Saturday, April 17, 2010
An Autumn update.
We have gained confidence as trampers in doing short overnight stays in some of the wonderful huts on tracks in this country. Above is a photo of the track to Wainui Hut, and of us keeping cosy in this old hut as night fell. The thrid os of us with friend, Katerina, outside the Bushline Hut, a much newer constuction. It's enormously refreshing to be immersed in forest and mountain beauty.
Our house is slowly proceeding. We have the root cellar dug into the side of a hill, the foundations of the shed for the solar panels, the cistern for the composting toilet, the slab for the shed, and now, the foundations of the house already done. The shed is up.
A team has begun work pressing the bricks, none too soon.
The huge amounts of time required for the house have detracted from other things we want to do. I'm eager to spend more time finishing the book on Reconciliation, and on revving up work on Transition initiatives. I have begun again, after a break, the Transition Towns radio show, with interviews of a woman promoting local eating and a climate scientist turned educator. David Lowe was an atmospheric chemist and lead author of IPCC reports. He felt that continuing to publish papers was not going to save the situation; perhaps getting into schools and talking to people might, so that's what he's doing. Admirable guy. I've done one on care of the local aquifer, and another on local democracy. Next week I've lined up someone on The Natural Step principles, and a fascinating sheep farmer who has replaced his pasture with lucerne to adapt to climate change, and is sequestering lots of carbon at the same time in the deep roots o the lucerne, thus helping to mitigate climate change.
I've been pulled back a little into the arena of developing knowledge of soil carbon and biochar, but I'd prefer to defer this until the book is finished.
I recently made one of my periodic trips to Wellington to do a session on Peace through Health with medical students, and then to meet with colleagues in International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. With the modest steps Obama has taken and the Nonproliferation Treaty Review on now, this was a good time for us to meet. It's not entirely easy to think what New Zealand can contribute to pushing things forward to nuclear weapons abolition, but it has provided a dramatic example in the past of how to move out of the nuclear weapons orbit. Regarding what small non-nuclear countries can do, I was inspired by reading today of how it was the Irish UN representative at the time, Frank Aiken, who skilfully and persistently raised and steadily pushed the idea of a nonproliferation treaty forward. It took ten years from when he first raised it to the accomplishment of the treaty.
A small nice thing happened today. In my last blog I included an essay I wrote on Maori-Pakeha reconciliation. I wanted to have one or more Maori review it, and had found this difficult to accomplish. When a Maori man we know had been working on chopping our felled trees into firewood for the local marae, Jack had asked him about this. He said he'd ask an elder. I assumed he had forgotten about this when nothing happened. Today I met him in the supermarket. One definitely notices Matua; he's big, very dark, and has a wreath of leaves tatooed around his face. 'Hey', he said. "I got Uncle Tahi to say he'd read your essay, and he'll meet with you about it.'
Atamai, the village
There is a developing sense of a village community. The young couple, Craig and Tracey Ambrose, have helped with this in establishing Friday night pizza and beer meals. They make the dough, and we all bring toppings and/or dessert, and beer, of course. Tracey and Kyoko are also establishing an organic foods co-op. Now I buy milk in bulk, straight from the farm (not our farm). I just made butter from the cream.
Three of the neighbours are mounting a coordinated campaign to harrass and discredit Atamai. They have tried unsuccessfully to oust Jurgen from his temporary housing on his land; they have complained unsuccessfully to the council that we are mining our land to make the bricks, one has posed as an interested investor to the local building society to try to find out about financial arrangements. Another gave a false name in order to try to extract information from the project lawyer. They're afraid, unnecessarily I think, that their peaceful rural way of life will be upset. We proposed mediation, but they rejected the offer.
Transition Town Motueka
The TALENTS currency is growing in use. We are planning a big session on Eating Locally. The car-pooling scheme is going well.
In turning back to the topic of reconciliation, I wondered how the concepts might apply to our relationship with the Earth, and wrote this exploratory essay. Don't feel obliged to read it. I daily hope that we can find some way to move toward reconciliation with our unhappy neighbours. With time, I'm sure we will.
Warmest wishes to all,
Reconciliation with the Earth
Is it not stretching the concept of reconciliation too far to consider such an interaction with a system without consciousness – the Earth? We cautiously propose that it is not for the following reason: the biosphere and those parts of the soil, rocks and oceans on which the biosphere depends (sometimes summarised by the mythically-derived term ‘Gaia’) is an extraordinarily complex system of systems. It appears to have an emergent long-term self-regulating property with the goal of maximizing life. The human population of the Earth, a conscious component part of the biosphere, has grown in numbers and technological capacity to the point of affecting the huge, complex self-regulating Earth system. The result of this interference is changing the conditions of life on Earth, contributing to the sixth major episode of extinction of biodiversity and to deteriorating conditions for human life.
. Life on planet earth is an improbable event; the biogeochemical evolution of our planet is, as far as we know, unique in our solar system, and likely beyond. If there is anything that is indeed sacred, it is the unique conditions and interplay between the inert matter of our special planet and the living systems that arose from this inert matter. We humans are, of course, part of that web of life. We are also the only species that have caused not only local disruption of these complex systems, but also planetary disruptions that now threaten the complexity of the unique phenomena we so take for granted – living systems. This is harm on a grand scale. And where there is harm, there is a need for reconciliation. Understanding the nature of the harm, who is harmed, and how they are harmed, influences how reconciliation might be approached.
The nature of this harm has largely been an unconscious phenomenon for humans, recently and currently becoming increasingly conscious. The processes of acknowledgment of harm, guilt, remorse, determination not to continue or repeat the harmful behaviour, repair of the damage and recovery and maintenance of a peaceful relationship are all highly relevant to this situation. So, according to James Lovelock, is the concept of revenge, though he does not assume consciousness in the process. Lovelock and many others foresee the possibility that a warming Earth, due both to increased heat from the sun and to human generation of greenhouse gases, will become seriously inhospitable for humans. The possibility of human extinction, in the short rather than long term, presents itself. This would be revenge indeed.
Let us see where the application of concepts of reconciliation in this situation gets us.
What harm has been (and is likely to be) done?
We will need to consider harm to humans and harm to other species. Where we considered harm to relationships in other case studies, here we need to consider harm to complex systems of relationships between multiple species and their sustaining substrate – in other words, ecosystems. For once let us consider other species before we consider humans.
• Harm to other species. We are accustomed to thinking of the basic needs of humans, and how these translate into human rights. Let us consider that other species also manifest most of the same basic needs in their behavior. They need security from death or injury and will seek to maximize this by evolutionary adaptation or by dramatic measures in the face of immediate threats if they are a mobile species. They need well-being and will employ the same long-term and short-term measures to ensuring this. They need freedom and will usually attempt to get it when it is denied them. The very many social species, from ants, sardines and crows to wolves and humans need to be able to congregate with their group, group inclusion. In humans, we think of this as a need for identity; this is the concept advanced consciousness associates with group inclusion, a very basic need. In humans, particularly over the last century, we have formulated the idea of rights to fulfilment of these basic needs. There is no consensus on whether, from our perspective, other species have rights. It is very clear that they have basic needs.
The magnitude of the harm done is already very severe, and includes death, not only to large numbers of individual organisms, but to entire species. Humans have encroached on the habitat of other species through agriculture, massive urbanization, roads, dams and mining . They have appropriated 25 to 40% of the net products of photosynthesis, the process on which the entire food chain (and our own food supply) depends . As one of millions of species, this is an extraordinarily large share of the biosphere’s production to commandeer. Hunting, fishing, pollution of soil, water and air, contribution to global warming and ocean acidification have added to these effects to lead to a massive extinction phenomenon , , comparable in magnitude to the five other extinction spasms in the history of the biosphere. This loss is likely to include animals to whose existence we are sentimentally attached such as koalas, polar bears, whales, gorillas, and also forms of life with which we have no familiarity, such as beetles, moths and micro-organisms, some of which may be crucial to their ecosystems. This harm is irreversible. Once the last koala or elephant has died, they can never again enjoy life, nor make their contribution to the life around them. We can never again enjoy such creatures accompanying our time on Earth. Their genetic code has gone forever.
• Harm to ecosystems and the biosphere as an integrated system of systems. Damage to ecosystems involves harm to the multiple species interdependent in the system. Examples of such large-scale harm are rainforest destruction, dead zones in oceans due to damaging effluent from large rivers, the loss of freshwater life in rivers and lakes and the global loss of soil swept by erosion into the ocean. Some damage is reversible, such as recovery of rivers and lakes when toxic effluent is stopped. This cannot happen if species have become extinct, or if damage has engaged positive feedback loops and worsens exponentially. In addition, as ecosystems attempt to adapt to climate change, the resilience provided by rich diversity will have been diminished. Human knowledge of the intricate interconnexions of ecosystems and the whole biosphere is scanty, and we interfere at our peril. For example, insufficient appreciation of the functions of coastal mangrove ecosystems as flood protection and as ocean fish nurseries has led to widespread destruction and loss of these ecosystems, increasing vulnerability to flooding of coastal areas (such as New Orleans) and to diminution of fish populations .
• Harm to humans
Since humans are part of the biosphere, and utterly dependent on it for survival and well-being, the harm we have done and continue to do to the biosphere is harm we do to each other. But this harm is not equally distributed. There is broad agreement that it is the poorest segment of local human populations and of the global population that have suffered and will suffer disproportionately from ecological damage of all kinds .
(i) Forced human movement. In Bangladesh, several hundred thousands of people have already had to move because of rising sea levels due to climate change. They largely move to the slums of Dhaka . The number of such internal migrants, forced to move because of sea-level rise, climate-induced famine or water shortage is estimated to be in the tens of millions by mid-century . Forced migration is costly to those affected, often meaning loss of capital goods and means of livelihood, loss of supportive community structure and culture. It is likely to be costly to those resident in the areas of new settlement too. The first populations to suffer climate change effects alongside the Bangladeshis are the small Pacific Island states, and the Inuit of the Arctic. It is projected that over the next century, sea level rise will affect many of the world’s largest cities which are close to sea-level . It is easy to project conflict arising out of these population movements into already heavily occupied areas, and the possibility of violent conflict.
(ii) Health effects of multiple forms of ecological damage . A hotter climate will diminish productivity; humans work less efficiently at higher temperatures. This will particularly affect agricultural and factory productivity. The former is especially worrying in the light of declining global grain stocks. Infectious diseases may become more troublesome as changing climate alters the distribution of vectors, and populations with low immunity are affected. The frequency of natural disasters of flooding, drought, hurricanes has increased due to climate change, causing immense suffering to affected areas.
(iii) The economic well-being of large populations deteriorates under conditions of desertification, deforestation, soil depletion, water pollution and diversion.
(iv) Harm to the beauty of the Earth. There is something in us that thrives on the beauty of wild places – an untrammelled river, the deep forest, an unspoiled beach. We seek it out. In the 21st century we have to seek harder and harder, as Earth’s beauty becomes obliterated by ever-enlarging cities, by roads, factories and agriculture. For many people, this beauty, once the common treasure of all humans, has become entirely inaccessible.
(v) Harm to future generations of humans. We who are alive now will leave the Earth in much worse condition than we found it. We are drawing down on Earth’s ‘natural capital’ instead of living on the interest. William Catton points out that when a population of any species overshoots the carrying capacity of its environment, what follows is collapse of the population . We are depleting the resources available to the next generation. We leave serious problems, created by human activity, to those as yet unborn to solve. If they can.
(vi) Finally, possibly curtailing the span of humans on Earth. The Earth is heating anyway, apart from human activity, and its hospitality for our species will not be perpetual. All species have a limited span in the history of the Earth. By altering the temperature and the climate severely, we may have hastened the time when the Earth can no longer support our species .
If the reader will allow a little stretching of the concept, usually reserved for conscious pay-back after a perceived insult, there is something worth understanding here. Revenge in primate society, including humans, is a crude and flawed self-regulating justice system. Another self-regulating system, the human body, deals with invasion by a species causing harm to its functioning, such as parasites, bacteria or viruses, by changing the internal environment of the system through immune response to exterminate the invading species. The analogy put forward here is that humans, having multiplied to a prodigious extent to occupy every zone on Earth, and appropriating an entirely disproportionate amount of Earth’s photosynthetic output , are, through their technology and numbers, doing severe damage to the biosphere. The unanticipated outcome of this damage is a change in the environment towards suboptimal conditions for survival of the species. The expectation is that large numbers of humans will die, that complex civilization will disappear, and that much smaller numbers of humans will live in less complex societies at lower levels of technology, and less capacity to harm the biosphere. This is conceived of as the ‘revenge’ of Gaia.
We might also consider the point of view of the human and conscious part of the biosphere in the future, perhaps in 2150, contemplating our own generations, particularly those responsible for much of the harm to the Earth. The spotlight falls on the affluent countries of high economic growth after the period of the industrial revolution. Will they feel anger and rejection towards us for leaving them such a damaged Earth? They will have no capacity to punish us for our ecological sins, though.
The alternative route is to speedily adapt the impact of human presence in the biosphere to a level which no longer involves damaging activities, no longer draws down on resources faster than they can be renewed and produces wastes beyond possible rates of natural processing, and which repays the ecological debt to be discussed below. In other words, the harm must cease, the conflict of incompatible goals resolved and reconciliation of the relationship engaged in.
Ending the harm
Ending the harm is an enormous task. The formula for the harm introduced by Paul Ehrlich and used by many others since is I= PAT . I is Impact on ecological integrity of the biosphere. P is Population size. A is level of Affluence or consumption of the population, T is Technology used in terms of ecological damage. (For example, electricity produced by a coal-fired power station will do more damage than electricity from a wind farm.) Ending the harm then involves tackling all factors in the equation. We would need to stop blowing up mountains to extract more coal, burning which then deforms the atmosphere, which results in overheating the Earth and damaging many species. This we might consider as direct violence to the Earth. We would need to curb or halt economic growth, which demands more and more throughput of materials and energy in a never-ending and logically impossible sequence on a finite Earth. This is structural violence deeply embedded in the structure of our economies. But most strikingly, we would need to tackle the cultural violence of our convictions about every one of the factors in the IPAT formula – belief in our imperative to populate the Earth with many offspring, belief in our right to affluence and waste and assessment of technology by its capacity to generate profit or enhance convenience, no matter what the externalized cost to the Earth and the global commons, which all of us share.
Resolving the conflict
The observed goal of the biosphere is to maximize life. The complex goals of humans counter this goal, sometimes severely and perhaps terminally. Working out a ‘transcending’ solution to this conflict is theoretically possible. It would mean living at levels of population, affluence and technology congruent with Earth’s carrying capacity. It would mean transmitting from generation to generation the values, skills and knowledge to sustain these limits while improving on life within these limits. Humans would enhance the beauty, integrity and resilience of the biosphere instead of destroying them.
In this case the processes of resolution and reconciliation merge, as follows.
There is a global furore about acknowledgment of human contribution to the destructive processes listed above, particularly to climate change. It is deeply embedded in dominant cultures that the Earth and its resources are for human exploitation, that ‘Man’ and ‘Nature’ are opposed, and ‘Man’ will conquer ‘Nature’, that Earth’s resources are endless, and it has endless capacity to deal with the effluents resulting from human activities. These embedded attitudes, together with the near-worship of ‘economic growth’ are, as suggested, a very close match to the idea of ‘cultural violence’ – the beliefs and attitudes that support violence in its many forms. Many indigenous cultures, on the other hand are imbued with a profound identification of humans with the natural world, a deep respect for species other than humans, an awareness of limits in use of resources and proscription of going beyond those limits. (It would, however, be a mistake to see indigenous cultures as ideal in their relationship to Nature. Many extinctions of food species were caused by such societies.)
Yet, acknowledgement is proceeding. Recognition of the damage our species is causing is steadily advancing. It is entering school curricula and university programmes. Environmental Impact Assessments must be done before further interfering with Nature in many governance systems. Environmental laws are passed to minimize further damage. The Precautionary Principle implies a humble acknowledgement of the paucity of our knowledge of natural systems – that we shouldn’t interfere unless we are sure we can avoid all damage. Full acknowledgement requires full shared understanding of the damage humans have done, and we are quite a long way from that state. We resist understanding, and deny the evidence before our eyes, because we benefit short-term from drawing down on Earth’s natural capital. In addition, there is powerful organized resistance to this acknowledgement, some of it funded by coal and oil industries .
We are a long way from the condition of a general shared deep respect for the integrity, beauty and resilience of Nature and all its intricate parts, the kind of respect that would lead to extreme caution before any interference or depletion.
There are further complications in this acknowledgement. Rich countries, with their history of one to two centuries of industrial development powered by fossil fuels are responsible for most of the gases in the atmosphere causing the greenhouse effect. The most severe impacts of global warming will fall particularly on people and other species in poor countries, where droughts will limit what can grow, and floods will carry away stock, crops and wild species . Poor countries are demanding acknowledgement of this in climate negotiations, preparatory to making claims on rich countries. The acknowledgement is slow in coming.
Guilt and remorse
Many who become aware of how severely the Earth has been damaged feel guilt and remorse. Among them, some believe the damage is irreversible, or at least partly so. This perspective is deeply depressing. Remorse involves the intention not to repeat the harm, the wish to undo the damage. This emotion can energize activism to change the course of events.
This is irrelevant in relation to a system without consciousness, except in a symbolic sense to affirm the intention not to continue or repeat the harm. But perhaps such an apology to Gaia and all she nourishes, including our own descendants would be a good start. Such an aspiration involves enormous changes in human civilization. Governments are beginning to work at lowering carbon emissions, but show no signs of lowering them far enough and fast enough to avoid the agreed-upon dangerousness of having the global average temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius. There is very little discussion of rights-respecting ways of lowering human population numbers, or changing economies to function within the biophysical limits of what the Earth can provide and absorb. Groups in civil society work away at some of these issues; governments do not mention them. We should consider apologizing to our children and grandchildren who will have to cope with what we have done.
Restoration of damage
The term ‘ecological debt’ is used in two senses. One is seen as a debt owed by the (over)developed countries to the underdeveloped countries. The former have damaged the biosphere disproportionately as they developed their economies on burning fossil fuel over the last century and more. The less developed countries continue to have large proportions of their populations living below sufficiency levels. They need help from the developed countries if they are to provide adequately for their people without damaging the biosphere even more seriously .
The other sense in which the term is used is the debt to future generations of humans (and other species) of damaging the Earth to the extent that it is depleted in its resources and the ecosystem services such as carbon absorption, flood protection, climate regulation on which human life depends. We have made life much harder for our offspring. As we are dealing here with the relation between humans and the biosphere or Gaia, we will deal with the second sense of ecological debt, not the first.
Can the damage be restored, the debt paid off? Obviously the first consideration is how to stop the damaging processes, as above. To restore the injured Earth, the highest priority is likely to be returning some of the carbon sent into the atmosphere back to biomass, soil or rock. (The acidified ocean cannot store more.) This can be partly done with changed agricultural and pastoral practices, particularly organic methods . Reforestation, increasing the proportion of land under permanent forest cover, stores carbon in tree biomass and assists with debt repayment .
Bringing Earth’s population below levels congruent with its carrying capacity for humans, curbing consumption to levels of sufficiency rather than excess, learning to run steady-state economies below Earth’s biophysical limits are all measures that will allow restoration of the biosphere, if a tipping point has not been passed.
Restoring a peaceful, cooperative relationship
It may be hundreds or thousands of years before Earth recovers from its present human-induced illness. Excess carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for periods in that order of magnitude. If recovery of a generous, bountiful relationship is possible, humans will need to change their behavior henceforth. They will need to curb their population numbers and their consumption, and their astounding technological capacity for heedless harm to Nature. All of human cleverness and wisdom will need to be dedicated to learning to live well without harming the biosphere. Reverence for all life forms will need to enter human cultures, together with knowledge of the intricate integration of the great biosphere of which we are a part. Humility before this unknowable system needs to be part of our values, transmitted from generation to generation. Perhaps we will succeed in making peace with the Earth.