Upton Sinclair succinctly put it a hundred years ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” I would add that it is difficult to get a person to understand something when they have no life experience relating them to the understanding: Dare I say that we will not save what we do not love; and we cannot love that which isn’t brought close in our experience.

One thing that is needed is for every actual human hand to be laid to, at least, some of the tasks required for meeting one’s most primary needs in the immediate ecosystem: it is absolutely not enough, actually destructive, to make “workplace jobs”, and fungible currencies, the only way to get water, food, shelter, safety, companionship, etc. So, there is the dilemma: the necessary solution is for a majority of humanity to very quickly change behavior, to act in ways for which they have no foundational experience; in fact, to act in ways directly opposed to much of their life expectations and experience.

While this statement of what might be the only solution that can minimize conflicts over dwindling earth resources, it is not as completely hopeless as it sounds at first, though admittedly dangerously so. In the approximately 300,000 year history of our species and nearly 3 million year history of our genus, only the last several hundred years have “stolen” from the ‘human hand’ its utility to inform the mind of biophysical supremacy; people have long directly supplied many of their own needs and made objects of use directly from ecosystem sources: the fundamental relationships with environment were natural and unavoidable in our development as genus and species and in the greatest part of our time on the earth.

The most fundamental impediments to redeveloping ecologically sustaining ways of life for humanity seem to be:

  • Non-adaptive, environmentally destructive, expectations for how life should be lived.
  • Belief systems that do not comport with biophysical reality.
  • Economic systems that are functionally Ponzi schemes requiring ever increasing population, material production and consumption, exacerbated by these schemes’ unquestioned acceptance.
  • Present social and economic ‘communities’ fail in significant ways to meet human needs resulting in a variety of distortions to what I call specieshood (essentially, human nature). The human animal evolved within and to the emotional, motivational and intellectual structure of natural organic communities.

This last bullet point needs deeper consideration and is vital to any truly possible solutions. What we call communities today are not communities at all when compared to natural organic communities. Original human communities were (are) formed by the full variety of all those born into them, and were (are) benefited by having all the inborn and acquired characteristics among their many different individuals. The community was the entity that organized its actions in the environment, supported by the many talents, capacities and behavioral variety of its people. All the learning and experience of its individuals was shared, spread and accentuated by community; the community acted as a coherent unit for its own maintenance, enhancement and survival within the fullness of the living world.

In the broadest strokes, community solidarity needs to be valued over the economic designs of advantage. This is difficult since, when the original organic community’s “gravitational” designs of love, respect and mutual obligation weaken, individual advantage takes their place and becomes a new ‘gravitational force of life’, organizing the social order into individual centers of power and influence. But, this is also a place that people can begin, begin to begin again, renewing 300,000 years of habit, a habit seemingly still weakly ‘remembered’ in an almost universal nagging suspicion that ‘something isn’t right’.

We know how and can create community-like organizations around specific issues, the people who organize community action can be the guides, but ultimately we need diverse communities organized around, not one issue, but rather around the survival of community; the survival of the nurturing community must be, must become again, the fundamental goal and obligation of life, and can become the essential organizing principle for humans readapting as part of the world’s ecosystems. And then, communities of communities where people are respectful beyond their own close associations, not by any demand, but because they have lived the same experiences.

Adapting such designs to the many varied ways that people live would be a considerable challenge, though it seems that increasing numbers are ready for changes that they don’t yet understand, but know need to come. Social, economic and technological innovation need to be evaluated by communities, for benefits or dis-benefits to the community and not only for advantages conferred on a few; the actual meaning of this would be especially hard to make part of social expectation: using less, valuing nonmaterial accomplishments, rejecting technologies and products that weaken community solidarity. Only the integrated experience of people organized in mutual caring and respect could do it.

If none of this sounds new, that is obviously because it isn’t. Humans have tried similar efforts many times. It will remain “too hard to do” until it becomes an option for a significant number of people either through education or necessity.

We must question everything: Pt 5 (Special Case of  Environmental Activism) 

Only the environmental movement is naturally equipped to take on these challenges. But, because of a natural dependency on the methods of community organizing for its support base, it is easy for energy generated by focused actions, some of which could go to addressing global issues, to slip away. Leadership must consistently make clear to those working with them, and to the media that covers actions, that the focused activities are a singular part of a much larger movement with global concerns directly related to the action being taken; creating a public and media habit of seeing local action as part of a global effort is vital.

The plutocracy is benefited when each individual environmental action can be framed as isolated, weak and trivial. When environmental activism is focused primarily on immediate concerns and not expressly relating local activism to resolute globalist conceptions of purpose, then the ‘dark side’ forces of environmentally destructive plutocratic interests will control events that overwhelm with thousands of individual destructive actions that spread thin the capacities of activists to respond. Social movements can keep attention on issues and make marginal, though locally important, changes, but ultimately the asymmetry of power to influence events is overwhelmingly on the side of the plutocracy.

The whole variety of social, economic and political activist movements need to append environmental issues to their other more focused concerns: because: 1) Environmental issues almost always underlie the issues that they are working on. 2) A broader support system can be formed as the many different activist organizations adopt some common language and bridging interests. And 3) combining the power of many organizations can create the force and energy needed by the environmental movement, on the one hand, and can leverage that energy back to the focused projects of the various groups, on the other. An inhabitable world is the first necessary condition for everything else!

But, the environmental movement, and activists movements generally, have no inherent, naturally motivated powerbase; the base must be created.  While the general population has a natural interest in their own well-being, what is to constitute that well-being isn’t at all clear to most people; much of the activist agenda has been framed by plutocratic propaganda as dangerous to jobs, lifestyles, personal safety and beliefs. Activist movements need the strength of centralized organization to challenge that narrative; we cannot wait for environmental failures to convince people of the dangers that we all face.  There just isn’t a sufficient powerbase for either the magnitude or the urgency of the changes needed to be made. The public is too fragmented and misinformed; governments have become, especially on these issues, deeply compromised by wealth-power.

With The People and government compromised, a cold-eyed, critical analysis leaves the uncomfortable conclusion that only a coalition of activist movements and great wealth remain with a chance of organizing “humanitarian” solutions to coming environmental and social crises. Activists have the knowledge and activist base. Great wealth has impunity level power-control over the widest array of human activities. Of course, the activist community must make every effort to inform the public and to influence governance, but with the clear understanding that these efforts, while necessary and power creating, are insufficient on their own.

We are watching, in our own and international politics, authoritarianism, opportunism and demagoguery taking political power as human actions are disconnected from the real environmental dangers facing us. Such self-serving governance only increases the stresses on economic, social and environmental systems; assuming that we survive these command-control totalitarian responses to our present confusions, what comes next will be determinative.

It must be taken as reality that the plutocracy has so fortified the ‘power of wealth’ that there is no effective challenge possible. The only option being talked about – when options are talked about at all – is taxation; however, the fundamental design of the tax code puts the writing of taxing legislation largely in the  control of the rich. What we have seen up to now is great wealth organizing to maintain the industrial-level domination of environmental and social concerns.  With only regard for short-term gains, these powerful economic interests create a plethora of seemingly incomprehensible humanitarian and ecological disasters.

But it seems almost inevitable that some wiser elements of the plutocracy will realize (are even at this moment realizing – even green-washing is a beginning: here, here) that only by engaging with the relevant activist movements can the more devastating consequences of social and environmental collapses can be minimized; it must be increasingly realized that there would be no protection for anyone in an uninhabitable world.  Great wealth has hands on the real levers of power and activist movements have essential knowledge and a dedicated workforce.

As uncomfortable as it may be, the power of great wealth in the present world is ubiquitous and overwhelming. If that power stands in the way of ecological stability, it will not happen (except as an extinction event). If elements of wealth-power can have sufficient overall influence, in combination with academic and activist powers, the need for humanitarian solutions (in the Panglossian sense!) could, at least, be possible.  Given the time frame of environmental degradation, every other potential action appears to lead either to violent revolutions from which there can be no recovery or resource wars from which there can be no recovery.

The environmental movement  is uniquely positioned to respond to and guide such coalition efforts (there are a number of international organizations well positioned for such an effort, e.g.: WWF, IPCC, IUNC).  While it is completely unclear how a coalition of a cabal of plutocrats and the most farsighted environmentalists could directly address the three great challenges: destructive wealth inequity, dismal worldwide state of social justice and the destruction of the environment, the power/control of great wealth and the knowledge/social base of the environmental movement could potentially be organized on an international scale with sufficient real power/control over government and business interests that the most essential changes in human impact on the environment would be made possible. If this sounds both unlikely and very dangerous for a beneficent future, it would be both! There would be many ways that those kinds of forces for change could go very wrong; but reflect, there would be no greater danger than the consequences of going on as we are.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.