June 9, 2011

The Only Answer is Denial

From Tom Friedman's column in the New York Times:
You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

 “The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

Gilding cites the work of the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists, which calculates how many “planet Earths” we need to sustain our current growth rates. G.F.N. measures how much land and water area we need to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste, using prevailing technology. On the whole, says G.F.N., we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future. Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” says Gilding.

This is not science fiction. This is what happens when our system of growth and the system of nature hit the wall at once. . . . “If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees,” writes Gilding. “If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the Earth’s CO2 blanket, the Earth gets warmer. If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation; this is high school science.”

It is also current affairs. “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” China’s environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, said recently. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.” What China’s minister is telling us, says Gilding, is that “the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.”

Despite the dire warnings of Gilding, it turns out he is an "eco-optimist." "We" are going to realize the error of our ways, abandon the "consumer-driven growth model" and "move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less." Warns Gilding: “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

On the contrary, my good man, humanity is, in the mass, both slow and stupid. This stems not from limitations in intelligence but from inevitable weaknesses in political and social organization. 

Pointing to the confusion and intemperance manifested in "all very numerous assemblies," James Madison wrote in The Federalist that  "[h]ad every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

Give that problem of collective action ten different variations, and multiply it by a hundred times, and you get a picture of the difficulties of organizing effective action on a planetary scale, to change the kinds of things that Gilding wants to change.

Gilding's outlook seems very similar to that of  Rob Doppelt discussed earlier, and subject to the same reservations.

I don't doubt that there is a lot of denial going on, among both vested interests and ordinary Americans (whose number one concern, apart from who will win tonight's game, seems to be the price of gasoline).

On the other hand, if you're going to make an impression on Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Africans and the rest, questioning the consumer driven growth model is not going to get you very far. By postulating a new economic system, Gilding can wish away these demands for energy and growth by the emerging economies (or by Americans for cheap gas). Unfortunately that too is a form of denial. 

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