Cultural Change at the
Limits to Growth
Well, humanity certainly seems to be in a
bit of a pickle
at the moment.
There are already too many of us
for comfort (6.6 billion by
the latest estimates), our population is still growing (perhaps to 9
2050), our economic activity and resource use is still increasing,
change is showing signs of drastic acceleration, we are running into
limits on food and energy, the oceans are knackered and the glaciers on
so many people depend for fresh water are draining away before our eyes. To top it all off, the global financial
system appears to be developing some very ominous cracks.
To anyone who has been following the news for
the last few years, these developments have taken on a very foreboding
The name of Thomas Malthus is even reappearing in discussions with
frequency as the situation becomes ever more dire.
As a result, people are starting to feel a great sense of urgency about coming up with solutions of one sort or another. We are starting to put more effort into technical solutions like wind and solar power. People are agitating for greater fuel efficiency in vehicles, and even fully electric cars. Permaculture and local food production are ideas whose time seems to have come, at least in the West. The idea of reducing consumption through conservation, re-use and recycling is gaining new converts. Even the question of overpopulation, long considered the untouchable black sheep of ecological activism, is being discussed. All these initiatives should be applauded and supported.
The real problem as I've come to understand it, though, is that there is simply no way we can proactively reduce either our population or our consumption enough to matter in the time we have left before we run head-first into the reality of biophysical limits. The fact that we are seeing the problems today means the crisis is already upon us, and the only question is how much time we have left before the combined effects begin to impact our civilization’s ability to function.
There are a number of mutually
reinforcing factors that will prevent us from even undertaking such
precautionary reductions in our consumption
or our numbers. In this article I
discuss those factors, and
propose an alternative approach to our situation.
This problem isn’t just a shortcoming of cognition (i.e. a failure of our reasoning skills) or a shortage of information. The ability to reason clearly and accurately helps of course, as does having enough information. In general though, the difficulty lies not in failing to comprehend the issues, but in our inability to respond strongly to that understanding. It is a physical shortcoming of not having our neocortex wired tightly enough to our endocrine system – abstract reasoning doesn’t produce strong emotional responses.
third stumbling block is the cultural support for our belief in the
imperative. I used to think the origin of this belief was
genetic, but now I'm
not so sure. While we share a genetic, species-survival
with all organisms that over-reproduce to guard against the effects of
and predation, our urge to grow seems to have a very strong cultural
component. This may stem from the first factor I mentioned above
dualistic belief in human exceptionalism), but we have amplified
effect massively though our creation of a cultural support matrix that
is now intrinsic
to our civilization. This matrix
consists of all our major cultural institutions encompassing our
economic, social, religious, educational and communications systems.
the values of growth and dominion are so embedded in our
culture and so
well-defended by its institutions, it will take a major upheaval to
space for competing value systems to flourish. In effect, the
influence of our cultural structures will have to be diminished by the
or dissolution of the structures themselves. I think this will
we run into the global limits of resource depletion (especially oil),
change, ecological damage, reductions in carrying capacity and
destabilization. The cascading failures that will probably result
open enough cracks in our existing cultural institutions to "let grass
grow up through the asphalt".
I think the most effective use of our limited resources is as simple as it is subtle. We need to promote a fundamental shift in how people perceive and understand the world around them. We need to wake others up wherever possible, and to plant the seeds of the grass that will eventually grow through the cracks in our cultural concrete. By this I mean we must develop and promote holistic rather than piecemeal understanding, wisdom rather than mere cleverness, and reality-based assessments of our situation.
of all we need to promote what I call
"matrifocal" values – the values of nurturing,
cooperation, respect for life, the recognition of interdependence, the
acceptance of limits, and a dedication to universal justice.
These are the values of sustainability. If we want human
civilization to continue far into the future they must become its
backbone. This may be our best chance to make sure that happens.
This approach may sound too "soft" for many of my readers, but I'm convinced it's the most realistic and effective response available to us. Change has always been the one constant of the human condition. We are now facing the greatest changes that humanity has experienced since the last ice age, and it’s happening a lot faster than that geological catastrophe. Our best hope is to meet the coming changes with awareness, wisdom, realism, courage and a strong sense of the communities in which we live – our families, our neighborhoods, our civilization and the community of life itself.
May 7, 2008
© Copyright 2008, Paul ChefurkaThis article may be reproduced in whole or in part for the purpose of research, education or other fair use, provided the nature and character of the work is maintained and credit is given to the author by the inclusion in the reproduction of his name and/or an electronic link to the article on the author's web site. The right of commercial reproduction is reserved.