Two Roads Diverged in a Wood

SUBHEAD: Simultaneously industrial society has chosen the both the path of environmental collapse and economic collapse. By Guy McPherson on 3 February 2011 in Transition Voice - ( Image above: A fork in the road. From (

At this late juncture in the era of industry, it seems safe to assume we face one of two futures. If we continue to burn fossil fuels, we face imminent environmental collapse. If we cease burning fossil fuels, the industrial economy will collapse.

Industrial society expresses these futures as a choice between your money or your life.

It tells you that without money life isn’t worth living. As should be clear by now, industrial society — or at least our industrial “leaders” — have not chosen door number one: environmental collapse; and nor door number two: economic collapse. But both. At the same time!

Compassionately selfish

If you believe your life depends upon water coming out of the taps and food showing up at the grocery store, you’ll defend to the death the system that keeps water coming out the taps and food showing up at the grocery story. But news flash: If you think your life depends on that system, you’re a very unusual person, especially historically. And you support an unusual culture marked by overwhelming collateral damage to simultaneously existing non-industrial cultures and non-human species.

And you’re sorely mistaken, besides.

The problem is environmental overshoot, as a handful of ecologists have been saying for decades, echoing Malthus. We’ve far exceeded the human carrying capacity of the planet. As a result, we threaten most of the species on Earth, including our own, with extinction by the end of this century. Currently, there’s not nearly enough food to feed every human on the planet, even at the expense of nearly every non-human species. Actually, tens of thousands of people have been starving to death every day for a few decades, but they’ve been beyond our imperial television screens. And even more industrialized societies are falling to escalating food prices and shocking food shortages.

A toxic brew

The root cause of the problem is complex, but it can be reduced to a few primary factors: agriculture and industrialization, the epitome of every civilization in the last thousand years, and their contribution to human population growth.

The genus Homo persisted on the planet some 2 million years, and our own species had been around for at least 250,000 years, without exceeding carrying capacity. We actually lived without posing a threat to the persistence of other species. During those years — two million of them, in fact — humans had abundant spare time for socializing and art, and spent only a few hours each week hunting, gathering, and otherwise preparing to feed themselves (i.e., “working”).

Contrast those conditions with people today and how much time we spend working (and rarely enjoying that work, if talk around the water cooler is any indication).

Agriculture leads to food storage, which leads to empire, which produces slavery, oppression, and mass murder (all of which were essentially absent for the first couple million years of the human experience). Lives were relatively short, but happy by every measure we can find. In short, without agriculture there’s no environmental overshoot. The human population explosion is effect, not cause.

The industrial revolution exacerbated the problem to such an extent we’ll never be able to recover without historic human suffering. We’re only beginning to witness the impacts of reduced energy supplies on the industrial economy, and on this kind of trajectory, unimpeded by some change, we’ll be squarely in the Stone Age, fully unprepared, within two decades at most.

At this point, our commitment to western culture (i.e., civilization) is so great that any attempt to power down will result in suffering and death of millions, probably billions. Nonetheless, it’s tragically the only way to allow our own species, and millions of others, to persist beyond century’s end and squeeze through the global-change bottleneck resulting from industrialization.

Every day in overshoot is another day to be reckoned with later, and therefore another few thousand people who must live and die in Hobbesian fashion.

There are no decent solutions.

A date with destiny

A collapse in the world’s industrial economy is producing the expected results, finally. Sadly, it’s too late to save thousands of species we’ve sent into the abyss. But perhaps there’s barely time to save a few remaining species, including our own.

If you care about other species and cultures, or even the continued persistence of our own species, then an impressive body of evidence suggests you support our imminent transition to the post-industrial Stone Age. Or whatever it looks like. Such a trip saves the maximum number of human lives, over the long term.

When you realize the (eco)systems in the real world actually produce your food and water, you’ll defend to the death the systems that produces your food and water. I’m in that camp. How about you?

What do you support? The industrial culture of death, which sanctions murderous actions every day? Or the culture of life?


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