Sunday, November 28, 2004

Doomed by Hope

This week I listened to the Ronald Wright giving the Massey Lectures on Ideas. In the lectures, entitled A Short History of Progress, Wright walks through the history of humanity, pointing out a recurring pattern: a survival strategy that proves too successful, resulting in great wealth, a population boom, environmental exhaustion, and the collapse of the civilization. Without exception, each of these doomed civilizations embraced the belief that God or the Gods had showered them with blessings and would continue to do so indefinitely so long as they continued to make the proper obeyances. And these obeyances, which intensified when hard times came, only made the problems worse.

On Easter Island, for example, these obeyances involved a statuary cult, which required the villagers to cut down what few trees they had left to move and erect the giant heads of their ancestors. As a result, they had no wood to build boats to fish, no root systems to hold soil and water. They starved and dwindled to a shadow of their former glory, resorting to slavery and cannibalism. When the first white men arrived, they looked at their power and wealth, at the great ships of wood they sailed in, and despaired. The full folly of their actions and beliefs came home to them, and they began to attack the statues they had poured all of their wealth into.

While Easter Island is an extreme case, the belief that God will provide, that Our Way of Doing Things has received Divine blessing, was common to all the failed civilizations that Wright mentions. It was an essential contributor to the eventual collapse of each of them, by lulling the population into false hope and defending entrenched folly from challenge. Indeed, as the problems inherent in the system became more obvious, so too does the pressure for orthodoxy. We can already see this happening in the United States, where the administration is actively involved in supressing science critical to its policies, and religious orthodoxy is joining forces with economic orthodoxy. Seen in light of this historical tendency, the blind adherence amongst even the poorest to ideologies destructive to their own interests is not surprising. The yawning abyss is so frightening, and the solution so complex and demanding, that most would rather drift into a sleep of false hope than embrace the true hope of facing the problem and dealing with it.

Here is a partial list of some of the challenges we are facing. First, we are incredibly dependent on oil. Oil heats our homes, brings goods to us, powers the machinery used in farming and manufacturing, and is the raw material both for plastics and for the fertilizers we sustain our crops with. Without oil, we not only lose our standard of living, we can no longer feed ourselves. Even the crops used for production of oil substitutes are produced using oil based fertilizers. And we are running out of oil. As one Saudi Sheik put it, "My grandfather rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flies a jet, and my grandson will ride a camel." But you cannot support our population with camels. We need to reduce our energy consumption, find ways to recycle human waste into fertilizer, and dedicate more effort into finding alternative energy sources. Given the urgency of the situation, the partisan bickering over international fusion research is outrageous.

We are losing arable land to soil erosion and urbanization at the rate of an area the size of Scotland each year. I have always been appalled on visits to Toronto, knowing that Toronto is expanding over what I know to be the best agricultural land in Canada. As agricultural land is destroyed, the remaining land is subjected to more intensive and exhaustive use, accelerating the rate of decline. We need to stop building out and start building up, reserving arable land for agriculture, or allowing it to rest fallow, planting trees on it to hold the soil.

In the American mid-west, the bread basket of the United States, the water table is being rapidly depleted. Global warming is making the problem worse. Desperately searching for more water, the Americans are looking north to the Great Lakes and the water table of the Canadian shield. But the Great Lakes are badly polluted, and irrigation with Great Lakes water would turn the soil into a toxic desert very quickly. As for the Canadian shield, it is actually a thin layer of water spread across a pitted sheet of rock. It seems extensive only because it is all sitting out in the open, constantly being recycled by evaporation and precipitation. It would have to be piped out one lake at a time, a very expensive proposition. It is also a very fragile system, supporting a wilderness which consists largely of small stunted trees clinging to thin soil, which could very easily be transformed into a rocky wasteland. The drought of the mid-west would spread to become the drought of the northeast. We must stop polluting the water we have, cutting trees, which are essential to the maintenance of the water table, and reduce the amount of water we use. We must also find a way to build viable desalination plants to supply dry areas in the southwest, leaving the water in the mid-west solely for use by that area. Done properly (and energy requirement is a large factor here,) desalination could provide major fringe benefits--large amounts of rare elements are suspended in sea water, including gold and silver.

Another recurring feature in each of these failed civilizations is a growing disparity between rich and poor. This is also something we can see occuring now in our own civilization. This disparity induces a desparation in the populace, driving consumption and exhaustion of the environment. This is very pronounced in the third world, where rain forests are being cut down to produce short term econonmic gain and short lived agricultural areas, which quickly deteriorate into deserts. Small family farms, which respect the land they use as the future source of livelihood for themselves and their children, are being replaced by industrial agriculture which is bent on short term gains at the expense of long term viability. The solution would be to subsidize small scale farming for domestic consumption, while removing subsidies for exported food so that family farms in the third world can compete in their own markets. It is also time to insist that those who gain the most benefit from living in our society pay for that benefit. Supply side economics has been tried in every major empire throughout history. It has never worked. There is simply no evidence to support the superstition that it will work now.

But most of all, we have to face up to our problems, rather than expect that God is going to come back and clean our diapers. If there is one epitaph that would be suitable for all failed civilization, it would be "God will provide." Even if you believe that God created the world, you must concede that there is no greater act of ingratitude than to decimate the world God made and cover it with your own shit. This would be like moving into an apartment, ripping up the floor boards, breaking the windows, smearing the walls with feces, building a bonfire in the living room--and then expecting the landlord to pay you for the honour of your tenancy. Even atheists have more class than this. For those who think that God is waiting in heaven to reward them for this, think again. If we build a hell on earth, to expect anything better as a reward is pure infantile arrogance.