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Editorial: Our Mistaken Society

Can an entire society be mistaken in its values and habits?  Can the economic basis of a society lead to the destruction of our way of life and all that supports it?  Judging by what our global society is undergoing right now, the answer is yes.  Can we change our erroneous ways, and if we can change them, can we change them fast enough to prevent the disaster that nearly all climate  scientists and futurists are foretelling?  That, dear readers, remains to be seen.

Mistakes in childhood

We all make mistakes.  As Dietrich Dörner states in The Logic of Failure, “Mistakes are essential to cognition.” Lucky is the child whose parents expect her to make mistakes, and gently guides her to learn from them instead of casting blame and shame on the child for each mistake made.  The blaming and shaming can lead only to strenuous efforts to avoid taking responsibility for future errors, and to lay the blame at someone else's feet.  But when mistakes are embraced as learning experiences, as ways of moving toward wisdom and maturity, it is much easier for people to "own" them and to do their best to remedy the results of their mistakes. They can take pride in learning – all their lives.

People who were caught up in a familial “blame and shame” cycle as children may always try to avoid acknowledging mistakes; they may always deny errors, blame others, and avoid doing anything to mitigate the results of their mistakes.  We all know people of all ages who are like that . . . sad, isn’t it?

20/20 hindsight?

Mistakes are often difficult to identify except in hindsight. Hence the time-honoured saying, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time … ”  Sometimes the people implementing a particular “good idea at the time” have failed to analyze it beforehand for potential unintended consequences.  Sometimes they have dismissed the concerns of others as unimportant.  Sometimes they have dismissed warnings because they didn’t care about the adverse effects on other people of their actions.  Sometimes they were incapable of hearing warnings because the warnings conflicted with their unfounded beliefs, or the profit motive.

What’s our fundamental error?

If our entire society holds values and follows habits that will destroy life on earth, including our own lives, what are those mistaken values and habits?  Let’s not blame our addiction to cars, travel, or even fossil fuel; those are just side effects.  We can’t even really blame capitalism, though that was described by Karl Marx as “a machine for demolishing limits.” Capitalism is also a machine for sucking money out of lower-income workers and depositing it in the bank accounts of the wealthy. It fosters inequality.

I think one of our fundamental errors is, and has long been, our failure to consider the limits that Marx said capitalism “demolishes.”  The limits we’ve ignored in our collective actions were well described, to the best of scientific and computational ability at the time, in Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows in 1972. They published a second book, Beyond the Limits, in 1992.  In 2004, they published Limits to Growth:  The 30-year Update. Their controversial work has largely been supported by actual events as the years go by, as shown by Dr. Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne in this paper.

According to the team’s work, the human population and its demands on the earth’s resources have “overshot” the earth’s ability to supply us with resources and absorb our emissions and waste by a large margin since the early 1980s.  At this point, we are borrowing heavily from the future of life on earth, and the interest rate seems to be rising.  I won’t say we’re borrowing “from our children” because it isn’t just our children who will suffer deprivation as a result of our excesses.  

The future we’re “borrowing” from isn’t a distant thing, either.  For many people, it has already arrived -- flooding them out, burning them alive, blowing their homes to rubble, destroying their farmland and killing their orchards with drought. The more accurate term for what we’re doing is stealing from the future of life on earth, by virtue of our enormous numbers and our enormous appetites for wealth, status, and ease of living.

What about the values?  For a long time, many of us have thought that whoever had the most toys was the winner.  The richer the better!  The current US president was once quoted as saying, “There’s no such thing as [having] too much money.”  He was not alone in that attitude.  Unfortunately, he still is not. 

 We’re just another in a long series

Many civilizations have collapsed, and the collapse is usually related to resource depletion; when a civilization is overwhelmed by invaders, it’s usually because the invaders were feeling the lack of available resources – having used them up. For a brief and enjoyable but thoughtful and well-informed discussion of societal “progress” and collapse, read Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.

Of course, we’re the first human civilization that has caused the planet to warm up and change its weather patterns so chaotically.  We’ve done that by suppressing and ignoring the warnings issued by scientists decades ago.  We continue to ignore warnings from scientists.  Our governments continue to enable the kinds of development that will exacerbate the overwhelming problem of climate change, and we as voters keep electing politicians who will do just that. 

What to do?

As individuals, our options are limited; we can do our best to live a low-ecological-footprint life, but that can seem futile when all around us friends and neighbours are using their wealth to burn fossil fuels, stay in fashion, and fulfill their sense of entitlement by buying stuff.  (“I worked hard. I deserve this;  I need to demonstrate in a materialistic way that I love myself.”)

Collectively, we would have some clout, if we all voted for political candidates who care about the future of life on earth and will actively work to slow climate change – instead of kowtowing to industrial donors who expect favours in return for those big donations.  Will enough voters do that?  Based on history, the answer would be “no.”  But times are changing.

In the almost-year before the next federal election, begin thinking about what the various candidates and their parties stand for.  Short-term gain and accelerated climate change, or effective measures to reduce that acceleration and give life on earth a better chance of survival?  Will their votes in Parliament tend to benefit life on earth, or do more to pad the pockets of the wealthy?  Will our votes for them turn out to have been mistakes that will just perpetuate a mistaken society, and hasten more extinctions? 

Next year, please exercise your vote.  Vote thoughtfully, with an eye to how your chosen candidate will vote on issues that affect the future of life on earth.  Then, we’ll see what happens.