The Crisis Papers on DU
The Crisis Papers
Place a few fruit flies in a bottle with a layer of honey at the bottom, and they will quickly multiply to an enormous number, and then, just as quickly, die off to the very last, poisoned by their wastes. Similarly, add a few yeast cells to grape juice, seal the bottle, and the cells will consume the sugar and turn it into alcohol. When the alcohol rises to 12.5% it will kill off all the yeast, and the wine will be ready for the table.
Fruit flies and yeast in a bottle are embarked upon suicidal endeavors. They can’t help it. They don’t know any better, lacking the cognitive equipment to “know” anything at all.
Human beings, we are told, are different. Humans can utilize their accumulated knowledge, evaluate evidence and apply reason, and with these skills and accomplishments they can imagine alternative futures and choose among them to their advantage.
Human beings have these capacities. But history teaches us that all too often, human beings simply refuse to apply them and, like the mindless fruit flies, march blindly into oblivion. For example:
**None of the antagonists in the First World War wanted the war. It was touched off by the assassination of an Austrian Duke in the Balkans. And when it was all over four years later and sixteen million had died, one German politician asked another, “How did it all happen?” The second replied, “Ach, if we only knew!” (Tuchman)
Finally, consider Easter Island. When Polynesian explorers discovered and colonized Easter Island at about 900 AD, they arrived at an island that was fully forested, with huge trees that supplied essential resources for canoes, houses, food, fuel, ropes and textiles. With these resources, the islanders built more than eight-hundred stone statues (moai) for which Easter Island is famous. When the first Europeans arrived in 1722, they found a barren island totally devoid of trees. The peak population of this sixty-six square mile island is estimated to have been as much as thirty thousand. In 1872, only one hundred and eleven native islanders remained. (Diamond). Could the Easter Islanders foresee the consequences of the destruction of their forests? If not, then why not? If so, why did they not act to protect this essential resource before it was too late?
In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond poses these questions in words that strike ominously close to home:
I have often asked myself, “what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?
When we look back in time, we find numerous examples such as these of a collective failure of societies to anticipate and deal with oncoming emergencies. With 20/20 hindsight, we look back and wonder: How could they not have seen what was in store for them?
Thus it is fair to ask, how acute is our foresight today? What are we doing, or failing to do, that might prompt future generations to ask the same question of us: How could they not have seen what was in store for them?
The answer, I submit, is most discouraging. Our political and corporate leaders have eyes, but will not see. They have minds, but will not think, much less anticipate the catastrophes before us and take appropriate action to avoid them. Consider:
**Regarding the domestic and global economy, our leaders are steadfastly ignoring Herbert Stein’s law: "That which can not go on forever, won’t.” Wealth continues to “percolate up” from the producers of wealth to the owners of that wealth. Today, one third of the U.S. national wealth s owned by one-percent of the population. The average Standard and Poors 500 CEO earns in half a day, more than his company’s median worker earns in an entire year. When, if ever, does this trend end? More in an hour? In a minute? Meanwhile, the super-rich pay a smaller fraction of their income in taxes than the average citizen – taxes that pay for the infrastructure, the courts, and the education of the workers upon which their wealth depends. Ever upward climbs the national debt. The Republican “solution” to the economic crisis? More of the same policies that precipitated the crash of August, 2008.
And finally, a little-noticed news report that should scare the bejesus out of all of us: Canadian scientists have discovered that the population of oceanic phytoplankton has dropped by 40 percent since 1950 and continues to drop at a rate of about one percent per year. This fact just might foretell a catastrophe even greater than global warming which, as it happens, may be the primary cause of this phenomenon.
Why should we care about the fate of these microscopic plants? Because phytoplankton are the foundation of the oceanic ecosystem – the base of the food pyramid that sustains all marine life. No phytoplankton, no fish, and the seas become biotic deserts.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Phytoplankton produce half of the world’s atmospheric oxygen and absorb that carbon-dioxide that we are spewing into the air in dangerous super-abundance. This raises a question that I’ve neither read about or heard: is it just possible that the loss of phytoplankton might suffocate us all? Without oxygen, we all die. Plain and simple. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the alarm? Are there any proposals to reverse this trend? And if we suppose that we can survive without the oxygen supplied by the phytoplankton, then pray tell us how this is possible.
Perhaps the Canadian scientists are mistaken. If so, then a threatened humanity pleads with the dissenting scientists to present their evidence and deliver their refutation. However this investigation might proceed, one fact remains unassailable: our fate is inexorably bound with that of the phytoplankton.
Are we, like the fruit flies in the bottle, predestined to meet a horrible fate due to forces beyond our control – beyond our control because we cannot overcome the blind economic interests which dominate our political processes and which own the mass media that misinforms the public?
I am sadly inclined to believe that this is the case. But I am not entirely convinced, for history also provides examples of how, facing pending emergencies, societies and nations can act responsibly.
**On December 6, 1941, a majority of the American public was pacifist, demanding that we stay out of “those foreign wars.” Two days later, that same public was in solid support of President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. And the United States military, at that time one of the weakest in the world became, within months of total mobilization, the strongest.
Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, is a monumental study of how societies from around the world – in Easter Island, in Pre-Columbian Central and North American, in Greenland – are demolished by the heedless destruction of the sustaining environment. And yet, in the final page of this book, Diamond closes on a hopeful note: “we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree.”
It remains to be seen if we seize upon this opportunity.
A few corporate public relations geniuses with limitless budgets have convinced large portions of the American public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was in league with al Qaeda, that their president was foreign-born and is a practicing Muslim, and that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a vast conspiracy of climate scientists with motives still unknown. Now these same geniuses have taken on the task of convincing us that the solutions to our energy, economic and environmental problems are to continue the policies that created these crises in the first place.
This, of course, is the clinical definition of insanity. And so, to borrow Albert Einstein’s reflection upon the atomic bomb, everything “has changed .. save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes."
The immediate result of a policy of “more of the same” will be a securing of the vast wealth and political power of those who have benefited from this policy. As for the remaining 99% of us in the disappearing middle class and the growing serf class, we’re on our own. No doubt, in the calamities that follow, the oligarches and kleptocrats of tomorrow will eventually be consumed as well.
To prevent which, here are a few stragegies of survival:
**When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you are heading straight for a cliff, stop and change direction.
The task before us is momentous, and the outcome is uncertain. Quite frankly, I am inclined to agree with the pessimists that humanity is about to enter into dreadful and prolonged dark age.
There is no greater task before us than to dedicate ourselves to proving pessimists such as myself to be ultimately wrong. As the great Andrei Sakharov reflected:
“There is a need to create ideals even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.”
Copyright 2010 by Ernest Partridge
Diamond, Jared: Collapse, Viking, 2005.
Kolbert, Elizabeth: “The Scales Fall,” The New Yorker, August 2, 2010.
Tuchman, The Guns of August, Random House, 1962
Watt, Kenneth E. F.: "Whole Earth," Earth Day, The Beginning, Arno Press, 1970, pp 9-11)
About the Crisis Papers
Ernest Partridge and Bernard Weiner are co-editors of The Crisis Papers, and have published their essays on Democratic Underground since 2001.
Bernard Weiner, an activist journalist and public speaker, holds a Ph.D.in government and international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers.
Visit Bernard Weiner's blog
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website The Online Gadfly and co-edits the The Crisis Papers. He is at work on a book, Conscience of a Progressive, which can be seen in-progress here.
Visit Ernest Partridge's blog
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