When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles
creatures become extinct
–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, ca. 550 BCE
As Earth Day draws near, I propose we pause to consider our role on this fine, finite planet. If Earth could think, what would it think of us and our actions?
More, more, more!
The human role in the extinction of species and the degradation of ecosystems is well documented. Since European settlement in North America, and especially after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve witnessed a substantial decline in biological diversity of native animal and plant groups and profound changes in the assemblages of remaining species.
We’ve ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process. We’ve harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old trees with neatly ordered plantations of small trees.
We’ve hunted species to the point of extinction and driven livestock across almost every acre of the continent, baring hillsides and facilitating massive erosion. We’ve plowed huge landscapes into monoculture nightmares, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt.
We’ve burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we’ve put out naturally occurring fires. We’ve paved thousands of acres for highways and cars and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of animals.
We’ve spewed pollution and dumped garbage, dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet. We have, to the maximum extent possible allowed by our “intellect” and insatiable desire, consumed the planet.
That good ol’ industrial economy just keeps on giving us toys and, in return, we keep using the toys to pummel planet Earth.
Now we find ourselves staring into the abyss of extinction at our own hand.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Although insults by Homo sapiens since the Industrial Revolution are well documented and widely acknowledged, abundant archaeological evidence indicates similar actions in the more distant past have led to the rise and fall of several major civilizations.
The industrial economy clearly represents the latest and greatest attempt to destroy the living planet, but we’re simply echoing and magnifying events of the last few thousand years.
We know there’s a better way. And we know what it is.
Small is beautiful
We spent the first two million years of the human experience living in small tribes with a soft touch on the land. We exchanged this modest, enduring living arrangement for a system that enslaves us, makes us crazy, and then kills us. The phrase coined by George Whyte-Melville in his 1858 book The Interpreter, comes immediately to mind: “too clever by half.”
Fortunately for our species and the living planet, it seems we’re headed in the right direction.
Six years beyond the peak in global oil supply and echoing the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, the U.S. military’s Joint Operating Environment indicates we’re falling off the oil-supply cliff this year.
When the price of oil spikes high enough, several events occur, notably that the lights go out for the final time, the trucks stop bringing fuel to the filling stations and food to the grocery stores, and water stops pouring out the municipal taps. Not much later, the age of industry reaches its overdue end and we find ourselves living on the land that sustains us.
It can’t happen soon enough for me.
Enough is enough
“No European who has tasted savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” This little-known quote from Benjamin Franklin is supported by abundant evidence, to which most people in civilized societies turn a blind eye.
Within a matter of years, or maybe months, there will be no turning away. As we enter the post-industrial Stone Age, and therefore give the living planet its first legitimate shot in centuries at a comeback, we’ll be giving ourselves an opportunity to persist and to retain our humanity. We’ll be living, again, as human animals on a vibrant, verdant planet.
Regardless of the personal consequences, I can hardly wait.
Of course I recognize the attendant human suffering in our near future, including my own. I recognize the attendant reduction in human life span, including my own. But the other clear alternative — continuing human-population overshoot on an overshot planet — is far worse than terminating the last, worst civilization before it destroys the final remnants of the living planet. Before it makes the air unfit to breathe. Before it makes the water unfit to drink. Before it washes all the topsoil into the sea.
Before it kills us all.
We’ve caused, and continue to cause, extinction of species at a rate several orders of magnitude above the historical rate. The equilibrium has crumbled. And now, ten million generations into the human experience, we can embrace the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy as good news or we can continue to support the destruction-as-usual model of American-style capitalism.
Finally, this war has two sides: The industrial economy is battling the very Earth we need to survive. Which side are you on?
–Guy McPherson for Transition Voice
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