Did Earth rumble after the Rio+20 climate conference? Or was that the roar of a billion citizens letting go the expectation that polite dialogue and political process would restore Earth’s ecological balance?

In any case, the global Zeitgeist shifted, at least within environmental discourse. Future historians may mark the period from BP’s 2010 oil spill disaster, through Fukushima, to the 2012 Rio failure as a state shift in ecological awareness.

Fifty years ago, in 1961, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, launching a new public discourse about ecology that reached an early zenith in 1972 at the first UN ecology conference in Stockholm. Today, we have armies of environment groups, swarms of ecology PhD graduates, Environment Ministers, conferences, science summits, green products, green travel, banners and blockades. But we are less sustainable than we were in 1961.

After fifty years of environmental efforts, the most troubling trends – Earth’s temperature, species diversity, soil health, toxic dumps, shrinking forest, expanding deserts – appear worse. The testimony of our collective failure blows around us like a chilling polar wind. It is too late to save the 25,000 species that blinked from existence, or the 300,000 people who perished from climate-change impact, last year, and will again this year. We have not yet turned the empires of humanity back toward the paradise from which they were born.


Moving Beyond Hope

After Rio, a collective “gulp” rose among ecological scientists, journalists, bloggers, and commentators. Maybe we can’t stop global heating or bee colony collapse. Maybe the systems feedbacks are more complex than our engineering can fathom. Maybe it’s time for adaption.

The new mood arises from many events – BP, Fukushima, Occupy, Arab Spring, Rio+20, and so forth – but Rio signaled a tipping point for believers in the political process. UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pronounced the agreements “Insipid.”  Former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, called the results “a failure of leadership.” Ecology groups walked out. Indigenous leaders held their own meetings and called the official Rio “green economy” plan “a new wave of colonialism.”

Writer/farmer Sharon Astyk wrote in Scienceblog, “Most of these events are about feeling good about pretending. …[The] fundamental policy changes that would be necessary … aren’t even on the table… caring is not enough.”

At a rally in Canada to save a river from another dam, scientist David Suzuki said: “In elevating the economy above everything else, we fail to ask the most elementary questions: What is an economy for? How much is enough? Are there no limits? We're not asking the critical questions.”

George Monbiot lamented in The Guardian, that the “promise to save the world keeps us dangling, not mobilising… Hope is the rope on which we hang.” University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen went even farther in Counterpunch: “to be a hope-peddler today is … laziness… We have to believe in something beyond hope.”

Urgent critiques of business-as-usual are attracting larger audiences. “My beef with the whole ‘solutions,’ thing,” writes James Kunstler in Rolling Stone, is that “the subtext to that particular meme is, ‘Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way.’ … The mandates of reality are telling us something very different.”

After Rio, ecology writer Chris Hedges wrote “Time to get Crazy,” warning that “Civilizations in the final stages of decay are dominated by elites out of touch with reality… [The] failure to impose limits cannibalizes natural resources and human communities. … It all will come down like a house of cards.”

Annie Leonard – whose “Story of Stuff” remains one of the most-watched (relevant) videos on the Internet – released “The Story of Change,” in which she critiques “green” consumerism: “Can shopping save the world? No. Put down your credit card and exercise citizen action.” She notes that successful social change campaigns focus on: 1. big ideas (like “changing economic priorities”); 2. working together; and 3. direct action. 

“When will ordinary people rise up?” asks Share the World's Resources, a UN consultation group. “Leaders and policymakers [are] paying merely lip service.” They now advocate “public uprisings and mass occupations.”

Bill McKibben, who helped introduce global warming science to the public in 1989, observed that Rio “accomplished nothing.” Like others, McKibben has embraced direct action and last year, he helped organize a mass protest of tar sands pipelines in the US, leading to 2,000 arrests. After Rio, in Rolling Stone magazine, McKibben demonstrated why 80-percent of the known hydrocarbon reserves will have to remain in situ if we have any hope of keeping global heating below 2C°. He advocates divestment from oil corporations – similar to anti-apartheid strategies successful in South Africa, but laments, “we may have waited too long.”

The fact that two of the examples cited above appeared in Rolling Stone music magazine is itself an indication that a zeitgeist shift is underway. We hear a return to urgency, to fundamental values, indigenous voices, limits to economic growth, and genuine ecology as the context for any authentic or enduring solutions for humanity.

Gulp! Fifty years of “environmentalism” and we are less sustainable. So what do we do now?

Make fun, make trouble

Artists usually lead social zeitgeist changes. Rouget de Lisle’s La Marseillaise rallied Eighteenth-century French revolutionaries just as Tunisian hip-hop artist El General’s O Leader! became the soundtrack for an uprising that toppled a regime and sparked a democracy movement. Virginia Wolff anticipated modern psychology and women’s rights; the Yes Men brought street theatre back to activism, and Adbusters magazine aroused the Occupy movement.    

Accepting bad news honestly appears part of the new mood. In the US, Justin Ritche and Seth Moser-Katz post the Extraenvironmentalists podcast, which they call “Doom without the Gloom,” the tough love news with a sense of irony. “Is sustainability a farce,” they ask, “when associated with a way of life that is out of touch with reality?”

Twenty-four-year-old singer Cold Speck from Etobicoke, Canada writes “doom soul” music, realism with rhythm. “We fall from a dying tree,” she sings in Winter Solstice, and her claim in the song Holland, “We are many, we are many” rings convincingly. A fresh spirit moves globally, seeks a new way to live. The youth feel it instinctively. Witness eleven-year old Ta’kaiya Blaney warn “if we do nothing, it will all be gone,” from Shallow Waters, a song she wrote and sang in the indigenous camp at Rio.

How to Boil a Frog, the funniest film ever made about collapsing ecosystems, advises people who care: “Make friends, make fun, and make trouble.” Writer/actor Jon Cooksey plays half a dozen characters, including a lab scientist, who warns the audience, “This is the scary part. Are you ready? Global warming isn’t a problem. It’s a symptom of a much bigger problem.” 


Three years ago, Earth systems scientist Johan Rockström and colleagues published “Planetary Boundaries” in the journal Nature, showing that human activity has pushed seven critical systems – biodiversity, temperature, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use, fresh water, and ozone depletion – near or beyond critical tipping points. Furthermore, the report cautions, natural system feedbacks drive additional change and endanger other limits.

This year, Nature published “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” by 22 international scientists led by bio-paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky from the University of California. The team warned that human activity is likely forcing a planetary-scale transition, far beyond simple global heating, “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” Averting a planetary ecological crisis, they warn, now requires unprecedented human effort. “In a nutshell,” said Canadian co-author, biologist Arne Mooers, “humans havenot done anything really important to stave off the worst. My colleagues … are terrified.”

In “the Way Forward” in Solutions Journal, William Rees, creator of “ecological footprint” analysis at the University of British Columbia, reminds readers: “Climate change is just one symptom of generalized human ecological dysfunction. A virtual tsunami of evidence suggests that the global community is living beyond its ecological means.” Rees shows that the human ecological impact (utilizing the production from 2.7 global hectares per person) annually overshoots Earth’s productive capacity (1.8 global hectares) by 50 percent. “The human enterprise has already overshot global carrying capacity,” says Rees, “and is living, in part, by depleting natural capital and overfilling waste sinks,” including Earth’s atmosphere. “Solutions,” writes Rees, require that we “rewrite global society’s cultural narrative” to replace a “culturally constructed economic growth fetish.”

Double bind

Former World Bank Senior Economist Herman Daly proposed an ecological economics in the age of Rachel Carson, and published Steady-State Economics forty years ago. In a recent essay,” Daly critiques the IBM notion to “build a ‘smarter planet’ – one that is ‘smart’ enough to obey our mindless command to keep growing.” Rather, Daly suggests, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to the wonderful gift of the Earth, out of which we were created.”

A decade ago the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Antwerp, Belgium, calculated: “Industrialised world reductions – in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation – of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means.”

Human enterprise finds itself in what ecologist and systems theory pioneer Gregory Bateson called a “double bind.” Our economic system demands growth, but Earth’s capacity requires restraint. If we shrink our economies, we face hardship, but if we keep growing, we face ecological collapse, a classic double bind. Bateson pointed out that when such an impasse occurs in nature, communities of organisms get creative, pulling options from the random, to evolve a radical new way of living. Those not up to the creative task, simply perish.

Whatever the environment community does at the next “summit,” it might as well be new and creative. Joining the charade won’t likely help. Perhaps it is time for a boycott or a counter-summit in a separate location, guided by indigenous leaders.  

Moving beyond hope to action is a good sign for our social movements. Hope is a useful frame of mind, but not a strategy. Systems ecologist Pille Bunnell, a professor at Royal Roads University in Canada, says hope must be activated: “Hope is a manner of living and acting in the present that does not foreclose the future we desire.”  Farmer-writer Wendell Berry takes up the question of appropriate hope in the poem “Sabbaths 2007”:

   hope must not depend on feeling good  ...  stop dithering.

   The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?

   Tell them at least what you say to yourself.