Cargo Cultists and Cornucopians

“We must learn to live within carrying capacity without trying to enlarge it. We must rely on renewable resources consumed no faster than at sustained yield rates. The last best hope for mankind is ecological modesty.”
Overshoot, William Catton, italics in original

We are coming to the end of our travels with Mr. Catton through the fundamental ecological concepts people need to be familiar with to understand the true forces shaping the events of the 21st century. We examined succession and carrying capacity, what it means when a population is in overshoot and the die-off that occurs when a carrying capacity deficit develops. The journey with Homo Colossus started by looking at how technology had provided a means of increasing the planet’s human carrying capacity, mostly through increasingly efficient means of taking over natural environments for human use. We touched on how the use of fossil fuels enabled the giantism of our prosthetic tools to birth Homo Colossus. We then looked into how science has discovered the limits to growth that will bring about the termination of the Age of Exuberance in which the giant lived. Its phantom acreage could not survive because it relied on drawdown; a critical dependency on a non-renewable resource. Today we are looking at two more of Dr. Catton’s concepts, colorful labels for how people can react to these circumstances that only make the sufferings involved increase: Cargo Cults and Cornucopians.

These are difficult subjects. Those who insist on this ecological analysis can be seen as curmudgeons or inspired by no more than a misanthropy seeking revenge against a world that failed them in some way. The conceptual tools of Cargo Cult and Cornucopian thinking are meant to provide easy to remember and apply generalizations to aid the ecologically educated see through specious arguments. They are useful tools when we are confronted on every side by a pre-ecological understanding of life on earth and human societies. They are not meant to inflate our own self-importance by denigrating ignorant outsiders from within a cult of our own. The spirit that inspires these subjects is not one of sour grapes but a cold, honest assessment of where mankind is in relationship with the rest of the planetary biosphere. By understanding that we could be facing a die-off we are more likely to act in ways that avoid it. No one knows just where the line between a sustainable carrying capacity and a carrying capacity deficit can be drawn. By assuming the worse we are best prepared to avoid doing those tempting but ultimately futile things that will just make our circumstances worse. The scientific evidence points towards a return to the human scale over the next decades and centuries but in a habitat with a greatly diminished carrying capacity. Mindful of ecology we can be inoculated against the coming Caesars promising it can be morning in America again and all the other short-sighted solutions sure to be marketed to the public as the limits to growth continue to bite.

The ecological view that has been sketched out in the last few posts provides a unique critique of society. It is not able to endorse “they’ll think of something” or “there’s plenty of coal” or “it’s different this time” or “we can transition to renewables” or any of the other thought stoppers bandied about in the media echo chamber. The why is simple; ecology insists no sustainability is possible if drawdown and its phantom acreage are part of the system; even takeover has its limits now that the human race has grown so large and prosthetically powerful.

Oil powers the modern world. Make no mistake about it. There is no single substance on the planet nearly as critical to our lives in the industrial world as oil. It moves our transportation, creates our plastics, feeds our pharmaceutical industries and holds together the global economy in countless ways. The stated goal in the industrialized world is to accelerate the rate at which we drawdown the remaining reserves of this critical, non-renewable substance. Our stated goal is to increase production. To increase production, we say in a clear sign of muddle headed thinking since acquiring oil is extraction, not production. It is stealing from the future, from that inevitable day when our children will be out of luck if they need a substantial volume of oil for anything.

Industrialized agriculture feeds the modern world. It too is dependent on oil but also on takeover. The expanding ecological footprint of our expanding population is taking over land and sea that was once home to a wide diversity of plants and animals. Our takeover strategy for expanding the earth’s human carrying capacity is causing the sixth great extinction. This is nothing more than stealing from life itself. We best be careful; real life is a complex web of interdependencies and we could saw off the evolutionary branch on which we are sitting, as it were.

An ecologist will tell you these are both seriously risky behavior:

Drawdown: An inherently temporary expedient that temporarily increases the life opportunities for a species by extracting from the environment a resource faster than it is being replaced.

Takeover: Increasing the life opportunities for one species by reducing life opportunities for other species.

Both of these methods for enlarging carrying capacity are eventually fatally flawed. That they are flawed is vehemently denied by camps of very vocal opponents whom Dr. Catton labeled the Cargo Cultists and Cornucopians. The Cultists deny drawdown is a problem and the Cornucopians see no problem in a strategy of endless takeover. In the table below, reproduced from Overshoot, the Cornucopians are further refined into Ostrichism and Cynicism. Most of what passes for green in politics and corporations within business as usual is provocatively labeled Cosmeticism.

OvershootTable2Those who insist that there is no real problem for the industrial world in the future due to our unprecedented use of, and singular dependency on, fossil fuel energy are like the Cargo Cults of the Melanesia islands. They know their cargos come from this special process, geographic exploration in this case, and they are sure that if we just keep repeating this special process the goodies will keep coming. The inhabitants of the Melanesia Islands did not know the actual source of the westerner’s goods in the larger world of supporting industries, so they could not understand just how ridiculous their efforts really were. In the same way today’s cultists who do not know the actual geological characteristics of petroleum reserves are incapable of seeing just how ridiculous their efforts really are. The position that our technology will necessarily always save us is unjustifiable by rational analysis, it is an article of blind faith.

Those who insist that there is plenty of everything needed for mankind to continue consuming and growing more numerous as it has the last few hundred years for at least a few hundred years more are well described as Cornucopians. They see the larder of nature as made for man, man is to have dominion and any suggestions to the contrary are just lies made up to deceive the faithful. While there is a religious element in Cornucopian thought, not all Cornucopians are religious. When a pundit is assuring us that if the supply of one non-renewable resource (oil) ever does run out we will simply find a substitute, they are really just stating their belief that takeover can continue without end. Another act of blind faith.

The hardest part about this wrenching societal transformation that promises to move civilization beyond its one time Homo Colossus phase is psychological; what it is doing to our beliefs and through those to our very sense of identity and purpose. Being semi-consciously aware that we are strangling life on the earth is making us mean.  More and more we elbow one another out of the way to assure our own place at the diminishing feeding trough. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that the increasingly common failure of Homo Colossus’ giant tools and toys doesn’t promise a more enlightened mode of being human. In fact with our hubris-lead, overdeveloped sense of privilege the loss of these giant yet familiar systems is likely to just make us meaner still. Insecurity brings fear and as fear spreads to more and more people expect the most probable outcome to be a return of barbarisms.

What is threatened is our belief in progress and the liberalism we thought we could afford during the Age of Exuberance. This is a threat to our very identity as members of a society organized along the lines of democracy and constitutional government. Not long ago scholars were seriously entertaining the idea that perhaps we had reached the end of history, so sure we were that our generation represented some ultimate culmination of the forms of human organization. Such exaggerated puffery affords us a glimpse into the darker fears of a society. Our fear is that life without modern conveniences might not be worth living. What we fear is not real. Human life before neoliberalism’s “free market” was not the nasty, brutish and short tragedy we seem to think it was. The generations that lived before consumerism were not aware that they were inconceivably impoverished because they lacked cell phones, to be a bit flippant. Quite the contrary actually; embracing an ecological modesty that strives to cooperate with the non-human environment instead of dominating it seems to provide a type of dignity and purpose that is all but lost in our society of alienation and anomie. Sadly, such thinking goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to value in our time of non-stop bread and circuses. This is a subject we will be returning to down the road since it gets to the very heart of how individuals and families can be happy and compassionate human beings in spite of the tenor of the times.

As circumstances change, continuing to do the same things we have been doing starts leading to different results. This is noticeable in numerous arenas today. Business as usual increasingly fails to deliver the goods; in fact, it begins to make things worse. When these things happen the natural human tendency is not to step back and reanalyze why they might be delivering diminishing returns but to double down, to pour even more effort into the operations that in the past provided the payoffs we seek. Like the Cargo Cults, our current debates about fracking, Keystone pipelines and all the rest are the trappings of a ritualistic confusion. We don’t notice they are hollow, no more effective at delivering the goods than those coconut runways and grass hut control towers in Melanesia. Our cultural witch doctors are running around assuring everyone that proper execution of the societal rituals, from Wall Street to the White House, will bring the times of plenty and prosperity back. From an ecological analysis they are mixed up about what time it is, like poor Linus who so wanted it to be Christmas he disappointedly waited for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. The sense of waiting for deliverance in the West is so pervasive it is palatable. It is why many who are familiar with the ways of history expect to see a new Caesar walk onto the public stage before too long.

Of course the cheerleaders of the Cargo Cults have a whole phalanx of flacks to call on to give their witch doctoring a sense of respectability. Enter the Cornucopians. These are the think tanks and research arms of governments and businesses who assure us that there are plenty of non-renewable resources remaining for the species to carry on producing, polluting and propagating for many centuries to come. Their optimistic message reverberates particularly well in the can-do culture of the United States. The Cornucopians’ cataracts project blind spots uncannily well fitted to justify a lifestyle of consumerism. On the fringes of respectable scholarship a few Cultists express concern that the engineering challenge of converting to a new fuel source might be extremely difficult but gratefully, with a wink to the Cornucopians, they insist we have plenty of time to work on it. Certainly there is no need to have people seriously alter the way they are living right now, this year.

The ecologists show up somewhere in the public conversation growing ever more alarmed though they are barely heard above the din. With one voice they are warning us all that it is later than we think.

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