In 1969 population biologist Paul Ehrlich published a short work of fiction entitled “Eco-Catastrophe!” in a now-defunct, leftist magazine called Ramparts. In a terrifying story of Earth’s deteriorating environment, Ehrlich described widespread pollution, unfettered population growth, precarious food production, dying oceans, the eradication of sea life, the disappearance of birds and explosion of pesticide-resistant insects.
The apocalyptic musing ends with China attacking Russia, setting the stage for World War III. Commenting on his story, Ehrlich wrote: “A pretty grim scenario. Unfortunately, we’re a long way into it already.” Ehrlich’s tale caught the public’s imagination and helped inspire the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
Also in 1969, then U.N. Secretary-General U Thant wrote an introduction to the scientific report entitled “The Limits to Growth” published by the prestigious Club of Rome: “I do not wish to seem overdramatic but I can only conclude by the information that is available to me as Secretary-General that members of the United Nations have perhaps ten years left in which to subordinate their ancient quarrels and launch a global partnership to curb the arms race, to improve the human environment, to defuse the population explosion, and to supply the required momentum to development efforts. If such a global partnership is not forged within the next decade, then I very much fear that the problems I have mentioned will have reached such staggering proportions that they will be beyond our capacity to control.”
In retrospect Ehrlich and U Thant seem premature in their anticipation of doomsday. But since their initial calls for cooperation and action on an international scale, humanity and planet Earth are more immersed in a nefarious stew of serious ecological and social dilemmas posing undeniable threats to ecological sustainability. Former Puget Sound resident and prolific author John Michael Greer has a lot to say about our situation. His recent book “Dark Age America” provides commentary on the current state of industrial society, technology, energy and resource depletion and other crucial matters.
Greer’s assessment is downright disturbing. He does not mollify his portrayal of harsh realities confronting us and contends it is a realistic picture of systems in the process of deleterious change and decay. Greer asserts, “the bright new tomorrow we’ve all been promised is not going to arrive. This is the bad news brought to us by the unfolding collision between industrial society and the unyielding limits of the planetary biosphere. Peak oil, global warming, and all the other crises gathering around the world are all manifestations of a single root cause: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet.” Don’t anticipate a novel technology to come along that will counter or staunch this trend. In Greer’s view the eventual extinction of the modern industrial world is inevitable.
Perhaps Greer calls it “Dark Age America” because he wants to emphasize how universal a problem these phenomena are. American exceptionalism does not apply to a global ecological melt down. We cannot control the oceans, the wild winds, the climate change to which we contribute every day by driving cars and expelling pollutants into the air. Greer wants to focus on how the impending catastrophe that he, and some other erudite folks see coming, will impact North America. It is applicable to the whole planet. North America is the economic powerhouse. If that vast economic giant can be impaired by forces of climate and ecological change, no other nation or region on earth can be unaffected.
Many prefer to ignore pondering such a dismal forecast. Too depressing. Others will find Greer’s prognosis extreme and overly pessimistic. They cling to the hope for technical interventions that will ward off disaster or provide a smooth transition to a new order of society and nature. Can things really be as bad as Greer makes them out to be? Of course that depends on where you happen to find yourself in these early years of the 21st century.
For many human beings catastrophe has already struck. Half of humanity is entrapped in poverty surrounded by the detritus of the more affluent parts of the world. Alarming numbers of homeless and marginalized people within our First World add to a burgeoning population of ciphers, superfluous to the cold calculus of late-stage global capitalism. The ranks of desperate refugees fleeing war are evidence of our pervasive desperation. All the while climate change mounts, glaciers melt and pernicious problems such as nuclear waste persist. Greer would argue that he is not fear-mongering but merely reporting what cannot be avoided.
Considering nuclear waste, recently a storage tunnel at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland collapsed, forcing 4,800 workers to find cover. Leaked radioactive waste is dangerous indeed. Yet Paul Carroll, director of Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear non-proliferation program, admitted, “We don’t know how to deal with this stuff.” Less than two months later a second tunnel was determined to be undependable. So how do we ensure that such waste remains safely disposed for hundreds of thousands of years? One plan is to seal all such radioactive material in a vast subterranean space in the New Mexico desert by 2040. In order that people in the future will know the place is toxic, a warning sign must installed. The federal government has brought together geologists, anthropologists, linguists and artists to concoct such a sign that would be intelligible to human beings 10,000 years into the future and beyond.
Greer does offer suggestions that he believes would help us as the prodigality of the high-tech industrial era comes to a close. “An acronym that might be well worth using here is LESS, which stands for ‘Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation.’ That’s a convenient summary of the changes that have to be made to move from today’s unsustainable lifestyles to ways of living that will be viable when today’s habits of absurd extravagance are fading memories.”
Whatever one makes of the dire predictions that abound in Greer’s thesis, it is critical that conscientious citizens contemplate the issues raised. He states that the collapse of the present age need not be humanity’s end. The ability of “successor societies of the far future” to rebuild and thrive within a rearranged planetary environment “will be determined, at least in part, by the choices we make now.”
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