Point Reyes offers a living laboratory to remake a conservation ethic

02/14/2013

As environmental destruction escalates, hundreds of species extinctions occur each day. The senselessness of it infuriates me, yet our cultural norm marginalizes most talk about it as “doom and gloom.” Magical thinking, and a belief in “markets” above all, passes for sane and constructive discourse. Humanity has never witnessed the enormity of the change that’s ahead, so how can we define what constitutes a healthy attitude toward it? I observe several different responses within our community and will now generalize about them with reckless abandon.

First there are “technologists” and “neo-environmentalists” who believe human ingenuity and innovation can “green” our society into sustainability. Sure, growth remains the unquestionable goal for world leaders, but the world’s financial systems demand it. Capitalism, the logic of privatizing all aspects of life for profit, is today’s common sense. It’s unthinkable to entertain alternatives, even when considering the most basic human needs. Though they understand capitalism’s failings, they are resigned to its inevitability and trust that greener consumption is the answer.

Then there are “globalists” who trust that ever-greater efficiencies, with even more economics of scale and geo-engineering by the elites, can manage our survival. They view those who put the natural laws of the biosphere above socially constructed economic law as idealists, naive about the complexity of the world’s problems.

Of course we have “deniers,” who trust in the traditional politics of liberals, conservatives, neo-liberals, socialists, progressives and libertarians and believe our civilization is strong and will last forever as long as the right party gets to make and administer the law. Consolidated corporate media facilitates their denial with more public relations agents than journalists. Polls and focus groups give scientific precision on the best messaging for each audience so everyone remains mainstream and can simply vote their way to prosperity.

There are “rapturists” who believe god will save them, and “humanists” and consciousness-raising groups that know together we can collectively save ourselves. They are convinced that once collapse happens, we’ll be freed of daily drudgery and will experience a spiritual, blissful new existence. We’ll all get to escape the meaningless, boring work of keeping our daily lives going. The credit card and mortgage bills will stop coming and we’ll finally be “out from under.”

“Survivalists” and “existentialists” believe in preparing themselves with personal resilience, preserving some of our civilization in the hinterlands, behind fortresses.  There are lists for what provisions to buy, as nothing quells the anxieties of the average American like shopping and collecting things. Here they get to imagine just what kind of guns and other cool stuff they’ll need when TSHTF.

“Communitarians” are about rebuilding their tribe on a smaller scale and reclaiming the commons. “Transition” advocates believe in localizing all aspects of life, especially energy and food, to achieve community-wide resilience. Discouraged about global prospects, they are optimistic about the abilities of small groups to create sustainable communities by applying permaculture ethics and design principles. They are often founders and volunteers of local sustainability groups and write books to encourage others to lead more self-sufficient lives.

Finally, “deep green” activists believe they must hasten economic collapse by undermining and smashing civilization now to reduce the damage before it’s too late. They say the longer we wait for an industrial crash, the messier it will be, diminishing the prospects for those humans and nonhumans who survive it and those who come after. Since people in power never voluntarily relinquish their wealth and status, they must be taken down with revolutionary acts. Sabotage is promoted and covertly practiced by Deep Green Resistance and Anonymous.

I’ve moved in and out of some of these groupings in recent years and continue my uncertainty about whether collapse is inevitable or if our society can be reformed in time. I sometimes call myself a “doom and bloomer,” believing we must face the threat of both global and personal extinction by welcoming economic and political collapse for an end to our culture of competitive gain (doom) and by beginning to shape a culture of cooperation and sharing (bloom.) I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

Many in our community are “doing something”—working on sustainable food and fiber production, re-skilling themselves, supporting environmental causes or addressing social issues. Yet everywhere I see people engulfed by a culture of lies, denial and absurdities so complex and powerful they can’t see beyond it. Our empire-building nation works nonstop to distract us.

But there is also ample evidence of our innate capacity for cooperation and fairness. We are all quite capable of anything, but we must decide where to direct those capabilities. I believe deeper and more widespread collective action is more important than countless isolated, well-meaning actions. We have the ability to reflect and draw upon many forms, past and present, of indigenous cultures and other non-capitalist social organizations. We could creatively experiment with blending the best of these. We are now more connected and have the most advanced human knowledge ever. But without an honest, society-wide conversation about the structural issues we are facing, people’s caring will be reduced to guilt and disempowerment.

 

Bernie Stephan (bernie@sonic.net) is broker for Eco Realty in Inverness, co-host of KWMR’s Post Carbon Radio Program, co-founder of Transition West Marin and Steward of All One Ocean’s Limantour Beach Clean-Up Station.