When what is predicted actually happens…

Posted June 14th, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on When what is predicted actually happens…

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Did you miss me? My 8-year old laptop’s hard drive died its natural death last week. Would have been smart of me to anticipate that a bit better. Anyway, left me free of the internet for a while. The first evening after death was officially pronounced, I came home to this vacuum – no internet – for days to come.

But you know what? After 24 hours of mild anxiety and disorientation,work that was left hanging or in process, emails unanswered, etc.,  I sort of became used to it again – to life without the internet. All of a sudden, I had all this time on my hands. I got a lot of writing done (I have an old desktop with no internet access where I do my creative writing), and actual reading, you know, holding a book in my hands for long hours into the night.

And then I started realizing how much we have come to depend on this immaterial, non-direct, distancing way of communicating with one another. Our phones are so quiet now. The lack of real human contact is a void people fill with the most non-threatening, non-personal, non-intimate way of communicating – via electromagnetic fields and wifi networks, via machines with these impersonal keypads which have no individual character at the other end, even via the National Security Agency!!!

You know, if you take a walk with a friend, or have a long leisurely lunch, the NSA can’t put that into their patterned network where all these other communications are available to them. And we might begin to relearn the meaning of deep friendship.76 - boy_woods1

So what happened while I was away? The headline suggests what I’m thinking about today. I have been working on ecological challenges for going on a decade now – and years before that if I count the work we did on post-war Central America where hopes for economic development in these impoverished wrecked places kept bumping into the environmental challenges that plague our world – massive deforestation, climate change indicators already altering weather patterns, toxic contamination of water sources, soil erosion from mal-development schemes, along with all the consequences of severe economic injustice.

Back when I started, and especially during the two years that I researched and wrote my book, Living Beyond the ‘End of the World:’ A Spirituality of Hope, I was reading and citing study after study showing that our world was about to enter into a time of massive ecological shifts in the planet that would threaten our future well-being. These shifts would be manifested in things like more and bigger severe storms, longer more severe drought, hurricanes striking farther north along our Atlantic Coast threatening cities like New York, more rain falling as torrents rather than showers,melting glaciers and ice sheets that along with warmer ocean temperatures would mean rising sea levels, increasing rates of species extinctions, and a population boom that would peak out at 9-10 billion by the middle of this century.

So have we missed a single one of these predictions? Should we start paying a bit more attention as they become more dire (now combined with things like looming water and food shortages – you know, try living without those two things)?

Pine beetle damage in Canada's mountain forests

Pine beetle damage in Canada’s mountain forests

Here’s one we wrote about long ago on this website: with  winters warming across the northern Rocky Mountains in Canada, the annual freeze that killed off much of the annual infestation of pine bark beetles wasn’t happening. Without the die-off, part of nature’s brilliant balance, the beetle population took off, then spread, traveling at an incredible speed into the U.S. Rockies all the way down through Colorado and the Southwest. Ponderosa and lodgepole pine forests began turning reddish brown and dying. If you have flown over the mountains in recent years, you know exactly how dramatic this is, how much of our western forests are dying off.

Meanwhile, because of climate change, the climate in the west has been drying. Drought has persisted for a decade or more. (See another disturbing indicator of how the West is changing here.)

Meanwhile, humans kept moving into these tinder dry dying forests. And lack of forest management, including fighting the natural fire occurrence which is another way our brilliantly balanced nature kept the undergrowth and density of trees from getting out of hand, made of these parched lands one great big pyre ready to explode with a lightning strike or a careless camper’s embers.

Which brings us to Colorado today.


While we greet all these disasters as tragedies, each a uniquely special catastrophe, they have actually been predictable, inevitable – and in regard to humans, utterly unprepared for. Because if we had been preparing, we would have begun a retreat from the coasts long before Hurricane Sandy (and the political momentum around coastal redevelopment is still in the direction of greatest danger and destruction), and we would have prohibited the building of houses and housing developments in the dying, tinder dry forests of the West. And we would certainly not expect firefighters to risk their lives to save these structures.

14th Street in Manhattan last September

14th Street in Manhattan last September

This all sounds harsh, but you do have to wonder what is so wrong with us that we don’t respond in a sane and healthy way to the danger we’re in.

And I ask myself this day – if we are not prepared to change our ways of living on this planet in the face of the predictions, and now the evidence that the predictions have been devastatingly accurate, what will we do as we add another 900,000,000 people to this planet over the next 12 years, and another 1.5 billion after that by 2050?! These numbers come from a new report just released by the United Nations. What do we do with all those expectations that the world has a right to develop to our standard of living? If this much destruction to our planet’s living systems has been done thus far, it doesn’t take a whole lot of complex scientific thinking to realize that this path means ruination beyond anything we have seen thus far.

Shouldn’t expectations, therefore, be adjusted accordingly? But I don’t think that needs to start in Brazil or China. It needs to start with those wealthy people building homes in the parched mountains or insisting on rebuilding their million-dollar homes on the Jersey shore (with ocean views intact), and with those of us so comfortable with our consumer way of life, and with an economy in which wealth generation depends on always rising stock prices for the very corporations that are engines of the ecological breakdowns. (For another example of this, check out this NY Times article about how one of the dirtiest most destructive industries ever concocted on this planet, the coal industry, is struggling for survival by planning to export coal to, well, of course, you can guess…)

Here’s another little factoid: not only are we not retreating from the coasts, but in New York alone it is predicted that the number of people living in danger from rising sea levels and more severe hurricanes will more than double in the next several of decades! We are not only not moving away from the danger, we continue moving right into it – like all those rich people spreading out along the mountain ranges and valleys of Montana or the foothills of Colorado.

One of the conversations we are never allowed to have in any civil manner in this culture is the one around the need to fundamentally alter the path and the logic of the global economy. Because we are the model everyone is shooting for (literally, far too often), we have a lion’s share of responsibility for creating this unbalanced, increasingly catastrophic, deeply immoral economic project in which global markets are run by big financial interests and corporate stockholders for the sake of profit. And if we think this model, which has thrown us headlong into this crisis, can in any way get us out of it, we are in for a very bad comeuppance.

Per person US eco demand and resource supply. These lines should not be going away from each other. Source: Global Footprint Network

Per person US eco demand and resource supply. These lines should not be going away from each other. Source: Global Footprint Network

If the retirement portfolios of the affluent depend on that sort of wealth generation, what are we willing to surrender in life expectations so that we can begin to build a different human economy in which life satisfaction depends on other things than the kind of extraction, production, consumption, and waste that is bringing about this greater intensity and frequency of disaster? At one point do we finally face the necessity of making this huge shift from one economic era to another?

Because more dire predictions are being made for our world in the not-too-distant future. How bad it’s going to get still depends on us. And what we believe here in this project is that what that requires deep within us is one of the greatest shifts in moral, spiritual, and cultural priorities since the dawn of the human species.

Are we up for that? Sounds like an incredible adventure to me. Nothing like a good challenge to bring out the best in us. I think we ought to give it a try, don’t you?


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