Sunday, November 12, 2006

Homo colossus - A colossal failure of values

Click on photo to enlarge-photo by an unknown passerby
A post-election rant...
At 8:30 this morning, during a 5-mile nature-walk with Dallas, I found myself staring at this advertising poster on the front of a gas station mini-mart.
It reminded me of television, of consumerism, of Capitalism and economic growth, of propaganda and corporate funded mind-control, of the recent elections, and, of the colossal failure the human species faces.
As I stood there dwelling on thoughts of colossal import, pondering the species known as Homo sapiens, I remembered sociologist William R. Catton's term for our species as it exists today, Homo colossus.
Catton wrote, in his groundbreaking 1980 book, 'Overshoot-The Ecological Basis For Revolutionary Change';
"The more potent human technology became, the more man turned into a colossus. Each human colossus required more resources and more space than each pre-colossal human. Contrast the environmental impact of the Central Ohio Coal Company and its huge machines with the environmental impact of the Stone Age people who inhabited the same area a few centuries before. The Indians had not necessarily possessed any more virtue; they simply used cruder tools. They were non-colossal.
The same kind of problem would be much easier to recognize if mankind were afflicted with some kind of mutation that had the curious effect of causing children to grow to twice their parents' adult size---so that they required twice as much food and fiber per capita to sustain life and comfort. Suppose, further, that the effect were somehow cumulative, so that each generation grew twice as large and voracious as the preceding one. Quite obviously, the world's carrying capacity would be much less for later generations of giants than for earlier generations of runts. Just as obviously, neither conventional political rostrums nor revolutionary agitation could do much to remedy the situation.
Perhaps we would know this if we ceased to call ourselves Homo sapiens and began to call ourselves Homo colossus. If we were accustomed to thinking of a human being not just as a naked ape or a fallen angel but as a man-tool system, we would have recognized that progress could become a disease. The more colossal man's tool kit became, the larger man became, and the more destructive of his own future."
...and later in the book.
"History will record the period of global dominance by Homo colossus as a brief interlude. Our most urgent task is to develop policies designed not to prolong that dominance, but to ensure that the successor to Homo colossus will be, after all, Homo sapiens. Developing such policies must be so enormously difficult that it is not easy even to accept the urgency of the task. But the longer we delay beginning the more numerous and colossal we become---thereby trapping ourselves all the more irredeemably in the fatal practice of stealing from the future."
Those words were written nearly 30 years ago and no such consensus for change has emerged. On the contrary, population growth, consumption habits, resource depletion, species extinctions, widespread pollution, toxic contamination of food & water supplies, and global warming are all spiraling, exponentially, out of control.
But wait, Jim! Haven't you heard the good news?
There's been a "paradigm shift" in Washington!
Great change is on the horizon because the democrats have trounced the republicans in the American political arena.
Hogwash! When's the last time you heard a democrat argue against economic growth or global Capitalism?
Here's a quote describing the differences between democrats & republicans by another author, Rita Mae Brown, whom, much to my liking, speaks truth with a rather down-to-earth bluntness.
"The difference between the two parties is the difference between syphillis and gonorrhea. Neither one of them has a very compelling program for America. They don't question our whole economic base, and I'm not talking about being socialist or anything like that. What we need to look at is whether our economy is safe for the earth."
As far as I'm concerned, you can apply that very analogy to Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Libertarianism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.etc. etc., and any other anthropocentric notion that separates Homo colossus from his place among Nature and her universal laws.
What would be needed for our long-term survival is a profound, species-wide, paradigm shift (combined with a lot fewer people), because, as long as we place ourselves above Nature, instead of within her, the ways in which we live our lives will continue to be a disease upon (or at dis-ease with) the earth that supports us.
And, evidently, that paradigm shift isn't going to happen.
It's become quite obvious that, as a civilization, we are incapable of understanding the colossal changes we need to make in ourselves if we wish to continue as a viable species. Eventually though, forces beyond our apparent control will greatly reduce our numbers, and, for the sake of our species, as well as the diversity of life on earth, I hope that happens before we ourselves end up on the ever-growing heap of extinctions we are causing.
So, did I vote?
Yes, I always vote...
...although, in recent memory, I haven't voted for anything, or anybody, that had much of a chance of winning. Yet I keep on voting lest those creeps in power think I just don't give a damn. I go to the polls and make my contrary little statement of displeasure with the status-quo, no matter how inconsequential that statement is.
It's kind of like the words, and time, I've wasted here today, when the above picture already said it all...
Still, I often feel a need to speak my mind, and, as I said in my October 11th post, "I’ll take protest and dissent over war or collapse any time", but that doesn't imply that I usually get my way, because world events almost never go in the direction I'd like to see them go.

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Anonymous Birsen Sahin said...

That's the reason I still visit you and feel you as a friend Jim. Thank you my friend. You expressed my feelings.

And, pls say hello to peggy

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a timely post. Marty and I watched An Inconenient Truth by Al Gore last night. If you haven't seen it, I do highly recommend it. I am devastated by the notion that we can't/won't change our actions. We won't solve the problems plaguing our earth. Not in our lifetimes.

Stephen Hawking posed the following question on Yahoo, "In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?" He says he doesn't have the answer but he believes that within the next 100 years our earth will be inhabitable (due to nuclear attack, meteors, chemical warfare, global warming, etc). He said that our only hope as a species is to spread out into other planets and stars but since that won't happen within the next 100 years we must be very careful.

I found his video comments very upsetting. Obviously, he is extremely intelligent. He knows how to solve the problems. In fact, we all do. But as a race, we choose not to do anything at all because we are selfish and greedy and self serving. I think his answer - that we have to spread out into other planets - emulates the entire homo collosus way of thinking. When something isn't working, instead of looking at the cause and trying to solve/fix it, we just move on and satisfy ourselves with treating the symptoms.

I don't know Jim. It's very disturbing and frustrating. But in your own words, "Hope is much more powerful than despair." So I'll try to put on a brave, big girl face and cling to that sliver of hope.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

birsen sahin-

I'm very happy that you consider Peggy and I as friends, we feel the same way towards you.


First, let me respond to your kind words at my Peace Tower post. I often wonder what the world might be like today if some back-to-the-earth movement, like in the early hippie years, might have have taken hold. But, by the 1960s, I think the earth's human population was already well beyond the point of no return as far as carrying capacity is concerned.

And V.V., of course you are welcome, anytime, to visit Peggy and I here in Big Bear. But please, don't expect some exlemplary paradise, as we are just two average people trying to live simple and humble lives, nothing fancy here (but do try to come in the early summer when many of the gorgeous native plants are in bloom).

Now, concerning Al Gore and 'An Inconvenient Truth'.

Yes, we have seen the film, and, in fact, we've reserved a copy of it for our library when it comes out on DVD, November 21st. Like Al Gore's book, 'Earth In The Balance' the message is important and the science is good, but Al doesn't seem to grasp the depth and breadth of his own work.

The last time I voted for a mainstream politician was in 1992, and only because Bill Clinton chose 'environmentalist' Al Gore as his running mate. But the paradox of Al Gore is something I don't quite understand. Here is man who knows we are destroying our own ecosystem, yet one of the first things he did as Vice-President was to travel the globe drumming up support for the NAFTA and GATT treaties, which enable multi-national corporations to readily expand economic globalization, to further exploit the displacement and indentured servitude of indigenous peoples, and to circumvent responsible environmental regulations such as those being enacted in the United States. You can't have your cake and eat it too, Al!

Although I believe Al Gore has the best of intentions, he apparently believes we can change this system from within, with Capitalist dollars, and that somehow---through better technology, renewable energy, and more efficient vehicles---6.5 billion human beings can sustainably inhabit the planet.

Well the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and, from my perspective, that kind of thinking is simply delusionary.

The basic information in the film is really nothing new, having been understood in scientific circles for quite some time, but it is great to see it finding a wider audience. We posted many of those same graphs & charts here at Earth Home Garden before the film even came out. But there is a quote in the film from Upton Sinclair which I find quite revealing.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it".

In the context of the film, this quote refers to the difficulty Al found in persuading lawmakers in Congress and the Senate to enact responsible environmental legislation, because the lobbyists for the corporations who provided them with the greatest financial support used there influence in a most persuasive way.

But, the truth is, this quote pertains to all of us, not just politicians. The income we earn in most of our livelihoods depends upon our not understanding the destructiveness of those livelihoods and our associated lifestyles. When it comes right down to it, we need todays meals for our families, this month's mortgage payment to keep a roof over our heads, and enough affordable gasoline to get to the jobs which pay for those lives. We just don't have the luxury of doing end-result-analysis of what might happen in the next month, the next year, the next decade, or the next century if we don't change our ways.

Peggy and I are no exception, we worked for 30 years as civil servants so we could pay our mortgage and feed our kids, and now sustain ourselves on Post Office pensions.

If you'd like to see a living example of someone (geographically much closer to you) who has essentially escaped this dilemma, check out Eleutheros at the 'How Many Miles From Babylon' blog link on the main page of Earth Home Garden.

Best regards to you and Marty, V.V.
It's not exactly a pretty world we live in these days, but it would be a lot better place if more of us were like you guys.

8:24 PM  
Anonymous pablo said...

And now there is the news of the world's fisheries collapsing by 2048. Fish populations will be too low to harvest, and perhaps too low to sustain themselves. This is exactly what you are talking about.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Madcap said...

I'm glad you're back, Jim. Missed you.

What can I say? I don't think the world can sustain this many people, not even half this many. What does that mean for environmental efforts, for ethics? Do I then hole up and try to survive, and to hell with everyone else?

I don't know. It seems like that, in the face of the numbers. And in the face of the general unwillingness to admit to a colosally unsolvable problem.

I just do what I can, make the provisions I can, and am delighted when someone wants to travel the road with me. Other than that, I can't think about it without shutting down in despair.

7:29 AM  
Blogger vicci said...

I always enjoy your blog! I also enjoyed your road trip photos...I live in Placerville, CA. are you familiar with the area???

8:50 AM  
Blogger I_Wonder said...

Somewhere I read that 90% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Even though we don't like to admit it, we do live within nature and nature will return to a new balance. Recently, in a science magazine, I read an article about the changes that would take place if man was suddenly removed from the earth. Actually, I found it to be a soothing, pleasant article to read. It's amazing how quickly the earth can heal if left untouched by humans.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

This morning I told a friend that her gardening is one of the most important things she does for the world. She said no, she always thought it was selfish to spend all that time gardening. When I mentioned the distance an average Canadian plate of food travels, and how her gardening eliminates all that petroleum-driven travel for that plate of food she grows, she said, "You know, I never thought of that."

I can't throw all the starfish back into the sea, but you know, I may have helped that one.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks for responding (very interesting information about Al Gore)!

Before moving to Tennessee I lived in Southern California and do hope to make a road trip out there this spring or summer to visit my family (in the San Luis Obispo area where I grew up) and my friends in Orange County.

You said, "please, don't expect some exemplary paradise" however, Jim, I think that living a simple and humble life is an exemplary life and your native garden must surely be paradise. I would truly be delighted to meet you both.

As an aside, I wanted to share something I read today in my local newspaper. We live in a town with 6,000 people. We do not have local garbage pick up and must take our garbage to the transfer station. At the transfer station they have one bin for garbage, one bin for leaves and tree limbs, one bin for construction material, one bin for metal, and all the standard recycling bins (paper, cardboard, plastic, etc). I love being able to recycle. The man who works at the transfer station is always amazed because many times we bypass the garbage bin altogether and everything we're disposing of is recyclable. The other day we were disposing of a small amount of garbage and were behind another man dumping A LOT of garbage. A soda can fell out of his garbage bag and he bent down to pick it up. Just as he got ready to throw it into the garbage bin, I said to him, "You can recycle that." He replied, "Yeah, but I'm right here next to the garbage. It's too much work to walk to the recycling bin." Ummm... A total of 15 steps? What?? I told him to give me the can and I would take it myself. Well, anyway, this article said that all money earned from recycling efforts go directly to our town's schools and it was pleading with people to make more of an effort to recycle. They listed 5 other nearby towns with smaller population who recycled more than we did and earned more money for their schools. It's so amazing to me just how selfish people really are and this illustrates that point completely. Something so simple and people just can't be bothered to take the time to do what's right.

7:41 PM  
Blogger The Prudent Prepper said...

Brilliant. Loved it. Thank you for sharing. I've shared this with a few others. Stay strong. It's gotten deep.

8:47 PM  
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10:47 PM  

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