We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.—T. S. Eliot1
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.—Marie Curie2
Change often occurs on the brink of disaster between need and fear. On the one hand, we know we need to do things differently. On the other hand, we are terrified of facing the unknown, unfamiliar, and uncertain. To change our direction and accommodate a potential future, however, we must suspend our conventional notions about change and our ability to learn because there are no problems to resolve other than those we perceive as manifestations of how we think and act—a notion aptly expressed by Henry David Thoreau, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.”3 The problems we face are a matter of who we are consciously. And, many people prefer to err again and again rather than let go of some cherished belief, pet notion, deified assumption, or staunchly defended position. Others err because they are pessimistic in their outlook and are thus blind to viable options.4
Social-environmental sustainability demands that we, as every-day, human decision makers, go beyond our immediate valuation of a given resource to examine and disclose the fundamental issue of how its use will affect the long-term, biophysical sustainability of the system of which it is an inseparable part. One must also recognize and disclose the long-term, social-environmental issues that need to be dealt with concerning the method by which a resource is extracted. This is necessary because the overall integrity of our biophysical system, its productive capacity, and the sustainability of its resources will determine the array of options passed forward to future generations.
As long as the human population was but a fraction of its current size, Earth’s resources were considered by most “civilized” people to be unlimited and free for the taking. But even then, “The history of almost every civilization,” observed British historian Arnold Toynbee, “furnishes examples of geographical expansion coinciding with deterioration in [environmental] quality.”5 In this brief statement, Toynbee illuminated the interconnectedness of the “waterbed principle of consciousness,” which simply demonstrates that you cannot touch any part of a filled waterbed (or any biophysical system, for that matter), regardless of how gently you touch it, without affecting the whole of it.
Today, there is much talk about “renewable” resources but no longer so much about “unlimited” resources. Ultimately, however, all biophysical resources are finite—with the exception of solar energy, at least for the next several millennia. Not only can we run out of a resource by literally exhausting its earthly supply, such as oil or the extinction of a species and its attendant service to humankind (say the provision of coffee or chocolate), but also can we so alter an existing resource base as to render it useless to us, such as poisoning our drinking water through pollution of various kinds. And, we are increasingly doing both.
Moreover, as the burgeoning human population continually demands more and more material commodities from a rapidly dwindling supply of an increasing number of vital necessities (such as potable water, the supplies of which are decreasing with global warming6 ), the ratio apportioned to each human declines. This decline is further exacerbated by the progressively longer lives of today’s humans and their prolonged demands for these same necessities. Further, those resources currently deemed “renewable” are only renewable as long as the system that produces them retains its biophysical integrity and is used in a sustainable manner—both ecologically and socially, as clearly stated by T. N. Narasimhan of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment:
Historically, science has pursued a premise that Nature can be understood fully, its future predicted precisely, and its behavior controlled at will. However, emerging knowledge indicates that the nature of Earth and biological systems transcends the limits of science, questioning the premise of knowing, prediction, and control. This knowledge has led to the recognition that, for civilized human survival, technological society has to adapt to the constraints of these systems. Simultaneously, spurred by explosive developments in the understanding of materials (non-biological and biological), applied scientific research pursues a contrary goal of controlling the material world, with the promise of spectacular economic growth and human well-being. If adaptation to Nature is so important, why does applied research pursue a contrary course? . . . Also, in a world dominated by democratic ideals of freedom and liberty, the discipline required for adapting to Nature may often be overridden by competition among various segments of society to exercise their respective rights.7
Is it really so imperative to change my behavior, you might ask, if it infringes on my personal rights? That choice is yours, of course, but remember that you irreversibly bequeath the consequences of your choice to all generations. Therefore, it would be well to consider the counsel of professor Johan Rockström and his inter-disciplinary team of 29 scientists:
Although Earth has undergone many periods of significant environmental change, the planet’s environment has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years. This period of stability—known to geologists as the Holocene—has seen human civilizations arise, develop and thrive. Such stability may now be under threat. Since the Industrial Revolution, a new era has arisen, the Anthropocene, in which human actions have become the main driver of global environmental change. This could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environmental state of the Holocene, with consequences that are detrimental—or even catastrophic—for large parts of the world.8 [Holocene comes from the Greek holos, (“whole”) and cene (“new”). Anthropocene9 comes from the Greek anthropo (“human”).]
Dawning of the Anthropocene Epoch represents “a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other [the waterbed principle]. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet.”10 Consider, for example, that today’s rising air pollution affects the Earth from the top of the highest mountain and beyond into the deepest parts of the world’s oceans. It is everywhere and will worsen as long as decisions to placate corporate industry and national politics continually trump a global pursuit of dramatically cleaning the world’s air. Here, it must be stated in fairness that our material appetites feed the corporate drive for more, whereas the corporate drive for more—ever more—stimulates our material appetite for more—always more—through advertising in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
I used air pollution to illustrate that our earthly survival, and that of our children and their children unto all generations, ultimately depends on clean air. We are, after all, sandwiched between two oceans with currents that circumnavigate the world—one of air and the other of water. Of the two, air is the initial, interactive thread that connects the soil, water, and all life; in addition, it affects how sunlight and climate interact with the Earth—again, the waterbed principle of consciousness.
Yet, we, as a society with our myriad data bits and seemingly vast, ever-increasing knowledge, listen to the world’s traditional economists and the corporate/political elite and assume they are correct—despite the inviolable waterbed principle—when they take such biophysical variables as air, soil, water, sunlight, biodiversity, genetic diversity, and climate and convert them, in theory at least, into independent variables, economic constant values, or discount them altogether as “externalities.” Biophysical variables are therefore omitted from consideration in most economic and planning models and even from our thinking—to say nothing of the political decisions rendered by today’s global leaders. Moreover, biophysical diversity itself is euphemistically discounted as an “externality,” when any facet of its consideration interferes with monetary profits.11 On top of it all is the nagging problem of our rapidly growing human population. We talk about it and worry about it. But, in the end, we give only lip service to the one solution that can control it—total, real, gender equality for women.
That said, all relationships are in constant flux, as complex, biophysical systems arise from subatomic particles in the giant process of evolution on Earth. At each higher level of complexity and organization, there is an increase in the size of the system and a corresponding decrease in the energies holding it together. Put differently, the forces that keep evolving systems intact, from a molecule to a human society, weaken as the size of the systems increases, yet the larger the system the more energy it requires to function. Such functional dynamics are characterized by their biophysical diversity, as well as by the constraints of the overarching laws and subordinate principles that govern them—once again encompassed in the waterbed principle of consciousness.
1. Karl von Eckartshausen. Magic: The Principles of Higher Knowledge. Merkur Publishing Co. Ltd., Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. (1989) 316 pp.
2. T. S. Eliot. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/tseliot109032.html (accessed March 18, 2011).
3. Marie Curie. http://thinkexist.com/quotation/nothing_in_life_is_to_be_feared-it_is_only_to_be/14155.html (accessed March 18, 2011).
4. Henry David Thoreau. http://www.worldvoyageur.com/great-quotes/henry-d-thoreau-collected-quotations/ (accessed April 30, 2012).
5. Russ Beaton and Chris Maser. Economics and Ecology: United for a Sustainable World. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. (2011) 191 pp.
6. Arnold J. Toynbee. A study of History, Volumes I-VI (abridgement by D.C. Somervell). Oxford University Press, New York, NY. (1987) 7,000 pp.
7. (1) James Painter. Peru’s alarming water truth. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6412351.stm (accessed on April 10, 2010); (2) Water supply and sanitation in Peru. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_Peru (accessed on April 11, 2010); and (3) Quelccaya Ice Cap. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quelccaya (accessed on April 11, 2010).
8. T. N. Narasimhan. Limitations of science and adapting to Nature. Environmental Research Letters, 2 (July-September 2007) http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/2/3/034003/pdf/erl7_3_034003.pdf (accessed September 5, 2013).
9. Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, and others. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461 (2009):472–475.
10. Jan Zalasiewicz, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen. The New World of the Anthropocene. Environmental Science and Technology, 44 (2010):2228–2231.
11. Dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch? Earth has entered new age of geological time, experts say. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100326101117.htm (accessed on February 4, 2011).
Text © by Chris Maser 2015. All rights reserved.