“The god of economic growth has displaced the traditional Creator, in practice if not in mythology, along with the divinities of indigenous and predominant cultures across the world. The economic priesthood that dictates the worship of the god of growth can only be overthrown with the aid of science, which tells us that there cannot be infinite growth on a finite planet.
No god will fix the ecological mess we – all of us – are making. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote, ‘We are one among millions of species, stewards of nothing…Nature does not exist for us, had no idea we were coming, and doesn’t give a damn about us.’ That, in a nutshell, is the scientific view, which some may characterize as antagonistic to spirituality. But a scientific understanding of nature should not diminish an appreciation of it, nor fail to teach us the humble lesson that humans need to move from stewardship to ‘studentship’ to better learn the ways of the Earth. As biologist Neil K. Dawe observed, ‘It is not the planet or its ecosystems that need stewarding, it is us.’”
Tim Murray, Seeking an Ecological Rescue: Do We Need a Spiritual Awakening—or a Scientific Understanding?
“Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls. Religion will always remain a powerful force in the history of our species. To me, the meaning of progress in religion is simply this, that as we move from the past to the future the good works inspired by religion should more and more prevail over the evil.”
Freeman Dyson, The Progress of Religion
“They also said the children were given ‘very strict’ home-schooling and they had to memorise long passages of the Bible. Some of the children were aiming to learn it in its entirety, they said. Despite this, the school listed at their address is on public records as ‘non-religious’.”
BBC, Turpins: The ‘happy family’ at centre of torture allegations
“Where do you go when what you believe in lets you down? When the ‘One’ who will always be there, never shows up. When you are desperately waiting on a power, which will bring you out of the hell you are experiencing. When you come to the realization that you have been waiting so long for this type of encounter you feel like a stalker. . . The way I knew God was dangerous. The way I operated in church was crippling. The way I saw religion and what is required of me and others is suicidal. I Quit!
Losing religion and finding God has changed me and I am glad. I no longer fear where I will spend eternity; it just doesn’t matter to me anymore. I am no longer persuaded to do good because heaven is a dangling carrot in front of my face. Nor am I dissuaded from doing bad because hell is a cruel task master with a whip poised to strike my ass. I choose to do good because I am in love. Whether I am in heaven or hell, my God will be there. Even in the grave, my God will be there. Even if I am crazy enough to get back into church again, my God will be there.”
Van Roberts, Rescue Me: Confessions of an Ex-evangelical
“A year before Pearl Harbor, when I was nine years old, newsreels of the London Blitz impressed me with the incomprehensible cruelty of the Nazis. The demolition and burning of cities filled with people of all ages seemed to express their demonic character.”
Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.”
Ecology is the study of biological organisms in their non-biological environments. Humankind’s built up environments have taken on gigantic proportions in the modern world and we, the inhabitants and creators of it, have become Homo Colossus. To study ourselves in our environment we need to recognize we have become a new type of species than that which we had been for many hundreds of thousands of years. This giantism has been made possible by the confluence of numerous features in our social evolution. The ability of our mathematics to provide engineering with certainty in building is perhaps foremost intellectually. The use of the scientific method to investigate the biological and non-biological features of earth has provided the evidence based reasoning by which both the maths and the engineering laid for themselves firm foundations. This too is an intellectual achievement of the first order. We can rightly pride ourselves on the great mercies these skills have brought to the lives of billions of human beings.
However, this revolution in mankind’s relationship with the earth did not take place solely due to intellectual achievements. The ecological study of relationships between organisms and their environments points to another element, equally necessary. It is only because humankind harnessed the unique thermodynamic properties of oil that Homo Colossus came to be. Without this uniquely energy dense resource the world as we have come to know it over the last few centuries would simply not exist. Oil is relatively easily harvested, transformed, and transported. The design of machines capable of work using it are also relatively simple. After all, the complexity of the combustion engine is a number of degrees less than that of a tree seed or the erosion process of a river.
I want to whisper something. There is no such thing as religion. It is a modern conception that a particular set of behaviors and dispositions can be encircled and set aside from the rest of life, set aside as holy and virtuous, laudable but wholly impractical. The modern conception that we can have religion on Sunday and war on Monday is a profound misunderstanding of the interdependent truth of things. The psyche, your psyche, does not honor these arbitrary divisions.
Truth – this is what is now being spat upon in the public square. The manipulation of the public mind by those who know what is best for it started with the invention of public relations by Edward Bernays. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and was quick to apply his research into the dynamics of the unconscious mind to public persuasion, creating what we recognize today as PR. In the time of the previous World Wars it was not hard to hope that by using emotional manipulations to unconsciously trigger and guide people’s desires, a means would be found to keep the beast hiding in the heart of the masses under control. Democracy, people like Bernays thought, needed the guiding hand of the educated, better classes if it was to resits the temptations of totalitarian systems and populist revolutionaries. What began as a quest for social stability became the protection of the status quo at all costs. Along the way a new religion was born, the monotheism of money.
Today those who know what is best for us have become holy warriors. They have secrets about nuclear arsenals, secrets about listening in on every phone call, in fact there are secrets about so many things that it is hard to know where to draw the line. Once again we are confronted with knowledge characterized by ambiguity and unknowns where the best we can rationally hope for is some educated probabilities. There have always been state secrets, some of which were justified and others which were not. The very special inheritance given the United States in its constitution and the balance of powers has always been less than ideal in practice. In spite of the lauded freedom of the press, there have been times of corruption in the history of the world’s most celebrated melting pot that bring tears to the eyes of anyone who cares about human decency. The current conditions of our politics is not as strange as we might like to think. On the other hand, it is not within the bands of historical normal either. Long decades of the elites believing wealth bestows god’s grace, that because someone is rich they must also be wise, that status and dignity in one’s community only depends on the size of one’s bank account, all these changes to the traditional Christian mores have taken their toll. Today very few of my fellow citizens seem to recall that there could be a type of decency unrelated to money at all. One that depends on values other than ruthless competition in the marketplace and always getting the better of anyone you deal with. Though we give lip service to those motivated by charity, we do not allow such considerations to affect policy.
Frankly the leaders of the so-called free world, who have at their beck and call the most destructive forces ever amassed in the history of our species, are troublingly fundamentalist in their approach to the problems of the world. Discussions of human values outside of economic considerations is simply verboten. Though the link between climate change and oil use could not be clearer, it cannot be spoken aloud. Not its full implications anyway, those that would demand that we change our ways. Nor, under the new set of EPA directives, can the link between oil use and climate change be used as a guide to policy decisions. Indeed, large changes in regulation have opened ocean exploration and so much more. We will not talk seriously about it and we will not change our behavior. We have doubled down on our bet that all the ecologists must be mistaken. Welcome to the war between the economists and the ecologists. It is a war of ideas in the interpersonal space of our social lives, though it is a war of facts on the ground. Both parties cannot be right. It is a war for what is going to be understood as real and true by you and me and all of our neighbors. Note, I do not say it is a war for what will be real and true, only the hubris born of Homo Colossus makes that mistake. What is real is not ours to dictate.
If we call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Four, calling a tail a leg does not make it one.
To be as clear as possible I fear money’s true believers have become holy warriors and that the holy warriors have embraced the holy lie. The United States citizens, and the rest of the world that is affected by the decisions made in the worlds largest economy, are all being gaslighted by the abuser in chief. The president will speak an untruth, insist on it vehemently, and continue to repeat it as many times as he might wish with all the sincerity of a true believer. Keep this up day after day and the targets of these mental manipulations will soon begin to question their own sense of reality. How quickly these non-normal politics became normal will likely amaze historians, much like the ecological crisis that has seen climate disasters breaking previous records week after week quickly became the new normal. We simply are not well served by news departments turned into profit centers disseminating public relations for their corporate owners. The twisted thing about this gas-lighting mental incapacitation is that it is not recognized as such by those victimized by it. An uncomfortable feeling spreads, as if we were living in a dream or a cartoon, blanketing everything with a foggy sense that whatever craziness we find ourselves doing doesn’t really matter. You know you are infected when horrors no longer horrify and what was important last week gets lost in a wave of this week’s trivia. While in the United States the national conversation all too often devolves to a level of pleasure grunts and terror threats, very few individuals are able to withstand the torrent of language debasement. Language is the primary tool by which we are able to share our view of the world with one another. In that sharing we arrive, slowly but steadily, at a consensus around what is real and what is not. It is this concusses that reveals to us what seems to be very important and what does not. This is not something individuals decide for themselves alone, it requires feedback from the environment in which they find themselves and as social primates, for us humans, it is always the other people in our environments that matter most.
Historians of war are often lead to wonder how whole countries can be swept up into madness. The witnesses of debased atrocities taken as normal in the times of the World Wars never ceased to speak out against the madness they had endured. The neighbors we see around us today, how odd it is that under the right circumstances they can be made to do things to other people that are unspeakably horrifying. (Who taught the Turpins their religion?) How this descent into the demonic happens is related to this ability of leaders to create webs of deception in the public mind. Totalitarian manipulation of news and information is done to disseminate the lies the leaders need to be believed, lies always given to the populous for a higher cause, for their own good. The holy lie amounts to a means of creating temporary psychosis in the masses and a manipulation of their grasp on reality itself.
Today, I believe, our reality is defined by our ecological ignorance more than anything else. Nothing holds the threat to all that is good and decent in this world more than that of the ongoing destruction of earth’s habitats and inhabitants does. It is a science we are discussing, not a philosophy. It is based in mathematics and models, not ad campaigns and graphic arts. In ecology the old saw about “follow the money” is updated, today we need to “follow the oil.”
It is far later on our journey across the trends first pointed out in the Limits to Growth study than most of the people I talk with seem to realize. The truth our ecological researchers are investigating is one that deals with cycles and patterns that have now become identifiable trends. Where those trends lead is not really up for debate. It is not in the power of humankind to decide that since they do not like what these sciences have to say about the costs of our worship of economic growth, that we can simply ignore them so that they will not hurt us. We can decide to ignore them, as we are today with seemingly every new EPA ruling, but we cannot make the earth itself conform to our wishes. We cannot cause the harm not to fall on our heads. That is where dangerous magical thinking come in; ignoring bad news about reality does not change reality. Today, however, we have gone further. We have taken it upon ourselves to drown in our hubris, to reach beyond repression of the truth by denial. Today we succumb to the ever present temptation to dictate to reality what it must be. Following Goebbels’ lead we have decided that black is white, that increasing oil supplies and oil use is the answer to all earth’s problems with economic growth. We parade our new found faith as if it is the most liberating thing humankind has ever hit upon.
If instead of following the leader’s lies into cognitive dissonance individuals insist on thinking for themselves, they are able to withstand even the most horrendous historical injustices. By taking one’s seat, by knowing what is real and what is not for oneself to the best of one’s ability, it is possible to create a prophylactic shield against the social diseases we are discussing. It is my contention that ecology plays a central role in this process today. Ecology is where the Holy Spirit is moving in our times, to use the older way of talking. Ecological ethics is where the truth that is most existentially meaningful for people alive today is to be found, to use a more modern philosophic means of saying the same thing.
Understanding the role of oil in the modern world is absolutely critical for understanding the modern world at all. How else are we to comprehend the fact that while we know burning fossil fuels is the cause of climate change, and that climate change brings risks that are unacceptably high, policy makers are powerless to slow its worldwide use? How else are we to understand why future generations, the immediate next generation or two, are so easily thrown under the bus? The size of our technology coupled with our money monotheism exceeds our capacity to control. Homo Colossus is incapable of dismantling itself because it entails a complete reversal of our religious belief, our unquestioned and unquestionable faith in greed. The revelation of emptiness, the revelation of silence from our gods, has never been an easy one for us to grasp.
Understanding the role of peak oil comes in second place as the most crucial ecological concept required to make any sense of our modern world. The finite resource on which most all human infrastructures rely is no longer at the beck and call of humankind. The inevitable turn to dirty oil sources is just the start of expected peak oil implications. The oil wars come next. A simple list of the countries with the largest proven oil reserves pretty much spells out what we can expect. The true believers in the monotheism of money first, money last, and money only as the real guide to all decision making and the real measure of all human dignity are blind leaders. Even those who claim some ecological concern are disingenuously infatuated with alternative fuels as the answer to all earth’s woes. Wind and wave, solar and hydrogen, fusion and fairy dust, these will not allow business as usual to continue. To insist they can is to behave as if the laws of thermodynamics were nothing more than suggestions. A factual grasp of thermodynamic limitations on efficiency conversions involved in getting work from these sources and the fact that all these alternatives rely on fossil fueled infrastructures (not to mention quickly peaking rare earth metals) are key to understanding that they will never allow humankind to continue with its existing arrangements. The prophets and priests of the neoliberal order will prove to be false prophets of the worst kind. When their promises of a future for you and I under their reign lies in tatters, there will be little comfort in “I told you so.” Even if decades from now people shoot the users of fossil fuels on sight and hang the lying leaders from the lampposts, it will do nothing to return to humankind the predictable weather patterns needed for predictable harvests. When the grey technologies have poisoned the green technologies beyond repair we will watch our children die.
The third most critical insight from the ecological sciences that is critical for understanding the modern world is the foundational concept of interdependence. This is an idea that had mostly been talked about in terms of religion and philosophy in the past. As the worship of money has no quarter for any of those old fashion sources of wisdom, this too has been dismissed as impractical, unreal, unworkable, and as the ultimate insult, mystical. Interdependence is the idea that everything is connected to everything else. Some of the connections are course, some are fine. Some of the connections are between things seen, many more are between things unseen. All these connections cause one thing to depend on other things – this is what interdependence means. It applies as a scientific concept across a wide range of scales from how members of a species interact with one another and other species, to how living things interact with the non-living environment. At the largest scale that should concern us it applies to the whole biosphere of earth, the whole planet with its biological and non-biological processes each inseparably inter-meshed with one another (including human beings and their use of oil). At the smallest scale that should concern us it applies to each and every economic interaction in which resources are taken from the water, ground, and sky and put to use producing wealth and enlarging Homo Colossus so that that wealth may continue to grow.
The role of oil, the implications of peak oil, and the science of interdependence – these are ecology’s most important scientific contributions to the store of human knowledge for our times. They were true in the past, are true now, and will remain true tomorrow morning when we wake up to yet another day in which our societies will deny they are heading headlong into a shit storm.
It does not need to be this way. It is possible to speak the truth, talk about these things honestly and refuse the greedy warmongering leading us to disaster. It is, in fact, fairly easy to align one’s own heart and soul to the meaning of these things and from there watch your own life become an adventure. You and I are not responsible for what the rich and powerful choose to do or not do. We are responsible for how we will react to the times we find ourselves in. We can live as men and women with dignity, recognizing that the good in this world is worth fighting for. Or we can join the fog of foolishness, hoping against hope that some magic will save us in the end from the results of our own craziness. This later approach never works out well. That is what all the initiates of all the ages have been at pains to try and communicate since the wise first started putting teachings together. On one hand is reality, on the other hand is delusion. Sometimes the moral choices we need to make really are that simple. Choose your god carefully.