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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The End is Near.

Well if the Singularity is near (see 6/7/12 blog), what about the End? A friend once told me, "someday one of those prophets with the signs 'Repent, the End of the World is Coming!' will be right."

There are some very disquieting predictions from some very smart and cautious scientists that humankind is about to do itself in.  A few days ago, a study by 21 scientists was published in Nature that indicated that Earth is pretty close to the tipping point when you measure its energy budget, its extreme shift in weather patterns, its lost biodiversity.  Approaching a state-shift in Earth's Biosphere demonstrates through scientific theories, paleontologic data, and ecosystem modeling that the planet's ecosystems are nearing an immanent, irreversible collapse.  The landscape of Cormack McCarthy's The Road comes to mind.

This is not new.  The World3 Computer Model developed over 30 years ago and updated in 2004 shows how, based on present trends in population, energy use, loss of arable land, industrialization, and pollution, there will be a sharp free fall in food, arable land, industrial output, and population beginning around 2040 (depending where you put the policy year, technology development, and initial non-renewable resources).

What does our ethical and political theory say about this?

I think it says: question the science, improve the models through new models, check and dispute the outcomes through evidence, but take it seriously.  Don't just reject the science out of hand because you don't want to hear it.  (See my next blog about the anti-science, anti-faith true believers.) A lot of politically disinterested and highly educated scientists, enough to indicate a consensus are providing us with a warning.  It would be stupid or insane to simply dismiss this warning as it would be for the warning of a hurricane or tornado.

It also says: know our own interests and how they may muddle the clarity of our hearing.  If you are a conservationist dedicated to the preservation of the earth, good for you--but know that this may influence you to accept the conclusion of the earth in danger without question.  If you are a business person dedicated to creating jobs for people, good for you--but know that this may influence you to miss the conclusion that calls for a shift to cover the true costs of doing business.  You may be a Republican in league with the oil companies and find it hard to accept that we have surpassed peak oil.  You may be a Democrat in league with the alternate energy companies and find it hard to question that we have surpassed peak oil.  Try to listen and see from a more disinterested point of view.

It says learn from the past, but engage yourself in the future.  Learn from the pioneers in conservation like Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Wendell Barry, even Richard Nixon who created the EPA.  But also learn from the industrial engineers who have been able to solve many problems in food supply and energy.  But that doesn't mean be stuck in the past and its conventional wisdom that somehow everything will work out or conjure up fantasy--like my friend 40 years ago who worked with GE and countered my caution about nuclear energy with "not to worry; in ten years we will have found a solution to nuclear waste."

It says: recognize that we are all in this together including past, present, and future generations.  The flippancy of saying "don't worry, it will affect some but not me" or "by the time this becomes a problem we will have transited to other planets" is an act of anti-love against present generations, an act of un-faith in the generations before us, but more an act of despair and disdain for our grandchildren and theirs.

It says: reorder our values.  Economic growth with increasing production and consumption is important, but not as important as preserving the earth as the very condition of our existence, not as important as improving our capacity to know, love, and create beauty.

Our multi-tensioned theory for ethics and politics also indicates that we should stop blaming and take responsibility for the integrity of our relations to our selves, our communities, our world, our history and our future.

In specific, the responsibility that arises from my understanding of the moral structure of humanity in our present situation impels me to foster conservation, support the investment in renewable energy, advocate for new urbanism and the preservation of arable land, rain forests, and the seas, promote responsible child bearing and birth control, advance polices to contain the emission of carbons and other pollutants, and encourage the science and technology of producing food, water, energy in sync with the present ways of the earth.

Whether we dismiss or humor or accept the doomsday sayers, let's at least let them recall us to think about the fragile limits and the wondrous capacities of human existence and its enterprise.  And act.

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