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Hope Is For The Lazy: The Challenge Of Our Dead World

To reclaim hope, we need to look beyond the structures and systems of a world that's passing away, and dare to create something better.

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Let’s start by dealing with the news on Earth about the Earth, the ecological news: It’s bad and getting worse. Think of those dsytopic futures from science fiction, the scary futures that movie directors conjure up. It looks like that kind of future is coming faster than we expected, looking meaner and uglier than we anticipated. [For a review of how that future is unfolding in parts of the world today, see Christian Parenti's book  Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011).]

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits and making it increasing unlikely that the ecosphere can continue to support human life as we know it.

Paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky of the University of California-Berkeley and 21 colleagues warn that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

That means that we’re in trouble. The authors conclude with a simple set of recommendations:

Averting a planetary-scale critical transition demands global cooperation to stem current global-scale anthropogenic forcings. This will require reducing world population growth and per-capita resource use; rapidly increasing the proportion of the world’s energy budget that is supplied by sources other than fossil fuels while also becoming more efficient in using fossil fuels when they provide the only option; increasing the efficiency of existing means of food production and distribution instead of converting new areas or relying on wild species to feed people; and enhancing efforts to manage as reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services, both in the terrestrial and marine realms, the parts of Earth’s surface that are not already dominated by humans.

To take seriously even that short list of fairly limited tasks, a significant portion of the population would have to agree with the scientific assessment of our situation, and then we all would have to summon the moral and political will to radically change the way we live. If we could do all that, we might have a chance to minimize the damage.


Simon Fraser University biologist Arne Mooers, a co-author on that study who specializes in biodiversity, says the odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations: “In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there. My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.” 

It would be easy to look at all this and conclude there is no hope. That would be easy because it’s the most rational assessment. If that seems harsh, well, life can be, and often is, harsh. As ecologists like to remind us, nature does not negotiate. Nature sets limits. For those who prefer sports metaphors, nature bats last.

Avoiding reality because it is harsh is not a winning strategy. We are not going to win by praying for deliverance by the hand of God or waiting for deliverance through the wizardry of gadgets. Religion and technology, understood historically and used wisely, are both important tools to help us cope. But religious and technological fundamentalists are weak and lazy, because they spin fanciful stories about how we can magically avoid a reckoning with the human capacity for desecration.

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