Arriving at the end of the infinite

Posted January 29th, 2009 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

The end of the infinite, or the end of the capitalist myth of the infinite — infinitely expanding economies, infinitely expanding wealth generation, infinitely expanding consumption of goods, infinitely expanding production of those goods…

Oops.  We just crashed into the wall.  Never mind.

Blue Planet - NASA Earth Observatory

Blue Planet - NASA Earth Observatory

The thing about circles and spheres, like the shape of our planet, is that lines don’t go out into infinity.  They turn back on themselves.  There is no linear progress in all the universe.  As we know from physics, every line eventually bends and curves.  The universe is all arcs and circles.

The line we Westerners thought was forever straight, out, and up curved, arced, bent back, reached the limits of how far out it could go.  The line of progress, an ever-rising ‘standard of living,’ turned out not to be infinite, but rather to exist within a circle outside of which it cannot go.

The infinite expansion of extraction of natural ‘resources’ taken out from, and the waste dumped into, the Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere turned out not to be infinite.  It stays within the circle and is now choking us to death, invading our bodies, soils, water, and air with contaminants, reaching the limits of how many of us the Earth can provide for without depletion moving rapidly past the possibility of regeneration.

What brought this reflection to mind was an essay on the opinion page of the NY Times yesterday, Back on Walton’s Mountain, by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland:

IT’S disorienting to spend a lifetime hearing the praises of consuming less ” and then, with the economic collapse, being forced to do so.

Indeed.  The awareness of what we are confronting could make it hard to breathe, it seems so frightening.  Capitalism has hit a wall, a very large, very expansive, very thick, very high wall.  It was inevitable.  Karl Marx may have been way off on the timing, but he was not wrong that capitalism could not be forever, that it would eventually hit limits.

Again, no economic system is infinite and forever.  Even we humans who invent them are not infinite and forever.  So a little humility is called for as we reassess where we are right now.  This could be a moment when we do, out of necessity, relearn how to live.  It could also be when the whole bloody civilization on which this near-religious faith in economic growth, despite the reality of the circle, comes to a crashing, unpleasant end.

As Coupland suggests, do we really know another way to organize the economy of the human within Gaia?

One is left standing in a very scary place where lifelong homilies about the benefits of reduced shopping reveal themselves as dangerous, impossible, society-crippling fallacies. To make matters worse, capitalism doesn’t seem to be saving the day. We’re left without the comfort of a familiar viewpoint to guide us forward.

And that is true about many of the foundations of ‘civilization’ as we know it.  The course we are on has led us to wreckage, but we don’t have a new course that is clear, graspable, that replaces the dynamics that have led us to crash and burn.

I do know this: if we try to go back to the course we know, this crash and burn will pale by comparison to the next one.  And yet:

…the prospect of less consumption fills us with dread. It’s not the having less part that is frightening ” people are generally happy as long as everybody’s in the same boat. What’s frightening is the fear that our system can’t handle less, and it’s not as if there’s some other system out there shouting: œTry me! Try me!

As I have argued in my book and in my many presentations, how we approach a moment like this will decide what kind of future we will have.  If we throw up our hands in despair, give up, resign ourselves to disaster, then disaster will be the outcome.  If we become indifferent, then that disaster will come creeping up on our indifference until it swallows us, too.  If we try to reinvent the capitalist economies of growth that led us here, we will deplete the planet, we will cook the planet, we will devastate the planet, more rapidly — until disaster.

Environmental refugees - Horn of Africa

Environmental refugees - Horn of Africa

On the other hand, if we approach the moment with exhilaration at the challenge, with a sense of mission, a conviction that this challenges defines the meaning of the human in our time, indeed, infuses every aspect of our lives with meaning like never before — meaning that this economy of consumption and mindless entertainment and distraction has stolen from our spirits — then we could find ourselves on the most exciting human adventure since those first Home-sapiens-type increasingly self-aware beings emerged from the story of evolution several million years ago.

I like the way Coupland ends this essay:

We’ve finally spiked over the edge of the chart ” we’re at the place we couldn’t see in social studies classes, when late 20th-century trends like population and raw material consumption and pension indexes were extrapolated along the x- and y- axes into infinity.

In my mind we were never really in the future until we hit that edge ” and now we have ” and because of this, everything we sense in 2009 is going to be new, but that’s what the future was always supposed to be about.

Are we ready for this?  Really, this is going to be an adventure thrill ride.

Now here is where those of us who approach this from the lens of spirituality come in — and our role is crucial.  What must be infused into this transition is:

1) reverence for the Earth and all the creatures and ecosystems needed to keep life rich and abundant;

2) compassion for the humans with whom we share this planet and a profound sense of solidarity among us;

3) passion for justice and equity without which the transition will be bloody and horrible indeed;

4) an absolute commitment to the common good, or the good of the commons, and;

5) a renewed sense of the meaning of the human within the fabric of Gaia life.

Are we ready for this?


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One Response

  1. D.Bheemeswar

    Do not be in despair, thing shall improve after some time. It is all bluffs and bluffs in order to gain material comforts the and to save their false prestige, specially those who are in power. Today everybody is facing the problem including those who have created this havoc mindlessly.