I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long. Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.
“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”
“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”
- Michael Hudson, economist
The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.
Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”
“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”
- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based
Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.
This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.
“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”
- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist
Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.
If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future. In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.
“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”
- Robert Wright
“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”
- Jane Goodall, primatologist
One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.
While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.
“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”
- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group
So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.
For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.