Searching for the Thorn

by Cason Swindle


Antioch University student Cason Swindle examines what could be the inevitable collapse of the human race in it's tug-of-war with the global environment


I was slumped over in my chair, my head in my hands, my body and mind numb. My systems modeling group at Antioch University had spent 3 grueling hours trying to stave off the computer model's projection of global population and environmental collapse. We were not winning the battle. Donella Meadows "World 3 model of global sustainability" was staring right at us, showing us that if the planet keeps going as it is, the world population rises to about 12 billion by the year 2060 and collapses to 4 billion within 25 years. By 2060, pollution renders much of the cropland barren and unable to produce food. Housing easily overtakes any land still available. Non-renewable resources such as oil, natural gas and heavy metals are almost completely depleted. The world population, having doubled in 60 years, rapidly cannibalizes what minimal resources are left. Too many people need more food than the land can produce. By 2085, 8 billion people die of starvation, and those that survive live in a decimated environment that can't re-grow food fast enough to keep up with demand.

Our modeling group tried everything we could think of to change this model's course. We added pollution abatement technologies, quadrupled land yields, had zero population growth, wars, plagues--everything. In desperation, we even tried shipping 25% of the population to Mars. The collapse was delayed only a few decades. We hit bottom when we discovered that the average age of the modeling group was 27. Our grandkids would be among those either dead or fighting to survive. All we could say was "We're doomed."

This can't be right, though. There has to be something that people can globally, collectively do. The collapse hasn't happened yet. This model is only a projection of what could happen if we continue to do what we're doing now. What if everyone on the planet stopped doing things that contribute to the collapse? We could decrease population if everyone had one or no children; decrease pollution if everyone ate only organic fruits, vegetables, grains and beans, walked everywhere and recycled everything; decrease housing's appetite for farm land if everyone lived in multi-family housing. We could substantially decrease how much each person consumes and decrease the number of people consuming. Would this stop a collapse and bring about a society that could continue to sustain itself indefinitely? Well, it would certainly help, but what would the consequences be if the entire world followed this policy?

If we, meaning the world population and more specifically those of us who live in industrialized nations, dramatically decrease how much we consume, we put the millions of people who make what we consume, including ourselves, out of work. If we no longer have jobs, we no longer have any money to buy food, clothing or shelter. Most of us generally dislike starving, so we may either stay where we are and fight with others over what few resources are available, or move out to where resources are available for free--live off the land. People staying to fight over who gets what resources are still available could ignite urban warfare. With six billion people currently living on the Earth, there is simply not enough viable land left for a large portion of us to try to return to an agricultural society. Many in both the city and country could die of starvation if we so radically changed how we live now.

Ironically, we could actually speed up the population collapse by seriously limiting how much we consume. If we limit how much each person consumes, those whose products would be in excess of that limit are no longer employed and have no means of getting the resources they need. Even though each person would eat less and we would (theoretically) spread the food out further among more people, fewer of us would have the means of buying the food we need. Speeding the collapse may be a good thing as fewer would die, fewer would be born and the environment would sustain less irreparable damage. This scenario could stabilize and be sustainable in the long-term, but many would die as part of the process of achieving sustainability.

The question then is whether or not the people of the world would actually take such actions toward sustainability with the knowledge of their potential consequences. If shifting to sustainable living practices would divert a population collapse in the relatively short-term and create a society capable of sustaining itself in the long-term, would we absorb the pain it would take to get there right now? Would we commit suicide for a sustainable future? I know that sounds harsh and I don't mean slashing wrists, but bottom line, by starving that is what we would be doing. Could we wreak such havoc and see it through to the end to avoid an even worse fate later? I find that, particularly when their own survival is at stake, humans act for their own immediate self-preservation. The minute someone felt the pain that policies to decrease consumption produced, finger-pointing would begin and efforts to repeal those policies would commence. No one wants to feel pain, no one wants to be the one to inflict society's pain and no one wants the blame for causing others' pain. Politicians especially dislike societal pain, so politically enacting decreased consumption policies seems unlikely. Even if we could take a gradual approach, the policies would take decades to implement and we don't have decades before it's too late to change our course.

If the global society will not or cannot go with sustainable practices through the means of political policy, why don't those who are aware of what's coming ignore conventional society and begin building sustainable communities now? If some people do this, the rest of the world will at least have a base of knowledge from which to rebuild a more sustainable global society. The world would have somewhere to turn for guidance.

Some model sustainable communities are already operating in locations all over the globe, combining ecological housing design and agricultural techniques to create societies continuable into the indefinite future. These communities, called eco-villages and co-housing developments, are cropping up in the US, Australia, India, Denmark, Mexico, Sweden, Norway and other countries. They are pioneers, developing ways to integrate humans with each other and with the environment so that all benefit. However exciting their work is, these groups are not completely independent; they survive through connection with other local communities. They may get resources such as electricity from outside the community and members often work outside the community, but more importantly these communities are subject, as we all are, to the ravages of pollution. Though these sustainable communities may produce no pollution themselves, they may be affected by the air, water and land pollution created by others and spread out by Mother Nature. Even these model communities could collapse with the rest of the population if pollution destroyed their water table or an ozone hole singed their crops.

What do we do then? How can we alter our course to prevent population collapse and attendant environmental destruction from becoming a reality? It seems that no matter which course I consider, either it won't be enough or it won't be in time to make much difference. I hate feeling despondent and helpless, but I have run out of ideas.

Perhaps, through all of the computer models and tests, I've only seen the symptoms of what is going wrong--pollution, overpopulation--but don't know exactly what is going wrong. Something much bigger and deeper is going on here than I can understand intellectually. We who live in industrialized nations are experiencing the repercussions of something we're doing that is much deeper than driving cars or using pesticides. We are reaping what we have been sowing for centuries, maybe millennia, but I have no idea what we've been sowing--what we still sow--that brings such consequences. This something is not about what we do, it is about who we are--where what we do comes from. I sense that we have some fundamental pains, rips in our emotional fabric, that we are trying to resolve through the things we do, but the things we do have consequences we don't desire. If we can become aware of what these emotional pains are, we may be able to resolve them more simply and cleanly, or at least go about their resolution differently. If we can resolve them, we stand a chance of seeing our grandkids grow up.

I would like to continue this conversation. If you also find this exploration useful or would like to comment on it, please send me e-mail.

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