Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Save the planet": a meaningless slogan?

What is all this talk about sustainability and so on?  What does the term mean and do we have historical precedents to turn to for an answer?  These days, in relation to the concept of sustainability we also hear a debate about how to 'save the planet' in the face of climate change, global warming, CO2 emissions, fossil fuels, overpopulation, industrial agriculture and erosion, antibiotic overuse, loss of clean water, and so on.  We're on various email lists that almost every day send us stories bemoaning the course of things that are not 'sustainable'.

Nothing specific triggers this post other than musing about a set of issues that may be of critical importance to 'us'--whoever 'us' is.  These various terms and slogans make sense to many people and indeed even hearing them puts others' hair on fire, because they oppose what those who want to save the planet are assumed to be advocating.  But these terms are in themselves almost without clear meaning, if any meaning at all, and that can be a problem, given how polarized society is on the issues.

Generally speaking, those on the political left express urgent fear about the current problems that are being discussed, recognized, or claimed.  The left wants to save the planet by cutting back on the use of fossil fuels and big-scale agriculture, human overpopulation, the destruction of natural habitats, and so on.

In reaction, generally those on the political right say that if there really is a problem (they tend to doubt sensory reality and science as its formalizer), then industrial innovation and the capitalist seizing on opportunity will fix it, so not to worry.  Even more, they often argue that the crises are being over-stated or data being misunderstood (or fabricated) so that, in truth, the planet doesn't need 'saving' anyway.  Global warming is either being misinterpreted or it's just part of the normal cycling on Earth and the pendulum will swing back in time.  Industrial capitalism will feed and warm us all, if we but give it the time and enough rein to do its job. The planet, in a sense, will 'save' itself.

Earth; What exactly does one want to 'save'?  Source: Wikipedia

But if you think about it, none of this has much meaning at all, no matter that it sounds like it does.
To see this, we ask in particular what, exactly, save the planet means?

1.  Does it mean save our current way of life?  Do we want to cut back on fossil fuels enough to stop or reverse global warming and resource exhaustion, but not so much that even liberals would complain?  I don't hear them saying we need to outlaw18-wheelers, or trains, tractors, air conditioners, golf carts, power leaf-blowers, backyard pools, or personal cars.  'Cutting back' generally seems to mean to people that we can have a bit less, though not a whole lot less, and still keep our lifestyle and reverse climate change, loss of topsoil, and so on.  Of course, if we really wanted to 'save' the planet in these terms, perhaps we should be advocating global equity in resources and living conditions, but nobody is actually serious about that because if we evened out the income distribution we'd all be in the soup.  Indeed, of course, we're concerned that the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians et al. want to wait til they have cars and A/Cs before they start to save the planet.

I mean, if we polluted ourselves out of supermarkets and personal cars, we would still survive, though there would be a lot fewer of us, and perhaps no global transport and even, heaven forbid, no electronic entertainment.  Some would survive all the fracking anyone could possibly imagine.  So, here, 'saving' really means something akin to delaying the demise of our way of life.

2.  Save human life on Earth?  That is an understandable if selfish thing to advocate.  The Earth would not miss us were we to go extinct.  And we will eventually be gone, of course.  So as far as that goes, again what is being advocated is not save the planet, but delaying our specific species' demise.  Likewise, saving species from extinction is, as any ecologist or evolutionary biologist (or cosmologist) knows, quite illusory.  All species become extinct and only a fraction of lineages do that by evolving into new species.  In the long term, of course, the Earth will be swallowed up by the exploding dying Sun.  So 'saving' again means 'delaying' something we, personally, in our very short-sighted, egocentric lives value.

Even more than that, we want our own lives to have some sort of long-term meaning. That's of course also an illusion, unless perhaps you have expectations of an infinite afterlife.  It's just that when we are returned to ashes, some new future ashes will harbor similar thoughts (about their own lives).

3.  Save the 'planet' as a whole?  It means little to talk about 'saving' the planet.  First, evolution has always adapted life to our planet's conditions, and there is absolutely no reason to think it won't adapt to whatever humans do to the place, including nuclear holocaust.  But since Earth is doomed to destruction eventually, what, exactly, does 'saving the planet' mean?  I think it probably means some cuddly short-term view of things, rather than a carefully considered view, unless it means preserving for the moment things we happen to like, like pandas, our kids and grandchildren or fellow countrymen and the like.  There's of course absolutely nothing wrong with that, but one should be clear, because not saving 'the planet' doesn't mean there'd be nothing; it just means it'd be different.

Our planet is not in danger and doesn't need 'saving'.  The Earth is one huge biochemical reaction and its 'Gaia', its physico-chemical unity is based on its components, energy, and so on.  When or whether or for how long people, or any given lifestyle, or any lifestyle exists is part of that.  We may try to preserve what we like, or enough of what we like, in a state that for our limited lifespan and egocentric purposes seems permanent, if that's how we wish to define 'save'.

4.   Go back to swidden hand-hoed agriculture?
There are many arguments, apparently quite valid, that we are rapidly exhausting our soil in various ways having to do with large-scale industrialized commercially capitalized agriculture.  Does save the planet mean to find and implement ways, that apparently do exist, to grow enough to feed the human population without this being forced upon us when naturally developed soils are drained away?  This might be a good objective, but it is a political one, obviously, because from the 'planet's point of view, maybe its overall sustainability would be better off if we did exhaust the agricultural soil and starved ourselves out of existence or at least back to less resource-demanding numbers. But save the planet as a slogan probably isn't advocating this.  Does it just mean we don't like the way Kansas is being farmed, that Big Ag's like Monsanto are very rich, and that we (most of us who've never really seen a farm first-hand) are venting some nostalgia about things we don't really personally even know much about?

5.  Develop 'sustainability'?
This word is as vague and in a way naive as save the planet.  Nothing in human (much less evolutionary) history is eternally sustainable.  Change is part of Nature and its geological-historical processes.  Human agriculture has more or less from its beginning gone through periods of growth, resource over-use, and decline.  That ours will do the same should come as no surprise.  Is that bad? From the point of view of our own personal nostalgia and sentimentality, perhaps.  From the point of view of 'the planet', there is no reason to impose such a purely human judgment.

In a NY Times editorial on the Canadian tar sands XL pipeline debate, Andrew Nikiforuk concludes:
"The American social critic Lewis Mumford described mining as barbaric to land and soul. By any definition, Keystone XL grants license to an earth-destroying economy."
The editorial is in itself a good discussion of the tar sands and how they are extracted and what that will do to large tracts of forest.  But the final description is just naive, in the sense I am discussing.  No matter what the ramifications in the short term, mining won't actually destroy the earth.

Yet, of course, there is something here--but what is it?  Esthetics about primeval forest?  Global warming and forest destruction?  Dislike of greedy BigOil?  Failure of society to come to grips with the potential traumas whose seeds short-term convenience and greed will lead to?

Do as I say, not as I do?
A new book by Naomi Klein called This Changes Everything, is getting rave reviews these days.  She makes a case that current global capitalism is responsible for climate change that is soon to be disastrous (not good for saving the planet!).  We must cut back, way back, on our energy consumption in the developed world.  Citing conservation advocates' estimates, for global sustainability and to curb or reverse global warming, we must, if we are humanitarian, share the wealth, that is, share the per-capita Wattage expended.  We here in the developed world need to cut back by something like 80%, and let those in the developed world grow, for humanitarian reasons, a few-fold.

Sounds nice.  I haven't read the book, and I am writing based on reviews, including an excellent recent one (OA) by Elizabeth Kolbert in the December 4th issue of The New York Review of Books.  From the reviews, I probably will agree with the book's argument, but that's not the point here.  The review notes in passing that Klein has traveled the globe so much that she's an 'elite' frequent flyer club member, that she has been flying over the world to visit places where relevant activities to curb resource extraction are taking place, that she got ideas when dining in Geneva, and that she and her husband are making a film to go with her book.  The book is printed on paper and distributed around the world.  It's not freely downloadable.  Will the film involve air travel, or a lot of resource consumption, or be free on line?

It's an ethical dilemma and by no means new.  Authors and film-makers, like missionaries for causes back through history, must make a living.  The justification for high consumption on their part is a kind of executive privilege: it's a nasty job being holier than thou, but somebody's got to to it.  This is similar to what has always been heard from powerful, pious, or privileged as they squeeze the rest of the population, exhorting them to bite this or that bullet.

Yet, obviously, authors do have to make a living, just as preachers, earls and kings do, and maybe it's simply true that someone abusing the resource issue is needed if masses are to be informed so they won't abuse the resources.  Masses need leaders.  You can make your own assessment as to what's fair, whether there are other ways than experts and spokespersons to carry a banner, and so on.  There are no easy answers (and, certainly, yours truly drives, has a warm house, travels to Europe to lecture or visit family, eats fresh food in winter shipped from the tropics, and so on).  It's very hard not to be hypocritical.  The human track record isn't very good in this respect.  Indeed, even many of today's arguments were au courant only a few decades ago--if you're old enough, you'll remember 'the population bomb' and 'small is beautiful' and daisy-painted VW buses parked in drop-out, live- naturally communes.

Is change as we are experiencing it these days any more threatening than it has been to prior human generations, albeit each in its own particular way, with likely negative as well as positive consequences?  If we individually or collectively want to alter things to satisfy some goal, and want to rally others behind that view, is the simple, catchy save the planet banner the kind of rallying point that works?

OMG, this is what really matters!
While finishing this post, nibbling a chocolate covered hazelnut, we came across this horrifying story that in an incredibly timely way showed in stark relief just the very disastrous things we face, to make our entire point.


A new story apparently reports iron-clad proof that what we are doing to the earth is going to make its most precious resource disappear completely: chocolate!  Horror of horrors, now here is some thing that really does threaten anybody and everybody in every way and that even the most rabid Republican capitalist can agree on!  This shows why we really do need to save the planet and it clearly shows that that slogan has unambiguous, and unquestionable meaning.

Well, take a breath (if you can!).  Should we be clearer and more precise about what, exactly, that might be, and why, that a consensus could agree on?  Can we be clearer?  Maybe nostalgia is enough, but otherwise, save the planet is more an advertising slogan for a vague, essentially ideological point of view than a clear statement of some objective goal.  There are serious issues for us, or at least our living descendants. Is it possible to have agreement an agenda or are people just too different in what they think about themselves and the world, whether you want to call that selfishness or whatever?


Anonymous said...

This is a welterweight's punch to the gut--takes the wind right out. This problem seems near intractable.

We've two systems driving the planet's trajectory--human and the planet's own machinery. I don't much like calling the latter machinery but it captures a much longer description. The two are out of whack/sync and whether they can or will be rejoined in some new kind of relationship remains problematic since it would require so much of us. I would like nothing better than to be dead wrong on this.

I thought the review of Klein's new book was so typical of Elizabeth Kolbert--smart, great writing and ends where one of our best reporters would in myth. But the figures blow one out of the water.

John Cheever's novella, "Oh, What a Paradise it Seemed," come to mind.

Ed Hessler

Ken Weiss said...

To me, the problem I tried to identify is what we mean about the 'problem' and what 'we' would want to do about it. Also, the whole idea is ego- or at least human-centric and the arguments are generally about equity, who will give up what and why and so on. But it's so sloganized that in a sense we don't even know just what we're arguing about.

I think the question is something rather selfish: how much are we, ourselves, willing to give up as we pressure others to give things up, for some rather vague long-term idea. Even how much are we willing to give up or change just for the sake of our kids or grand-kids. Beyond that, it becomes abstract idealism of different kinds competing for control of how our societies behave.

But I think human life, or life in general, is always facing one form of such questions or another.