A Time for Inflection

“Bruce Shisheesh, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation community, said 11 people attempted to take their own lives on Saturday, prompting him to declare a state of emergency.”
Canadian Attawapiskat First Nation suicide emergency, BBC News


Towards the top of the world there were 11 suicide attempts in a single day. Though the causes and conditions will vary with each individual, the signal remains; a signal of meaninglessness. When youth are involved, as in this case, it speaks loud and clear: ‘there is no future for us.’ Such a stark message is hard to hear in its simplicity. It is our loving nature that seeks to nurture our children and inspires us to work hard creating environments conductive to their thriving. The young suicide has failed to find any space for themselves in the future in which they can imagine a life less filled with pain and suffering than the one they know right now.

A compassionate response wants to know what it is that makes them suffer so? We send mental health professionals and counselors but what if what ails them is structural, traditional institutional social arrangements that no longer serve the needs of the present? If that is the case all the talk in the world isn’t going to help much. I will venture to bet they don’t want a handout, hot-air, or heroin. I bet what these young people want is to not be faceless, to have a chance to do something meaningful about all the things going to hell today. Hang in there. We hear you. We need you. You just might look back on your long life amazed; the youth of today just might have front row seats for the greatest show on earth. Regardless, for those who care about the earth there is a lot of work to do.

When a monk emmolates themselves to help free Tibet they are hoping other people in their compassion will feel the depth of pain that must have been in their hearts to cause them to sacrifice what is valuable above all else, a precious human life. The Karmapa has recognized as much when he asked for such events to cease because people are not responding compassionately. The suicides and murder-suicides we have been looking at in these posts lack the clarity of purpose these monastics bring to bear but shouldn’t we still try to feel the flesh they lay on the line?

Indigenous people the world over have been warning us that without respecting the natural environment no good future can come our way. This remnant of non-consumer culture up north, not far from the Arctic where climate change rages, reaches out to us with a cry from broken hearts. We should listen.

Do our current arrangements serve the needs of the present or have we gone off course? Is business as usual adaptive or maladaptive for our time?

NG-limits-graphOver the next 15 to 20 years the world’s most infamous computer model is going to have its final day in court. In the early 1970s when the Limits to Growth (LtG) model was first published it predicted that if society proceeded with business as usual it would lead to a collapse of modern industrialized civilization sometime around the middle of the twenty-first century. Immediately on its publication a cart load of economists cast aspersions on the Models of Doom and before long it was time to make America Great Again under Ronald Reagan’s long presidency, and we never looked back.

That mid twenty-first century point no longer looks quite as far down the road as it once did and there is that troubling Australian research that has shown more up-to-date data is still conforming to the predicted trends. Take a look at the graphic where the additional data has been added and you will see it is a very close fit but so what? So far each data set simply enforces the rather obvious fact that everything wonderful about our globalized industrial civilization is still growing. Industrial output per capita, services per capita and food per capita have all accompanied a steady increase in human population since 1970. Pollution has increased and the stock of non-renewable resources has decreased, which to be sure are troubling but, well climate change and oscillating oil prices are not considered by most people to be the first rumblings of a much larger set of crisis yet to come.

Now look again at that graphic. Locate the position mid-way between the year 2000 and the arrow indicating 2030 when population decline had been predicted. That mid-point would be just about now, 2015 or so. Here’s the point, the thing we need to get very clear about: between 2015 and 2030 just about all those growth trends we just enumerated turn down, they reach inflection points.

The question is not does the evidence continue to follow their historical trajectories, the question is will the trends turn as predicted by the model. That is the test. That is when the rubber hits the road. And that, dear reader is what most of us alive today are going to find out. In the battle of incompatible worldviews between the economists and the ecologists only one picture about the future can be right. Time, as we say, will tell. This is specifically Our Time – the Age of Inflections, the Age of Limits.

If the economists are correct this will not happen. Engineering ingenuity will find substitutions for depleted resources and geo-engineering solutions for our pollution problems. We just need to stay the course and grow our economies faster.

If these ecologists are correct over the next fifteen years or so we will pass through the most fundamental changes imaginable as the centuries long productive growth in food, goods and services comes to an end.

Ours is the population that finds itself in the cross-hairs of what ecologists have been warning the world about for nigh on fifty years now. The shifts being proposed are seismic; as pervasive and powerful as any that turned the wheels of history in the past. Isis gunning for the apocalypse and Trump gunning for Caesar’s job are just kicking the wheel along.

In our hubris it is hard for us to fully comprehend that the outcome of the contest between the neo-liberal economists and the ecologists will not be determined by anything we humans do at this point. The model in question includes social inertia and its concomitant time lags. This is one of the major reasons why the trend curves take the shape they do. What that means for us, the people alive today after half a century of pursuing the business as usual scenario, is that the outcome, whatever it turns out to be, is already baked in at this point.

We were once in a world mostly empty of humanity, full of unexplored frontiers and unclaimed bounties of nature’s abundance. This is no longer the case. Now there is no productive place on earth not already being exploited and the frontiers have disappeared under the feet of our relentless expansion. To understand the world we find ourselves in it is vital to comprehend this. The ethic of growth and expansion must give way to an ethic of well being found by living well within our means. There is not enough fertile farm land, unpolluted fresh water and climate stabilized atmosphere remaining to serve our ever expanding numbers, let alone the exponential curves of economic growth. Our books, theater and politics; our religions, sciences and educational traditions; our languages, migratory patterns and the food we eat – nothing will remain unaffected as we march towards whatever the peak of human population proves to be. Does that help you sense, at least to some degree, just how pervasive the forces of change we are talking about really are?

It is easy to get caught up in the personal ramifications of those curves. It is certainly understandable as our lives depend quite directly on the food, goods and services our society offers. We should take what practical lessons we can from all this and learn to adapt. Once we have our house in order, however, I suggest we turn our attention to that population curve and shift our concern away from our individual well being to the state of our species facing an evolutionary phenomenon. The curve in the LtG model tracking population turns down. Human biomass, the model predicts, is soon to reach its maximum and then begin an inexorable descent to some lower plateau. Just where that might be on a world of ecosystems suffering damage from our consumer excesses no one knows.

Today ecologists warn us that if we continue with business as usual by 2100 the likely global temperature will have risen by six degrees or more; tragically redrawing coastlines, disrupting food harvests and driving the mass migration of plants and animals all taking place against a backdrop of unprecedented mass extinction. Of course this week we really are too busy to be bothered by all that. We find ourselves here, in the business as usual scenario of the LtG model facing the Age of Inflections because we were too busy last week, and the week before too. I’d ask you to think about this over the next decade or two as things unfold. If we harvest bitter fruits, as I believe we most probably will, consider the degree of commitment to changing your own lifestyle you might be willing to make in light of these further predictions from our ecologists.

Fifty years ago ecologists warned that if we did not learn to harmonize our production and waste with the carrying capacity of the earth we would face a day of reckoning. Now that that day of reckoning is upon us, it might behoove us to listen to what ecologists are warning about for the next fifty years or so. Their picture of the year 2100 is heartbreakingly bleak. I know we are all really busy this week but…

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