What is the basis for hope – and action – in the face of climatic catastrophe? A “multilogue” among the editors of IN CONTEXT
At the end of 1991, In Context executive editor Alan AtKisson sent out a brief electronic mail message to several contributing editors. The message – about a small news item mailed in by IC readers and computer conferencing pioneers Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz (see IC #23, “Humanizing Hyperspace”) – gave rise to a lengthy and impromptu computer-mediated “multilogue” on the prospects for humanity’s survival and the meaning of hope.
Participants included Donella H. (Dana) Meadows, co-author of both The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits (see p. 10); David C. Korten, president of the People-Centered Development Forum and author of Getting to the 21st Century (see p. 30); William Prescott, formerly associated with the Climate Protection Institute and guest editor for IC #22 on “Global Climate Change”; and IC associate editors Duane H. Fickeisen and Carla Cole. The following is a condensed transcript.
From: Alan AtKisson (31 Dec 91)
To: IC contributing editors
Subject: Is hope our only hope?
Just a quick note to pass on the following news item, sent to me by readers in Oregon. The item appears to have been buried among many short blurbs. What do you make of such pronouncements? More later, and Happy New Year!
HOPE IS ALL SCIENTISTS HAVE TO OFFER IN CRISIS OVER OZONE
SAN FRANCISCO – Scientists who have been looking for a way to reverse the damage humans have unleashed upon the Earth’s atmosphere offered an extraordinary public opinion Monday: There probably is no solution other than to mend our ways and hope the planet heals.
There is substantial evidence that the Earth is growing warmer, due chiefly to the burning of fossil fuels, and the layer of ozone that protects the planet from harmful solar radiation is thinning due to the use of refrigerants known as chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]. Both changes in the atmosphere have resulted from human habitation of the planet, and both threaten life as we know it.
Thus scientists are frequently asked what they can do to reverse the trend. Experts gathered from across the country this week to ponder that very question during the winter meeting of the American Geophysical Society.
The collective answer? Not much.
“Nothing proposed yet is even remotely feasible,” said F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California, Irvine, the scientist who is now well known for foreseeing the ozone crisis. Further, he said, no engineering solution is likely to work.
– Oregonian, 10 Dec 1991
From: Donella H. Meadows (2 Jan 92)
Interesting ozone article, especially that it was buried. As far as I can tell, the scientific conclusion is accurate. We have agreed as a world to stop producing CFCs according to a certain schedule; we are actually ahead of schedule, but the results in the stratosphere are long-delayed. We won’t see any improvement for 15 years or so, and while we wait we can only hope that the damage we have already done, as it unfolds, will be tolerable. The ozone story is a great lesson in the effects of long environmental delays.
For real physical processes already in the pipeline, there is really not much to do but hope. Beyond that, for processes that can actually be affected by human action, especially political and economic processes, hope gets you the booby prize. You don’t sit around hoping, you get off your butt and do something.
From: Duane H. Fickeisen (3 Jan 92)
Subject: Hope/no hope
I think the conclusion that we will not be able to stop the warming already in process is right. But I disagree that there is only hope left. The flip side of no hope is taking responsibility and being proactive.
We can get off our collective butts and do something. Several somethings, actually:
* Use this as an example to teach people about whole systems and about our ability to create unplanned impacts that have long lasting effects. (Why we didn’t already get this from the pesticide story is beyond me, though.)
* Continue to monitor climate change and to refine predictive models, attempt to predict the range of likely impacts at a regional scale, and attempt to better predict consequent sea level change. The ranges of potential effects can be used as a basis for setting policy.
* Stop, to the extent possible, continued release of greenhouse gases and of ozone eaters. This won’t stop what’s already in progress, but it will keep it from getting even worse than it already is going to be.
* Begin right away to plan and implement mitigative responses:
– develop crop tolerance
– examine effects of changes in storm patterns and precipitation and snowpack on structures (e.g., Columbia River System dams, irrigation systems, flood control reservoirs) and plan to make any required changes
– develop appropriate land use regulations (since built infrastructure lasts 50-100+ years, should we prohibit development near shores that will flood in the future? Should we base development on projected water supply availability in 50 years based on predicted climate change, rather than current projections that do not take climate change into account?)
* design our buildings and other structures for predicted storm severity (rain, wind, temperature), e.g., increased roof loading, increased wind loading, altered precipitation patterns
* develop better medical/wellness responses to skin cancer
* begin building responsive communities that will support each other in the suffering that will be experienced, learn to care for each other
* and oh, so much more.
From: David C. Korten (4 Jan 92)
Subject: Hope & ozone
Can’t say the Oregonian blurb is very helpful – I suspect the Oregonian is guilty of superficial reporting. Probably the problem is that the scientists are looking only for a technical solution – which they rightly note does not exist. The necessary actions are predominantly social. If you assume that humans are incapable of intelligent social action to control their self-destructive profligacy, then there is no feasible solution. We are assuming that “human intelligence” is not an oxymoron.
From: Alan AtKisson (7 Jan 92)
To: IC contributing editors
Subject: Hope, etc.
Thanks for getting back to me on “hope.” What most interested me was, indeed, how this story was being reported (buried in a blurb, no context, etc.). Not too long before, I’d seen another article titled “Scientists say future bodes ill for humankind” – buried on page 5, same paper – and I’ve seen many similar treatments in other papers. I’m concerned that such pronouncements may mark the upsurge of a popular, scientifically sanctioned fatalism, which will make it more difficult for calls to proactive action and creative response to be heard. Why not fiddle while Rome burns if there’s nothing you believe can be done about it?
Confronting such cultural lassitude should be an important subtheme for the next issue (#32), and of course it should be central to the issue following it on empowerment.
From: Donella H. Meadows (7 Jan 92)
Subject: Faith, not hope
Alan – I think you’re touching on what I think should be the theme of issue #32. It is the place where I found myself in trying to find the proper end to the new book [Beyond the Limits]. In the final version I say that what really divides optimists from pessimists is not their assumptions about technology, or the market, or earth science, but their assumptions about THE POSSIBILITY OF HUMAN VIRTUE. I think one takes the message of limits as negative only if one has absolutely no faith that people can be good. If one has such faith, as I do, then one hears the message of limits as just “OK, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Maybe the conversation you’ve started among us should be quoted directly in the issue, to get your readers involved in the argument. The real, critical, important, awful question raised by the realization of limits is: WHO ARE WE? And who we are is largely dependent upon our own mental models of who we are, so there’s a great Catch-22 here.
For me the whole discussion was best summed up by Abraham Maslow: What kind of society does human nature permit? And what kind of human nature does society permit?
You could make an exciting issue out of that!
From: William Prescott (7 Jan 92)
I believe Dana may be understating the situation. My understanding is that most CFCs haven’t even reached the stratosphere yet, and that their chlorine will later be active for 80-120 years. The 5-8% loss above our heads in the last decade does NOT include those CFCs (the majority) still migrating upwards. At 5 to 8% per decade, 50 to 80% of the ozone layer would be gone in a century. Probably making life unlivable on this planet. But you won’t have to wait: since most of the real danger hasn’t even arrived in the shooting zone, the process of deterioration will most likely be rapid and non-linear – something like the non-linear breakdowns we’ve already seen in some acid-rain-soaked forests, or in the bleaching of coral reefs, or in many types of desertification. Or somewhat like what’s expected with climate change. These systems seemed like they might survive for awhile; then they fell apart. Sudden breakdowns on the heels of continued stress.
Systems thinking is a double-edged sword. Along with appreciating interconnectedness and order comes an appreciation for interconnectedness and chaos, disequilibrium. I have concluded that ozone holes and their likely direction are just one example of a global systems-wide eco-disequilibrium. Starting from this assumption – that the stability of natural processes can no longer be depended upon for planning our future – means that the building of a humane, sustainable culture becomes a very different, and much less charted, adventure. I even have trouble using the word “sustainable” these days, and the last vestiges of deep ecology have been wiped from my mind. Yeah, I hate it, too. But I feel strongly that any realistic vision of the human future must now seek to transcend the current definitions of “natural” and “sustainable” if they are to have any chance of success.
From: Alan AtKisson (7 Jan 92)
To: W.R. Prescott
Hmm. Gloomy prognosis! Nothing I hadn’t considered before, of course, though it isn’t the kind of thing I like to hold in my mind as a morning meditation. I’ll forward this to Dana – I’m interested to hear what she has to say in response.
From: William Prescott (8 Jan 92)
Subject: Hope, etc.
I’m interested in what Dana has to say as well. I would love to hear I’m wrong from someone who’s not in heavy denial …
About hope … inner strength should never have to depend on outer circumstances. To me, hope is an attitude not to be justified by the frailty and undependability of outer circumstances. I have seen brave people dying of AIDS with more hope than a whole conference full of futurists …
From: Carla Cole (8 Jan 92)
Subject: Hope, etc.
Having come rather recently out of formal education on third world development, my deepest concern is that folks will soon be ripping down the last tree for a place to grow a sweet potato. This spectre of whopping human food deficits and creeping deserts potentially occurs in a time-frame that predates the disruptions that may be expected to occur from the atmospheric maladies we’ve been discussing. So I “hope” that acceptance of foods such as spirulina and the like (things we can scarcely now imagine, perhaps – stuff grown in huge vats in laboratories) and vastly improved agricultural practices (maybe we need to be more willing to EAT the insects that compete with us for food, instead of poisoning them!) will be a component of the answer.
From: David C. Korten (8 Jan 92)
Subject: Hope & ozone
I was fascinated, and not exactly encouraged, by the exchange around the ozone layer. Prescott’s assessment is particularly unsettling.
On Dana’s point regarding virtue as the key element, I’m not sure I agree. In thinking about the point I realized that Prescott’s position helps put things in perspective on the extremes of the optimist and pessimist viewpoints.
The true optimists I know make no positive assumptions about human nature. Their position is that with greed at full reign, a combination of technology and the market will take care of whatever problems we face. No belief in virtue among those optimists. Simple destiny. Out of man’s hands. All things work out for the best. Essentially it is the new religious faith. Trust in money. It will guide us to salvation. More on this in a moment.
Now Prescott defines a related extreme on the pessimist side. Only here the focus is on a complex of forces that lead to universal death, with no possible corrective action in the cards even if one were to assume total human virtue and enlightenment.
Here we have the two diametrically opposed positions with virtue not at issue – the ultimate optimists and pessimists.
In between these two extremes there are those who believe that the technical possibility remains for EITHER doom or salvation. Essentially we are moving in a negative direction, but at least in this view we could correct our course if we had the collective wit to do so. Even here I don’t believe that virtue is so central as some people suggest.
Actually I’m more taken with Dana’s question about WHO ARE WE? than with THE POSSIBILITY OF HUMAN VIRTUE question.
I think of virtue in terms of the individual who, convinced that doom is inevitable, engages in frugality and conservation purely out of a sense that it is the right thing to do – even while knowing the prospect of it making any larger difference is nil.Intelligence is making a choice for frugality and conservation as part of a conscious and self-aware transformational strategy for individual and collective survival. Here one is practicing intelligent pragmatism, not self-denial.
The “intelligence versus virtue” issue turns on what I consider to be a basic reality. There is a high degree of certainty that the consequences of the prospective social and ecological collapse will be extremely detrimental to all human beings. We must ultimately anticipate a common fate in this regard. Thus we all share a stake in assuring a positive outcome. In the end there are no free riders. In the absence of overwhelming contrary evidence that our future is already fixed beyond human intervention (both of the fatalistic extremes are based on somewhat speculative and unsubstantiated scenarios), the only intelligent individual or collective human choice therefore is to assume that responsible choice can still make a difference and act accordingly. The question becomes one of intelligence, not virtue.
The data on collective human intelligence are by no means conclusive. But I think there is more reason for optimism based on a presumption of intelligence than a presumption of virtue. The strategic implications are also more straightforward: we go for awareness-building and agenda-setting. If virtue is the necessary foundation of corrective action, I have much less of an idea where to intervene.
That said, I think the question of WHO ARE WE does in the end become important, but more on the spirituality than the virtue side. Every time I start pushing myself to think about the frontiers of corrective action, I come up against the idea that ultimately our sense of spiritual connection with all life is crucial. I believe that connection is innately there, but systematically suppressed by modern culture – even by orthodox institutional Christianity, which insists on separating man and woman from God and placing man above all other life.
The inverse side of rediscovering our spiritual roots and connections is the growing power of the theology of money or mammon. I think we are experiencing a phenomenon that is best described as our dominant religion – with the World Bank/IMF as its Mother Church and the forces of transnational capital as its evangelizing mission.
Even if ozone destruction isn’t scheduled to kill us off until a hundred years from now, it is likely to prove to be a secondary issue – one that we may hardly notice when the time comes, given current trends. The basic destruction of our food-producing habitats is likely to proceed at an accelerating rate along with accelerating disintegration of the social fabric. The result is likely to lead to near-complete social breakdown and a massive die-back in the population long before the ozone layer becomes a truly significant threat.
But this is a trajectory that intelligent human intervention could correct. Then we come up against the question of whether we would only be gaining ourselves another fifty years or so only to be finished off by the forces of ozone depletion, against which we may be powerless. It is hard to end this on an upbeat note.
From: Alan AtKisson (8 Jan 92)
To: Donella H. Meadows
I think we’re all in agreement about the nature and gravity of this predicament and the need to inspire response, but we’re a bit gloomy about the natural (not the human) prospects. Do we have cause? I’m waiting to hear from you, as I’m interested in taking this multilogue to some sort of conclusion.
From: Donella H. Meadows (14 Jan 92)
A conclusion for this multilogue? You’re kidding! Why not let the readers supply their own conclusions, each according to his or her own temperament with regard to hope? Which is fundamentally, I think, a matter of temperament – of the genes and glands and outlooks we were born with.
Having said that, I see an immediate need to contradict myself. There IS something we all can and should do to uncomplicate this discussion. We can make the basic distinction between scientific “facts” as best we know them, and our feelings about them.
It is a “fact” that CFCs take 15 years to get to the stratosphere, so there’s 15 years worth of increasing damage in the pipeline, about which we can do nothing. (I use “fact” in quotes, because even scientific stuff can turn out to be wrong – but it also, and more often, turns out to be right.) There are delays and momentum and probable chaotic mechanisms in the greenhouse effect. There is the probable long, long lifetime of pesticides in groundwater. There is the momentum in the growth of the human population, and the undeniable irreversibility of species extinctions. These are “facts” and they scare the you-know-what out of me, but the facts are one thing and being scared is another.
(There are also “good” facts, if we have the temperament to be willing to admit them, like the existence of the Montreal and London agreements about CFC production, and the increasing number of protected natural areas, and great technical possibilities for energy savings, and dropping birth rates.)
Most of us leap immediately from the facts to the way we FEEL about them – scared, or hopeless, or challenged, or threatened, or whatever – and we inadvertently and uncontrollably communicate the facts all mixed up with our particular emotions. The emotions (especially hopelessness, anger, contempt for the human race) may turn people off so much that they can’t hear the facts.
I think we should communicate both the facts and our personal emotions, but I think we should work hard to separate them and label them accordingly: here’s the fact, and here’s how I feel about it. We can let the facts just be facts, regard them soberly, hold the emotions at bay for a minute or two. That might give other people a chance, before THEIR emotions crush them, to absorb the facts, to see what these facts mean for their own behavior, and to find their own personal reaction, before we overwhelm them with OUR recommendation for their behavior and with OUR personal reactions.
I tried that once last summer – I gave a clear, straightforward, unemotional talk about “the state of the world,” and then in the last ten minutes I let fly with my real, personal, deep feelings about what I had just said. I think it was the most effective way I’ve found yet to deliver that information.
We have to remember that there is absolutely no “external” or “objective” reason to be hopeful or hopeless – we make all that up inside ourselves, and different people make it up differently. No one person’s inner reaction to the facts of the world are any more “correct” than any other. We’d like to label denial “wrong,” but it’s a completely understandable psychological coping mechanism. In terms of utility, it’s no more paralyzing than hopelessness.
If we can make even the tiniest crack between the information and the way we feel about it, we begin to get a bit of power over how we feel about it. These days I CHOOSE how I’m going to feel about it. I don’t choose denial, and I don’t choose hopelessness, and I don’t choose to hate my fellow human beings – those are legitimate and understandable emotional responses, but they paralyze me. I try (some days it’s hard) to choose what gets me to work – a bit of fear, considerable grief, a lot of love for the planet and for all creatures on it (even us), and a tremendous faith that the universe did not evolve for four billion years to create the first form of life that could celebrate the wonders of the Earth, in order for that form of life to eliminate those wonders.
We have within us the ability to wonder, the intelligence to understand, and the love to care about that which we wonder at. I try to play to those abilities, within myself and within others, and in them I always find hope.
Hope and Ozone, By Alan AtKisson et al, reprinted by permission from In Context #32: Dancing Toward the Future, Summer 1992, copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute,