Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Dancing Star Foundation President Michael Charles Tobias, in an Exclusive Disussion About the Fate of the Earth - Part Two

EmanPDX - I share your skepticism about the future of humanity.  It appears we are on a course that will result in a catastrophic alteration of our biosphere, and a great deal of human suffering.  On the other hand, there are signs of hope. Energy, the primary driver of human advancement, is on an accelerating green trajectory. Clean, renewable energy sources, particularly solar PV and wind, are already cheaper in many places than fossil fuels or nuclear power. Many who study global trends see the world running almost entirely on clean, renewables by as soon as 2050.  That translates to less warming stress on our atmosphere, icecaps, and oceans. Good news, yes, but there is the matter of the still growing human population, which is currently 7.3 billion, on the way to 11 or 12 billion. That simply doesn't compute. We are already overstressing the planet's shrinking resources, driving a rapid collapse of the planet's biodiversity. You always point to biodiversity as the loss that cannot be redeemed. Why is habitat loss and species extinction bad for the planet, and bad for humanity?

Michael Tobias - As you know, the 48th Session of the United Nations Population Commission ( )   was unable, for the first time in 20 years, to adopt any concluding resolution. This was first described as a last minute procedural 'Anomaly', but it may go much deeper than that. I suspect it concerns the vast, unmanageable array of 'wish lists', a welter of wildfires amid too many imperatives, and a world of complexities - with 237,211 new people to feed every day, 180 per minute, nearly 82 million more per year -  ( )

Indeed, this is the penultimate enshrining of the famed I=PAT equation x The Tragedy of the Commons.

In other words, a biological calamity that has few anodynes beyond the basic human rights doctrines, which are not even universally adhered to, as radicalized groups like isis and boko haram have to our horror, more than proved. We are a mixed species, a decidedly schizophrenic species, and this attends upon every collective decision. In other words, our doom is decreed by the masses, whereas our liberation appears destined to emerge from individualism.

Since the time of Pericles of Athens there has never been a more contradictory political crisis than that currently at large amongst our kin: we cannot even agree on the word "genocide," or "cruelty" or "animal" or "evolution."  We are utterly and ecologically illiterate, and the lack of contact with nature is spreading.

Meanwhile, nearly 50% of all nations remain above a Total Fertility Rate of 3 children per couple. This is insanity. Why? Because at that rate, we will likely exceed ten billion by the end of this century. We might even hit 12, even 13 billion.  There will, of course, be demographers who say "Nonsense!  All the signs suggest stabilization at 9.5 billion. But they don't"  There is no one who can, with a sane mind, conclude that we are shrinking in numbers. When, in the early 1990s I finished writing my book and preparing the film adaptation of World War III, we were adding well over 92 million per year. We have come down by ten million, and that is good news. But we are not even close to the stabilization quotient, which would be no children per couple for at least two generations, then one per couple for two generations, or there about. That is the elixir for limiting our unabashed and dreadful impact on habitat.

You ask why habitat loss and species extinction matters? Which is like, in my mind, the equivalent of wondering whether or not we should care about Hitler or Stalin. Their evil doing is all part of the evolutionary game plan: that whatever people do is okay because it somehow fits in God's greater picture; or, from even the atheist position, that this vast and tragic loss of biodiversity might somehow be viewed as a mechanical kind of necessity within the overall productivity - millennium after millennium - of the biosphere.

But that is sheer lunacy. We know from clear and abundant data that every species is a link in a vulnerable chain of being; that each individual is equally critical to that chain. While we might not be prone to believe that very individual counts, we know from experience this to be false; that every individual is equal to every other individual. That the loss of one child matters, not just to the child, but to those left behind.

And it is no different with every other child of every species, and if readers might find that a tad sentimentalist, let them. It was Albert Schweitzer who regarded sentimentality as one of the most crucial ingredients of human nature. Should we lose the ability to shed a tear, to be euphoric over beauty, to celebrate nature, art, and our convictions, then we will perish, and so will other species - given our albeit ungainly but critical role, these days, as stewards of Creation. And, not to repeat the broken record, should we go on to lose pollinators, and all of the nurseries on earth - the rainforests and wetlands, etc., then we will lose our lives to the stupidity of human indifference. I know no one who can survive without food, or water, or air for a week, let alone an hour (in the case of air). And so I must conclude that those who advocate for blind progress are simply, tragically uneducated idiots; village idiots in search of a village.

Without biodiversity, we do not exist. Without habitat, biodiversity does not exist, the Earth as we know it does not exist. End of story.

EmanPDX -  Unfortunately, as you point out, despite some encouraging trends,  the damage to the planet's living habitat and its biodiversity are unprecedented and getting worse every day. 

Indifference, ignorance, and deeply misguided dogma do seem to be at the root of humanity's inability to adequately engage this very troubling inertia.  Too many are of us are blindly caught up in an entrenched cultural model that discounts compassion in favor of mindless consumption and a toxic disconnect with nature. How do we begin to marshal the global cultural commitment and focus required to survive the monumental reckoning in which we find ourselves?

Michael Tobias - It's too glib to suggest we all must do this or do that. Clearly, the only driver of such unison has, in past years and centuries been predicated upon disaster, like the legendary fact of how the Japanese have always come together as communities during times of great crisis and mass sorrow(e.g., Fukushima). We see it in the current natural disasters in Nepal and Vanuatu. But for the two civilizations that we know have gone extinct during several millennia, vast deforestation (Rapa Nui), rampant drought (Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelley), Black Plagues, or a Hundred Years War, or four Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, etc. did not seem to phase most locals across the world. It killed or didn't kill them. So I must adduce that these community revivifications in the spirit of camaraderie might be viewed as the exceptions.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile © M.C. Tobias 

So, then, where does that leave us? If we cede our individualism and, in many respects, our underlying biological interdependency to a faith in total invasion of privacy by technology, government, and law enforcement (which is increasingly outsourced to private for-profits) we can expect to see a devastating toll upon the privacy needed by other species. Every square inch of the planet has been monitored, photographed and stored continually by satellite data in image banks. It is much more than human imagination that has invaded every quadrant of the world. The contradiction hangs upon the electrical grid and what it means to people's livelihoods, happiness and health, as measured in gigawatts ( GW,  See )These grids devour vast resources needlessly.  You are right to argue that we are seeing a massive change in the energy consuming modalities, towards far more benign technical tactics, with respect to emissions and other problems. No one has yet come up with a high probability equation for computing the absolute impact of current, or near future technologies as deployed amid a burgeoning human population (e.g., 10 billion), although there have been many fine attempts (For example: But, I see no obvious route towards a mollifying of the carnage occurring in that short or mid-term range, in terms of biological fall-out. It may well be that we will just have to live with it (an ironic expression).

Old Delhi, India © M.C. Tobias

On the other hand, one could "put on a happy face" and embrace everything that remains that is fine, and good and elegant and harmonious and compassionate, and let those guises be our guide.

Indeed, that is the least we must do. Other areas of consideration, of course, concern personal diet, consumption habits, our moral compasses - internal thoughts and willpower, outward expression and demeanor; setting an example of constant kindness for our friends and loved ones and those who meet us through our deeds. The example of compassion can indeed strike the match of contagion and lead to  ramping-up towards that critical mass of positive emotion amid large numbers of people; a steep escalation of that biophilia propensity we all  genetically probably share.

The question is to what extent do we share it? How does kin altruism actually work in terms of long-term genetic ramifications of ours and other species? This has long been a raging debate amongst biologists and neuro-physiologists. Whether, for example, that predilection towards generosity and unstinting philanthropy, kindness, unconditional love, is stifled or liberated, exhausted or rejuvenated, suppressed or set free by continuing evolution, which, by many accounts is rapidly accelerating. A "new nature" is upon us. This might be a good thing, or not.

I have no doubt that young people today throughout the world are abundantly in tune with a more virtuous and rigorous approach to the world than perhaps ever before. This is great news. They have access like never before to information. The big questions are: Can they sort through the proliferation of data in order to decipher and embrace ethical choices? Can they align themselves politically with real-time decisions that are not forced upon them, or subtly infused into their curricula, their viewing of advertisements, their reading of the world through all of the daily onslaught of media? Will knowledge gleaned on the internet suffice as a surrogate for the experience that has been gained by arduous trial and error over tens-of-thousands of years in the service of a higher and higher calling towards that murky realm we name compassion toward others?

In Rajasthan, India  © M.C. Tobias

And finally, when push comes to shove, will this new generation of technologically advantaged young people (some two billion youths approaching their child-bearing years at present who are the lucky ones) have the courage of their convictions when it comes to the big picture - Nature - which they know is in a process of severe and rapid fragmentation and ruination?

My fear is we are in an age of the biological asymptote. By that I refer to the two learning curves that may not ever be able (mathematically speaking) to meet. The first is that irrefutable truth that people are becoming less violent towards one another, and more violent towards animals and animal products (the vegan's version of the aforementioned IPAT equation).   People who are ecologically illiterate, or, who simply are too stretched, poverty stricken, trapped by the major inequality gaps around the world to even consider the human alternatives to all those cheap calorie expedients targeting them.  This is an environmental social justice issue totally out of sync with all of the ecological green alternatives narrative that might too easily calm people into thinking that the learning curve is working. Or that we are headed towards some big happy human zero emissions party that will solve everything. It won't It can't.

The second, and equally atrocious line on that asymptotic equation is the grossest numeric reality of the Anthropocene. If we consider the much debated Toba Supervolcano approximately 70,000 years ago, that may well have hurtled the human species into a genetic squeeze in just a matter of a few years, resulting in no more than 15,000 individuals, it is clear that the 19th so called Dansgaard-Oeschger event (D-O), that is, dramatic overnight meteorological oscillations, play a critical role in the Earth's biological systems. As one more player, our species could easily be wiped, even with 7.35 billion of us on the Earth. Not by a volcano, but by our own indifference to ecosystems and the approximately 44,000 populations of species we are exterminating every day. This is colossally significant. Yet, we have it in our heads  that we are somehow here forever and a day.  It is at the heart of our ridiculous sense of superiority over other species. This is what worries me most: that our species' very existence hinges, in my opinion, on our humility; that that humility is a crucial factor in the meeting of two learning curves - the first, our penchant for meting out mayhem to other species and their habitat, and second, our inability, it would appear, to grasp our own vulnerability in this planetary high stakes game of life. Arrogance is a disease, in biological terms. It is especially dangerous when the bearer of that attitude is blind to the predicament.

If, somehow, we can abolish the asymptotic irreconcilability elaborated above, and replace it with a rapid calming of our behavioral frissons; our frantic consumption; our continuing high Total Fertility Rates; and our destruction of the natural world in all her guises; if we can do that, and teach that, and get  everyone, or nearly everyone on board rapidly (by which I mean five, ten years), then yes, perhaps we can make it.

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