You've probably never heard of the whitebark pine, much less the tiny mountain pine beetle, but the story they tell together may be one of the clearest windows we have on how climate change is already affecting ecosystems around the world.
I just returned from the Greater Yellowstone Area, Wyo., after a weekend with the Natural Resources Defense Council to learn about the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem. Although I’ve washed the campfire smell out of my hair, and shook the last bits of dust from the Continental Divide out of my boots, I can’t help but feel like there’s just something about that forest and experience that will never leave me.
My journey began in Dubois, a small town in the Wind River Valley southeast of Yellowstone National Park. The NRDC brought together a team of scientists, experts in their respective areas, to teach us about the threats facing the whitebark pine ecosystem and all the species tied to its survival.
“Ecologically, things do not look good here,” said Lousia Willcox, the NDRC’s Wild Bears Project Director. “But I believe in the capacity of people to change, if they understand the problem. We’re going to lose a big chunk of it. We’ve got to save what we can and tell this story.”
This is a story about how warming temperatures and a changing water balance are upsetting a complex mountain ecosystem. But this is also a story about the people who love this forest and how they are using science to save it, the ecosystem and the maybe the world.
Just one look at the Wind River Valley and you can immediately tell there is something off about the forest – speckled in between the green spruce and Douglas-fir are rusty red and silvery grey clusters of whitebark pine. They are dead or dying, and thousands are following in their footsteps.
More than 80 percent of whitebark pine trees are in danger of a triple threat epidemic that is sweeping through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, said Jesse Logan, a now retired research entomologist and systems ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service.
“This is the fire that doesn’t burn out,” Logan said.
The growing epidemic is a synergistic threat from the native mountain pine beetle, an invasive pathogen called white pine blister rust and global climate change, explained Dr. Diana Tomback, a biology professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
Historically, the brutally cold Wyoming winters restricted the beetle to lower elevation forests, forests that over time have developed resistance to their attack. But increasing global temperatures have allowed the beetle to not only extend its range into the higher elevations where whitebark thrives, but also allows them to survive through the winter. The whitebark pine is relatively defenseless, as it has not co-evolved with the beetle as a natural threat.
An army of mountain pine beetles can kill a tree in two or three days, said Dr. Diana Six a forest entomology and pathology professor at the University of Montana. And if the tree has first been infected with white pine blister rust, added Dr. Tomback, the tree is even more susceptible to attack. The invasive fungus has now spread nearly everywhere throughout the range of whitebark pine and the presence of the disease is increasing in the Yellowstone area.
According to Logan’s research, nothing like this has been seen in recorded history. If the climate continues to warm, the whitebark pine forests will become functionally extinct within the next seven to 10 years.
“As with all of climate change there are going to be winners and losers and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem, on a global scale, is a loser,” said Dr. Steven Running, ecology professor from the University of Montana and Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient for his work with the International Panel on Climate Change.
“(This ecosystem) is on the edge of an ecotonal limit," Dr. Running explained, "the very edge of the climate that could carry the forest to begin with. Now it’s gotten drier and warmer and these forests are going over the ecological edge.”
The Value of the Whitebark Pine
One of North America’s foundation and keystone tree species, the whitebark pine plays a special role in building the high elevation forest community and fostering biodiversity within the ecosystem. For millennia, it’s held a mutualistic relationship with the Clark’s Nutcracker, a bird that is the primary disperser of its seeds; it’s helped female Grizzly Bears gain enough fat to get through the winter and multiply; it's pioneered fire-burnt soil, prepping it for less tenacious species to enter thereafter; and it’s survived through countless summers and winters, holding and slowly releasing mountain snowpack retention conservatively into the valleys below.
These trees grow at the high elevations, where they don’t have to outcompete other trees for light and nutrients. And here at the tree line, they provide us with ecosystems services like soil erosion prevention, and snowpack catching and shading. These services allow snowpack to melt slowly to provide a much needed summer water supply to people like farmers and anglers and to creatures like cutthroat trout and elk.
The whitebark pine cones are especially valuable to the Grizzly Bear. The female grizzly relies on the protein from the pine nuts to gain sufficient fat stores. The fatter she is, the more likely it is she’ll have more than one cub. Without this food source, the bear will have to go looking for food elsewhere, possibly causing more tension for the already stressed relationship between humans and bears.
The grizzly was removed from the Endangered Species List in March, but according to Willcox, the bears won’t be able to recover if the whitebark pine disappears.
“Nowhere is there a bear population whose health is completely driven by one food source,” said Willcox,. “If the Fish and Wildlife Service would report the true level of the threat, they would have had a hard time rationalizing delisting.”
Willcox is one member of a team of conservationists and scientists working together to save the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem. She started arranging tours, like the one I was on, to bring together scientists to understand the threats and challenges to managing Grizzly Bears. But once whitebark pine began rapidly declining and climate change appeared as the key threat, Willcox started expanding her invitations to climate specialists.
“As the issues have changed, I’ve started talking to different science people,” Willcox said. “If you were here 10 years ago, you’d say whitebark pine isn’t more important than elk or wolves or cutthroat trout. But that’s changed.”
Through media tours of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem, Willcox hopes to bridge the gap between science and policy. She said that she hopes that spreading the knowledge about the scientific evidence will encourage people to make more informed decisions and to take action to decrease their carbon footprints.
The Solution Set: Advocacy, Citizen Science and Climate Policy
Although things look pretty grim for the whitebark pine, this isn't a story without solutions. For the scientists researching the different pieces of this puzzle, this has become a passionate struggle to save an ecosystem.
“This isn’t ecology and biology as usual,” Dr. Six said. “With climate change, it’s a whole different world out there.”
Lit only by the flames of the campfire, she explained how climate change is overshadowing research all over the world and changing scientists into advocates for the ecosystems that they see rapidly falling a part.
“There’s no silver bullet this thing,” Willcox said. “It’s connected to policy as well as long and short term responses.”
In the short term there’s education, monitoring and preservation. Regional and national nonprofits, like the NRDC and the The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation are working to solve the problem through education and advocacy.
Dr. Tomback and several colleagues started the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation in 2001. The volunteer organization provides technical assistance and grants for restoration projects, encourages research projects within government agencies, and provides education through meetings and conferences. Their next annual meeting will take place at the Grand Targhee Resort on Sept. 13 and 14.
Much work is still needed to preserve what is left of these forests. Although many of the scientists agreed that most of the whitebark pine will not make it through this epidemic, they said that action is still needed to monitor and maintain the “islands of success,” or potential survivors at higher elevations, and to continue to conduct genetic research on the small percentage of beetle resistant trees.
But monitoring the park is a big job – the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is about 20-million acres, roughly the size of West Virginia – and funds are limited. But through educating and engaging interested local outdoor enthusiasts, Logan and Willcox found themselves with a team of people willing to help. What started as an e-mail list quickly turned into an online community, supplying each other with information about the state of the trees they saw on their hikes through the forest.
Logan and Willcox found themselves with e-mail boxes full of reports and photographs. But without specific information about where the trees were, the reports lacked accountability and repeatability. So, they enlisted some technology, started to organize and began what is now the Whitebark Pine Citizens Science Project.
Local people interested in the health of the ecosystem, students and outfitters alike who want to join the CSP get a packet about how to use GPS devices and the uploading software so they can report more detailed findings.
The CSP uses a software program called RoboGEO to pinpoint each picture on a Google Earth map. Each picture taken is tagged with a specific location that can be mapped and recorded. This helps the scientist get a better idea what is happening and how fast. But even with help, surveying the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by foot is not timely or cost effective. Mapping the park by air, however, is.
Helping to create this aerial map of impact is Bruce Gordon, president of ECOFLIGHT, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental education and advocacy by giving people an aerial perspective on environmental challenges.
Gordon started working with Logan, Willcox and Wally Macfarlane, a GIS specialist at GEO/Graphics, to document more completely how rapidly the ecosystem is changing. Using technology like dictation recorders, digital cameras and GPS devices, they can measure the total cumulative impact of the mountain pine beetle by air. From this they can tag flight lines and specific areas with photographs and coordinates, creating a virtual map of the areas surveyed. This spatial interpretation of the land allows the scientists to estimate the level of impact in a repeatable, measurable, and affordable way.
But in order to truly solve this problem in the long run, said David Hawkins, the director of the NRDC’s Climate Center, we will have to enact policy that will curb our climate changing emissions.
“To me,” Hawkins said, “it raises the question of are we too late to save this park and ecosystem. I don’t know the answer for that. But it also raises that question for climate change, have we waited too long? The answer to that is yes, we have waited too long. But the answer is also we have to act now.”
“In an old Chinese proverb a farmers asks his master when would be the best time to plant his tree. '100 years ago,' he answers, 'but the second best time is today.'"
Visit the following websites to find out more about the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem:
Photo credits: Sarah Kuck
Image credits: Courtesy of Jesse Logan
Those pine beetles are everywhere. There's a similar epidemic (that I think Worldchanging has already addressed) going on in British Columbia. Some 80% of mature Jack pines (which are the most common pine trees in the province, I think) are essentially firewood, at this point. I'm not sure of the situation in Yellowstone (which is a reserve, yes?), but much of the blame in BC lies in poor forest management. All these trees have been planted after logging, and the intensive monocultures allowed the pine beetles to take an even stronger hold than they would if there had been more variety. (But Jack pines grow the fastest!)
And now, of course, this means that all these dead trees are releasing a massive amount of C02... the fun never stops.
For a map of the mountain pine beetle devastation in BC, visit this link.
The beetle is naturally occuring but is usually held in check by cold winters. We've had a number of warm winters in a row. Combined with the fact that the beetle wood has been harvested and trucked all over the province for the milling, the beetles stay warm and get free rides through the Interior. Lodgepole pines are gone now. Red forests are turning grey and soon, who knows, maybe just meadows or deserts in the long term.
To behold such huge challenges to life as we know it and the integrity of Earth; and to see so many pathetic responses to them by politicians and government sinecurists, are abominable signs of a state of dangerous decay, one that is destroying the very heart and soul of political life.
Same situation in northern lower peninsula of Michigan, wide devastation of jackpine and also other pine species are beginning to be affected. We also have a problem with oak wilt caused by the picnic beetle spreading a fungus, and also problems with the emerald ash borer.
Question to abroad readers: is this happening in forests on other continents?
We discussed this briefly around the fire, and assumed that other ecotonal forests might be facing similar threats.
If anyone has any specific examples, it would be great to know about them. I'll pass them on to the scientists who are interested.
My wife and I live in Alaska, where for the last 2 decades, the large majority of white spruce forest stands (the most common conifer in the state) have been killed by a similar process that is hitting the WBP's all along the Continental Divide (though they aren't infested with an introduced fungal pathogen).
Also, we have hiked most of the Continental Divide Trail, and throughout those hikes we have seen major forest die-offs. Mostly, it appears to be trees that are stressed by drought & higher than normal temperatures that are unable to effectively resist insect predators. Generally, the high-elevation forests along the divide are in big trouble. True that most Western forests are regenerated by catastrophic means (stress>root die-offs>fungal infestation>insect infestation>fire), but if the fire cycle were as short as 100 years in these very high elevation/treeline forests, we would expect to see stand-replacing conditions on only about 1% of the acres. Instead, my rough estimate from our hikes along the CDT is that for conifers, half of the stands are 90% dead, or 90% of the stands are at least half dead. This is ery distrubing.
So, the question is: should we just be looking at little islands of survivors to make use of their resistance, or should we do more? As we've hiked along, I've been pondering the act of moving forests poleward. Forests take a relatively long time to establish in new habitat, time that we don't have much of. If we want forests to survive, humans have to help that establishment. Much of the Rockies have similar forests -- if not at the Species level, then at the Genera level. I think that tells us a lot about similarity of soils and what species to try planting where. My guess is that in the next 20 years, we need to move species about 200 - 400 miles north of their present ranges. For some forest scientists this may be heresy to plant off-site species, but should we spend valuable time debating instead of planting?
Please feel free to contact me more about this. I'd love to hear what interested scientist are thinking.
Restoration is the art form of this millenium.
We, as a population, need to step back and understand that the earth has its ways of cycling. There is an ebb and flow to climates and populations that is entirely healthy. It is always good to do what we can to care for and understand the earth we've been blessed with, but we should be cautious to believe that we have enough power to change the climate of the entire planet.
Political Will, Political Won’t
The accepted wisdom of today’s environmental reform movement is founded on two core assumptions. The first is that most of the technical solutions we need to address the world’s various crises are available, or at least could be swiftly developed by sufficiently intelligent, hard-working people. The second assumption is that all that’s lacking for a successful outcome is the political will to put these technical solutions into effect.
Whether the discussion turns to replacing coal-fired power plants with wind turbines and using electric cars instead of gas-driven SUVs, converting industrial agricultural practices to organic permaculture, or reversing the decline of ocean life though international regulations, it is an article of faith in the reform movement that we know what we need to do and all that’s lacking is a sufficiently visionary leader to put more planet-friendly solutions in place.
Both those assumptions ignore significant aspects of the situation – aspects that must be addressed for the envisioned reforms to be successful. This article examines those two assumptions with an eye to uncovering the confounding issues.
The array of problems
As the following laundry list of negative trends clearly illustrates, the scale and diversity of the problems we face are significant.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is approaching 400 parts per million.
We are emitting carbon dioxide 10 times faster than one of the world’s largest known volcanic eruptions (the Deccan Traps) that was implicated in the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65 million years ago.
Ice caps and glaciers are disintegrating.
World oil production is on a 4 year plateau despite prices that have quadrupled during that time.
In our oceans the coral reefs are dying, dead zones are expanding, and predatory fish species (the ones we eat) have declined by 90% in the last 50 years.
The biomass of prey fish in the Great Lakes has fallen by 92% since 2000.
The estimated extinction rate for plants and animals is at least 75 species per day.
The Great Pacific Garbage Dump is full of plastic.
Over 75,000 square miles of arable land is lost each year to urbanization and desertification.
A billion people in over 110 countries are seriously affected by desertification.
Nearly a third of the world’s cropland has been abandoned since WW II because of damage by intensive agriculture and erosion.
On the American Great Plains, half the topsoil has been lost in the last hundred years.
The Ogallala aquifer in the western United States is being drained up to 100 times faster than it is being refilled.
Indian farmers have drilled over 21 million water wells using oil-well technology. They take 200 billion cubic tonnes of water out of the earth each year for irrigation.
We have eaten more grain than we have grown in 7 of the last 8 years.
World carry-over grain stocks were 130 days of consumption in 1986 – today, it’s only 53 days.
The global per capita grain supply has fallen from 340 kg in 1984 to 300 kg today.
The world price of fertilizer is rising exponentially.
The IPCC predicts that climate change will cut African food production in half by 2020.
The cost of food is skyrocketing world-wide. Some countries have responded by banning exports of wheat or rice.
We are in the beginning stages of a global financial crisis that could result in either a deflationary or hyper-inflationary depression lasting for a decade or more.
These sorts of problems are known as wicked problems. That means they are messy, circular, aggressive and interlinked, so that trying to solve one may worsen others. Each problem shows a trend, and all the trends appear to be worsening inexorably. In some cases the trends have been visible for centuries (for example the loss of arable land and desertification), sometimes for decades (as with the loss of aquatic biomass), and some like Peak Oil for a scant few years. In all cases the global trends show no signs of reversing, however much effort has been expended to alter their local or regional trajectories . As their effects become more pronounced, it becomes easier to see their potential to hit our globalized industrial civilization like a planet-sized version of Hurricane Katrina.
As daunting as the individual problems are, the key to understanding the importance of this list is recognizing the degree of the linkages between them. In many cases, trying to solve one problem can inadvertently make others worse. One prominent example is the attempt to address global warming through the use of ethanol as a vehicle fuel. While there may have been some merit to that primary intention, the secondary effects – increasing dead zones in the oceans due to fertilizer runoff, and rising food prices due to the use of food crops as fuel – eliminated the overall benefit of the effort, and even created a net negative outcome.
Similar knock-on effects have occurred in in other areas. The attempt to raise food production through irrigation and the use of petroleum-based fertilizers has depleted water tables and reinforced a style of agriculture based on a finite resource. The attempt to increase global living standards (and thereby reduce population growth) by exporting production facilities to regions with lower wage and environmental standards has backfired by increasing levels of water, air and soil pollution – increases that have been felt well beyond the boundaries of those regions. One dark quip that addresses this sort of backfire is, “Around every silver lining there is a cloud.”
When viewed from this perspective it becomes obvious that dealing with the panoply of problems besetting our world involves considerably more than just knocking them down one at a time. If we don’t apply holistic, system-level thinking to the converging crisis, our well-meaning efforts stand an excellent chance of making the overall situation worse.
I have concluded that it is a mistake to think of “solving” these problems in any global or final sense. Some of them may be improved regionally, especially if they are not in local conflict with other competing problems. The logical corollary is that there will be other regions where those same problems cannot be solved, due different local circumstances.
The big question, however, concerns those problems that are not contained, that do not respect national or regional boundaries. Global warming and the death of ocean biomes affect us all, and failures to address these problems in any region can make the situation worse for everyone. In these cases, it’s obvious that a collective global response is called for – a response that brings together the political, economic, industrial and opinion-making institutions of our world. If these institutions acted together they might have a chance of implementing the deep and wide-ranging changes the situation calls for.
Unfortunately, until now we have seen precious little evidence of such a collective response. For example, we have repeatedly seen climate change conferences break down or issue watered-down statements that fail to address the scale of the accelerating crisis. While individuals, citizens’ groups and even some governments are obviously aware of the urgency, collective action repeatedly fails to gain the required global traction.
This state of affairs is no accident. This is not because of some dark and sinister cabal or conspiracy to hold back change in the name of personal profit, though there probably are some instances of that. The real reasons are at once more banal and more worrisome than the Bilderberg watchers assume. In the next section I will examine the structural reasons for this sorry situation.
Politics, the high art of civilization
In order to understand the role that politics plays in our collective failure to address the predicament described above, we need to examine the nature of modern civilization.
Now, when I use the term “modern civilization” I’m not just talking about the growth of industrialism over the last two hundred years. I’m not even talking about the growth of Western culture over the last two thousand years. What we usually think of as “modern civilization” is the development, refinement and culmination of cultural changes that began ten thousand years ago.
In turn, in order to understand modern civilization, we need to look even farther back, at how humans lived before we became “modern and civilized” and what happened to push our species across that threshold.
Human beings have been around in one form or another for two and a half million years, first as homo habilis, then as homo erectus, and finally as homo sapiens. For virtually all of those 2.5 million years, we lived in harmony with our environment. While it may not always have been a comfortable life (how could it have been, without color cable television or cars?), we were nonetheless perfectly adapted to our habitat. This statement is supported by two facts: over most of that period our presence caused little or no damage to the planetary biosphere; and during that time the human population was essentially stable, growing to only 5 million or so in two and a half million years, for a net addition of a scant two people per year.
Recently there have been some remarkable discoveries about the quality of life in the times before modern civilization. We have always known that society back then consisted of hunter-gatherers, organized as tribes. The classical impression was that the lives of these savages were, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Recent investigations have shown that in fact hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed a remarkable quality of life characterized by low levels of effort, plenty of leisure time, good nutrition, low levels of disease, egalitarianism, very low levels of suicide, homicide and warfare, a high degree of personal autonomy and close-knit communities. In the words of Marshall Sahlins, hunter-gatherers were “the original affluent society.” In one of our more damaging semantic restatements we have defined “subsistence” living as bad and “sustainable” living as good – even though in the context of a hunter-gatherer society, they mean exactly the same thing.
So here we have a species that was exquisitely adapted to its environment, living an affluent yet sustainable life, treading lightly on the earth, never outgrowing or overrunning its habitat, at least in terms of the species as a whole. We lived in this harmony with our world for two and a half million years, or 99.6% of the time we have been on the planet. Then suddenly, in the last ten thousand years – a mere 0.4% eye blink of time – our population increased over 1000 times, we decimated the earth’s stocks of non-renewable resources, we cut down over 90% of the planet’s forests, we fished her oceans to the edge of extinction, and we live in a near-constant state of conflict with each other. In this grievously short time we have brought about all the wicked problems listed above. Pardon my French, but what the hell happened?
In a word, it was agriculture.
About 10,000 years ago humanity developed organized, settled agriculture. Over the next couple of thousand years our predominant social model changed from hunter-gatherers to cultivators. We settled down (as one has to, to raise crops), and started to form larger social structures – villages, towns and cities. Nobody is precisely sure why we developed agriculture, when our previous ways of life had been perfectly satisfactory for millions of years. It may have been precipitated by climate changes, or growing populations in some areas, or it may have been just one of those things. There is no doubt that the threshold of radical human change is clearly demarcated by fields of grain.
The shift to settled cultivation entrained a host of other changes. Our diet was dramatically impoverished. Levels of chronic disease and malnutrition increased. Levels of social violence escalated. However, the most significant change was the introduction of hierarchies that had not previously existed in our social systems.
Why the development of agriculture resulted in the simultaneous appearance of social hierarchies is still a matter of debate. My opinion is that it happened because the risk to farming communities from crop failures was very high. If the crops failed, these communities contained too many people to survive on local foraging or hunting – both because population densities were so high and because the habitat destruction caused by farming had reduced the amount of local wild food. There was also no way to bring in food from some other unaffected region. Therefore the risk of crop failures had to be mitigated. This mitigation involved many activities. For example, local hunting kept larger crop-eating pests at bay, irrigation helped in times of drought, and shamanic intercession took care of storms and blights.
Each of these activities of hunter, irrigation engineer and shaman was highly specialized in comparison to the more generic farming skills required for planting and harvesting. Such specialization conferred power on the holders of those skills. This was especially true in the case of shamans, whose power could not be entirely learned, but was said to emanate come from a mysterious connection with the supernatural. Their attempt to exercise control over nature gave the shamans the real ability to exercise control over other people however (”Obey me or the gods will frown on us, and the crop failure will be your fault!”), and the first systematic hierarchies were born.
The other significant change introduced by organized agriculture was the psychological effect of reliable surpluses of food. While the previous two and a half million years of our existence had been shaped by sustainable subsistence, agriculture introduced the possibility of producing more food than we needed, letting us distribute the required amount to the members of the community and store the excess.
Centralizing the production of food and managing its distribution reinforced the development of hierarchies. Since some of the food was needed by people who had no direct hand in producing it (such as weavers, shamans and granary guards), some means had to be found of giving them equitable access to it. This meant coming up with a way of defining relative values for different kinds of work, and establishing a medium of exchange. In one stroke the concepts of money and wages appeared, resulting in a further transfer of power to those who established the value of work and controlled the money supply (and indirectly the access to food).
As important as that development was, there was yet another fundamental cultural change brought about by the simple existence of a food surplus. For the previous two and a half million years, human wants had been satisfied by the concept of “enough”. People worked until they had enough, then they stopped. Now there was almost always “more than enough”. The perception that there was more than enough food caused a radical change in how we looked at the world.
Food surpluses and the development of a medium of exchange made trade for non-food goods possible. The continued trade of ongoing food surpluses enabled a continuous growth in the material comfort of peoples’ lives. It did not take long for people to become accustomed to this new state of affairs. As memories of the past faded over just a few generations, the new conditions of growing abundance were rapidly accepted as the “natural” order of things.
We now have the two critical preconditions for “modern civilization”. The first is the belief that a continuous growth in material prosperity is the natural order of the human universe. The second is the belief that a power hierarchy is essential for the smooth functioning of the system.
As always happens with hierarchies, power flows uphill. Along with it go the perquisites of power, the most important being the right to higher levels of material abundance than those lower in the pecking order. In order to ensure that this comfortable situation is maintained, part of the accumulated social power is used to protect the situation. This is done by strongly defending the two fundamental preconditions: the idea that both material growth and the need for hierarchy are natural, essential and unquestionable. Indeed, the status quo is best served if the rest of the community sees this situation as simply part of the matrix of the universe, the only possible way life could work, and that any suggestions to the contrary are the result of either some nefarious agenda or outright insanity.
Over the centuries an interlocking system of guardian institutions has grown up to protect and defend the two key ideas of growth and hierarchy.
Our economic and financial institutions cooperate with business and industry to set the value of work and control the money supply (thereby controlling access to food). In this role it doesn’t make any difference whether an economy is capitalist, socialist or communist. The core belief it guards is always the same one.
Our educational institutions teach successive generations how the system works, giving them the tools to integrate into it and manipulate it at the same time as training them to see this as the only possible way the world could work.
Our communications media reinforce this message by enlisting people in the growth paradigm. They do this both though overt messages like advertising and covert messages embedded in the story lines of entertainment.
Our religious institutions (as distinct from the religions they purport to enshrine) are primarily normative social structures. Many incorporate an overt message that one should be content with things as they are. There are often injunctions against questioning authority, as all authority is seen to devolve from the supernatural – just as it did for the shamans of the early agricultural era.
Our legal institutions enforce the norms of hierarchy in ways too numerous to count. These range from the protection of privilege (one law for the rich, one for the poor) to the preferential defense of property rights over human rights.
Our political institutions sit at the tip of the pyramid. Political institutions encode, enshrine and manage the application of social power. Politics is the institution that legitimizes all the others. Because of its unique ability to make laws and its access to the legalized violence that defends those laws, politics is the fullest expression of the power hierarchy of modern civilization.
At the base of the hierarchy, supporting it all, are an ever-diminishing number of farmers who apply ever-increasing amounts of knowledge, technology and petroleum to ensure an ever-expanding supply of food. Because at the core it is their food that makes the whole edifice possible.
So where does that put us in relation to the array of wicked problems we listed at the beginning? Simply put, every one of these problems is the result of unbridled growth. They are the logical results of the continual exercise of the first precondition of modern civilization, the drummer we have been marching to for ten thousand years since the invention of agriculture.
Why politics is the problem, not the solution
In light of this analysis it should be obvious why we are repeatedly failing to address any of these wicked problems. The only permanent “solution” to any of them is the secession of growth. That idea is anathema to our guardian institutions. And as the occupants of the pinnacle of power, our politicians have every reason to derail efforts in that direction, no matter how small.
Politics, regardless of party or ideology, is part of the problem and can never be part of the solution. While it may be easier for the average person to live under the rule of a more humane parcel of rogues, at its heart politics is the primary guardian institution of modern civilization. The role of all politics is to ensure that power is managed, and power is always managed for the benefit of the holders of power. It doesn’t matter whether the power managers are Democrats, Republicans, Tories, Grits, Social Democrats, Communists or a military junta. They all fulfill the same role in service of the same beneficiaries.
In order to fulfill that role they unite with the other guardian institutions – the economic, industrial, legal. religious, educational and communications organizations. Together these institutions create, maintain and guard a noetic milieu (a globalized intuitive, non-rational consciousness) in which any values that challenge the two fundamental preconditions to modern civilization are seen as incomprehensible, self-evidently absurd, dangerous or even insane. Since the primary value system these guardians protect is the paradigm of continuous material growth, the most dangerous of all radical ideas are any proposals to limit, halt or reverse that growth.
The influences of our guardian institutions are firmly embedded in our global culture. They have such power and such general support at all levels of society that it is ultimately fruitless to try and remove them from power by either direct or indirect confrontation. The penalties for trying this are severe and ruthlessly applied.
In light of this, is there any hope for a return to a sustainable, egalitarian, interconnected, considerate and just civilization? I strongly believe that there is, but getting there will be neither sure nor easy.
The institutions that stand between us and such a future are trapped by their dependence on the very paradigm they are sworn to protect. They defend the belief that permanent material growth is natural, possible and inevitable. While they defend that belief with laws, guns and television, ultimately their power comes from people who accept that premise. If people stop believing that such growth is possible the institutions’ power declines, no matter how many defense mechanisms they engage. If growth falters, the people lose faith and the institutions crack and crumble.
Look back at the list of problems that led off the article. Every single one of them is the result of our growth encountering limits. While we may be able to figure out ways to temporarily circumvent some of these limits, the pattern is now clear. The growth of modern civilization is slowing down, and is even showing evidence of coming to a halt. For a guardian institution that depends on growth for its very survival, this is like a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
What that means is that these institutions will inevitably start losing their monolithic top-down power. This dis-integration will leave “cracks in the sidewalk of civilization”. And just as grass grows through cracks in real concrete, small communities and individuals will start to appear through the metaphorical concrete of our industrial civilization.
No one can predict when, where or how the dis-integration will appear. It will take different forms in different places. The response of the guardians will probably be violently draconian in most cases. But there are places where communities have already formed in anticipation of such an opportunity. Like “Gaia’s antibodies” they will work to heal the wounds, widen the cracks, and let the sunshine and fresh air revitalize the hidden earth. As the seed stock of the next phase of civilization they will spread their values on the wind.
The next cycle of human experience on this planet will be very different from any that has gone before. We will have fewer resources, but more knowledge. We will have to deal with toxic landscapes, a warming climate, shifting rainfall patterns and the emergence of new diseases. To balance that we will have better communications and longer memories than any civilization that has gone before us. We will not fall back into the stone age, but neither will we motor off happily into the sunset in our electric cars. There will be hardship and misery, but there will also be joy – the joy that comes from looking forward, from participating in our communities, from the love of those around us. Above all, there will be the future.
I’m indebted to the writing of Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan, as well as to Riane Eisler for her book “The Chalice and the Blade”. I’d also like to acknowledge the philosophy of Anarcho-Primitivism for its critique of civilization (though perhaps not for its suggested solutions).
September 3, 2008
© Copyright 2008, Paul Chefurka
This 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