We dreamed we were living in a fabulous mansion but are waking up in a greasy gutter. The ecological and economic catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico makes our most infamous oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, look miniscule by comparison. This time we have fouled our nest on an epic scale.
The busted BP pipeline is a watershed event like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the collapse of the Ponzi economy. It is not as dramatic as exploding towers, as poignant as those survivors huddled on rooftops awaiting rescue, or as personal for most of us as the loss of a job or home or even a 401K. The devastation to earth’s life-support system, the killing of a whole ocean ecosystem across the Gulf, will resonate slowly — this disaster will be a marathon, not a dash. But make no mistake, we will mark these days as the time we started to learn about ecocide, as a turning point in our realization that our industrial, carbon-dependent way of life is ruinous and cannot last. How many more of these wrenching experiences must we endure before we finally get it and change?
Lesson one: We do not stand above and beyond the boundaries of a finite natural realm that runs through our veins as surely as rivers run down canyons to the sea. The “environment” is not something out there — we breathe it, we drink it, we eat it. We embody it. Kill it and you sentence your children and grandchildren to the toil and suffering of living and dieing on a scorched, contaminated planet of slums.
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Lesson two: The term unsustainable tells you the end of the story. What cannot be sustained fails, collapses in on itself. The real apocalypse, not the one imagined by religious zealots but the one happening all around us right now, will be a global phenomenon that plays out locally, especially for those in the direct path of monster storms, ecocidal accidents, war, famine, pandemics, droughts, and all the other nasty surprises yet to come as we keep crossing one environmental threshold after another. Collapse ain’t pretty. It is sickening.
The catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will generate passionate debate. We will critique BP’s profit-saving shortcuts and poor safety record, the Bush-era regulators who were literally in bed with oil corporations, and we’ll debate any number of other issues, laws, policies, and practices related to the catastrophe. But at the heart of the matter is something much deeper that we must get to. If we want to stop our culture’s self-destructive habits and learn sustainable behaviors, if we want to survive our mistakes and thrive tomorrow, then we must shed our hubris and learn to be humble and wise.
The age of hubris, a time when all things are knowable, all problems can be fixed, and all limits surpassed is crashing all around us. We granted ourselves an exemption from the limits of a natural realm where there is only so much fertile soil, so much fresh water, so many fish in the ocean. The atmosphere can only absorb so much CO2 and stay benign. You can shred just so much biodiversity and expect nature to be resilient and recover from the wounds we recklessly inflict.
Yes, we put a man on the moon and every man in a car, at least here in America where we are so privileged. My great-grandfather could not have imagined the middle-class wealth I take for granted and the extent to which we have harnessed carbon to run our world. But, drunk on pride, we are crashing hard now — oil-stained beaches and marshes are just one more clear signal that we humans may not be as smart as we assumed. The Crown of Creation is turning out to be a dunce cap.
Our kind of intelligence is undeniable. Humans are very sharp when it comes to all those aspects of the world that are fixed, measurable, happen in a linear progression, and are predictable. That is how, after all, we put a man on the moon. So when dealing with the mechanical realm of physics, our airplanes, dams, computers, chemical finesse, and nuclear machines are wonders to behold.
What we are not good at are all those phenomena that are nonlinear and have emergent behaviors, where, in other words, the whole tends to be greater than the sum of its parts but not predictably so — things like the climate, ecosystems, fetal development, immune systems, brain function, and swarm behavior. We are only beginning to understand the dynamics of a deeply nonlinear world like feedback loops, thresholds, and basins of attraction. We have a rather myopic view of scales, seeing well what is happening now and predicting what’s right around the corner but missing the slow variables that can be more important in the long-run. This is why we deplete soils, turn grasslands into deserts, and use up ancient aquifers and oil deposits in a geological instant.
Our intelligence is also tempered by the human condition. Although we can boast about the scientific prowess we express through our technology and medicine, we are easily distracted by emotional needs for validation, approval, and identity. We compete as much as we compute, greed still drives us, and we can rationalize any destructive behavior. We are easily addicted and not easily satiated. We have been thoroughly indoctrinated by an all-encompassing economic order that is driven by a blind quest for power and profit. There is reason to believe we have been traumatized by our recent history of serial warfare, genocide, and environmental dislocation.
Because we have short memories and a tendency towards denial, collectively we act like amnesiacs, as if every other past civilization or previous empire didn’t also think it was smarter than all the others that had preceded it and, unlike them, was immune to failure. Consider that almost everything an intellectual in the sixteenth-century knew for certain has since been proved wrong and almost everything we know for sure today will be radically revised a hundred years hence.
How far back in history do we have to go to find evidence of such wrong-headed hubris? In the 1950s, our knowledge of how the world works was so advanced that we even harnessed the atom, the building block of matter. Confidently and with authority, uranium miners, citizens living downwind from nuclear testing, “atomic GIs,” and nuclear weapon workers were told that the low doses of radiation they received were harmless, maybe even beneficial. In the meanwhile, forest fires were suppressed, keystone predators were hunted and eliminated from the land, and DDT was applied without protest to the crops we ate and the front lawns where children played. Lead was added to gasoline. We built so many nuclear weapons that we could destroy life on earth many times over. Ships loaded with old rusty chemical weapons were scuttled and sent to the ocean floor. Engineers were busy draining the Everglades and re-routing its flow through canals. Emotionally distressed patients were lobotomized. That was just fifty years ago, a mere blink of history’s eye. Today’s genius is tomorrow’s fool. Simply put, the world is not only more complex than we thought, it is more complex than we can think.
As Iraq War architect Donald Rumsfeld ironically explained, there’s what you know you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know. So, for example, I know my own finances and how to be a librarian. I know I don’t know how to run a bank or how to be a surgeon. It is much harder to say what is out there that I haven’t even a clue about. But it is how I deal with that question about what I don’t know I don’t know that determines how much risk I am willing to take, whether I see a need for precaution, and whether I seek alternative options.
The risk assessments that justified BP’s deep-water drilling in the Gulf were more than inadequate and dishonest, they were inherently flawed because the uncertainties of the project could not be known and the consequences of failure could not be measured. Formal risk assessments are too often a rubber stamp process designed to give the public unwarranted confidence that industry and regulators understand and can control the complex variables they are considering. Politically, those risk assessments were also inherently flawed because they let BP and its facilitating regulators decide who was put at risk for BP’s benefit. Ask a Louisiana shrimper if the distribution of risk, reward, and liability in the Gulf was fair, or if he had a place at the table when those decisions were made.
The so-called precautionary principle, also called the “better safe than sorry” principle, says that we should err on the side of caution when the potential impacts of a mistake cannot be completely understood but could be serious, widespread, and irreversible. Under a precautionary paradigm, we don’t wait until injury and accident happen and then wait even more for incontrovertible conclusions about causes. Instead, the burden of proof is shifted from the potential downwind/downstream victims of a project to the proponents of whatever technology or practice is being proposed. The precautionary path requires alternatives whenever the consequences of a technological project are potentially dire and irreversible.
Capitalists who are accustomed to getting their way no matter what the risks are will squawk that such requirements are radical, time-consuming, and too expensive. But in light of what is happening in the Gulf today, the precautionary paradigm can no longer be dismissed as some whacko notion for clog-wearing Europeans and San Francisco liberals. Precaution is plain common sense. As my grandma liked to say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The need for precaution increases apace with technological prowess. It wasn’t enough, for example, that we altered the very DNA of seeds, like splicing fish genes into strawberries, or that we gave plants characteristics nature would never allow, like herbicide resistant corn. At this very moment, artificial cells, stripped of their natural genetic codes in favor of computerized DNA, are growing in labs. We will make new life forms and set them loose. Will we be shocked if that goes awry and takes down whole species, crops, soils? When the mistake that was never supposed to happen happens and cannot be recalled?
For individuals, the collapse of the Age of Hubris is experienced as a profound and disturbing lack of confidence. You don’t know who to trust, what to believe, and what will happen next. You suspect that everything you thought you knew is wrong. The serial shocks our culture has been enduring from 9/11 through the financial turmoil of the last years and now this wholesale destruction of habitat generate doubt and fear that the media echo back to us. All that paranoid ranting, conspiracy thinking, demonizing, noise, and distortion that dominate our civic dialogues these days may be more symptomatic of our era than its cause, but such feedback also reinforces doubt and fear in a vicious feedback loop.
The collapse of confidence isn’t necessarily bad even if it feels that way. Humility can lead to sustainable paths the way hubris led us over the cliff. Precaution is as wise as it is humble. It can spur us to find better outcomes for the earth and all its creatures. And since a humble heart is also a compassionate one, perhaps we can heal the human realm as well. We will discover that our best bet to make it through the turmoil ahead is one another because mutual aid is and has always been the key to our resilience. To say that we must learn to live within limits is not to say our lives will be diminished but that they will acquire new meaning, insight, purpose, and values.
Starting over is tough. We will drag a lot of baggage down the road — attitudes and assumptions, habits and desires, history, contracts, alliances, and obligations. The first step is the hardest; admitting that what we thought we knew was wrong and that there is so much more we don’t know than we assumed. Until now, pride easily trumped precaution. The sickening images of ecocide we are experiencing today may change that.
Who knows, we may even start treating the planet like our lives depended on it.