Since the late Pleistocene, 100,000 years ago, when a few thousand Homo sapiens poked around Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean, human population has doubled 22 times. We have one more such doubling left, and that's it. Human population will likely level off at 10 to 14 billion sometime around 2100, exceeding the Earth's carrying capacity. Mass human starvations are already underway in degraded environments.
Economists imagine that average consumption is going to increase, so we must also consider a projected annual world economic growth of approximately 1.5% in wealthy nations and 10% in China and other developing nations. Economists consider anything below 3% world economic growth to signal a global "recession."
Humanity is trapped in a dilemma. Our economic theories suggest we can't stop growing without economic collapse, but unfettered growth also leads to collapse. We cannot rewrite the laws of nature and calculus for our own convenience.
Exponential growth - any percentage growth in nature, including populations, economies, or mold in a petri dish - subsides by one of two paths: (1) the growing organism will overshoot the nutrient and energy base of its host and collapse, or (2) it will discover a homeostasis with its host and settle in to live off the capacity of its environment in symbiosis with everything else that has found a niche.
We were warned. Thomas Malthus - maligned by the cheerleaders of endless growth for his failure to predict fossil fuels and pesticides - got the basic math right 200 years ago. Petroleum and agricultural technologies postponed the breaking point, but did not overturn nature's laws. The Club of Rome warned humanity in the 1972 Limits to Growth report, also allegedly refuted by growth economists. William R. Catton wrote Overshoot thirty years ago, diligently explaining all this. Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Greenpeace, and many others pointed out that we, gulp, live on a finite planet, subject to the rules of living systems.
If we assume a "low" annual economic growth rate of 3.6%, then human activity will double in 20 years (72 divided by the % growth = doubling time). Is this economic doubling possible? Maybe once. Could we double the world economy twice, to four times our present consumption, in 40 years? Not likely. Will "technology" make this possible? No. Remember how computers were going to save paper? Never happened. Computers haven't saved any rivers either, nor slowed soil erosion or desertification. Nor does technology increase energy, but rather costs energy. Throughout all human history, including the computer age, new technologies increase resource depletion. The "technological fix" dream represents ecological denial.
What's so deep about ecology?
The word "deep," was first associated with ecology by Norwegian naturalist and philosopher Arne Naess at the Third World Futures conference in 1972 (Greenpeace was just being born). Naess remarked that environmentalism had already diverged into (1) a "deep," ecocentric, long-range movement advocating respect toward wild nature for its own intrinsic value; and (2) a "shallow," anthropocentric ecology that treated nature as a "resource" for human economics.
Dolores LaCapelle, Paul Shepard, Gary Snyder, Lynn White, and others built on this theme that nature possesses intrinsic value independent of human needs. Some environmentalists felt insulted by being depicted as shallow, and criticised the deep ecology movement as elitist. Naess, however, simply intended to distinguish core ecological values from human concerns. He referred to his approach as "ecosophy," approaching wisdom from nature's point of view.
Paul Sears called ecology the "subversive subject" in 1964, because it signalled a shift in awareness that would revolutionise all human enterprise, economics, politics, biology, cultural mythologies, engineering, everything about human habitation on the Earth.
We either learn ecology, deeply, or experience a drastic crash. And by "learn" ecology, I don't mean 10% recycled paper cups, solar panels on the ski lodge, and hybrid cars. I mean learning that we remain a natural species that must find our place, in peace with our host, fully integrated with the systems that sustain us. This will mean redesigning human technologies to a scale appropriate with a living Earth. Learning from nature means shifting focus from consumption to the authentic qualities of life.
Naess articulated this well four decades ago as "simple means, rich goals." Ivan Illich, about the same time, wrote Tools for Conviviality, advocating that we "invert" technological society from massive, centralised systems, to simple tools that foster "independent efficiency." Illich depicted optimum human technology, for example, as the bicycle.
So-called "deep" ecological awareness refers to humanity's reunion with nature. We are animals, and regardless of our technologies, we live from the bounty of a wild habitat. Even as we learn ecology and the laws of exponential growth, we still cannot engineer or "manage" the planet solely for human enterprise and benefit.
During the whale campaigns of the 1970s, Greenpeace did not set out to protect whales or seals for human enjoyment. We pointed out that whales possess their own inherent value, their own communities, and vital needs. We protected whales, seals, and forests for their own sake first.
An ecological renaissance does not mean a planet engineered for 12 billion humans, mining nutrients from every acre of soil, diverting every river, and burning the last coal deposit. An ecological renaissance means honouring nature and experiencing the joy of being a natural being in a paradise that once fed us without any farms, oil, or computer chips.
A dozen points of ecological light
Some of the ideas below have been articulated by Naess, Chellis Glendinning, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter, and others. A summary of the values that we might associate with a non-human-centred, genuine ecological awareness include:
1. The inherent value of wildness, nature, diversity, symbiosis, and complexity, independent of humanity's desires or existence.
2. Systems: Everything in nature exists in interlocking systems. No species operates independently. The survival unit of evolution is a "species-in-an-environment," co-evolving with all other living systems.
3. An ecological-self: The human sense of "self" expanded to include these living systems. The popular economic notion that people act as "private" pursuers of "happiness" remains a tragic conceit, destined to fail.
4. Biocracy: extending the idea of "rights" to all things, but more importantly to the ecological system itself, and therefore, limiting human interference in nature.
5. Nature, not a "resource": The elements of nature that we call "resources" also (1) provide resources for everything else that lives, and (2) possess value in themselves, in situ. A river is a living part of a system, not simply a "resource" for human purposes.
6. Ecological design: Our tools must mimic and work with the habits, laws, and designs of nature: 100% recycling, lowest possible energy use, integrated living systems, low impact, and so forth.
7. Addressing human trauma: The destruction of the supporting ecology has traumatised humanity and led not only to poverty and desolation among the poor, but to anxiety, addiction, and violence among the comfortable. Witness the "holiday" to a mountain, seaside, or forest, as self-medication for this trauma. As I write, I'm watching a pair of Wilson's warblers, who have nested in the thicket behind my house. I cannot quantify how therapeutic this is. Every lost wild place reduces human well-being.
8. Social justice, gender equality, and international peace: War, sexism, racism, and injustice not only cause direct suffering, but also contribute to ecological catastrophes.
9. Decrease Human population: A human civilisation that understands nature will limit its interference by reducing its numbers. A positive step would be a target (perhaps over two centuries) of reducing human population to, say, a billion people, roughly the 1800 population. Global women's rights and contraception would contribute to achieving this. The population discussion invokes fear for human rights, cultural rights, racism, and immigration. Who has the right to tell other humans not to reproduce? The answer is that the living Earth has the right and will impose that right if we don't. Excessive human population reduces the quality of life for humanity and everything else.
10. Simplicity: learning to enhance the quality of life with the simplest means and least interference in nature. This requires a shift in expectations, to rediscover the joy of simplicity and a supportive environment - the joys of nature, peace, community, family, and creativity. Less stuff, more peace of mind.
11. Action: We won't solve our dilemma with philosophy or slogans. The new environmental human society requires action at every level. Primarily, we need a massive protection of wilderness and relocalisation of human survival.
12. Worship the miracle: Since the advent of empires, agriculture, and urban living, humanity has searched for paradise in all the wrong places, in wealth, power, money, and invisible realms beyond time and space. Humans appear to possess an innate sense of mystery and the more-than-human sacredness of life, but we have failed to worship - to "ascribe worth" to - the one thing that sustains us, the living Earth.
A long run
If we claim to work for the Earth or if we presume to negotiate with governments or corporations on nature's behalf, we owe ultimate allegiance to our client. We dare not sell her cheaply. If ecologists represent the Earth's voice at the table of human society, we must point out that nature has its own values and purposes. Those two warblers are going about affairs as noble and important as my own affairs feel to me. No matter how powerful and clever we appear, we are not in charge of how nature will evolve on Earth.
Ecologists must help prepare human society for the depth and breadth of the authentic shift at hand: Nature possesses values, laws, and limits beyond human purposes. Wise design is essential, but we won't simply engineer ourselves out of our economic dilemma, without changing our habits of excessive consumption. We won't consume ourselves to freedom by tacking "green" onto every enterprise like a postscript. Nature's own laws will be our primary guidance.
Ecology remains the subversive science. Humanity may flourish in a long run with nature, but only by revisioning human society as a benign guest of the Earth's living systems.
- Rex Weyler