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It is going to take the collapse of industrial society to force change because we as humans are incapable of changing in large enough numbers to stop the death of the oceans or any of the other problems we face (and I'm sure, Mr. Cohen, that you figured that out a long time ago). Once the dust settles and 80% of us are gone, the earth might heal somewhat in a 100 years or so and those left might have a chance at surviving and starting a new civilization. Without easy access to fossil based energy we hopefully won't get a chance to destroy everything a second time.

Rebecca Redfield

Thank you for your work on this blog. I hope you’re not disheartened by the scarcity of comments… I’d like to see more commentary here, and since I’ve been lurking quite a while, and this post really struck me, here are some thoughts.

Jeremy Jackson suggests those of us in our 60s or 70s can remember a different world. He’s correct; I’m in my 60s; have lived most of my life in suburban Chicago and rural southern Wisconsin. The changes are shocking, though perhaps apparent only to people who pay attention to the outdoors. Our rural areas are industrialized - that’s the only term for the type of farming practiced now. What’s left of Wisconsin’s dairy cows are indoors, in confinement. You see few to no animals in pastures nowadays. Open space is all precisely cultivated, multiple cropped (zero time or space for birds and other wildlife to raise their young), crop spacing and acreage calculated via GPS, etc. Birds such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, field sparrows - common when I was a child - are scarce or gone. Honey bees - gone. As a child, I stepped carefully if barefoot in a lawn full of white clover! Now, most homeowners poison any clover in their lawns, and pollinators of any kind are scarce.

Jackson says we need to fix ourselves, but good luck with that project. We pretend that Tibetan gurus or Amazon tribespeople or indigenous medicine men from somewhere will reveal some great ecological wisdom that will save us, but as you note, human nature is of a piece. This looks to me like a form of environmental millennialism. The book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, by John Gray, examines the attraction millennial ideas have for humans, and the harm these ideas have caused. (John Gray is a British intellectual who has written several books dealing with aspects of the human predicament; I particularly recommend False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.) Gray’s points on human nature are similar to those in your post. No “great transformation” is going to change our natures. Ever hear of the book, The Greening of America? The “Age of Aquarius?” How about the “Harmonic Convergence?” I can recall all these New Age, hippie-type ideas, and similar others, were going to bring peace, love, and ecology to America and the world. This sort of wishful thinking is probably as old as forever.

Which brings me to Bill McKibben. Just as you’ve stopped reading Baseline Scenario, I’ve stopped reading McKibben - and probably for similar reasons. (OK, I still occasionally look at McKibben - and Baseline - but I don’t expect to find real solutions in either place.) Forget the whole head-up-its-anatomy environmental movement, worried about growth but so terrified of appearing politically incorrect on “diversity” and “women’s rights” and “immigration reform” it can’t talk about American - and world - overpopulation. Example: a local “green” group’s “action” suggestions: don’t idle your car, support a local May to September leaf-blower ban, recycle, shop at farmers’ markets, use CFLs, cut back on consumption generally. These suggestions will help you feel good about yourself, but won’t effect much real change. Cut consumption? Consuming is what humans do. Vegetarianism (to free up grain to feed the increased number of humans on their way to share the planet)? Tell that to the 3rd world billions whose very first move, at any economic improvement in their lives, is to add meat to their diets.

It’s not just the decline of the empire, it’s the decline of the whole human race. I suspect Ma Nature is going to do something about us humans quite soon. Who knows what? But you can be sure we won’t like it. We’ll wish we’d imposed rules on ourselves - everything from mandatory birth control to strictly regulating economic behavior will look quite pleasant compared to what’s coming, I think. I hope I’m wrong. It does look like it’s very late in the game, and it does feel like Ma Nature is getting ready. She’s going to clean our collective clock, she’s going to fix our little red wagon, and fix it good.

The Deadbeat Dad


Dr. C.

So this is what it feels like to be toast... Thanks for linking to the video Dave, I'd've missed it otherwise.
That old saw about "are humans smarter than yeast" is really insulting to the poor yeast.


Great commentary, couldn't a thunk it better myself! I hope we're wrong too, but I don't think we are.


Thanks for the video.

You and your readers might want to check out Incredible Edible Todmorden (http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/) in the north of England. It's an answer to the middle-class stereotyping of the localisation movement.

Back to working in the veggie garden.

Ralph Dratman

No doubt we're heading for a big decline in human numbers. Yet I'd hate to see most of our knowledge lost in the process of population reset. Even though technology has caused most of the problems we face, some part of me wants to see our knowledge remain available to future humans.

I don't mean to suggest that our technology could survive intact and unchanged, only that the knowledge on which that technology is based should remain behind even after most of the people are gone.

Maybe the best outcome would be for a significant fraction of the population to succumb to some sort of famine or possibly a novel illness. Ideally, the population decline might occur gradually enough, say over ten to twenty years, that the surviving populace could keep things working to some extent.

After a big drop in human numbers, there would be far less pressure on the oceans and the atmosphere. I don't know how far our population would have to fall before the biosphere could begin to rebuild its robust diversity. My guess is that 10% of the people we have now might be able to exist in for a while without doing much more damage.

As for the alternative of reshaping human nature, I don't think that can ever happen. Our history as a species is simultaneously too grotesque and too successful to suggest any reason for optimism in that respect.

Walter Carter

Everyone is asking "what should we do" but that's just so much verbal masturbation. What's important is what we WILL do, which is nothing. We naturally destroy our environment. Its what we do. The earth will shake off its humanity like a dog shakes off fleas. Global population will be hitting its peak soon (for sure, within 50 years) and once we hit that peak and start to decline, we will never come close to those population maximums again. We created the population we have now by exhausting resources. Soon there will be little left to exhaust. Mother nature will force sustainable lifestyles, not governments... and we're not going to like it.

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