Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Response to D: Limits to Know(th)

(This responds to the post from J-fav D here responding to my previous blog post.)

Wow D, you are way too certain of your own premises for my comfort =o

For one thing, despite your pessimism on people and the ability to control ourselves without top-down (or other external environmental) regulation, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, Elinor Ostrom, has made her career of showing examples of precisely this. There is also a not-insignificant number environmental historians who believe that there are examples of this in the past. There are certainly examples of both groups that have exercise sustainable management of common pool resources, and of groups that have exercise population control (i.e. with the use of various plants that could be used to terminate pregnancies). One can definitely argue that the tendency of other human groups, perhaps the majority, to expand often or inevitably wipe out smaller pockets of sustainable living, but now one is arguing something rather different. That is, if sub-groups of the human population have managed to live sustainably over long periods (and I would maintain the evidence strongly supports that some groups have), then they are indeed examples of biological populations not controlled by “natural limits” but rather self-imposed social limts. To then say that this is wholly disproved by other groups that don’t live by limits is to essentially say that one (albeit significant) set of groups of the human population represents the one “true” nature of the entire human population.

Further, the whole argument that it’s not going to happen pains me almost physically, because it reminds me so vividly and precisely of the arguments that, for example, slavery (especially its “peculiarly American institution”) would never end, or that women would never achieve a more equal place in society, or contribute to science. Go back 75, 100 years, and you could find no doubt thousands of people, perhaps millions, people as smart as you, who would say “Not. Gunna. Happen.” Slavery is here to stay; women are biological incapable of becoming plant ecologists; blacks cannot handle freedom. We know this for a fact.

And they were wrong as the day is long. As wrong as we may be to say that humans can’t/won’t be sustainable; as wrong as we may be to say that humans can/will be sustainable.

The point to me is that I don’t know. Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out that we’re in a unique juncture in history (though someone since pointed out to me that you could say that about almost all important junctures of history). Be that as it may, I think it’s only scientifically honest of me to say I don’t know. Oh, sure, we can extrapolate from other biological populations, from human history, from so-called first principles, from whatever you like, but since we all admit that both ecological and social systems are more complicated than their underlying phyisco-chemical constituents, it seems nonsensical to me to then essentialize the larger system down to anecdotes of dumb people we’ve seen, met, and heard of and known and believe exist, the biological destiny of unsustainability, and wrap it up and call it a day. It is, to me, an amazing amount of hubris that I’m not willing to take on, nor think it is productive or useful to do so. To me, saying the we can’t/won’t be sustainable is equally preposterous and hubristic as saying we absolutely will be. Who the fuck knows? Besides which, I think most people agree that the complete extinction of the human race in the near-to-medium term is unlikely, almost no matter what we do to the world. To maintain that we will simply rinse & repeat our mistakes ad nauseum is to ignore the possibility of culture and biological evolution shaping us otherwise. It would take an incredible holocaust to wipe out all the humans on earth; barring that, assuming we achieve something like the average species lifespan (what is it, a couple million years?—ah, wikipedia says for mammals it’s one million) it seems hopelessly facile to me to presume that humans 500,000 years from now will be essentially the same as humans today (and to argue that we will, with certainty, find a way to destroy ourselves before then is equally empirically weak). Any given projection of what humans will be like in the (evolutionary) long term is incredibly flawed, given that predicting this for even the simplest of organisms is wildly dicey, to say the least. Doing this for the most socio-ecologically complex organism on earth is lunacy.

Now, most people respond implicitly or explicitly to this by clarifying that they mean the short-term: they're not concerned with the long-term of the human race in terms of millions of years, but rather, can we avoid disaster in the next 50-200. Who the fuck knows? I certainly hope so. I certainly think study of environmental history gives us reason to think it's possible, as much as it gives us reason to be pessimistic that it's likely. I certainly hope we do not have massive depopulation events and tragedy. But I take solace in the idea that it seems almost inevitable that we will change towards a more sustainable way of being. (One can view this as being of a cloth with what my mom calls my abnormal comfort in rationality, inspired by a trip to Ireland 2 months after 9/11. She was worried about my safety, to which I responded "Well, there are something like 37,000 flights per day in the US, so even if I was flying ON 9/11, the chance that I would've been hurt is overwhelmingly unlikely." There was a pause before she told me I was not like normal people and I should just reassure her that I would be careful and call her when I landed.) And if it is possible to reach in the long term, I think it is only sensical to believe in it and try for it in the short.

The point of my post on the Continuum was that if one believes it is physically possible that we will stave off disaster, it makes no sense to go around emphasizing only that it is unlikely or near impossible. If it is physically possible, it is so in some large part because of our will and ability to learn and organize. Or ability and will to do so is negatively affected by emphasizing its implausibility. So if one cares about pulling it off, one needn't be Pollyannish about it, but why persist with dwelling in negative examples and unlikelihoods?

In my work, I've already seen countries and people accomplish things I never thought possible; feeding a city of 2.5 million people, switching a country as a whole to urban and peri-urban and organic agriculture. If humans found a way to fly when it was said it couldn't be done, if we could get to the moon, split the atom against all odds--why not believe and invest in our ability to break the "scientific" laws of human unsustainability?

"Oh, that's different" people say. Possibly, I say. But equally: Bullshit. We knew women were inferior (though I suspect a number of women all along knew they weren't). We knew slavery was forever. We knew that humans flying was ridiculous. We knew that the sun would never set on the British Empire, that agriculture could never be improved to produce more food, that Rome would never fall, that Monarchies were ordained by God--as Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, imagine what we'll know tomorrow. In all of those cases, there were all the reasons in the world, and all the dumb/racist/misogynist/scientifically informed people you could want to say it wasn't possible. I'd rather be one of the ones saying it is and turn out to wrong, but I hardly think I'm in bad company to assert that another world truly is possible.

My mentor's mentor, biologist Dick Levins, has said that we know from history that the vast majority of today's "scientific fact" will turn out to have been wrong in the future. The challenge is not, therefore, in simply finding science today that is wrong. It is in finding science that will stand the test of time. I think the same applies to this situation; so many of us know it can't or won't be done. I find this attitude to be a fine way of combining hubris, cynicism, and counter-productiveness. I'm not smart enough to say we can't do it. So I spend my time trying to figure out how we can--what facts will allow us to stand the test of time. To me, to do otherwise is self-indulgence almost equal to that of avoiding vaccinations. It may seem fine for an individual to indulge in, but really, we can't afford it.

J's Reasons Why Maybe... We Can Do this: An abbreviated list

Prugh, Costanza & Daly's "The Local Politics of Global Sustainability" (ISBN 978-1559637442)

Elinor Ostrom's "Governing the Commons" (ISBN 978-0521405997)

The City that Ended Hunger (aka Belo Horizonte)

None of these mean or guarantee that we can do this, but I'll tell you what. If in any case I believe in the slogan "Yes We Can!" it is in this arena. No, We Might Not. Yes, It'll Be Hard. No, It Won't Happen Tomorrow. No, It's Not Wildly Likely, A Fait Accompli, or Inevitable. But: Yes, We Can.


Daktari said...

Did you ever have one of those periods where you can't seem to absorb information, can't put together a coherent thought, and certainly can't articulate your position (mostly because you can't settle on your position) and all you really want to do is put on your pajamas and eat some fruit loops and wait until the whole episode passes?

I am so there.

J said...

Yep. I have a nice summer home there, actually. =p