The difficulty here is that faith in the prospect of a better future has been so deeply ingrained in all of us that trying to argue against it is a bit like trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn’t there any more. The hope that tomorrow will be, or can be, or at the very least ought to be better than today is hardwired into the collective imagination of the modern world. Behind that faith lies the immense example of three hundred years of industrial expansion, which cashed in the cheaply accessible fraction of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves for a brief interval of abundance so extreme that garbage collectors in today’s America have access to things that emperors could not get before the industrial revolution dawned.
That age of extravagance has profoundly reshaped – in terms of the realities of human life before and after our age, a better word might be “distorted” – the way people nowadays think about very nearly anything you care to name. In particular, it has blinded us to the ecological realities that provide the fundamental context to our lives. It’s made nearly all of us think, for example, that unlimited exponential growth is possible, normal, and good, and so even as the disastrous consequences of unlimited exponential growth slam into our society one after another like waves hitting a sand castle, the vast majority of people nowadays still build their visions of the future on the fantasy that problems caused by growth can be solved by still more growth.
The distorted thinking we have inherited from three centuries of unsustainable growth crops up in full force even among many of those who think they’re reacting against it. Activists at every point on the political spectrum have waxed rhetorical for generations about the horrors the future has in store, to be sure, but they always offer a way out – the adoption of whatever agenda they happen to be promoting – and it leads straight to a bright new tomorrow, in which the hard limits of the present somehow no longer seem to apply. (Take away the trope of “the only way to rescue a better future from the jaws of imminent disaster” from today’s activist rhetoric, for that matter, and in most cases there’s very little left.)
Still, the bright new tomorrow we’ve all been promised is not going to arrive. This is the bad news brought to us by the unfolding collision between industrial society and the unyielding limits of the planetary biosphere. Peak oil, global warming, and all the other crises gathering around the world are all manifestations of a single root cause: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. They are warning signals telling us that we have gone into full-blown overshoot – the state, familiar to ecologists, in which a species outruns the resource base that supports it – and they tell us also that growth is not merely going to stop; it’s going to reverse, and that reversal will continue until our population, resource use, and waste production drop to levels that can be sustained over the long term by a damaged planetary ecosystem.
That bitter outcome might have been prevented if we had collectively taken decisive action before we went into overshoot. We did not do so, and at this point the window of opportunity is firmly shut. Nearly all the proposals currently being floated to deal with the symptoms of our planetary overshoot assume, tacitly or otherwise, that this is not the case and we still have as much time as we need. Such proposals are wasted breath, and if any of them are enacted – and some of them very likely will be enacted, once today’s complacency gives way to tomorrow’s stark panic – the resources poured into them will be wasted as well.
This is one of the reasons it seems crucial to me to keep coming back to the hard facts of our predicament: our limited resources and even more limited time need to be directed toward projects that might actually do some good. Still, there’s another side to this repeated insistence on an unwelcome reality, and the best way to explore that is to glance back at one of the responses to last week’s post.
Never believe the pollsters
51 minutes ago