Cultural Change at the
Limits to Growth

Well, humanity certainly seems to be in a bit of a pickle at the moment.

There are already too many of us for comfort (6.6 billion by the latest estimates), our population is still growing (perhaps to 9 billion by 2050), our economic activity and resource use is still increasing, climate change is showing signs of drastic acceleration, we are running into production limits on food and energy, the oceans are knackered and the glaciers on which so many people depend for fresh water are draining away before our eyes.  To top it all off, the global financial system appears to be developing some very ominous cracks.  To anyone who has been following the news for the last few years, these developments have taken on a very foreboding tone. The name of Thomas Malthus is even reappearing in discussions with greater frequency as the situation becomes ever more dire.

As a result, people are starting to feel a great sense of urgency about coming up with solutions of one sort or another.  We are starting to put more effort into technical solutions like wind and solar power.  People are agitating for greater fuel efficiency in vehicles, and even fully electric cars.  Permaculture and local food production are ideas whose time seems to have come, at least in the West.  The idea of reducing consumption through conservation, re-use and recycling is gaining new converts.  Even the question of overpopulation, long considered the untouchable black sheep of ecological activism, is being discussed.  All these initiatives should be applauded and supported.

The real problem as I've come to understand it, though, is that there is simply no way we can proactively reduce either our population or our consumption enough to matter in the time we have left before we run head-first into the reality of biophysical limits.  The fact that we are seeing the problems today means the crisis is already upon us, and the only question is how much time we have left before the combined effects begin to impact our civilization’s ability to function.

There are a number of mutually reinforcing factors that will prevent us from even undertaking such precautionary reductions in our consumption or our numbers.  In this article I discuss those factors, and propose an alternative approach to our situation.

The first factor that prevents us from voluntarily reducing our numbers or our impact on the world is our universal cultural belief in human exceptionalism.  This belief causes us to enact a cultural narrative of our ownership of the world – the world belongs to us, our purpose in life is to conquer it, and all it contains is available for our use.  These beliefs give rise to the dualistic view of a world consisting simply of human beings and resources.   In this context, population growth is seen as essential for us to ensure our dominion over the planet.  This world view probably arose at the same time as we developed totalitarian agriculture about 10,000 years ago.  This concept is shamelessly (and gratefully) cribbed from the writings of Daniel Quinn.

The second constraint is our brain structure.  I discuss this problem in my article on hyperbolic discount functions.  Human brains are physically structured by our evolutionary history to respond very strongly to immediate, perceived threats but to  discount steeply any distant, abstract threats.  As a result, if there is no threat apparent in our immediate environment, we are inclined to conclude that things are OK and just go on about our lives.  While this tendency can be overcome by some individuals (as it has been by you and me), the ability to respond with urgency to abstract threats doesn't appear to be widely distributed in the human population.

This problem isn’t just a shortcoming of cognition (i.e. a failure of our reasoning skills) or a shortage of information.  The ability to reason clearly and accurately helps of course, as does having enough information.  In general though, the difficulty lies not in failing to comprehend the issues, but in our inability to respond strongly to that understanding.  It is a physical shortcoming of not having our neocortex wired tightly enough to our endocrine system – abstract reasoning doesn’t produce strong emotional responses.

The third stumbling block is the cultural support for our belief in the growth imperative.  I used to think the origin of this belief was genetic, but now I'm not so sure.  While we share a genetic, species-survival behavioral component with all organisms that over-reproduce to guard against the effects of disease and predation, our urge to grow seems to have a very strong cultural component.  This may stem from the first factor I mentioned above (our dualistic belief in human exceptionalism), but we have amplified the effect massively though our creation of a cultural support matrix that is now intrinsic to our civilization.  This matrix consists of all our major cultural institutions encompassing our political, economic, social, religious, educational and communications systems.

Superficial differences between various forms of these institutions are entirely secondary to their shared underlying purpose: the protection, enhancement and dissemination of our civilization's fundamental assumption that growth is essential for human survival.  Philosophies of equilibrium or outright decline – for example steady-state economies or population reduction – are viewed by these institutions as the gravest threats to survival, to be ruthlessly resisted, marginalized and even destroyed if possible.  Because the influence of these institutions is so pervasive, most people today regard their values as self-evident.  As a result, non-growth philosophies are viewed by the public as quixotic at best, but more generally as deeply suspicious or even anti-human. The public therefore enthusiastically cooperates in marginalizing them.

Because the values of growth and dominion are so embedded in our culture and so well-defended by its institutions, it will take a major upheaval to open enough space for competing value systems to flourish.  In effect, the protective influence of our cultural structures will have to be diminished by the erosion or dissolution of the structures themselves.  I think this will happen as we run into the global limits of resource depletion (especially oil), climate change, ecological damage, reductions in carrying capacity and financial destabilization.  The cascading failures that will probably result should open enough cracks in our existing cultural institutions to "let grass grow up through the asphalt".

As a result, I don't think there is any point at the moment in trying to battle these cultural forces head-on.  Until their foundations are compromised by the forces I list above they are too embedded, too interconnected and too powerful to challenge in any meaningful way.  In addition, only a relative handful of the global population has woken up to the true nature and scope of the problem (though our numbers are growing).

Our global problem of growing resource consumption, waste generation and sheer human numbers does not have a technical solution.  Our numbers and consumption rates will be reduced for us by Mother Nature as we hit the wall of biophysical limits.  So the big question is what should we do before that happens?  How can we best spend our time, effort and resources to improve humanity's chances?

I think the most effective use of our limited resources is as simple as it is subtle.  We need to promote a fundamental shift in how people perceive and understand the world around them.  We need to wake others up wherever possible, and to plant the seeds of the grass that will eventually grow through the cracks in our cultural concrete.  By this I mean we must develop and promote holistic rather than piecemeal understanding, wisdom rather than mere cleverness, and reality-based assessments of our situation.

Most of all we need to promote what I call "matrifocal" values – the values of nurturing, cooperation, respect for life, the recognition of interdependence, the acceptance of limits, and a dedication to universal justice.  These are the values of sustainability.  If we want human civilization to continue far into the future they must become its backbone.  This may be our best chance to make sure that happens.

Efforts spent planting these seeds of human transformation (in what is, in effect, a multi-faceted consciousness raising endeavour) will bear far more fruit than merely working on technical solutions or trying to legislate people into reducing their reproduction.

This approach may sound too "soft" for many of my readers, but I'm convinced it's the most realistic and effective response available to us.  Change has always been the one constant of the human condition.  We are now facing the greatest changes that humanity has experienced since the last ice age, and it’s happening a lot faster than that geological catastrophe. Our best hope is to meet the coming changes with awareness, wisdom, realism, courage and a strong sense of the communities in which we live – our families, our neighborhoods, our civilization and the community of life itself.

May 7, 2008
© Copyright 2008, Paul Chefurka
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