By waveney warth
Wait. What are we saving the world from? Its a timely question as Tim and I start Season 2 of How to Save the World podcast and launch a website, blog and Instagram account. There's a lot of running around going on, but how do we know we are barking up the right tree?
This blog is the first of a two part blog relating to the ‘Why are we here?’ How to Save the World episode. The epsiode asks the question "What is our actual problem?" Is it climate change? Our population? Our greedy nature? Our growth based economic system? This is the most important question in the world because once we really understand the issue we can recognise the solution. The answer also forms the basis (or not) for optimism, culpability and understanding our power. This in turn effects our response – which in my humble opinion will determine our fate.
How do humans cause climate change?
Climate change isn't our underlying problem: it's a symptom of our underlying problem. So how do we cause climate change? Put in simplest terms: humans cause climate change because we are too dominant in the system.
In 2018 the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published a report which Darrin Qualman brings to life in his article 'Civilisation as asteroid.' The article quantifies our dominance on earth by weight.
Here are the highlights / lowlights:
Why do humans rule the world?
Professor Nate Hagens of University of Minnesota specialises in explaining this very question. We dominate earth’s systems because we have, NOT ONE BUT, TWO SUPER POWERS (out of the ball park smart and oil) which we have used in the service of the basic primal forces of life, that is: To out compete; conserve our own energy and to multiply.
The good news is that we aren’t dickheads after all, humans are really just the same as all life. In the rare moments when other organisms find no resistance from their environments they act just the same (think viruses, weeds, kangaroos). Doing anything else would be weird. The 40, 000 plant species found in the Amazon aren’t sharing nicely. They are in forced equilibrium.
Here’s the lowdown on your superpowers… (referencing both the work of Darrin & Nate).
Super power #1: Smart
Super power #2: Oil.
Until we unlocked the energy in OIL things weren’t too nuts. The best overview I’ve seen of the impact of oil on our current situation is Professor Nate Hagens Reality 101 video series especially the Energy & Economy video, which explains:
How does oil affect life on earth?
Oil is impacting life on earth in many ways, the first that comes to mind for most of us is climate change. But scroll back up to the three bar graph. Can you see something (apart from our dominance), that is enormously significant? Here’s a mountain bike analogy, hope it’s helpful!
How is it even possible to get 7 times over the natural carrying capacity of the earth? Was earth full of lazy mammals and birds that could have grown their populations but couldn’t be bothered? No. Earth was maxed out. Any mature stable eco-system is an insanely competitive environment because the general rule-of-thumb its millions of different inhabitants go by is “take every little bit of light and food you can get and multiple."
So how is it possible then? OIL IS WHY our population and our farm animals weigh 7 times what our earth is naturally be able to carry. Modern agriculture is the science of turning oil into food. It’s a marvel. Previously life has pretty much only had access to the daily total of energy from the sun. Oil unlocks sunlight from millions of years ago in a form more concentrated and therefore more powerful than today’s sunlight.
Systems thinking V Reductionism
Mostly I think we don’t see the big picture because its just too big! But also because, if you are a western reader, you have a proud and powerful history of reductionism. Reductionism is an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to interactions of their simple parts, AKA science. Almost all academic study is reductionism. Very good reductionists are known experts in their given field. Reductionism, powerful though it is, is only a tool that works well in the right situations. It is not the right tool for the job if the job is understanding or predicting complex outcomes in systems.
Systems thinking, by contrast, focuses on connections and patterns and crucially – allows us to see emergence, (a great example of emergence: the human consciousness emerges from the sum of our cells). Nate Hagens, says “Society now is on the cusp of emergence. Not only in our collective impact but in human collective thinking and understanding about our situation” (quote from: Ecology and Systems video).
Here’s to ‘competent generalism,’
THE UNDERLYING PROBLEM TO EVERYTHING...
In case you missed it, the underlying problem is that the smartest kid in the playground, who already had every single other kid and all her teachers under her thumb found a magic wand, which she used to make life better, but its all gone a bit Lord of the Flies. The usual checks and balances in the school playground ecosystem don't apply. The girl, let's call her Cherry Blossom, has inadvertently reduced the school's original inhabitants from 100 down to 20, but amazingly she hasn't noticed yet because she has duplicated herself 250 times and her magical unicorn horse 700 times and its all been so much fun. However, the Cherry's ARE noticing that the school, (which floats in space and has absolutely no other inputs or outputs), is not as pristine as it once was. Some of the Cherry's are trying to use the magic wand less and that's about it so far. And that's 2020.
We are completely dominating the earth, we have no competitors or natural restraints, and we are using this rare biological occurrence to do what any other organism would do in the same situation: Out compete; conserve our own energy and multiply.
Thanks to the two exceptionally competent generalist featured in this blog, Professor Nate Hagens and Darrin Qualman.
NEXT BLOG covers off the “what now? are we screwed or not?” reaction you may have just had.