Humanity’s Environmental Future:
Making Sense in a Troubled World
by William Ross McCluney
Part I. The Crisis
Earth in Transition
Humanity faces serious environmental threats.
What kind of future can we have?
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand,
more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain
in its success, than to take the lead in the
introduction of a new order of things.
– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
ccelerated change is a defining characteristic of human life today. Because of human interception into nonhuman life processes, this change has become a defining moment for all life on Earth. Together, we face serious challenges on many fronts. Overpopulation and the attendant assault on the natural environment provides the primary driving force for some very serious challenges. We see the beginnings of major social, economic, environmental, and spiritual upheavals, most stimulated by environmental losses. The “new order of things” which is likely to emerge, is by no means clear.
Optimism - Pessimism
“The sky is falling!” cried Chicken Little. “The world is coming to an end,” say a few radical environmentalists. “Human beings are causing the extinction of species on the order of the mass extinctions that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” says a group of botanists1. Serious additional warnings are offered by many of the world’s most eminent scientists, including ecologists and paleontologists who study Earth matters closely.
“Things are just fine, going along well. The future looks bright,” say most industrial economists, and political and business leaders. They argue that the cries of alarm coming from the “tree-huggers” are misplaced and destructive.
Who is right? What is the real future of humanity? And who cares anyway?
Many reasons are offered not to care. “It’s far into the future and I’ll be dead anyway,” is a common sentiment. Most people care most about what happens tomorrow, or next year, but not much about the next several decades. We work hard just to get through each day with a semblance of vocational satisfaction, personal contentment, and some pleasure. We don’t have much time or interest in pondering the distant future. Is this a surface manifestation of our hectic industrialized lifestyle?
Down deep nearly all of us are concerned about the future, but our worries and concerns are unfocused and indistinct. We deal with adversities as they come, and try to live for the moment—protecting ourselves from too many unpleasant thoughts or depressing possible future realities. To some, this is human nature. To others it is debilitating denial, avoiding the truth because it is unpleasant.
Few of us are in any position, nor do we have the motivation, to alter our behaviors radically, especially if the reasons for change are not strong, compelling, or immediately evident in our lives. Hearing about some remotely perceived future threat—like the random collision of a giant asteroid—fails to stir us into serious action or personal change.
Those of us living in the
industrial world look at our lives as moderately comfortable. At least most of
us do. We see things as generally going well—with economic growth continuing in
a usually positive manner, with our incomes rising, if slowly, and with our
savings expanding too. We believe we are well off, at least in comparison with
poor people in less developed countries. (This is a fallacy, of course. Many of
these “poor” people lead perfectly satisfying lives. And there are wealthy in
On the other hand, we do know this picture comes with many
caveats, including the huge numbers of
Joanna Macy described our hectic lifestyles: “The corporate mergers characterizing the advanced state of the Industrial Growth Society rob people of employment, make them scramble for jobs, and feel highly insecure in those they still manage to hang on to. Moonlighting, they rush from one job to another, to piece together a living wage. Most young families, in order to pay the bills, need both parents to work for pay, or try to. The pace accelerates, taking its toll on every spare moment, every relationship. As employment benefits are cut, and social health and welfare programs decimated, economic anxiety mounts. The world narrows down to one’s own and one’s family’s immediate needs. There’s little time to contemplate the fate of the world, or let it sink in. If a free hour is left at the end of the day, one prefers to zone out with a beer in front of the television–and the packaged fantasies of the Industrial Growth Society.”2, p. 33
The strongest motivation most of us have for protecting the future is the bond of love and responsibility we feel for our children and grandchildren. We want a healthy world for them to grow up in. And most of us are concerned. It is difficult to avoid some worry, with all the reports of environmental, health, and economic problems we see regularly in the media. Now we have domestic terrorism to worry about.
Though a terrible and demonstrably real threat, terrorism is unlikely to result in the extinction of the human species. Some of the environmental threats facing us could do just that. This amazing possibility could come from a rampant new viral strain infecting, and killing, all humans. It could come from extreme global warming coupled with human-induced extinction of critical species upon which humanity depends, or species on which those species depend.
The potential for annihilation following a large thermonuclear exchange between countries, the danger of massive global war, and the results of famine and disease are all real and serious threats, but they are not the focus here, except to the extent that they result from the pressures of overpopulation and environmental degradation, because they do not have the potential for eradicating human life on Earth.
Unlike the false alarm of Chicken Little, real environmental alarms are provided almost daily by knowledgeable scientists, scholars, educators, and religious leaders. The strength and directness of the relentless warnings from our most brilliant scientists are nothing short of astonishing. We would be foolish to ignore them. So address them we must. Addressing them now, as a species, is a major purpose of this book.
Through the ages, many people have spoken out about the future of humanity. Fear of disaster is nothing new, of course. The Bible speaks of Armageddon and apocalypse. The World Future Society publishes a magazine of articles by a variety of authors on many aspects of predicting the future. Though most are optimistic, some are not.
Michio Kaku has written a fascinating book, Visions, about the expected impacts of science and technology in the 21st century3. Many of the predicted developments seem sure to make our lives easier and more interesting. Some will make life more dangerous and precipitous. He warns that a degree of wisdom will be required to avoid the pitfalls of powerful technologies. Without that wisdom, humans may become just another extinct species. Sorting through the alternatives is one of the most important tasks to face us.
In reading the literature on this subject, three different points of view keep popping up.
The fatalists. These believe the future will just happen. There’s not a lot we can do to alter it much, nor should we even try. The idea is that we have reached our current status by evolutionary processes. Whatever happens to us in the future is thought to be a natural consequence of that evolution.
Animals have become extinct naturally over Earth history. The fatalists believe there is no reason to expect humans to have any special immunity from extinction. As far as we know, none of the previously endangered species were aware of the threat nor able or willing to take any action to prevent it. In this view, modern humans are considered to be in the same category. Even though we can think of the future and see dangers ahead, the fatalists say we are essentially unable as a species to alter the future, so we should just make the best of the present while we can.
The Cornucopians. Another view is that we do have control, and we can and will anticipate the future and make it a better one for humans. In this view, there are no limits to growth (or they are far into the future) and resources are and always will remain abundant (or we can find, or make, substitutes forever). We have advanced technologies, and new ones on the horizon, which can solve every problem, and we have and will create constantly improving democracies capable of watching over these developments, protecting the rights and needs of humans along the way. This thoroughly anthropocentric (human-centered) perspective generally claims that only humans really count and have rights. Another name for this viewpoint is technological optimism, the belief that technology can solve any problem.
The Holists. A third view claims that the anthropocentric argument is too narrow. Other creatures, here before us, have equal rights to (species if not individual) existence. It recognizes that the futures of all species of life on Earth are inextricably linked together. We must protect the whole to protect humanity.
There is a quasi-anthropocentric component to the holist belief. It follows from the fact that humans depend upon plants and animals for most of the essentials of life, so their needs matter to us and have importance, if only for selfish reasons. The holist philosophy says that we should take actions today to insure a viable future for all living creatures on Earth tomorrow.
It is left to the reader to choose which of the above viewpoints is best able to protect our future. In my view, if you value the flora and fauna of this Earth, in the mountains, plains, brooks, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, if you care about what happens to them now and after you are gone, and if you care about having a viable world environment in which humans can prosper, then you should be concerned with the viability of the whole Earth. To a great extent, this book is dedicated to proving the point that protecting humanity’s future means protecting Earth’s future. If you have difficulty accepting this conclusion, please take it as a premise, and see if the remainder of what is written adequately supports the conclusion.
The massive growth of human population on the planet and the powerful new technologies placed into its hands have put the human species in charge of, and now responsible for, the operation of Spaceship Earth. Our home is just that, a relatively tiny spaceship in the vastness of the universe, pursuing an elliptical course around our mother star, the Sun. The solar system is tiny compared to the huge galaxy in which it resides, and which itself is microscopic in the unimaginably vast extent of the universe.
When the term “Spaceship Earth” was coined by Buckminster Fuller, its usefulness was almost immediately apparent. Photographs of a tiny Earth from space taken by the Apollo astronauts drove home the message, an immediate image of a self-contained system. Today, with what we now know about our Earth, the analogy seems too mechanical, too manmade. Spaceships are technological inventions of humans. Earth is almost infinitely more complex and beautiful. It is bigger than humans. It is organic, not merely mechanical. It is with no sense of denigration, however, that I call Earth a spaceship. I think the analogy aids those of us brought up in a largely materialistic and mechanistic culture to understand this one important dimension of a multi-dimensional Earth: It really is our life-support system.
That life support is provided by Earth’s biosphere, the thin layer of air, water, topsoil, and below-ground aquifers covering the habitable regions of our planet. The organisms in the biosphere, and the chemical, physical, and geological systems on which they depend, provide us with, and replenish and purify, the air we breathe and the fresh water we drink. The plants and animals provide us with food, clothing, and shelter. Though it strains credulity, we might agree with Earth ethics guru Thomas Berry that Earth has come off of “autopilot” and is now being “operated” “manually” by humans.
When we discovered the fossil remains of plants and animals beneath the surface of the planet—deposited as coal, oil, and natural gas over millions years—we started a program of exploitation that seems bent on continuing to exhaustion. This is but one component of the operation of planet Earth which we have taken over and are trying to bend to our seemingly total control. We have supplemented our daily budget of energy from the sun (and the other renewable resources available to us) with a huge variety of products made from the fossil resources.
Our use of these non-renewable resources has grown to the point where we can clearly see their continuing decline in availability. At that point we will have no choice but to begin returning to sole reliance on the non-fossil, renewable sources, radical resource use efficiency, and vigorous population stabilization. It is doubtful that the current human population can be sustained without fossil fuels. So, according to this reasoning, a major die-off of human population may accompany the exhaustion of our fossil energy resources. Increased public funding to continue extracting those resources at a faster rate can only hasten this depletion, and ultimately the human consequences. (Hopes of nuclear power and other technological innovations to make the die-off more gradual, or even non-existent, may be too illusory to count on. Do we want our very survival to depend on what might happen in the future?)
The more we try to provide the material things humans seem to think essential for living, and the more human population grows, the more pressures we place on our life support system. Though most people are concerned about it and understand these threats, others do not, or feel the problems are over-blown or nonexistent.
We have learned that the industrialized human societies, and
the less developed ones which emulate them (also generally desiring
industrialization), are together producing serious, growing, and lasting environmental
consequences. The process can only be described as one whereby modern civilization is systematically taking
apart the life support system of Planet Earth. Population biologist Alan Thornhill of
Daniel Quinn adds that we are, in essence, mining species, since in order to feed a growing human population we are killing off species left and right, at the approximate rate of 200 every day.4
These strong statements deserve elaboration. The “systematic taking apart of the life support system of Planet Earth” refers to habitat destruction due to human expansion and land development, to the continued warming of our atmosphere (by so-called “greenhouse gases” and the resulting alteration of weather and climate), to the polluting of air, soil, and water, and to the resulting extinction of species and ill health of humans and animals. These consequences are growing worldwide, faster than our remediation efforts. If we do not change the basic structuring of our society,class=Section4>
it is difficult to see how the current course can lead to anything other than growing environmental disasters and increased human suffering, most probably a collapse of human population. Not all human life will quickly disappear from the planet, but we may be reaching a point where the natural restorative capabilities of the planet will take more time than we have to avoid a major human population die-off. Though extinction of humanity is not a necessary consequence of such changes, it is a possible one.
How Did It Happen?
If you accept the truth of these strong statements, your next question may likely be: “How did we get to this place?” How did humanity reach the point of destroying the very systems which make human life possible? Additional questions also come to mind: Now that we have discovered the serious nature of the problem, why do we continue our destructive course? If humanity were as gifted, organized, and in control as believed by the Cornucopians, then wouldn’t stronger measures be in place now for reversing the disastrous trend? If it is so obvious what we are doing to our Earth, and ultimately to ourselves, then why isn’t everyone talking about it? Why aren’t we on a crash course to save the future and make our civilization sustainable?
Our lack of concern is not unlike the famous story of the Emperor’s new clothes. It was obvious to the little boy the emperor was naked (or at least was going around in his skivies). But everyone else was afraid to accept this obvious fact, so continued the pretense of believing the Emperor to be fully clothed. Breaking through the deception and denial is an important beginning step. Along the way toward that goal, it is helpful to avoid some common misconceptions.
Three terms are frequently confused in discussions of social reform.
1) Material standard of living is defined as the quantity of goods and services consumed by an individual, per unit time.
2) Quality of life is the degree of enjoyment, satisfaction, and fulfillment achieved by an individual in the process of living.
3) Lifestyle is the general pattern of daily behaviors followed by an individual.
From these definitions we see
that “material standard of living” is inherently materialistic while “quality
of life” is not. It is a mistake to confuse these two terms, as is so often
There is, of course, one way in which affluence level does equate to quality of life, and that is at the below-poverty level. If one’s basic material needs are not satisfied, or if they are so low as to produce ill-health, it is clear that good life quality is not possible. Above some minimum level, however, it is my contention that quality of life and material standard of living become less and less coupled as the material standard of living increases. The average standard of living for most industrialized nations is so high that these two concepts are completely decoupled, in spite of our protestations (and materialistic behaviors) to the contrary. The point is that we do not need to continue our consuming, earth-depleting lifestyles to be happy—to have a high quality of life. We do need major shifts in our values and behavior patterns before we will be able to achieve a higher quality of life at a lower material standard of living—to live better with less. Paul MacCready calls it “Doing More with Less”:
A necessary, but
not sufficient, strategy for achieving a desirable, sustainable world as growth
impacts limits is to raise the priority on efficiency and restraint. This is
not the principle on which the
It is tempting to think that lifestyle is also independent of the other two concepts—that your pattern of living does not inherently affect your quality of life or material standard of living. However, some affluent people choose lifestyles requiring high material standards of living, and others are able to live simply with less. The difference lies in their value systems. There are other ways in which lifestyle is linked to standard of living and quality of life. Many would say that freedom to choose different lifestyles is an important prerequisite to quality of life.
Another term bandied about rather freely is sustainability. Al Bartlett, retired professor of physics at the University of Colorado, points out that the term was drawn from the concept of “sustained yield” which is used to describe agriculture and forestry when these enterprises are conducted in such a way that they could be continued indefinitely, i.e., their yield could be sustained.
The introduction of the word “sustainable” provided comfort and reassurance to those who may momentarily have wondered if possibly there were limits. So the word was soon applied in many areas, and with less precise meaning, so that for example, with little visible change, “development” became “sustainable development,” etc. One would see political leaders using the term “sustainable” to describe their goals as they worked hard to create more jobs, to increase population, and to increase rates of consumption of energy and resources.
In the manner of
Sustainability has to mean
for a very long time compared with a human lifetime—for millennia.
First Law. Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are necessary conditions for a sustainable society. Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of “development,” whether or not it is said to be “sustainable,” which ignores the problem of population growth and that does not plan the achievement of zero or a period of negative growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. The term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.
The Good Life
It is a common misconception that affluence equals happiness, or at least a degree of personal security and contentment. Having a high quality of life is not assured by affluence, nor does a lack of affluence preclude leading a quality life. Since high material standards of living contribute strongly to the environmental crisis, defining “quality of life” is important. The question is this: what is it that people need to live well, to live “the good life,” so sought by everyone? If we can find non-material ways to achieve what we really need, then having them won’t have to come at Earth’s expense.
One can postulate a number of measures of “life goodness.” To a great extent, the one each of us chooses is largely shaped by the culture and value system in which we live, by our family (which frequently tells us, directly or indirectly, what to want) and by our own personal experiences. Contentment, peace of mind, anonymity, laughter, personal and family security, the absence of psychological pathologies, and a rewarding vocation are some non-material measures of “life goodness.”
For most of us it is the non-material, non-tangible things that matter most. For example, to be fully balanced and “happy” in their lives, most people want or need: 1) strong family closeness and support, 2) the companionship and love of a significant other person, 3) a rewarding vocation, 4) warm and supportive friends and acquaintances, and 5) some time for themselves in pursuit of creative, meaningful, and self-improvement activities. In addition, a life filled with humor and fun is a obviously beneficial too. None of these is inherently Earth-impacting. In some zen Buddhist cultures, it is the absence of cravings for money, power, prestige, and notoriety which are most prizeda.
Colin Campbell says it is a great illusion that non-materialistic people are unhappy. “Has the affluent fraction of Americans been alone in finding happiness over recorded history,” he asks. “We are the victims of mass advertising and the baleful influence of television, which denies us the happiness of simple things, such as old men sitting on park benches.”b
References to a better life that can come from restructuring society to make it more sustainable, gentler toward Earth, and kinder to Earth’s people rely on the non-material definitions of life-goodness.
If you accept even part of the strong claims so far made, it must be astonishing to contemplate what might be needed to reverse the trend. The problems are extensive and the actions needed to overcome them nearly overwhelming. It is clear that two major transformations will be needed. First will be a substantial reduction in population and second is a drastic restructuring of industrialized society, a rebuilding from the ground up. The latter of these will be complicated, difficult, and problematic. The former is at least much simpler, if not easier. Any strategy for reform that is realistic will include both simultaneously.
Before addressing the task of restructuring, more must be said about the nature of our problems, how we fell into them, and how we might start figuring out what must be done. Parts I and II of this book are devoted to that task.
The subject is difficult to approach for many reasons. One is the question of how to deal with people’s preconceived views concerning what we are doing to our world. Most are concerned, but not that worried, being encouraged that steps are being taken to at least partially ameliorate the adverse consequences of human action. Others are not so optimistic, accepting that we are at a terribly important turning point and that if we do not make drastic changes in our ways of living soon, we will become an endangered species—without intervention headed for disaster.
With both viewpoints there is much confusion concerning how we get out of the mess without compromising the great things humans have achieved through industrialization. I call this the extrication question. I would like to get right to the answer, devoting the remainder of this book to finding it. But I cannot.
The first reason is that many do not yet realize the seriousness of the problem and the short time we have to act. It is important first to make the case for the claim of imminent failure of Spaceship Earth’s life-support system. Only then can one take seriously the claim that the future of humanity is in doubt.
The second reason is the difficulty we have in understanding answers to the extrication question without fully understanding the problem leading us to it. I hope you find this search for answers as challenging, stimulating, and exciting as I.
1. Peter Raven, “Botanists Warn of Mass Extinction,” Reuters News Service, Tuesday August .
2. Joanna Macy and Molly Brown Young. Coming Back to Life. New Society:
3. Michio Kaku.
Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st century. Anchor/Doubleday:
4. Daniel Quinn “A New Renaissance,” (Speech), 2001, to Ross
5. Paul B. MacCready, Unleashing Creativity, in Symposium on The Inventor and Society,, Jerome and Dorothy Lamelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 1995.
6. Albert A. Bartlett. “Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation.” Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Vol.22, no. 1 (2000): September 2000, 63-71.