Getting to the Source:

Readings on Sustainable Values

by William Ross McCluney

Chapter 1


by William Ross McCluney



arth came into being some 4.5 billion years ago. Life formed a mere half billion years later. Then Nature took her time—nearly four billion additional years for the first multicellular animal to emerge, 700 million years BCE (before the Christian era). Our earliest human record dates to around 2.6 million years ago, near the end of the Cenozoic era.

      For most of humanity’s existence, massive, human-induced environmental impact was unknown. Early humans were little different in this respect from the other animals roaming the land in search of food. They were embedded in nature and a component of it. The system was cyclic. Waste was food. Earth was in balance. Then a mere nine or ten thousand years ago, 0.0002% of Earth’s history, humanity invented agriculture and began setting aside its hunting-gathering ways.

      Along with this physical change came a monumental conceptual shift, a turning point of such vast magnitude that nothing like it in human history was seen again—until today. About 10,000 years ago humanity began a breaking away from the web of life, an attempt to better its lot through increasing control over nature and the Earth. The new mode of living succeeded wonderfully. It lead to the creation of large cities, the development of extensive commerce, and the flowering of modern civilization. The printing press was invented, and along with it a substantive shift in education. Now most humans learned how the Earth works not so much directly but by inference, from reading about it. In addition, greater emphasis was placed on humanity, its history, its inventions. Great works of art, scholarship, and industry were created. The concept of “Progress” took center stage in the affairs of humans.

      Growth in human numbers and in its technological muscle was slow at first, but once fossil fuels were discovered, everything changed. Human populations shot up exponentially, as did the magnitude and technical complexity of industry and commerce—and the adverse environmental consequences of those massive developments.

      As we pass through the peak of world oil production and as humanity starts facing other limits, we find ourselves at a second turning point, facing a new conceptual shift no less massive than when we left the sustainable hunting and gathering life. Our new Progress Paradigm, so successful for 10,000 years, is now being called into question. The Industrial Growth Society has become the Earth Degradation Society. Our planet is filling with people, limits are being reached, and the environmental consequences of our actions are becoming terminal.

      As industrial society systematically takes apart the human life-support system, we and our leaders find ourselves thrashing about, fighting the inevitable change, trying to postpone it, clinging to the Progress Paradigm as if it were the only possible model. Forgotten are the remnant hunting-gathering tribes still living the old sustainable ways, many still enjoying, and even worshiping, the core essence of the Earth mother which is their and our home and which sustains us. Unfortunately, the hunting-gathering model is no longer available to all of us. We are too numerous for that, and most recoil at the thought of “going backwards” to a way of life considered uncivilized and archaic. Whether these perceptions are valid, the old way cannot be followed without a massive reduction in human population. Another way must be found to achieve sustainability again.

      In the last century or so, a number of people have been working on this problem, have been writing about it, and have started making plans for the new conceptual shift which will be needed. The change will be forced upon us in the first several decades of the 21st century. We’ll either fight it as we go, with much suffering and international and interpersonal conflict (and untimely death and misery), or we will embrace it, aiming as always for a better life for humanity—and for the biosphere as a whole. The challenge is to redefine what “better life” means while pursuing new approaches.

      At this juncture, between the industrial growth paradigm and whatever might be next, we are fortunate not only to witness and participate in the transition but to have available to us the writings of some remarkably insightful thinkers, guides, and pathfinders. Some offer more than mere suggestions. They provide glimpses at new cosmologies in the making, the new belief systems we will have to adopt if we are to abandon the failed paradigm and find a sustainable new way.

      These writers are the modern-day sages—thinkers exploring how we got to the position (unintentionally) of systematically taking apart the life-support system of planet Earth. They are thinking and exploring ways of putting it back together again. Most do not think this possible, at least not the way it was. What we will have instead is a replacement system of human interaction with nature. Figuring out what this replacement system will, or should, look like is what this book is about.

      The authors presented here have put considerable effort into understanding the current place of the human in the universe, and have explored the changes in behavior and thought processes needed for the human species to alter its destructive path toward the future. Each offers a similar coherent view of what is wrong and what we must do. The common theme of these disparate individuals is that humanity has to change its manner of thinking about itself and its place in the universe. Only with a new world view, most of them argue, can we hope to solve the difficult problem of changing our behaviors both individually and collectively, to ensure a viable future for our species, and in consequence, all others.

      Part of the motivation for past work in this field has been a search for a fundamental new principle of environmental ethics that could lead humanity to some global consensus on its future directions. The hope is that this new principle, if found, would suddenly clarify everything, give the current problem meaning in a larger context, and show the way toward the better future we so desire.

      Upon occasion I have found masterful written works that come close to providing this new principle. One was The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry, supplemented by his later book, The Great Work. Another was the amazing novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, and his subsequent books. Another was Paul Hawken’s remarkable The Ecology of Commerce. David Price’s essay on the role of energy in ecosystems makes the case that Nature abhors unlimited growth—and takes steps to limit or reverse it. Al Bartlett’s eloquent speeches and writings on the nature of growth are an inspiration.

      Nearly everyone is led to conclude that overpopulation is the most important underlying force. Most of our environmental problems can better be understood through knowledge of the nature and consequences of unbridled growth. Bartlett, a physicist from the University of Colorado, has lectured extensively on this subject. He claims that we can solve many of our global problems through a program to reduce global population levels over a period of years, and through additional efforts to eliminate unbounded exponential growth in things material. This is the central conclusion of many other advocates of negative human population growth.

      In spite of the abhorrence of continued population growth, not all forms of growth are bad or limited. Growth in human potential, ability, freedom, intelligence, education, peaceful interaction, and compassion can hardly be considered harmful. Similarly, who can object to accelerating spiritual growth, growth in psychological balance, or growth in health and happiness? It is the growth in things material on a finite planet with which we are having our greatest difficulty.

      Bartlett quotes Virginia Abernethy as claiming that raising affluence in poorly developed countries results in higher fertility rates. This seems counter to the widely held belief, backed by other studies, that raising the status of women results in the lowering of their fertility rates. One resolution of the conflict between these two views is achieved by noting the significant time lag between the increased affluence and the lowered fertility, usually a generation or so. To this time lag must be added the approximately 70 year delay due to what is called the momentum effect, meaning that if one makes a sudden change in the fertility rate in a society, the full effect of the change is not usually realized until every person has died who was living when the change was made. As a result of these two factors, more than a century is likely to be required for increased affluence to result in long-term reductions in population growth in a region.

      Closely connected to the problem of unchecked human population growth is the idea of carrying capacity—the number of humans the Earth can support sustainably for an indefinite time period. Several people have examined this question. The only answer is that the maximum sustainable human population depends upon the kind of world those humans want to live in.

      If we are willing to lose a large number of species of plants and animals, never again to be seen in reality, only in video storage media and computer simulation; if we are willing to consign humans to a state of continual poverty and a high degree of misery; then the world can probably support considerably more people than it is supporting now, at least until our nonrenewable energy sources are depleted. When these are in short supply they cannot be widely used. They will be at least partially replaced by other sources, but it will be impossible to sustain currently projected population levels with any semblance of an acceptable standard of living without supplemental energy inputs.

      If, on the other hand, we desire a world where all existing species live successfully and only occasionally become extinct, due to natural forces, where beautiful fields and streams and mountains and forests still exist in their historic rich fullness, and one where humans enjoy a good basic material standard of living with a high quality of life, then the world cannot support its current population indefinitely. You can’t have it both ways. Clearly humanity has embarked on a grand experiment, to see how much population it can cram onto the Earth’s surface without dooming most of the its human inhabitants to a state of continual and perpetual misery or even extinction.

      Daniel Quinn and ecologist Paul Thornhill claim that through its population growth and food practices humanity is “systematically converting non-human biomass into human biomass.” Of course the species cannot long continue this trend, or the only “food” left for us will be ourselves (a point made forcefully in the movie Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston). There would be more general collapses before this terrible state were reached, but the pattern is well established and the adverse consequences are presenting themselves already. Breaking away from this pattern and saving our futures is the greatest challenge ever to face humanity. How we go about doing it is of critical importance. Knowing where we are headed and how we must change our minds, our understandings, and our hearts, to avoid the approaching eco-catastrophe, is perhaps the most important topic we humans can discuss, as a species.

      I have included herein representative essays from a number of authors. Of course, none presents an all-encompassing theory which can be made to work in all cases, in all cultures, but together I think a picture of the future new paradigm is beginning to emerge.

      The articles by Bartlett and Price are based on proven science and can hardly be disputed by reputable scientists and scholars. If we hear from these authors stories we might not want to hear, it is easy to try and dismiss them as being too radical or extreme. As a political cartoon by Brinkman puts it, “Thinking is very upsetting.... It tells you things you’d rather not know.

      Each of the essays presented here addresses only a portion of the problem. But they can serve as important stepping stones toward the future, as we struggle with the consequences of our mass decision to take over control of the operation of Spaceship Earth.

      In a separate book, Humanity’s Environmental Future, I have sought to offer explanations of the central questions concerning how we have come to this point and suggestions for actions we can take to redirect our future toward a sustainable and desirable goal. In this collection of essays, I offer some original words of the masters of human values, writers who have thought long and hard about the problem of human sustainability.

      The first essay, by Bill McKibben, a noted environmental writer, discusses both sides of the growth versus no growth issue, describes the arguments for continuing as we are and for turning things around. McKibben’s contribution provides an introduction to most of the issues dealt with in the rest of the book.

      Before we can offer viable alternatives, we must learn how we came to the point that our ordinary ways of living each day—seeming so benign to those of us enjoying modest affluence—have become toxic to Nature and to humanity. How did we come to the point of regularly knocking out ecosystems, extinguish whole species, and polluting our air, water, and soil? Why don’t we all see this is what’s happening? What went wrong with us? with our civilization? These intriguing questions are addressed by every author offered here, and in most cases a glimpse or two of what we must do differently is provided.

      In some of the following chapters I offer introductory comments. In a few others some observations are provided at the end of the chapter.