Dancing Star Foundation President Michael Charles Tobias, in a Discussion About the Fate of the Earth

Holland, Geoffrey, Tobias, Michael Charles | June 9, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Egyptian Vulture on the Island of Socotra, Yemen © M.C. Tobias

This is a personal dialogue between Emmy Award writer/producer and author of The Hydrogen Age, Geoffrey Holland, and Michael Charles Tobias, PhD, one of the world’s most influential ecologists. He is a prolific author, filmmaker, and lecturer. In a career to date spanning 45 years, and as President of Dancing Star Foundation for 16 of those years, Tobias’ work has taken him to nearly 100 countries, where his field research has resulted in some 50 books and 150 films that have been read or viewed throughout the world. He was the 62nd recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award, and is an honorary Member of the Club of Budapest. Tobias is best known for such works as his massive tome, World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium, and with his partner Jane Gray Morrison, the ten hour dramatic mini-series, Voice of the Planet.

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Geoffrey Holland – When I was born, there were about 2.5 billion humans on Earth. In just over six decades, that number has tripled to nearly 7.3 billion. Humans have always been a rapacious species, using the planet’s resources as if without consequence.  Up until the late 20th century, we pretty much got away with it, because the Earth’s bounty was so vast. It’s clear now that our indiscriminate hubris has caught up with us. The sheer weight of humanity is driving unprecedented levels of ocean depletion, deforestation, the loss of critical top soils, the squandering of fresh water resources, the dangerous warming of our atmosphere, and perhaps most significant, the devastating loss of biodiversity.  In the face of all this, the response of our political leaders has been tepid at best.  There do seem to be some encouraging signs, with humanity beginning to give some attention to the reckless course we’ve set for ourselves. What is your assessment of the prospects for human civilization, given our deeply destructive life choices?

Michael Tobias – Good question, not easily answered.  Homo sapiens has never been at such a crossroad, where in we are responsible for the future of life on Earth. It is a catastrophic position to be in, unless, presumably, you are God. Barring any God-like interventions, we are left with a chilling predicament that indicts our nearly every activity.

For example, seize the news from any single morning, and you come up with such statistics as follows, today, May 6, 2015. You have a senior biologist, Dr. Haakon Hop, with an expedition called the Norwegian Young Sea ICE: Cruise, who – as reported by science editor David Shukam for the BBC News – declares , “So, what has been around the Arctic is these animals that live underneath the ice – crustaceans, amphipods, and copepods – the biodiversity has gone down, and their abundance and biomass have also gone down in the areas that have been measured” (“Climate Drives ‘New Era’  in Arctic Ocean.”). This expedition has noted a terrifying truth about the rapidity of Arctic sea ice melt, and the impacts upon every ecosystem there. Moreover, other BBC news this morning suggest findings from the Antarctic citing that when the Arctic weather changes, ice core samples now unambiguously show that within 200 year the Antarctic begins to melt rapidly. The trouble is these trends are not happening 200 years apart, as was the case for many millennia.  They are happening simultaneously, as the oceanic currents in both the northern and southern hemisphere warm up at the same time. Every country is feeling the wrath and blow-back of our collective emissions.

Then, there is the grim headline in today’s Los Angeles Times, “Millions of ‘Red Trees’ – National forests across California are turning brown from lack of water, raising concerns about wildfires,” by Veronica Rocha and Hailey Branson-Ports (pp, B1, B5) pertaining to the fact that “Instead of the typical deep green color, large swaths of pine trees now don hues of death, their dehydrated needles turning brown and burnt-red because of the state of worsening drought.” “The situation is incendiary,” William Palzert of JPL (California Institute of Technology’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is quoted. “The national forest is stressed out.”

And on the very cover, today’s L.A. Times is writ front and center and bold, “A STATE OF DENIAL – Data suggest the need to slash water use hasn’t sunk in,” by Monte Morin, Matt Stevens, and Chris Megerian (pp: A1, A11).

Also on the cover of today’s L.A.Times, Chris Kraul’s piece entitled “Chile’s Race to Save its Mummies,” (pp A1, A4). Because of climate change, the oldest mummies in the world are melting, turning into a mysterious black ooze.

Again, in the same L.A. Times, today. Pat Morrison speaks with Stanford University professor, Jon A. Krosnick about his two decades of looking at public opinion regarding climate change. Krosnick speaks to the fact that “…we’ve started looking at states and haven’t found a single state where a majority of residents are skeptical, but legislators think they are.” (p.A.15)

Egyptian Vulture on the Island of Socotra, Yemen © M.C. Tobias
Egyptian Vulture on the Island of Socotra, Yemen © M.C. Tobias

 

It’s called, of course, the Anthropocene. We’ve known about it for decades, despite huge biological gap analyses. We’re losing species at a rate that goes well beyond our comprehension. Out of the possible 100 million or so species, if one includes all lifeforms, we may well be losing thousands of species every day. More than half of all life is headed toward extinction – we know that, particularly all large vertebrates (those animals over 100 kilograms) are threatened. Herbivores like mountain gorillas and rhinos, elephants, giraffes, are particularly in trouble. But so are all charismatic carnivores, like tigers, wolves and grizzly bears. Among reptiles and amphibians, and the parrot groups of birds, the crisis is overwhelming. And this doesn’t begin to factor in overall loss of habitat, key nurseries of the planet, like the neo-tropics and coral reefs.But, then people, even serious students of the environment, read a piece like that by Jason G. Goldman, writing in the May 1st, 2015 issue of Conservation, in an article entitled “National Park Visitors Inject billions into the US Economy,”  and they see that there were “292 million” visits to America’s 401 national parks in 2014, generating income exceeding “$16 billion” in park gateway regions (not even including money spent inside the parks) and creating cumulatively, as of 2014, 277,000 jobs.” And the temptation is to feel better about things, almost as if to nullify in one’s mind the truth of what is happening all around us.

Critically Endangered Arabian Leopard © M.C. Tobias
Critically Endangered Arabian Leopard © M.C. Tobias

 

Nor does it touch upon the most enormous area of all in which human cruelty is meted out in lethal forms to animals used for food, leather, fur, and a number of other material goods (a very dubious phrase: indeed, ‘material goods’ since there is nothing good about dead animal hides, or palm oil, whose origins coincided with the human destruction of tropical peat swamps and the orangutans, for example, that depend solely on such habitat for their waning survival).

Some three trillion animals killed last year, including cows, chickens, fish, turkeys, dogs, horses, pigs, sheep, and so on, for human consumption.

We are in a colossal mess like never before. So, my “assessment for the prospects of human civilization” as you ask? Not good…. Read more.

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.

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  • Dr. Ehrlich,
    I sincerely appreciate your comment. In my opinion it continues to defy the brain’s gravity that there are still so many population baiters among those who should know better. Curiously, “Dr. Phil” apparently is quoted as defining baiters: (https://www.oprah.com/…/Oprahs-Lifeclass-Daily-Life-W…Keeping in mind how Dr. Phil defines BAITERs—Backstabbers, Abusers, Imposters, Takers, Exploiters, Reckless…)
    I think the key here is the fact our species requires probably two to three generations of zero population growth worldwide just to regain some kind of demographic compass and thereby gauge our options from a point of relative stability – to whatever extent – as we look at the most pressing challenge in human documented history: that of feeding, and providing safe drinking water for a 9.5-to-11 or 12 billion “confederacy” (to borrow your apt word) of ungainly, largely carnivorous Homo sapiens with footprints far in excess of Jurassic World – it is the human world of which we speak; those who are, willy-nilly, fast weakening this precious biosphere. You have been putting this message out there scientifically, philosophically, and in every possible manner, with heroism and consistently appropriate projections, for your entire career and we are in your debt (and that of your partner, Dr. Anne Ehrlich).

    Michael Charles Tobias

  • Paul Ehrlich

    It’s a pleasure to see population given its proper place in this fine discussion, especially since the silly dismissal of the problem engineered by a confederacy of dunces at the New York Times recently. For example, it did not mention the threat of climate disruption, tightly tied to population growth. The author seemed not to realizethat the more people there are, the more greenhouse gases are injected into the atmosphere — and the additions are disproportionately large. And the writers seem to have missed the fact that over 800 million people are hungry today and perhaps two billion seriously micronutrient malnourished. No food problem as predicted by the POPULATION BOMB? Sad that the NYT continues on its efforts, typified by its crusade to get the U.S. to invade Iraq, to end the world. The only saving grace was a hysterically funny bit in an accompanying video by an apparently senile technotwit.

  • Thank you Zoe. Of course, your work at the Institute for Humane Education is one of the central pillars for making our compassionate future a reality. Could you please outline in, say, half dozen steps, the key curricular essentials of compassion for students, not just K-12, but University students whose hearts and minds are aspiring to quite literally save the biosphere? What are your concrete recommendations, succinctly put, for them, and for their professors? And then, after they graduate?

    Thanks for your comment, Zoe, and keep up the great work that you and your colleagues have been engaged with for decades.

    Michael

  • Zoe Weil

    As always, Michael’s words are brilliant – sobering, yes, but with the hope and vision for real shifts. My personal belief – and that of our organization, the Institute for Humane Education http://www.HumaneEducation.org – is that the fundamental system underlying all others is education. Michael rightly points to the possibility for change arising among youth. While we put out the fires, we must address what we teach young people who must be educated to be solutionaries for a just, peaceful and regenerative world if we and other life forms are to survive and thrive into the future.

  • Jane

    Interesting discussion on Scott Aaronson’s blog :

    http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/

    I’m trying spread the MAHB message

  • Economic contraction is probably the most likely way that we can minimize damage to the environment. I don’t mean deliberately causing contraction, what I mean is that contraction is inevitable, because of peak oil and our inability to fuel sustained economic growth with renewables. The biggest global decrease in the use of fossil fuels came after the 2008 financial crash. When society can no longer afford to extract huge quantities of fossil fuels the damage that we can do will be much less. It takes a lot longer to cut down a forest without fossil fuels. Also population is likely to trend downwards with decreasing use of fossil fuels.

    The biggest human problem will be the social and political blowback from economic contraction. Remember WWII. This is what we need to prepare for.

  • FreedomDanK

    Dusan Kustudic G7 leaders talk on solving environmental problems by the year 2100 !!?? Aren’t they aware that right NOW , in this decade , oceans are polluted , starving millions are over-exploited , scrambling to escape their overcrowded war torn homelands, ice-caps and glaciers are melting , thousands of species of plants and animals are vanishing, and these IDIOTS want to wait 85 YEARS to accomplish some improvement !? They ( rich maniacs ) live in a monetary BUBBLE ,and we, the concerned global citizens need to find a way of SHAKING them up from their stupid dreams and demand an URGENT redirecting of all human efforts to save Earth’s biosphere NOW !! People like Bernie Sanders , Maude Barlow and many intelligent people close to the position of POWER , need to be given a chance to correct the stupidity of the Growth Economy – and replace it with a long term sustainable Steady State Economy; Dusan Kustudic

    • Thank you for commenting. Much appreciated. Please list, if you have the patience to do so, say a dozen concrete recommendations for Bernie Sanders and his advisers, that have real ecological traction in the public commons; urgent priorities that a Sanders-For-President campaign could potentially embrace, and – by implication – would have a halo effect on other candidates, so that they all realize they cannot shirk the ecological implications of every word they utter, and every near policy they are likely to promulgate.

      Thanks again.

  • johnmerryman

    A significant issue goes to the nature of money and our assumptions built into it. As a medium of exchange, we have come to treat it as a commodity, of which the primary impulse is to accumulate as much as possible, but the reality is that it functions as voucher and bookkeeping system and that such excess obligations only degrade the system.
    The consequence of this difference is that we have an economy geared toward the production of this notational capital, at the expense of all other functions.
    As such, we have become largely socially atomized individuals and only interact in terms dictated by capital flows. This effect has therefore hollowed out all the organic forms of trust, reciprocity and obligation that binds any community together.
    The strength of this global financial system is that it enables this global economy that is running rampantly through the earth’s resources and the irony of the current situation is that in order to sustain the growth of capital to support the obligations on which it is based, now that natural resources are less available, the system is cannibalizing the very industrial process that it gives rise too. Essentially the bankers are monkey wrenching the economy, by siphoning off the notational value that sustains it.
    In the not too distant future, this Ponzi scheme is going to reach the end of its rope and significant parts of the economy will come grinding to a halt.
    At that point, we should begin to examine how this process works and understand wealth is not notes in a bank, but strong communities and environments and that taking value out of our social relations and environment in order to acquire these notes mostly serves those managing the system. So in order to make it function stably, we need to understand money is a public utility and medium and when it is created by issuing public debt, the profits from its benefits have to flow directly back to the public. This would return functions such as child and elder care, public infrastructure projects, etc, to the organic actions of the community in question, as they were throughout history.
    This would mean a bottom up system of community banks that returned value to those directly generating it, then regional and national banks to function on higher levels.
    The result will be a slower and more grounded economy, but the alternative is just another tidal wave of economic activity, followed by an equally severe trough afterwards.

    • Interesting. Could you more precisely spell out your reflections concerning a “bottom up system of community banks”?
      That would be illuminating for this conversation.
      Thanks for taking the time to think about this.

      • johnmerryman

        Michael,

        The best source on this would be Ellen Brown and the Public Banking Institute;

        http://www.publicbankinginstitute.org

        I also think the nature of money needs to be examined.
        For one thing, banks used to be responsible for issuing and maintaining their own currencies, especially in small communities, but with the Federal Reserve System, money is essentially backed by public debt. Which, as was evident in 2008, makes the responsibility for the value of the money a public responsibility, yet the private banking system still gets most of the rewards.
        The consequence is that large amounts of surplus wealth builds up in private hands, that has no other use than to be loaned back to the public. Which is not a stable system, as it requires ever more public debt.
        So either we go back to a fully private system where private banks issue their own currency, or we move forward to a fully public system, where the banks are also a public utility.
        It could be bottom up, with local banks investing back into the communities which created and stored the value in them. Then have state and a national bank to serve larger interests, while the layer beneath them serve as shareholders in the larger system.
        Occasionally the deficit gets thrown around as a political football, mostly by the right. As it would seem a naturally conservative impulse, but it would never happen, because it would freeze up the process of manufacturing capital to keep the system running, when so much is being drained off into supposed savings, that mostly amount to public loans that will never be paid off completely, but just have new debt issued to cover them.
        Consider that to budget means ordering one’s priorities and spending according to ability, but how the government writes their budget is as enormous bills, then add enough “pork” to get enough votes and the president can only pass or veto it.
        Now back in the late 80’s GHW Bush made some fuss about the “line item veto,” which would never pass because it would take a lot of responsibility away from congress.
        If they really wanted to budget, they could break these bills into all their various items, have every legislator assign a percentage value to each one, then reassemble them in order of preference and have the president draw the line. To quote Truman, in a slightly different context, “The buck stops here.”
        This would spread responsibility around congress more and there would be little incentive for the president to spend much more than necessary, as those items down the list would have less interest.
        It isn’t going to happen in the current situation, because the banking system would freeze up.
        Basically money functions as a public medium, like a road system. We all own our cars, businesses and house, but not the roads connecting them and no one cries socialism over that. Yet if you were to argue money is just such a public utility, everyone would flip out. If someone really thinks money is private property, they should just try running some off on the copy machine and see if the copyrights are enforced. We own the money in our pockets, like we possess the section of road we travel on. It’s just in the interest of those controlling this system to have us think it is private property, so that we will desire it all the more and respect the property rights of those who pile up enormous amounts of it.
        Now if we were to understand that money is not a commodity that we treat as quantified hope, but understand it is a bookkeeping voucher system and that excess notes are detrimental to the system and that if any part of the economy found itself underserved, it could either start its own system, or petition another system to join and issue sufficient notes necessary, then there would be a general understanding that hoarding these notes is unproductive and would be taxed accordingly. Then people would begin to understand there are multiple mediums of change and not just one global system and value would slow down somewhat and sink into making stronger social ties and healthier environments and create those bonds that naturally make a community and not have every relationship cash based. Especially since people will understand that while money might facilitate a broader economy, it also facilitates wealth extraction by those running it.
        The result will be a tougher lifestyle than many people today are used to, but there would also be rewards as well. We are headed for a wall and it will play out in some fashion, so we do need to understand what makes a functioning society and not just those who can, retreat behind walls and guns, with many people scavenging what they will.

        • very interesting discussion thanks

  • The many attributes added during our evolution played an important
    role as we humans evolved and then spread throughout the planet. Yet our perspective remained limited; first to the family, then to the tribe and then the nation state. There it remains; self-contained in language, tribe,
    religious and national historical tradition, each attribute like a coiled snake in its nest ready to strike those outside if challenged.This must come an end. The need is urgent. All of human society must face a change in the way it thinks. The challenge is far reaching as it will it will entail a reexamination of the validity of eight thousand years of social, political, religious and economic thought and the institutions that arose from that thought, separating out those originating presuppositions believed to be “inherent truths” we are now discovering were built on non-sustainable ecological flaws.

    http://inquiryabraham.com/new-book.html