Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Cornucopianism, The Darkest Path

We face a crisis, of energy supply, of raw material supply, of climate and ecosystem instability and destruction, of these things I have no doubt.

There are numerous possible paths into the future. I wont say there are numerous "solutions" to these problems. A solution implies resolving a difficulty, but also infers that it is resolved within a certain set of parameters. These parameters make a particular solution "valid".

The problem of a broken down car can be solved by replacing the damaged parts so that it will run again. We could also scrap the vehicle, but is this really a valid solution? Any solution that leaves us without a car is not really a solution at all, but we cannot determine this from the simple statement of the problem, that the car is broken down. We need to look deeper and restate the problem along with all the hidden requirements in order to decide why a certain solution is or is not valid.

The problem is not just that the car is broken down, it is that we no longer have our transportation, and it is this that must be considered in resolving the problem. We cannot look at only part of the problem definition and set the parameters for a valid solution from that. Scrapping the car solves the problem of having a broken down car, but not the problem of lack of transport.

It is for this reason that I don't think we can speak of "solutions" with respect to the crises we face. If we state the problem as "we are running low on critical resources" we can come up with numerous solutions to this that are entirely valid. The cornucopian worldview states the problem as: "we are running low on critical resources and we need to maintain our current lifestyle of extravagant overconsumption" How can such a problem be "solved"?

Back to the paths. We can look to the future and see the continuance of humanity, and we can take a number of paths from this point that have the potential of achieving that outcome. Whilst there are a myriad of possibilities, in my mind I see them on a spectrum ranging from energy descent to cornucopian technofix. There may be some validity in seeing these on a left and right style spectrum, most people ready to accept energy descent seem to have leftward leanings, whilst the most fervent cornucopians tip toward the right.

The two worldviews have endpoints, out in some distant future. Not so much goals, as ideals of living to aspire to and strive for.

As I see it, the energy descent crowd are heading toward various shades of agrarian/hunter-gatherer lifestyle with a focus on human development, evolution as a biological species within the bounds of nature.

The cornucopian crowd are heading toward a technological lifestyle, with a focus on the development of machines, on re-engineering the human being in the same fashion. Escaping the bounds of the biological and the natural.

Generally I would be content to let people choose their own course and make no comment on either pathway, indeed when I was younger I was torn between the two paths myself. This was long before I learnt anything about the state of the environment, or civilisation's overshoot. It's nothing like choosing between red or green curtains, it is a choice that can and will affect the entire earth.

For a moment disregard our current population problems, and consider an idealised future world on either of these paths.

The energy descent folks can make room for people with other points of view, it is not a mutually exclusive philosophy. They farm parts of the earth, and live within the bounds imposed by nature. If you wanted to upload your mind into a machine, fair enough, there is the room to do so, and so long as living within the bounds nature imposes is the predominant ideology then taking such action would be essentially the same as choosing to get a tattoo or not. People may think you're a bit weird but that's the extent of it. It is not going to fundamentally affect the potential for others to live out their lives in a manner that they see fit.

Consider the cornucopians though. Their very worldview hinges on maximising the production of every energy producing system on and beyond the Earth. If we can possibly suck more energy out of something in order to power another iPod, then they would have us do it. The philosophy is mutually exclusive with any other philosophy. If they see more benefit in wiping out the entire ecosystem and replacing it with a single genetically engineered "super plant", then that is the path they will take. Anything less efficient is done away with in the name of progress.

There is no room for inefficient organic production of food, no room for remnant woodlands, or nature reserves, all of these things and more reduce the potential maximum population that can be "sustained" on the earth, the potential economic output derived and the potential "standard of living" that can be gained. The economic systems in place would give preferential advantage to operations based in the worldview (as we already see today in many places, take subsidised agriculture, for example) and propagate these in favour of more environmentally benign methods of existence.

The cornucopian worldview will wipe out all competing worldviews, if it comes to predominate.

The unfortunate thing is that the cornucopians will always get the better publicity, better funding and better results, in the short term. Nobody much bothers to think about the future any more. "Damn everyone if I cannot drive my car and watch my TV!!" The cornucopian path will lead to a scramble for solutions designed to bleed more and more from the earth in vain attempts to ensure the continuance of our current unsustainable way of life. The results of any potential course of action will be measured in terms of how well they go towards preserving the status quo.

Even if they ultimately fail, their actions will have a severe impact on the world we will be left with. Consider the calls for a massive program for building nuclear power plants, thousands of them, across the Earth. What legacy is that construction program going to leave? What legacy are those plants going to leave?

The energy descent path will leave a positive legacy. Even if scientists were to develop workable fusion next year, the few short steps taken along the energy descent pathway will have given people a better appreciation for the value of the natural world around them. (Though sadly I'm sure it will be swiftly forgotten once they turn back onto the path to a techno-utopia.)

The energy descent pathway does not exclude a future change of direction. The cornucopian pathway has a very good chance of doing just that. It's hard to follow any path in the midst of a contaminated biosphere. If there's no life on earth it's hard to follow any path. Only those pathways with a focus on opening up the number of possibilities for the future should be considered. Those pathways that shut out the majority of alternatives should be cast aside, and denigrated for what they truly represent.

It's time for humankind to look at where it is headed. To lift our eyes from the sumptuous meal we are sitting down to on the deck of the Titanic. What do we really want for the future, for our grandchildren's grandchildren? Life inside a computer chip, thoughts alone etched on silicon, living on electricity as the only possible adaptation to the nightmare biosphere we have created? Or a life as a biological organism, under the sun, amongst the natural beauty of the earth? Perhaps not surrounded by consumer flotsam as we are today, but perhaps, for once, happy to be alive.

No comments: