Religion Or . . .

“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.”
John 14.27


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.


“What then is the nature of this psychological sequence from fundamental to fundamentalism? To be secure about fundamentals is to live within an intact framework of larger human connectedness, or what I have called symbolic immortality. In that state one believes in – or at least has no reason to question – the value and everlastingness of one’s relation to the chain of generations, to work and works, to higher spiritual principles, to eternal nature, and to experiences of transcendence that directly affirm the intactness of one’s psychological universe. When these ultimate – that is, fundamental – connections are profoundly threatened, confidence in the over-all continuity of life gives way to widespread death imagery, even to a collective sense of being inundated by death and nothingness.”
Robert J. Lifton, Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism


When the elected leaders of the Untied States used the lie of weapons of mass destruction to justify their invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rest of the world noticed. What had been lost in this event was a tradition of informed citizens holding their leaders accountable for deceiving them. Dictatorships expect the leaders to lie to the people when it is convenient for their own agendas. Democracies are established on the foundation that this is not acceptable behavior. Why this happened is a complicated question to answer, though one of the central factors had to be the changes that happened to the news organizations when they changed from primarily serving to inform the citizenry to becoming profit centers for the networks. No longer was even the establishment of an informed citizenry, the necessary backbone of a functioning democracy, sacred enough to stay outside the forces of economic competition. Truth, which often offends, was made subservient to the dollar.

The transparent exercise of governmental power is freely open to examination by the citizenry of a democracy. Arguably that has become a thing of past in the United States, sacrificed for the needs of “security.” Truth has become optional, as it always has been when in the hands of the propagandist.

The years since 2003 have seen the United States lose more and more of its moral high ground. The once shining light on the hill has become, for most people on this planet, the source of the greatest risks to the long term well being of our species. Such, anyway, is what the polling agencies find.

I have always thought America played a unique role in the modern world. It’s constitutional government persuaded much of the world that the people of a nation should be listened to, that ultimate political power justly derives from the consent of the govern. There is a darker aspect to the unique role that America has played in modern history as well. We are the only nation to have used nuclear bombs to kill human beings in an act of war. This event, arguably, shortened the war but without a doubt it also brought with it a new responsibility to the citizenry of the United States. If our leaders answer to the will of the people, and they now wield such terrifyingly destructive weaponry in our name, we have a burden laid on us unlike those of people in other nations.

So far, over the last few decades since the end of WWII, the rest of the world has rested more or less easily with this balance of powers. The leadership choices of the United States remained controversial and far from perfect year in and year out, yet the checks and balances inherent in our system seemed to provide the best measure of sanity in geopolitics we, as a species, could hope for. Most of these previously comforting considerations no longer apply to the American political order, given the evidence at hand.

Democracy has always been messy, with conspiracies and collusions galore. Secrets and Machiavellian politics have been bedfellows throughout the few hundred years of American history. What is being said here is not that there was a golden age in the past we have lost and need to return to. What is being said is that there is every indication that many of the core features of our democratic past, those which made the balance of power balanced, have lost their ability to do so.

The reason, I submit, is due to the cognitive dissonance we as a nation have had to live with ever since confronting the two limits that showed us clearly that we had made a mistake in building Homo Colossus and needed to change our ways. The cognitive dissonance in this case is compounded by the huge previous investment used to build all the colossal machines and their infrastructures which form the ecologically suicidal gigantism of Homo Colossus. We have been escalating our commitment to this obviously mistaken national pursuit for close to half a century now. As James Kunstler has stated, the U.S. buildout of suburban sprawl is “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known ”

The two limits that put the American democracy through the wringer were the ecological limits to endless growth on a finite planet and the scientific limits to destructiveness once splitting the atom itself was put to the task. Thermonuclear weapons put an end to the war motivated scientific search for, as Buckminster Fuller taught, weapons “designed to kill ever more people at ever-greater distances in ever-shorter periods of time.” If we as a species do not self-limit our destructive potential, the probability of using these weapons we spend so much effort to build and keep safe increases with each passing year. And that would be catastrophic. The second limit we encountered was, of course, our ecological limits to growth. We learned that the reality of ecology is non-negotiable. Taken together these spell the end of the reign of Homo Colossus.

What this means in practice is that the multi-trillion dollar buildout of the highways and byways, parking lots and side streets, gas stations and refineries – all the infrastructure for cars (just considering the concrete, structural aspects and not psychological) – is no longer serving the immediate, real world needs of the people. To give the U.S. leaders credit, just about every recent President has said to the public, in one way or another, ‘we have an energy problem, we have an oil problem.’ To be fair about our leaders performance on these issues we must also admit it has been dismal. To admit you have been mistaken, now there is a serious test for Democracy.

We all know how difficult it can be when we personally encounter our own mistakes. We work hard to justify all our choices in one part of our mind while another is busy examining everything critically. The critic hopes to make things better. To do so, by definition, means seeing where things need to be repaired, that is, where one has made mistakes. Mistaken assumptions, mistaken behavior, mistaken beliefs; we learn to recognize each of them within ourselves as we grow and mature. Difficult though the process is, there is no getting around it if one is to flow with the natural way of increasing skill and wisdom. Knowing just how hard it really is for us to change as individuals should give us some compassion for our societal failure to admit these same things about our commitments to progress through giant industrialization.

It turns out we were mistaken in our assumptions. Wealth does not buy happiness. After a certain level of security is met, additional income does not measurably increase people’s happiness. But it sure wreaks havoc on the earth. We turned the engines of giant industrialization towards the manufacturing of luxury items, not equal distribution of necessity. This too was a mistake.

Valuing luxury items for the few before necessities for the many did not come naturally. The years since the end of WWII have hosted the largest mind manipulation experiment ever conducted, for that is exactly what a world awash in mass media has become. Like any good experiment, no one knows the results before the experiment being carried out reaches some conclusions. I think it has run long enough that we can tentatively draw a few. The conclusion I submit as proven is that these technologies do have the ability to directly influence people’s behavior. Shopping in one form or another dominates our social landscape. The only expressive activity of our human genius currently rewarded with social recognition are those which make a buck. The only expressive activity of our human genius left to individuals is the act of choosing what they will buy, be it a wardrobe or a vacation or a religious affiliation. The ecological critique of giant industrialization insists this was all mistaken behavior. It sounds like that is an ethical judgment but it is scientific fact since it would take more than four earths to have most people on the planet living like this. Constant distraction and programming by mass media, including the internet, allow us to pretend our mistaken behavior is normal. In our heart of hearts we know these lifestyles are not adaptive, they dismiss the needs of the poor, our own posterity, and all the other non-human inhabitants of the earth. Only this echo chamber of non-stop distraction keeps us all from screaming.

Consumerism, the belief that it is good organizing a society around the central activity of shopping, has proven itself to be a mistaken belief. This tide is never going to lift all boats. The moral justification given for turning the world into a shopping mall was that it was the best way to lift the suffering billions out of grinding poverty. In other words, the argument is that the only way we everyday people can serve human dignity and help all suffering humanity throughout the globe – is to make the rich more wealthy. Then, as they taught us to say, the wealth will trickle down. It does not matter how many think-tanks they employ to explain these things away, the facts remain. Facts are stubborn that way. This tide is never going to lift all boats. On a finite planet, consumerism without justification is simply greed.

When President Ronald Regan said the lifestyles of the American people were non-negotiable, he could not have been more wrong. No leader of the American people has the right to make such a statement, for you see, our lifestyles are exactly what we as individual citizens have immediate control over. This is where our freedom lives. Further, once one becomes mindful of ecology, it is these American lifestyles that are the very first thing to address on the road to social sanity. If we speak of what truly ails us we can muster the famous American can-do attitude to tackle realistic adaptations. All that stands in our way is this set of mistaken beliefs.

From beliefs come behavior, from both come assumptions. So walk your talk after educating yourself. Today consumerism seems a straightjacket we as a society have no chance of extricating ourselves from. Yet alternative lifestyles abound. Each of these people have turned their backs on the competitive credo of dog eat dog capitalism for an ethos of sharing and learning to walk lightly on the earth. Each one of these alternate lives bear witness, to whomever cares to look, that there is in fact viable alternate values and rewards to be had searching out a meaningful life with integrity in these troubled times. To throw your weight in with the mass foolishness eventually becomes impossible as one wakes up to what ecology is teaching us about the real world. It becomes a matter of conscience. This is no small development. A change of conscience can be a very powerful shaper of history. Perhaps even more powerful than bombs.

Not Cleared for Takeoff

The investigation of ecological concepts that have occupied the last cycle of posts ended with a look at the critics of the ecological crises, those who in one way or another deny that humanity will encounter limits to its growth. The ecologists are actually making a much stronger claim; that before this century is out earth will have reached tipping points that will have major effects on the fate of our species. In order to evaluate these claims it is necessary to add data to the theories we have just reviewed. Data plus theory equals evidence.

There is a general sense in our cultural exchanges that reasonable people can hold a dissensus about what the ecological evidence means for people alive today. I believe that this is complete hogwash. I believe that among people of goodwill an examination of the evidence of necessity leads to a strong degree of confidence for the claim that we face a crisis situation.

These might seem like outrageously naive or perhaps bold claims in a time of post-modernism’s relativity of truth. Or perhaps insisting that reality really is one way and not another strikes the ears of the modern American as dogmatic? I hope to share why it is nothing of the kind but to do so will take us on a journey through what it is we do when we reason. Western Enlightenment values fuel the scientific quest. Science has honed the skills of objectivity to a fine edge, some would say to a fault. I recommend Eastern contemplative practice and the study of its wisdom but not as a substitute to our own cultural inheritance. The approach that fully engages the western practitioner takes all the most sophisticated science and philosophy of our own development onto the path.

The next cycle of posts will be about this reasoning we do, in particular the so-called problem of inference. Before starting those however, the next few entries will touch upon a few subjects I feel are timely and useful from the other side of this blog, mindfulness.

Out of respect for our teacher through these lasts posts I would like Dr. Catton to have the last word. This prefaces his book Bottleneck, Humanity’s Impending Impasse and serves as a fitting summary of what we have learned about ourselves from the ecological point of view. Like a koan it is worthy of contemplation. It cracks open the heart:

From 1776,
when the Newcommon steam engine
had been upgraded by James Watt,
its use lead to escalating reliance
on fossil energy,
temporarily giving
increasing fractions
of the world’s human population
gigantic powers.
With subsequent technological developments
Homo Colossus acquired through
the next nine generations
the delusion of limitlessness.

Now this
from the “Controller” in the tower:


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.

The End of Homo Colossus

“…but real limits not seen are not limits repealed.”
Overshoot, William Catton

Homo Colossus is not long for this earth. With an appetite not even 10 earths could satisfy, soon this beast will starve to death. It will not be pretty, like a junkie cut off from their supply. We are talking here about the hard reality of ecological limits: consumption reduces the remaining stock of non-renewable resources. This is only common sense. The consequence is that there are limits to the number of non-renewable resources mankind will be capable of accessing as time proceeds.

Few subjects have suffered obfuscation by spin doctors more than the idea that there are limits to growth. The idea is so threatening to economics with its debt based fiat money that loud and pervasive voices work overtime to assure investors worldwide that there is really nothing amiss in the pursuit of unending growth on a finite planet. Our subject today is the role that limitations play in ecological science but due to the confusion deliberately propagated around it, the first task is to take some garbage out to the compost heap.

An argument could be made that modern science was born and continues to be a powerful means of inquiry through a proper appreciation of limits. The calculus provides the mathematical tools for many of the most fundamental theories across a wide swath of the sciences from physics to evolution, biology to ecology. With the mathematical tools of the calculus we are able to capture the rates at which things change. In a universe in which all things are constantly changing the value of such a tool is obvious. In the calculus the mind numbing subject of infinity is tamed. At the core of the calculus is the concept of, you guessed it, the limit. My favorite illustration of this limit concept is as an answer to Zeno’s paradox. In a race between a tortoise and a hare where the tortoise is given a head start, the paradox runs, the hare can never reach the finish line. Why? Because before the hare can reach the line he must go half way, but then he must go half way through the remaining distance again. And half way through that remaining distance, ad infinitum. This is a logical conundrum, a time bomb hiding in our maths. With the calculus we are able to prove the hare can indeed cross the finish line, to the great relief of racing fans everywhere, by saying the hare approaches the finish line in the limit.

The maths we all learned started with arithmetic where sets of static things provide most of the mental models needed for its comprehension. The operations of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication are often modeled with a set of colored blocks in classrooms around the world. Who doesn’t recall that proverbial set of apples our teachers went on and on about as we visualized giving and receiving some from our friends or slicing them into fractions? Most young students understand apple word problems fairly well. It is with the introduction of algebra that the first wave of math phobia strikes. Sure sometimes we want oranges instead of apples, but why call it X?

For many young people, who cannot help but notice that most of the really important issues of their lives concern ever changing qualities, the picture of relationships among static quantities algebra provides seems alien, of no consequence. I imagine the perennial complaint, ‘but how will I ever use any of this in my real life?’, was probably first spoken somewhere in ancient Persia right about the time algebra was invented. In my experience it is a shame really that so few make it across the algebra bridge into the calculus since it is in the calculus that all those fiddly and seemingly arbitrary rules found in maths begin to all fit together. It is also when one of the most important intellectual streams of our cultural inheritance is transmitted to an individual: our sciences.

Throughout our experience things are seen to be on trajectories that are inevitably thwarted. Enumerating a few examples reads like a who’s who of scientific discovery. Evolution – an animal species multiplies but it does not fill the whole earth with its offspring, something limits its reproduction potential. Dynamics – a body in straight line motion tends to stay in motion but on earth friction always slows it and other forces divert it from its path. Cosmology – there is an absolute speed limit in the universe, the speed of light as per the theory of relativity. Geology – there is a limit to the pressure that can build up between continental plates until earthquakes occur, there is a limit to the force the crust of the earth can suppress before a volcano erupts. I could go on but the point has been made; scientific knowledge is very often carved out of our ignorance by the recognition of the factors that limit processes. Each of these examples and many more are embodied in theories that have mathematical models at their heart, models built using the calculus.

This is the larger background required to honestly asses the role of limits in ecology. By no means do I believe everyone must understand the calculus to benefit from a mindful practice centered around ecology but it is important to recognize the role that mathematical models play in science generally so that when examining the theories and evidence in ecology sufficient understanding is brought to bear. At the risk of oversimplifying it could be said that when the sciences fit equations to data they have a small family of curves they can draw on to do the work. I tend to berate Descartes for his mind-body dualism so I would like to take this opportunity to thank him as well for the wonderful analytic geometry that opened up the vision of equations as curves.

Here for example is a graph of the mathematical model for the interaction of predator and prey as expressed in ecology’s famous, if simplified, Lotka – Volterra model. Consider a world consisting of rabbits and wolves. The rabbits multiply exuberantly while there are few wolves around but as the rabbit population increases the number of wolves that can survive on them also increases. More wolves, fewer rabbits, fewer rabbits, fewer wolves cycling back around to more rabbits, more wolves and so on:

Volterra_lotka_dynamics In ecological field work researchers try to identify the differences that make a difference. The subject of limits is central to the ecological sciences for this is often how the environment induces its selection pressure. The ‘operationally significant’ factors that control the abundance and dispersion of a community stand out from the buzzing jungle of details where it is difficult to tell if one thing is more important than another or not. To get a handle on the survival characteristics of the species and environment interaction we ask what limits its growth? For a field of corn it could be the availability of phosphorous, for a Petri dish of yeast the nutrient sugars could be the limiting factor. Of all the many, many elements a biological community needs to survive and reproduce there are typically one or two that are in short supply. The limiting element acts as a brake on the growth potential of the biological community.

In 1840 Justus Liebig expounded this principal that the availability of a limiting resource controls an environment’s carrying capacity. It is known as Liebig’s law of the minimum. Fertilizer is our solution to this limit problem in our crop growing efforts. Fertilizer is designed to provide just those elements that are in short supply so the harvest can produce its maximum yield.

In addition to the limit brought by the minimum critical factor ecology recognizes a second family of limitations. This “law” of the limits of tolerance was included in the work of V.E. Shelford in 1913. This is the set of limits around what living things and their environments find tolerable. Not only too little can be a limiting factor but also too much. Life is very sensitive to numerous boundaries which it cannot violate and remain viable. Temperature, salinity, and toxicity are a few of the better known. Mammals, an example particularly relevant to ourselves, exist within a narrow band of temperatures, maintain internal PH levels and must consistently remove waste products running the gamut from dead cells to fecal matter.

There are a few details worth pointing out. Organisms might have a wide range of tolerance for some factors but very narrow for others; I can drink a wide range of water volumes in a day and survive but can’t eat too many strychnine cookies. When conditions are not optimal in one factor the limits of tolerance in other factors may become reduced; a meadow low in nitrogen needs more water to fend off drought. The period of reproduction is generally the most sensitive to limits; the seeds, eggs, embryos, and larvae cannot withstand the more extreme conditions an adult of the species could. Each of these details is worth some contemplation to tease out how they play out in both natural and human history as well as how they might contribute to the overall shape of the future.

No one knows when the limit to the giantism of Homo Colossus is going to be found. Will it be next year, five years from now, fifty, one hundred? No one knows which crucial element will not meet its supply without a viable substitute or which might move the habitat beyond our limits of tolerance. The way to investigate the issue, as we learned looking at the calculus, is to examine the rates at which resources are being used, pollutions are being produced and populations are growing. An uncomfortably large family of candidates confronts the researcher. Most of my readers will already be familiar with many of them and sites like Desdemona Despair gather news about them daily. Still, just to assure we are on the same page here; it is estimated the U.S. loss of topsoil is 10 times faster than it can be replaced, global arable land loss is 30 to 35 times the historical rate, species loss is estimated at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, ocean acidifcation is increasing at the fastest rate in 300 million years, etc. Note that some of these are minimum limits (lack of required topsoil) and others deal with tolerances (how much pollution can the oceans take).

It was in the late 1960s that a team at MIT decided to use these tools to examine the overall shape of the future of industrial civilization. They dissected Homo Colossus. They created a model of the modern, industrial world that would be simple enough to be tractable yet complete enough to have some chance at capturing the essential factors of the real world outside the laboratory doors. For this model they chose the following to be the central families of variables: agricultural output, industrial production, human population, pollution and resource depletion.

In October of 1972 the reading public was introduced to the results of a computer simulation created by this crack team of computer scientists at MIT. Opening the cover of Limits to Growth, the 207 page mass market paperback, the publisher’s blurb rang a historic wake-up call worth quoting in full:

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has shrunk to zero. Where population has suffered catastrophic decline. Where air, sea, and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts. What is even more alarming, the collapse will not come gradually, but with awesome suddenness, with no way of stopping it.”

It was in the 1970s that there was the first general recognition that the resource limits of a finite planet will not sustain modern, petroleum based, industrialized civilization. The standard run simulation in Limits to Growth had the crunch time coming about forty years into the future, just about now. At the time it was published other news worthy events were seen as confirming how serious our plight was. In that decade there would be reports of collapsed fisheries, an oil embargo that produced gas lines and choked the economies of the overdeveloped world even while population pressures brought ghettos and slums of the inner city to the boiling point. Things have not improved since then; on the contrary and we have come a long way since the 70s. Homo Colossus stalks the very boundaries of peaking resources everywhere; fresh water, lithium, uranium, copper, platinum, grain harvest, oil, phosphorus…

Australian physicist Graham Turner working for the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute performed an updated comparison of the Limits to Growth study with historical data in ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?‘ National Geographic in April of 2012 published an update to the Limits to Growth graphic based on Dr. Turner’s work thereby sharing it with the world at large. Take a look. The first graphic is from the paper, the second National Geographic.

090414_limits_to_growthNG-limits-graph “…the myth of limitlessness had at last become obsolete.”
Overshoot, William Catton

This is most unwelcome news. Next week we will take a look at the plethora of cargo cults and cornucopianisms it has created.