The Ecology of Fossil Fuels

Posted January 30th, 2015 in Blog, Featured, Zine Comments Off on The Ecology of Fossil Fuels

They have one, a web of interconnection, intricate, complex, ubiquitous, supporting an economy and ways of life all around the world.

We tend to think of the word in the sense of the biological community, the interrelationships among organisms and their environment, patterns and behaviors among living beings and the non-sentient world. That is the scientific meaning of the word.

There is also human ecology, which Merriam-Webster defines as: “a branch of sociology dealing especially with the spatial and temporal interrelationships between humans and their economic, social, and political organization.”

Fracking pipelines getting connected in the fields of Western PA. Photo: M Swedish

Fracking pipelines getting connected in the fields of Western PA. Photo: M Swedish

The fossil fuel economy has an ecology, both biological and intensely human – a complex set of interconnections, a web of energy extraction, production, and delivery, that in just the past 200 years (since the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine was developed) gave us a world in which we humans have become voracious consumers living lives of unimaginable convenience, comfort, and wealth (unless you are among the majority of the world that is still poor or extremely poor). Just look at what we have built in that incredibly brief amount of time! And that industrial civilization is directly responsible for a rise in global population that is literally consuming the world, from less than 1.2 billion humans in 1850 to 2.4 billion in 1949, the year I was born, to more than 7.2 billion today. That rise is in tandem with the rise of petroluem-driven industrialization (remember that petroleum is made up of ancient organic matter, part of the planet’s biological evolution).

World population growth graph by Scott Manning

World population growth graph by Scott Manning

And we wonder why we feel our lives reeling  with change… This not only has not stopped, but the process is fully underway and accelerating at great speed.

It is stunning to me that this never, ever comes up when we hear news of the happenings of our world, how this expansion of the human species, enabled by industrialization (which means by new forms of energy), changed everything, made everything unstable and subject to constant change and upheaval – from the neighborhoods of our childhood, the old familiar streets and parks, the traffic, the crowds that annoy us, the air pollution, the deterioration of Nature, and on and on.

The way we can no longer hold onto our old little worlds with our own languages and cultures, safe from “the other” or “others,” safely enclosed among those my parent’s generation called “our own.”

Oil made this possible. Oil is the foundation of this world busting at the seams with increasingly unbearable tensions. We went at it with passion and conviction, creating wealth and, along with that, feeding its oldest and dearest companions – greed and power – now with tools and weapons beyond anything humans have ever known – from spears and axes and swords and cannonballs to rockets and drones and robots and weapons of mass destruction.

Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Oil, coal, and now gas, fed the rise of this industrial civilization. And as population grew in tandem with manufacturing prowess, along with mass forms of industrial agriculture, and the ability to transport the goods and stuff of industry all over the planet, the infrastructure of that fossil fueled world spread its tentacles, every oil and gas well, every pumpjack, millions and millions of them, connected with pipelines and serviced at refineries and sent through more pipelines or by rail or truck to factories, city buildings, every single family home, and across oceans in massive tanker ships.

An ecology, a web of interconnections not only of its own material production and infrastructure, but in interrelationship with the deepest most intimate parts of our lives, everything we consume, every drop of oil or cubic inch of natural gas, every bit of coal rock blasted away from mountains and burned in our energy plants, every atom of uranium mined from Mother Earth and split to make electricity.

View into Hell - Kern River. Source: Wikipedia Commons

View into Hell: a vast field of pumpjacks in CA. Source: Wikipedia Commons


We turn the light switch to “on”, we are part of that ecology. We eat, we drink, we buy shampoo and soap, we go to the gym, we drive to work, we fly to the other side of the world, and we are part of that ecology.

In a way I had never intended or planned, I have spent much of the past 18 months engaging deep immersion into the ecology of fossil fuels. I was led there by the work I do – inevitably, it led me there. The more I did this work, the more I needed to understand, and the more I searched to understand, the more the road led me there.

Pipelines being buried in Alberta. This was once unbroken boreal forest. Photo: M Swedish

Pipelines being buried in Alberta. This was once unbroken boreal forest. Photo: M Swedish

Beginning with my 2-week Athabasca River Pilgrimage in September 2013, the trip that took me along that magnificent river and boreal forest to the tar sands industrial site in Alberta, then learning about the pipelines and tanker car trains that bring that gooey stuff that becomes synthetic crude oil, or the sweet crude of the Bakken oil play, across the Upper Midwest and right through the State of Wisconsin where I live, to my toxic tour last fall of the BP refinery in NW Indiana where the tar sands goo comes to be refined, to my first immersion into the reality of fracking in Western PA just the other week – I have been having a deep immersion into this ecology, all of it interconnected, all of it empowering this global economy, all of it deeply embedded in our lives…

And I have been more than a little overwhelmed by it all. You know, it never occurred to me that one day I would be talking about the flash point of the oil in the tanker trains that ended up exploding in Lac-Mégantic and Alabama and North Dakota and New Brunswick, or could name the toxic chemicals involved in fracking with such seeming expertise, or know why DOT-111 oil tanker cars should be taken out of service immediately, and the meaning of the red 1267 placard on oil tanker trains.crude oil rail placard

But there it is. That’s one of the essential stories of our time, and if we don’t perceive this ecology correctly and the nature of the threat it now poses, there is another kind of ecology, the kind that holds us not in the ways of life we have become so used to, but in life itself, that could unravel catastrophically.

And that’s why this work feels so urgent.

BP's giant coker and hydrotreater, Whiting IN. Photo credit: Margaret Swedish

BP’s giant coker and hydrotreater, Whiting IN. Photo credit: Margaret Swedish

On Thursday, Jan 29, I spoke to a small class of students taking a course on ecology and society at Carroll University in Waukesha WI. I had been asked to do my presentation on the Alberta tar sands, and all the repercussions and connections that have followed from that industrial project. I brought with me my new firsthand knowledge of the massive BP refinery on the Lake Michigan shores in Whiting IN where tar sands dilbit is being refined and then sent on for more refining and then exported to other parts of the world, and made the connections with the Bakken oil shale play and the frenzied fracking industry that is like a massive invasion of post-apocalyptic machines spreading across much of the country, a virus without a cure.

Well, the stories and photos and graphs are pretty overwhelming and these young people were stunned, angered, appalled. One of them began to cry. By the end, she had buried her face in her hands and openly wept. I felt guilty at first, like maybe it was too much too fast. And then I thought – what hope there is in those tears! How refreshing it was to see someone so moved by the disaster, so grief-stricken by what we humans are doing, that she could weep.

Athabasca River flowing through Alberta's boreal forest. Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

And then there’s the ecology of LIFE. Athabasca River flowing through Alberta’s boreal forest. Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

Would that more humans, especially those who have lived so well off this way of life, could come to such sorrow. When we find it hard to live with ourselves anymore, maybe we will find what we need to change this – before it is too late, while we still have the capacity and the skills to start creating the necessary new ways of life.

The new ecology that will emerge from this disastrous late stage of industrial capitalism, if we are willing to let go the death-spiral of the fossil fuels ecology, will not look at all like this one, and it will take a long time for us to create it. Who will shape that future? That’s a critical question because right now it is being shaped by the likes of fossil fuel billionaires (e.g., the infamous Koch brothers and their political minions) and enormous financial institutions that do not have the interests of the living systems of the planet, nor the fate of the masses of people in this world, at heart – to say the least.

A new life-giving and life-sustaining ecology will require learning how to work again with the Earth, partnering with its dynamic energies, its beautiful limits and magnificent potential for healing and renewal. It will mean ending forever the ideology of human dominion over Nature, of seeing Earth as belonging to us for our use, rather than a web that holds us delicately within the fabric of the whole, or, to be poetic, within its evolutionary embrace. Instead of tearing it up for our use, we will be bowing down in sorrow and in gratitude, shocked at what we have done, prepared for the real work of atonement for the grievous wounds we have inflicted.

This will be one of the themes of our work now – the ecology of fossil fuels v the ecology of a living planet. We have arrived now at the point of realization that we cannot have both. Which one will we choose?

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Let’s look at the moment and see where we are

Posted May 7th, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Zine 2 Comments

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

I want to try something and see what happens. This past week there have been so many new reports and so much news related to our work that it all has me a bit dizzy. I need some time to really ponder them and what they tell us when we put them all together. Readers of this blog know that I love to do this – not just see things in fragments but to combine themes and trends in the culture that are not always seen together, but which inform one another in profound ways. This can help us SEE differently, especially our conundrum in the face of multiple crises piling up and why it is so hard to see our way through to the “new creation” we like to talk about here.

So today I just want to list some new articles and resources that have lit up my computer this week and sparked a lot of reflection and conversation, and to do that without comment (because I’m not quite ready yet). And I want to invite you to read or view them and to do the same – sit with them and see how they come together for you, what they tell us about where we are, what the obstacles are, and how to reorient how we even think about our historical/cultural/ecological moment.

Number of planets required to support business as usual. Source: Global Footprint Network

Number of planets required to support business as usual. Source: Global Footprint Network

Because I think that, unless we address these places of connection among our profound cultural issues, we will not be able to find a path that can lead us beyond crisis to the new creation that must be built if we are to survive long term. This isn’t just about global warming, because warming and the resulting climate crisis is not a cause, it is a symptom, evidence, of the greater crisis. It is proof of the connections, the interrelatedness of the political, economic, social, and cultural mixture that has led us to the edge of this cliff. We can’t change the direction of climate change and the sixth great extinction separate from the contexts in which they are coming about, the conditions that created them. What are those conditions and how do they impact one another?

I invite us to think  about this not just in terms of grand systems and global trends, but fiercely locally. What is going on right where you live, in your bioregion, in your watershed, on the streets of your cities and towns, in your neighborhoods, schools, faith communities? In other words, in the “spaces” in which you live your lives most immediately connected to or embedded within these contexts.

I hope some of you might take some time in these next days to ponder these things with me, share your thoughts by way of the comment function, and then I want to write a next essay out of that ferment early next week.

Here’s my list:

1) Let’s start with one of the most obvious ones – the release of the new National Climate Assessment, highlights and summaries of which are available at the link. You can download the entire report for free, if you want all 800+ pages. It is stark. It is dire. And yet, as reported in the Washington Post: “’It’s important to understand that this is a very, very, very conservative document, a consensus document,’ [Drew] Harvell said of the assessment. The truth is more dire, she said.”

Changing planet, 6 decades of warming –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaJJtS_WDmI

Still scientists feel they have to hold back some. And what does the rightist corporate world say? We shouldn’t do anything about it because it would cost money. Ask the insurance industry what they think about that.

2) Okay, so then let’s turn to that topic of human extinction. This is one of those subjects where, if you really stop for a moment to let it in, one has to be shocked, stunned, stopped in one’s tracks to realize we live in a time where we are actually talking about this. It comes up not only in the context of climate change scenarios, but also the contamination of the planet by the 83,000 synthetic chemicals we have introduced into the environment, the vast majority of which have never been tested, the permanent destruction of arable land from overuse, erosion, chemical contamination, and industrial agriculture in general, the dwindling water supply at the same time as population continues to grow, the collapse of fisheries all around the world, and on and on. It all adds up to some serious threats to our future.

So here’s just one example of what I mean – one of millions – when I write that we are contaminating everything we need for life. Look around you. Stories like these are happening in every place we live. This video is from one of my favorite organizations, Appalachian Voices. See more about their campaign to stop coal ash pollution at that link.

Video: At What Cost? – from Appalachian Voices

Climate chaos is not the only thing threatening our future. Last time I checked, we also needed food, water, healthy soil and air to breathe. This next article is from last month, but I just found it and think it summarizes the extinction potential very well – it isn’t so much a matter of the ecological crisis itself but how humans will respond to it. Human Extinction: Is It Possible, by Australian science writer Julian Cribb.

“…in a classic case of improvident human behaviour, a global energy stampede is taking place as oil, gas, coal, tar sands and other miners (who, being technical folk, understand quite clearly what they are doing to the planet) rush to release as much carbon as possible as profitably as possible before society takes the inevitable decision to ban it altogether. Thanks to them, humanity isn’t sleep-walking to disaster so much as racing headlong to embrace it. Do the rest of us have the foresight, and the guts, to stop them? Our ultimate survival will be predicated entirely on our behaviour – not only on how well we adapt to unavoidable change, but also how quickly we apply the brakes.”

This is true, of course. These people know exactly what they are doing, and only a fierce determination on our part to apply the brakes will stop them. Do we have the guts, friends? Understand what that means – ending our economic lives as we have known them now for several generations.

3) Next, a new series from a local journalist, Craig Gilbert, on the racial, economic, political divides in the Milwaukee Metro area which sadly mimic a lot of the country. He is describing our local reality, but with obvious lessons for the nation and its deepening dysfunction as a working polity. It’s well worth reading even if you are not from here. He’ll probably win a prize for it. The series will be a topic for a daylong conference at Marquette on May 15. I’m going, so stay tuned.

Dividing Lines, by Craig Gilbert. Two stories in the series have been published this week. Two more to come.

My question – can we address or respond adequately to one single issue related to our future on this planet if we continue to live behind these dividing lines? If we don’t address this, we won’t accomplish anything that can help heal this planet.

4) This next one is to really put things into historical perspective. When did this ideological war begin? I mean, there has always been a battle of ideologies in this country. But since the years of protest, the years of the Vietnam War and the struggle for the full recognition of civil rights, which often took place in our streets amidst clouds of teargas and mass arrests, there has emerged a powerful, well-financed reactionary movement to push back against what was then a growing tide against the military-industrial complex and the corporate culture that was controlling more and more of the world’s economy.

Recently someone on Facebook posted a copy of the infamous “Powell Memo,” a document sent out by Lewis Powell to the Chamber of Commerce in 1971 in which he lays out their battle lines. I had almost forgotten about it. It was quite notorious and not meant to be leaked to the public back then. I will withhold comment for now. Read it and see if it doesn’t explain – a lot!

5) One more theme, and then I’ll end. Fracking. Perhaps nothing has ignited more fear, protest, and organized local action than the fracking frenzy that has come to this nation. It impacts my state as well, cursed as we are with the perfect silica sand needed for the process. Frac sand mining is industrializing, polluting, and destroying vast areas of our western counties, including some of the state’s richest farmland. So despite not having shale gas, we are nonetheless deeply affected.

Frac sand mine:  m.kenosion Howard EOG mine 2012-06-15

Frac sand mine: m.kenosion Howard EOG mine 2012-06-15

Burgeoning movements like those against BP, oil pipelines and exploding tanker trains, tar sands oil extraction, and more, are rising up, people are organizing, getting to know their neighbors, and working together because their places are being threatened, seriously threatened. I could give thousands of examples of the hope that is embedded in these “uprisings,” but since this one came along just today, I will use it.

We are not powerless here. But, if we don’t band together in ever growing circles, we will be. As you will see in this short film, Marie McRae felt powerless to save her valley. When she thought herself alone, she saw no way out. Then she and her neighbors came together and empowered one another, bonded by their deep attachment to the land. The community of Dryden NY shows us what can be done and how it can change the world. For more info, go to the source of the video, EarthJustice, another one of my favorite organizations.

 Video: Dryden – The Small Town that Changed the Fracking Game

Now all these things came through my computer screen and my brain and my heart during a several day period in which we experienced 128 tornadoes in one day resulting in vast destruction, mindboggling rain events, including more than 2 feet of rain in Pensacola FL in one day, and Oklahoma wildfires that raged out of control burning homes and other structures. Temperatures there and in northern Texas topped 100 degrees – 25 or more degrees above normal. Because of deepening drought, huge areas of the West and southern Great Plains are parched beyond anything seen during the Dust Bowl.

Feels overwhelming, doesn’t it? Today I turned on TV news stations to see who was following up on all that coverage from yesterday about the new National Climate Assessment. Monica Lewinski’s interview with Vanity Fair is getting far more air time. Mere climate catastrophe? News today is hard to find.

So, those are a few things that may shed some light on the moment. What do they tell us? What do they reveal? What do they suggest about the core of our conundrum and just what it is we need to do to begin moving away from the precipice?

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The planet is changing forever. Now what do we do?

Posted March 3rd, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Zine 1 Comment

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

It’s changing. The whole blessed planet is undergoing profound change very quickly, and much of this is because of one voracious species that lost its sense of connection, its understanding of itself within the whole, a species that became deeply narcissistic and began devouring its own habitat for the sake of its own grandiose ambitions – at the expense of all the other sentient and non-sentient beings that make this Earth a place that is habitable, rich in life and abundance – before greed and a false sense of separation cut off  even that species’ own survival instincts.

Okay, yes, this is all true. It’s really bad and conditions on the planet are going to get worse for us faster than we are able to adapt.

So now what do we do?

After a while, you just get tired of delivering the depressing news, the latest in climate change disasters, US government policies to ramp up the pace of destruction (now the latest announcement about how the Obama administration is about to sacrifice ocean wildlife in the reckless search for more oil and gas off our eastern coasts), the latest extinction threats, the latest news of toxic contamination or looming scarcities of all the things we need for life, and on and on.CO2 Mauna Loa feb 2014

I assume that most of you who read these essays are more than aware of the trouble we’re in, how bad things are going to get because we are already locked in to some big time changes in our lives on this planet, how frustrating it is because so many hear the news, buy different kinds of light bulbs, plant a backyard garden, and then go on about their lives, buying new iPhones, traveling around the world, consuming at the high end of the world’s economic life, or are invested in a global economy that spews poisons into the ground, drills and mines for fossil fuels, creates unneeded consumer items at ever greater costs to our water, soil, and air, and does all of this at greater and greater speeds and creature comforts. Whew! That was a long sentence of bad news frustration!

It seems we are habituated and addicted to the exact ways of life that are destroying our future. And I suppose the heroin addict doesn’t really believe that this next dose, just a bit stronger than the last, that he/she hopes will provide that longed-for moment of bliss, will be the one that will bring about his or her death.

The only way to avoid that death would have been to get off the drug completely, to get into a rehab program and endure a painful and difficult journey of detoxification and learning how to survive without the drug – no more heroin, ever. Let the body heal. Let it be cleansed of the drug that is killing it and the spirit that has used it in an attempt to stay out of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.

The metaphor really works, doesn’t it? If you stop for a moment and really think about what it would be like to live without all this technology – the internet, email, cell and smart phones, cable TV – do you begin to feel anxious? does it feel scary and depressing, inconvenient and uncomfortable? do you feel a little angry at the suggestion, or accused, or guilty? Two things: one, we have had this technology for how long? Was there life before this that humans actually loved and enjoyed (maybe we even spent more quality time with one another or chatting live on the phone)? How long did it take us to get addicted and feel that all of this is now necessary? How long did it take for us to addict ourselves to constant connectivity?

Internet map - we're all in here somewhere. Credit: Wikipedia

Internet map – we’re all in here somewhere. Credit: Wikipedia

And now if one adds this other layer – that these technologies (including the one I’m using right now) are among the biggest drivers in the poisoning of the planet, in the extraction industries and the burning of fossil fuels – what then?

Meanwhile, this addiction is still in the process of spreading across the globe. The Pusher has a long, long ways to go before 7 billion of us are steady customers, along with the 2 or more billion still to come by mid-century. That’s a lot of customers. That’s a lot of extraction-production-consumption-waste yet to go on a planet whose living systems are already in severe crisis. That’s a lot of potential market share and stock earnings for corporations duty bound to give their stockholders the best return on their investments.

So, again, what do we do now? As more and more people around the world are getting into rehab, getting off as much as possible the daily infusions of what feeds this global economy (extraction-production-consumption-waste), we still see every one of our environmental indicators worsening. Ecological collapses are no longer predictions, they have begun.

How do we learn to live in this unfolding reality? What do we need to find a path that is also passage to a next phase in our human evolution that is not about the end of the species but the renewal of it, a regeneration from the bottom up of what it means to be homo sapiens sapiens, conscious self-aware beings, on the planet Earth?

I wish I had the answers to this most profound question of our time. But not having it does not mean not going forward in any case to construct new ways of life out of the looming disintegration of the old.

What will we need to get through? One thing is to move as much as possible out of the global market, to need it as little as possible for one’s survival. In order for that to be possible, we need to rebuild, strengthen, and deepen meaningful shared community life, along with networks that can provide alternatives for gaining access to what we need for life (not just for human life, but all the creatures who have rights to have their needs met, and upon whose health and well-being our health and well-being depend in any case).

One example of this that has been a fairly easy one to construct is how we access food. Here in Southeastern Wisconsin, we are blessed with a thriving and growing network of organic and conventional small farmers, farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), backyard vegetable growing programs in the inner city, and advocates for and a mayor passionate about the possibilities of creating an urban farming economy. Many local restaurants now buy from this network, chefs changing menus with seasonally and locally available produce. All of this is part of getting out of the global economy and becoming fiercely local and sustainable.

Now take this model and think about all the other aspects of our lives. How would we begin to seriously create these community networks that can become resilient, vibrant, where we can together learn survival skills, train ourselves again in how to fix things, to “repurpose” things, to share creatively in providing what we need for life together, including shared joy, laughter, camaraderie, and a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves to which we contribute our talents and gifts?

You know, you can start this sort of thing anywhere. Think of pot luck gatherings as another metaphor – everyone bringing something to the table, each dish with different flavors, each taste an adventure, a contribution to the whole.

Does that sound unpleasant, miserable, an awful trial, a suffering? No, I didn’t think so. But it does threaten our individualistic isolation from each other, our often well-protected isolation. But only our technology and consumer habits have allowed a sensation or experience of isolation that is in fact false, it is not real.

Rare earth mineral mine - Bayan Obo, China. Image: NASA Earth Observatory

Rare earth mineral mine – Bayan Obo, China. Image: NASA Earth Observatory

I sit in this room alone at my computer. But at the same time, I am using energy, I am communicating on a Word Press platform shared by millions, I am attempting to communicate out to a world via WiFi (in itself a grave threat to our long term health) and DSL connections, across cables buried underground and under oceans. The laptop I’m using was created using fossil fuels, rare earth minerals that came from open pit mines often worked by exploited cheap labor in other countries, and then assembled god-knows-where in factories that are energy-intensive and with the cheapest labor available.

I am decidedly not alone.

It is not possible to get out of the global economy completely and survive. That day will come – either by forethought and planning or by disaster and collapse – but it will come. Moving toward that eventuality by forethought and planning is part of our task now, our challenge, our “Great Work,” as Thomas Berry called it. It is not about purity (because there is no such thing) or about judgment or guilt. It IS about recognizing our predicament, how serious it is, understanding what created it and drives it, and beginning to move as quickly as possible in another direction.

To do that, we need one another – badly. We need community necessarily, essentially, and urgently. That will take a lot of fear out of the great unraveling, the great transition, the great transformation – and it has the potential to add a lot of joy, depth of friendship, deep solidarity with one another and the planet, and, most essentially – love.

Let’s give it a try, shall we?


Many of you are already at work carving out the new paths, our ways through the crisis. We welcome your stories and would love to share them here.


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The Ecology of Economic Growth

Posted January 22nd, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Zine 1 Comment

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

A couple of stories really hit home this week about the point I want to make in this post: like nature (and nothing exists outside nature), economic growth has an ecology. Ecology is about the interconnections, the interrelatedness of dynamic forces and energies playing off one another creating ever new confluences and shaping reality. Ecology is about the whole of which we are a part and never apart. In fact, it is impossible to live apart from all that impacts our lives or to avoid how our lives impact all we touch – all our actions and non-actions have effects that go out into the whole, helping to shape the whole into what it is.

The part that gets really hard in a pathologically individualistic way of life (pathological because it’s trying to live as if this is true when it is in fact impossible) is to shift this errant point of view to seeing  how responsible we are in every aspect of our lives for everything around us.

If toxic chemicals and invasive species are part of Lake Michigan’s new ecology, that’s because we use toxic chemicals and flush them into the lake, or bring invasive species in on ships because it’s too expensive (say the shipping companies) to sterilize ballast. If I do anything that involves consuming things that end up with residual waste flowing into the lake (like depending on coal for any of my electric power, a lot of which is brought into port on ships), I am part of that ecosystem. If I buy a ticket on the SS Badger to enjoy a slow ride across Lake Michigan, I am supporting the company’s refusal thus far to stop dumping toxic coal ash into the lake with every crossing.

If I buy a smart phone or an iPad, I am ecologically connected to the toxic contamination and human exploitation involved in rare earth mineral mining, a growing threat as our technology consumption makes more and more demand for these minerals.

This economic ecology is as true as the ecology within which I plant a seed in the ground, nurture it by compost in a rich soil that grows in the environment that includes water and sunlight, producing a harvest that I put on my table and eat and which then becomes part of my body. It is as true as the hydrological cycle that draws moisture off the earth high into the atmosphere where clouds form and with the help of air currents and jet streams drops rain on my vegetable garden.

Our economics of growth have an ecology, a set of complex interrelations that feed it, dynamic forces at work that when not fully appreciated make it hard to see where the problem is – the problem of our ecological crisis – the one where the logic of economic growth is leading us to planetary disaster.

So, here’s the headline from an AP article printed in the local paper today that really caught my attention:

Consumers seen as key to growth in 2014

It’s an obvious point made over and over again – economic growth within the current paradigm of the global economy depends upon consumers consuming more and more – and then more.

Hopes are rising that consumers will drive stronger growth in 2014 after they stepped up spending at the end of last year in the United States and Europe…

Several trends are boosting consumer spending in developed countries: Inflation is low, enabling shoppers to stretch their dollars, euros and yen. The Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and other central banks are keeping interest rates super-low. Those low rates have made it easier for borrowers to afford higher-cost items such as cars and appliances.

Yes, and smart phones and computers and all the technology, screens, Bluetooth, internet access, and GPS that are now part of the car-shopping experience. Toyota’s Prius  contains lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earth minerals, and producing them requires metals and factories to assemble them. Wind turbines also make demands on these minerals. All part of the ecology of economic production and growth. You cannot grow in consumption without taking more and more from the planet – including fracking for the oil and gas all these industries need to produce the stuff that we consume.

That is as true as the rain my garden needs to grow tomatoes.

 With more consumers willing to open their wallets, businesses will also likely start spending more on machinery, computers and other equipment, Hensley said, providing an additional spark to growth.

Here’s the other article that leapt off the page of my newspaper this morning:

2013 was 4th hottest on record

I love the way this article begins because we all remember the record-breaking heat of 1988.

The sweltering year of 1988 first put global warming in the headlines and ended up as the hottest year on record. But on Tuesday, it was pushed out of the top 20 warmest by 2013.

Last year tied for the fourth hottest and 1988 fell to 21st.

So, if there are still global warming deniers out there, well, I don’t know what to say about them anymore. Even a good dose of reality doesn’t seem to shake them from their conviction that everything will be okay. That’s also part of the ecology of economic growth – the reluctance to believe that it’s the economic system itself that is the pathology here, the threat to our future on this planet.

Now, we spend a lot of time worrying about our individual consumption, but it is important to realize, once again, that while each of us lives within the interlocking ecologies of economic growth and nature, there is just so much impact that my individual consumer choices can have. Yes, by all means we must radically simplify our lives. But ultimately it is systems that need to be changed fundamentally and that is a political, social, and cultural work – an ecological work, a work with regard to the logic of the systems that jeopardize our future.

Our individual consumer choices do not absolve us from that larger engagement, that larger responsibility to radically overhaul the values of a culture that puts consumption at the center of its framework of meaning.

One last example – the reports about how China’s smog does indeed impact the air quality of our West Coast.

Pollution from Chinese factories is harming air quality on U.C. West Coast

Here’s the ecology part:

…much of that air pollution is being caused by the manufacture of goods in China for export to the United States and Europe.

“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” said Steve Davis, a University of California at Irvine scientist and a co-author of the study. “Given the complaints about how Chinese pollution is corrupting other countries’ air, this paper shows that there may be plenty of blame to go around”…

A decrease in manufacturing in the United States in recent years has led to cleaner air in its Eastern regions. But pollutants wafting in from China have harmed the West, according to the study.

What goes around comes around – because that’s how nature works. Sure, it’s been a cold winter here in the Upper Midwest, and if that’s all you see you can make jokes about global warming. But when you look at it ecologically, you see how the system of polar air in which we have been trapped for weeks now is related to record temperatures and extreme drought in California and nation-melting heat in Melbourne, Australia, and the heavy rain and temps in the low 40s in parts of Alaska – 30-40 degrees warmer than Milwaukee this week.

When we look at the ideology of economic growth ecologically, we get a pretty good sense of what the problem is – and how hard it will be to address it. Ecosystems develop their own dynamisms and this one, this industrial economic growth engine, is pretty fierce right now in its momentum. Putting obstacles in its way, challenging its logic at its core, these are challenges that we must face, and quickly.

We need to find ways to force our people’s attention to what it really is – which is not growth at all, but rather depletion, a system of “using up” everything it can as fast it can. We are not growing – we are diminishing – in quality of life, in the hope for a future of well-being.

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