By Gene Miller, September 2011
A new book lays out the irreversible and sobering consequences of our environmental trespasses.
Oops.com, .net and .org are all taken. So is oops! And, with or without an exclamation mark, so are whoops, ohoh, yikes, ohno, omg and holyshit. The fairly marble-mouthed wereallgonnadie.org is available (I guess the end of the world doesn’t seem exactly organizational) but the slightly more tintinnabulous wereallgonnadie.com and .net are gone.
I mean, if you’re the kind of person whose immediate response is to turn your latest cause or worry into a website, you’re going to have to reach past the obvious on this one.
Paul Gilding, sustainability advocate, corporate advisor, and former head of Greenpeace International, has written the recently released The Great Disruption (subtitled: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World), a book that lays out our environmental trespasses, their now-irreversible and very sobering consequences, our dubious short-term prospects, and the long-term meaning for human life. Mr itoldyouso.com (me) is obliged to report that it’s not a pretty near-term picture and notes without a word of exaggeration that you might, upon finishing this column and/or Gilding’s book, want to run out to WalMart and lay in a good supply of canned tuna and bottled water (say, about four generations’ worth), reinforce the door casings, and choose the most strategic locations for the gun emplacements.
This news brings an unexpected sense of resolution with it, and I find I’m strangely comforted, in roughly the same way I take wry pleasure in reading accounts of how the plagues in earlier times, without discrimination, took rich and poor, self-important and inconsequential, the Donald Trumps and the Gene Millers. There’s something so democratic and levelling about ecological catastrophe—infused with an absolute lack of favouritism. I’m tempted to show pity for the younger generations—always portrayed as innocents by their wiser and failed seniors—but honestly, do you really think theirs will grow up to be any less stupid, appetite-laden and degenerate than ours? Apple iPhone 5, anyone?
It’s hard not to read Gilding without invoking James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2005), which proposes sorry but unsurprising consequences of our unmediated consumption. Premised largely on the collapse of the oil supply and the absence of any viable, hot-burning alternative energy source capable of keeping this planetary economy chugging, Kunstler’s book predicts the implosion of civic institutions and order, oodles of social chaos, the abandonment of the suburbs (almost makes the Apocalypse worth it), the end of economy and lifestyle, and a return to community-scale living and small-farm agriculture…for the survivors.
Kunstler, the more sardonic and grudging writer, is much more fun to read than Gilding—Gilding having a tendency to use circumspect, don’t-panic-the-people words like duress and constraint, instead of shitstorm (Kunstler’s highly entertaining blog is entitled Clusterfuck Nation). Really, the nuanced difference between Kunstler’s “Emergency” and Gilding’s “Disruption” says it all. It’s as if Gilding looked in a mirror and said to himself: “Give them hope and an arc across the abyss.” Of course, were I the author of such a book, I would invoke Hieronymous Bosch-like images of an eternity of hellfire and human suffering, featuring the return of life-abbreviating disease and crazed, marauding mobs rummaging for sustenance, propane and virgins.
Gilding, ever-hopeful, predicts species survival, the getting of wisdom, and an end of human folly. In spite of a historical record that screams the opposite, he believes—spouting Churchillian images of courage and fortitude all over the place—that we will, in the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour, be the best we can be, mend our ways and consciously choose survival and continuity within limits. Asking the rhetorical question about a hundred pages in—didn’t we see this coming down the future at us?—Gilding observes that it is human nature not to respond to impending conditions, even the opening of the very cracks of doom, until they present themselves as a full-sheeted, unavoidable, wave-breaking catastrophe. Notes Gilding repeatedly through the book: “We may be slow, but we’re not stupid”—a mantra that sounds sometimes like a credible assertion, sometimes a ragged plea. Having just watched a really spooky online documentary entitled Jesus Camp, I would seriously argue for the latter; but, then, I’m notoriously ungenerous about things like this.
Anyway, the deeper you work your way into Gilding’s book, the more a condition of absolute unreality sets in…And then it hits you! An epiphany: It’s Indiana Jones and the End of the World! Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Vanishing Future! It isn’t life, it’s a theme park thrill ride. Yeah, we’re gonna do this puppy one more time, then get some hot dogs and cotton candy, then we’re gonna ride The Rapture (all the way down).
Do you know about the Leibowitz Society? It is (you can Google this lest you worry that I’m a fabulist) “a loose-knit group of like minded people who foresee the coming collapse of human civilization and want to preserve as much knowledge as possible for when the time comes to rebuild in the future. There is no membership requirement, nothing to do but read, discuss and start putting aside knowledge in preparation for the next Dark Age.”
I’m sorry, but where did this lifeboat sensibility come from? We’ve all gone through hard times together, but preparation for the next Dark Age? This goes way past duress, hardship, constraint and all the other cozy signifiers of inconvenience nestled in a basket labelled “small annoyances.” This is the full yowch!
I became aware of and actively involved in sustainability thinking and initiatives about a decade ago. I was by no means a pioneer, but I can remember back then that engagement with sustainability felt like a bracing moral adventure, a taking on of new faith. The agenda has, since then, with various spurts, successes and setbacks, made its way mainstream; but casting back to some of the early expressions of concern (Greenpeace began its activities in 1971 and the UN Earth Summit in Rio was held in 1992), it’s clear that widespread sustainability consciousness is only about a quarter-century old, and that for many people it’s still pretty fringy stuff.
For those of you whose basic understanding of sustainability/ecology may be a bit muddy, I think I can provide exceptional clarity and simplicity. Putting both poetics and politics to the side, sustainability’s core message is that there are no externalities. Everything has an impact—and a cost. For whatever reasons (5000 years of not having to worry about such things being not the least, as there once weren’t enough of us to make a difference), our entire economy—in fact, our entire social apparatus—has been designed around endlessly spiralling throwaway consumption and the custom of creating and tolerating externalities rather than prohibiting them with our cost structures and business protocols, our laws and cultural responses. Needless to say, this puts sustainability (not treehuggers, but natural systems and survivability) and the economy-as-usual on a collision course.
That collision is taking place in our time, before our eyes, with extraordinary force and fallout. We have, to use Lester Brown’s words, “crossed environmental thresholds.” The chickens are coming home to roost, and we’re clucked. Gilding asserts that the leading edge of the Great Disruption was the economic chaos of 2008, and that the really ugly stuff is only a decade or so away. (In spite of which, there is currently a climate change denier for every advocate.)
People of Vancouver Island: we have a problem. Top to bottom, there are or will soon be about 750,000 of us. I’m going to guess that in the absence of food arriving by truck from the mainland, everything that now grows, gambols or swims natively would feed us for a week. The last deer would be knobbed by Day Nine, along with every duck, peacock, squirrel and the entire contents of the Beacon Hill Park petting zoo; and livestock including horses gone by the end of the second week (one cow, assuming quarter-pounders, will feed no more than two thousand people). We do have fresh water, but very little locally generated power (most of it comes here via undersea cables near Nanaimo), no significant fuel reserves, not much medicine, and almost no means of managing overwhelming social mischief generated internally or imported from the mainland. With the best intentions and values, our life on Vancouver Island could become a survivalist nightmare in almost no time.
These things go from inconceivable to overwhelming in a heartbeat; and, of course, our entire idea of emergency or disaster response is designed around the assumption of continuous civil order and common cause in the face of threat, not its evaporation.
Gilding first lifts the tent flap on long-term hope on line 29 of page 111, but this doesn’t stop him from noting later on page 113:
It is very sad that we’re going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem mean that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. It is tragic that all of this will occur without good reason and that we could have easily prevented it.
I commend his book to you, and Kunstler’s equally, so you can have the firsthand experience of sifting their arguments. But I know the question that’s in your mind right now, so the answer is yes, thefullyowch.com is available; but itsalladream.com/.net/.org appear to be gone, gone, gone.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.