The crisis of ‘America’ — a Memorial Day weekend reflection

Posted May 23rd, 2008 in Blog Comments Off on The crisis of ‘America’ — a Memorial Day weekend reflection

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

[Friends and Visitors: just a warning that this is a longish post, not quick reading. I hope you will ponder this reflection and share your thoughts with us.]

us-flag.pngWe are not a humble nation, and we are certainly not used to the idea that U.S. America may not be the center of the universe, always on the rise, always getting better, always getting richer and freer, able to solve every problem with sheer ingenuity and a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit.

We have let a relatively brief period of history — World War II until the end of the century — fool us into believing that we are the hope of the world and will be forever, that we are the engine of wealth and will be forever, that we are the world’s envy and will be forever, that everyone everywhere wants to live like us and will want this forever…

You know the drill. Has kind of distorted our sense of reality. This has been a problem now for a couple of generations; now it is a major ingredient of the crisis in front of us as a world of turbulent, volatile, and permanent change reels all around us.

Unless we figure out how to become humble in the world, unless we remove the blinders from our eyes, unless we start to get a realistic sense of ourselves in the midst of some inexorable trends, this society will be worse than ill-equiped to deal with the changes swirling all around and through our world and will likely face many kinds of social collapses and upheavals in the decades to come.

Not a very uplifting Memorial Day weekend message, I know. But there is a drumbeat getting louder here, something you may know if you watch cable news channels or read NY Times and Washington Post book reviews.

Thomas Friedman is such a good example. This former cheerleader for U.S. dominated corporate capitalism has been sounding pretty gloomy lately. He has become keenly aware that the U.S. position in the world is in steep decline, a fall accelerated, and then some, in the 7+ years of the Bush administration.

In his column the other day, he talks about how other powers around the world are rising economically and politically while the U.S. is diminishing. He’s not making this up. This is really happening, as anyone can notice who is paying attention. Rather than work with the global community on urgent issues like energy, climate change, security, and more, we stubbornly refuse cooperation, and so the world cooperates all around and in spite of us.

Countries — not necessarily friendly to the U.S. — sign energy and development agreements. New regional powers — not necessarily friendly to human rights or democracy — rise among the economies where the oil and natural gas is. We grow increasingly dependent on them, stubbornly refusing to break our addiction to oil — to mobility and an ease of lifestyle that will never again be replicated in the world — blissfully unaware of what it will mean when some of these powers decide to build their influence globally at the cost or our increasing diminshment.

Of course, it did not have to be like this had we addressed the question of our unsustainable way of life back 3-4 decades ago when so many were trying to tell us that this is exactly where we were headed.

The Club of Rome is one example. In a report to the Club in 1972, a group of scientists delivered a sobering assessment of where we were headed in regard to population, food, energy, and more. It became the first installment of Limits to Growth. Here is a link to an abstract of that report, and here is an excerpt (Note: the graphs have a separate source than the abstract. See links below):

Our world model was built specifically to investigate five major trends of global concern “ accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment…energy-footprint-by-region-the-sustainable-scale-project.png

Our conclusions are :

1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.


demand-vs-world-biocapacity-global-footprint-network.png2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

So what are our chances of success given that the world went on as if this assessment never existed?

The researchers, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis l. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, warned in this report that the world was in an ‘overshoot and collapse’ mode. With your indulgence, I want to share this very bleak scenario predicted by their model:


The behavior mode of the system is that of overshoot and collapse. In this run the collapse occurs because of nonrenewable resource depletion. The industrial capital stock grows to a level that requires an enormous input of resources. In the very process of that growth it depletes a large fraction of the resource reserves available. As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, hospital laboratories, computers, and especially energy for mechanization). For a short time the situation is especially serious because population, with the delays inherent in the age structure and the process of social adjustment, keeps rising. Population finally decreases when the death rate is driven upward by lack of food and health services. The exact timing of these events is not meaningful, given the great aggregation and many uncertainties in the model. It is significant, however, that growth is stopped well before the year 2100. We have tried in every doubtful case to make the most optimistic estimate of unknown quantities, and we have also ignored discontinuous events such as wars or epidemics, which might act to bring an end to growth even sooner than our model would indicate. In other words, the model is biased to allow growth to continue longer than it probably can continue in the real world. We can thus say with some confidence that, under the assumption of no major change in the present system, population and industrial growth will certainly stop within the next century, at the latest.

I want to tell you that it will not be that bad, certainly not yet, not right on time with their schedule. But I do not want to be among those who lie to us to keep us from appreciating the serious predicament of our times.

This was not the only attempt to give warning of the future. Many, many were trying. Just one other example, in 1977 President Jimmy Carter commissioned a group of researchers to make projections on a similar range of issues. The result was a 3-year study whose director, Dr. Gerald O. Barney, is a mentor of my Spirituality and Ecological Hope project.

Unfortunately, the report they issued, Global 2000 Report, was never acted upon because Carter lost his bid for a second term, and Ronald Reagan’s people made sure that the report disappeared from the government’s radar screen. (For a reflection by Dr. Barney many years later, click here, Global 2000 Report Revisited: What Shall We Do?)

So here we are now, with the symptoms of the overshoot and collapse scenario evident everywhere — in energy prices, ecosystem breakdown, global climate change, water and food crises, pollution of air, water and soil all across the planet.

Do we need more evidence of the need for radical change, a ‘great turning’ in how we live our lives and in the values that support them? Do we need anymore evidence that we cannot go on as we are?

Analysts are noting that gas prices have finally risen to a level long anticipated — the level at which U.S. Americans actually begin to change their lifestyles — the personal vehicles they choose, the switch to mass transit and car-pooling, canceling vacation plans, and more. We have to stop greeting this as bad news and start treating it as an invitation to the long term, permanent changes required if we are to avoid the worst consequences of ecological overshoot and collapse.

I found a 2004 essay by the authors of the Club of Rome report at the AlterNet website, entitled Facing the Limits to Growth. Here’s the link, but I want to conclude with their thoughts. And if you are interested, a couple of years ago they published a new work, Limits to Growth, the 30 Year Update, published by Chelsea Green. It was one of my most important references for my new book, Living Beyond the ‘End of the World:’ A Spirituality of Hope. It is not just sober and distressing reading; it is a call to action.

From the essay:

It has been astonishing to me that many politicians and economists can continue to deny the evidence of limits that is announced with ever more frequency and urgency in the daily papers and the evening news. The world’s use of materials and energy has grown past the levels that can be supported indefinitely. Pressures are mounting from the environment that will force a reduction. Rising oil prices, climate change, declining forests, falling ground water levels — all of these are simply symptoms of the overshoot.

It is also a source of sadness for me to see so much energy invested in denial and almost none put into making the changes that would let humanity survive on this beautiful planet in good order more or less indefinitely. For our research clearly points out that feasible changes in cultural norms and goals would let us ease back down to sustainable levels, fulfill basic human needs, and structure an orderly society more or less indefinitely…

Occasionally, however, there arises the potential for catastrophic overshoot. Growth in the globe’s population and material economy confronts humanity with this possibility. It is the focus of this book. The potential consequences of this overshoot are profoundly dangerous. The situation is unique; it confronts humanity with a variety of issues never before experienced by our species on a global scale. We lack the perspectives, the cultural norms, the habits, and the institutions required to cope. And the damage will, in many cases, take centuries or millennia to correct. But the consequences need not be catastrophic. Overshoot can lead to two different outcomes. One is a crash of some kind. Another is a deliberate turnaround, a correction, a careful easing down. We explore these two possibilities as they apply to human society and the planet that supports it. We believe that a correction is possible and that it could lead to a desirable, sustainable, sufficient future for all the world’s peoples. We also believe that if a profound correction is not made soon, a crash of some sort is certain. And it will occur within the lifetimes of many who are alive today.

May we think this weekend about those things truly worthy of the gift of our lives, our work, our energy, our spiritual mission in this time in which we live. earth-flag-from-authentic-and-original-earth-flag-website.pngMay loving the Earth, cherishing our place within it, salvaging and replenishing its rich ecosystems, walking humbly within its biosphere, and eliminating from our hearts the hubris that undergirds our lifestyles in this culture become the truly patriotic project of our times.

[tags] limits to growth, club of rome, gerald o. barney, global 2000 report, diminishment of U.S. role in the world, thomas friedman, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis l. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III[/tags]

Photos/graphics credits:

U.S. flag

Ecological Footprint by Region and Comparing the Footprints of Energy Technologies, from this excellent article at The Sustainable Scale Project

Global footprint graph, Global Footprint Network

Ecological Debt Day 2007, Global Footprint Network

Earth Flag, from the Authentic and Original Earth Flag Website


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