Friday, July 12, 2013

An Evolutionary Parable and the Age of Limits

Here's an evolutionary parable: 

Salamanders live in a little kettle-pond.  Clearly the sensible thing to do is to stay there and eat and mate and thrive in the relative safety of the pond.  And so they do.  But a few salamanders are clearly not sensible.  They wander off from the pond.  It turns out that it would have been much, much safer to stay in the pond and almost all of them die upon the arid, predator-infested deserts.  But a few, with little but absurd luck to distinguish them, make it to other kettle ponds and their descendants settle there and eat and mate and thrive.  And a few restless ones wander off almost always to die.  But THEY are the reason there are salamanders - a hundred thousand and a million years after that first pond and all its inhabitants have reverted to dust.

weeds consume a chair
For a human and the culture they are delivered into, it is normal to accept the waters you are given, since they are to some degree safe and tested.  The malcontent, the maladjusted and the marginalized seem to offer little but cautionary tales.

We are not salamanders and our civilization is not a pond, but there's a relevance to my little parable if I could only pin it down.  John Michael Greer, writing at the Archdruid Report argues that people are locked into our civilization's central religious cosmology of Progress (with its dualistic alter ego, Apocalypse), and they don't give it up easily or at all.  If we have run up against an Age of Limits - and I think we have - then this cosmology has become dysfunctional and delusional.  And that is one reason why humans are not doing anything significant about the problems that threaten our civilization - climate change, our total reliance on over-exploited, non-renewable resources, our unsustainable and fragile food system,  and the accelerating destruction of the generative foundations of our biological existence like soil, air, water and ecosystems.  

The problem is not that we lack solutions for living upon the earth.  The problem is that most of these solutions are incompatible with our cosmology of Progress.  Let me reiterate that.  We have solutions, but because these solutions are - for lack of a better word - heretical -  they cannot be enacted (or for the most part, even discussed).  The idea that we should be intentionally applying our considerable creative and technical energies toward building a future that is slower, poorer, and less shiny than today's is so unthinkable that people mostly refuse to think it.

a volunteer sunflower
For example, we can easily avoid climate change calamity if we are willing to leave $4 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel in the ground, bankrupting some of the largest, most powerful economic interests on earth, and bringing the engines of economic growth to a shuddering halt.  We could move past non-renewable resources if we took only what systems can regenerate and forewent the rest.  We can feed all our people if we reigned in population, discarded the worst of modern agribusiness and transitioned to a less wasteful, more labor-intensive steady-state food system.   We could put an end to our continuous economic crises if we abandoned the fiction of global economic growth and created an economy that could smoothly function with contraction.  After all, such changes are going to be imposed on us eventually whether we like it or not.

But we aren't taking up these kinds of solutions, and that is what makes us akin to those salamanders who stay in the pond even though ponds don't last forever.  It's the obvious and sensible thing to do, right up to the moment you are baked into the shattering clay.  

rusty wheelbarrow, made in USA
So what about those wandering, death-finding or death-defying salamanders?  the ones that leave the homely waters to populate new ponds and secure the long-term survival of the species?  do they have an analog here?  I'm not sure.  The mechanics of cultural evolution and biological evolution are very different.  I only know that we need more people wandering out of this Progress-puddle we are stuck within.  Greer makes a good case that the "long descent" will happen step-wise and take generations.  In my many interviews with people (far, far from the levers of power) I've seen more and more regular people questioning the cosmology of Progress, so maybe we will be able to take off the blinders and apply our energies toward crafting a good way of living in the Age of Limits.

We'll see.