ECOCAUST AND ECOLOGICAL WISDOM

by

Tom Baugh

Green Institute Fellow

Abstract:
In this paper I review threats to ecological systems and democratic systems and explore ecological wisdom as a unifying concept.

 

Ecocaust[1]: Speculative Fiction

 

Western civilization and societies, more than likely stimulated by the eschatology of their Christian roots, culture a fascination with the inherent immediacy of apocalypse. The end is always just around the corner. This theme has appeared frequently in fiction but perhaps no more frequently that during the present decade. The Left Behind[2]series of books by Lahane and Jenkins purport to follow the apocalyptic theme described in the Christian Book of Revelations, and several other ooks and sources of Christian scripture. But we don’t have to look at anyone’s sacred scripture to see this theme repeated time and again. A rowing understanding of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons has given impetus to a number of novels including Nevil Shute’s ‘On the each,’[3] and Pat Frank’s ‘Alas Babylon,’[4] George R. Stewart’s ‘Earth abides,[5] and Walter Miller's ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz,’[6] among a number of other books. In Stephen King’s ‘The Stand,[7]’ good and evil play out their respective roles in a world devastated by a human engineered virus. More recently, in a terse and exquisite tour of the English language, Cormac McCarthy[8] takes us on a road that begins someday, any day, at 1:17 a.m. with “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” What follows is a chronicle of a journey of the love of father and son into a world of almost total death. It is, in fact, death that McCarthy explores in his novel ‘The Road,’ death and “the face-off of good and evil.”[9] Butit is a death formed out of the nuclear reality of our time as the ash and dust bring on the deep despairing cold of nuclear winter, and the orld dies. In The Pesthouse, [10] Jim Crace uses the device of an unspecified ecological disaster to stablish that things can, indeed, get worse. In reviewing Crace’s novel, Francine Prose[11] tells us that “It must be human nature to want to imagine hell, and to ant to describe it to those with less vivid imaginations.”

 

Nuclear winter, infectious disease, genetically engineered organisms gone badly astray, what is significant is that these novels are set in the post-apocalyptic environmental hell of the near future. And, with the exception of classics of the genre such as Lucifer’s Hammer[12] where Earth is seriously damaged by a comet strike, the imagined apocalypse is a human-generated hell.

 

Ecocaust: The Reality

 

If the above visions are how art through literature view anthropogenic environmental collapse, regardless of how it is caused, how does science see the near future, say between now and 2050? According to environmental writer Fred Pearce, “Humanity faces a genuinely new situation. It is not an environmental crisis in the accepted sense. It is a crisis for the entire life-support system of our civilization and our species.” Although the scope of these ‘hells’ may be somewhat speculative and conjectural their basic reality is not. As NASA’s James Hansen[13] says, “ We are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption.”

 

What are the general realities of impacts of global climate change? To a great extent the answer to that question depends on who you are and where you live. For example, if you are one of the citizens of the Tuvalu Islands, or any of a number of other low-lying island nations, you would be wise to look for another home. If, on the other hand, you are a citizen of the western region of the United States you have to wonder if those thousand or so range, brush, and forest fires consuming your drought ravaged real estate during July 2007 were a result of the global climate change the Administration of George Bush continues to deny. As always, however, the catastrophic environmental conditions of human-caused climate change will, in general, fall most heavily on the very young, the very old and those who are already among the dispossessed and poorest. Again, and in general, governance in response to the increasing amount and frequency of environmental catastrophe will tend toward a decline in individual and civil rights and toward authoritarian regimes.

 

How about the specific realities of global climate change? In the most recent paper on this issue NASA’s James Hansen and a number of authors state that, if the world continues "business-as-usual"
in terms of the use of fossil fuels we will experience “additional global warming of 2-3°C (3.6-5.4°F).” Should this be the case, the world will experience “global and regional disasters." The authors see a ten year window within which “the reduction of greenhouse gasses can achieve less disastrous results.” Note that they do not say that catastrophes can be avoided, we are well beyond avoiding these disasters. Hansen and his colleagues conclude “…that global temperature is nearing the level of dangerous climate effects implies that little time remains to achieve the international cooperation needed to avoid widespread undesirable consequences.”
The number of definitive studies dealing with the effects and impacts of global climate change continue to proliferate from a recent study by the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA demonstrating thatice loss from glaciers and ice caps is expected to cause more global sea rise during this century than the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets…”[14],
to melting permafrost in Siberia and the release into the atmosphere, of methane previously trapped in the ice into the atmosphere, to expanding dust storms in the North American Southwest and the exacerbation of desertification, to a billion refugees world-wide because of global warming. There seems no end to the challenges Earth faces because of the thoughtless projects of humanity.

 

The Political Realities

 

In January 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, columnist Walter Lippman visited his friend US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the presidential retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. Commenting on the condition of the country, Lippman said, “The situation is critical Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial power.” [15] Although many on the political Right might feel otherwise, Roosevelt was wise enough to eschew the call to ultimate dictatorial power. Humanity, however, generally responds to mega-threats to security by turning to authority. In this regard, President George Bush has spent a great deal of his administration assuming increasing power and promulgating a reduction of civil rights and individual freedom for US citizens[16] [17] [18] [19]. An increasing number of analysts are commenting on changes in the political nature of the American republic and substantial future changes.[20] Some have commented on the growing involvement of the Christian Right in what appears to be an evolving American fascist movement.[21] [22] In ‘American Theocracy,’[23]
Kevin Phillips takes this concern a bit further and compares the “American Disenlightenment” of radical Christianity with radical Islam saying, “The rapture, end-times, and Armageddon hucksters in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollahs." The comparison is well-taken and just as dangerous to democratic values and governance.

 

The demographics of the American population with an increasingly dependent, aging population and equally dependent, extended adolescent component would make such a change of form of governance possible highly likely. Both the reality and the manipulation of terrorism by the Bush Administration, the growing awareness of the possibilities of pandemic infectious disease, and the reality of escalating environmental catastrophes is ramping-up the anxiety of the American people[24]. Anxious
people, in a society where antidepressants are the most prescribed class of medical drugs, almost guarantee a government promising security and order.

 

Ecological Wisdom

 

What can the Green movements contribute to restoring a balance and sanity to a seriously threatened world? Decades ago Arne Naess[25] created and introduced the term ‘ecological wisdom.’ The term caught on like a burning bush in a thirsty land and raged throughout the burgeoning Green movements. For some reason it currently only flickers, but perhaps it can serve as a kindling to reignite a fire that will burn away the ecological abuse that E.O. Wilson,[26] and many others, tell us threatens to extinguish much life on Earth? Ecological Wisdom came to define a condition of ecological spirituality that “views human beings as creatures of the earth, embedded in the natural world, obliged to interrelate with a larger whole in ways that will not harm the larger ecosystem.” (Kinsley[27] ).

 

What happened to that flame of reason and commonsense that burned so brightly for such a short time? The term experienced widespread adoption and use and adaptation in various sectors of society. Within the Green sociopolitical movements, the flame became commonly accepted usage to denote the concept of the planetary community of life and then was nearly extinguished as a social operator when the Greens made the transit from a social to a political movement[28]. The term should have helped build an enduring foundation for the growth of the Green community movements. In his editorial in Green Horizon Quarterly, [29] Rensenbrink bemoaned the declining status of the term ‘ecological wisdom’ in the hierarchy of Green Values. This is unfortunate because, as Graham[30]
says, “The Greens’ most lasting contribution has been the restoration of Ecology (“Earth Wisdom”) to the social marquee, joining the three concepts that have become permanent elements of the modern political lexicon. Freedom, equality, democracy, and ecology have become as integral to the modern era as the four basic elements of the ancient world, ‘Air, water, fire, and earth,’ with which they also share some symbolic affinity.” In this regard, Rensenbrink
[31]
calls for Greens to explore “…the meaning of ecological wisdom, and…apply that wisdom steadily to their internal and external organizing, to their politics, and to the problems of society and the world.”

 

Summary

 

In
summary, we appear to be in a time typified by the restriction of democratic systems of governance, exacerbated by the increased frequency and intensity of violence and environmental catastrophes, and threatened by the growth of theological and theocratic systems. These threats to democratic values and practices call for an analysis of what it means to be Green and an expansion of the Green movements beyond the political to include the fullness of culture. Efforts to transcend the single component of politics and to reconstruct a comprehensive integrated and integrative social, cultural, spiritual, and political structure, a culture of hope, should be encouraged among the Green movements.


[1] Budz, M. 2003. Clade. New York: Bantam Books.

[2] LaHaye, T. and J.B. Jenkins. 2000. Left behind: A novel of the Earth’s last days.Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[3] Shute, N. 2002. On the beach. House of Stratus; New Ed edition.

[4] Frank, P. 2005. Alas Babylon. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

[5] Stewart, G.R. 2006. Earth abides. New York: Del Rey.

[6] Miller, W. 1964. A canticle for Lebiowitz. New York: Bantam Books

[7] King, S. 1991. The Stand. New York: Signet.

[8] McCarthy, C. 2006. The Road. New York: Vintage Books.

[9] Kennedy, W. 2006. Left behind. New York Times, Review of Books. October 8.

[10] Crace, J. 2007. The pesthouse. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

[11] Prose, F. 2007. Love in a time of dystopia. New York Times Review of Books. April 29.

[12] Niven, L. and J. Pournelle. 1985. Lucifer’s hammer. New York: Del Rey.

[13] Hanson, J., et al. 2007. Dangerous human-made interference with climate: A GISS modelE study. Amer. Chem. Phys. 7:2287-2312.

[14] Meier, M.F, et al.. 2007.Glaciers dominate eustatic sea-level rise in the 21st century. Science DOI:10.1126/science.1143906.

[15] Kennedy, D.M. 2005. Freedom from fear: The American people in Depression and war, 1929-1945. Qxford, England: Oxford University Press. P. 111.

[16] Conason, J. 2007. It can happen here: Authoritarian peril in the age of Bush. New York: Thomas Dunn Books.

[17] Cassel, E. 2004. The war on civil liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft have dismantled the Bill of Rights. Chicago, Ill: Lawrence Hill Books.

[18] Leone, R.C. , ed. and G. Anrig, Jr., ed. 2003. The war on our freedoms: Civil liberties in an age of terrorism. New York: PublicAffairs.

[19] Etzioni, A. 2007. How patriotic is the Patriot Act?: Freedom versus security in the age of terrorism. London, England: Routledge.

[20] Johnson, C. 2006. Nemesis: The last days of the American republic. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company.

[21] Hedges, C. 2007. American fascists: The Christian Right and the war on America. New York: Free Press.

[22] Goldberg, M. 2007. Kingdom coming: The rise of Christian nationalism. New York: W.W. Norton

[23] Phillips, K. 2007. American theocracy: The peril and politics of radical religion, oil, and borrowed money in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin.

[24] Conason, J. 2007. It can happen here: Authoritarian peril in the age of Bush. New York. Thomas Dunn Books. p. 10.

[25] 1972/1973

[26] see Wilson, E.O. 2006. The Creation. New York: W.W. Norton.

[27] Kinsley, D. 1995. Ecology and religion: Ecological spirituality in cross-cultural perspective. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 231

[28] Rensenbrink, J. 1999. Against all odds: The transformation of American politics. Raymond Maine. Leopold Press, Inc.

[30] Graham, D.N. 1998. p. 87. The theory of a transformational political movement. In, Woolpert et al. Transformational politics: Theory, study, and practice. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

[31] Rensenbrink, J. 2003/2004. Are Greens slighting ecology. Green Horizon Quarterly 1(4):3.

 

Please cite this manuscript as follows:

 

Baugh, T. 2007. Ecocaust and ecological wisdom. The Green Institute.