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

Geoffrey Holland –  Unfortunately, as you point out, despite some encouraging trends,  the damage to the planet’s living habitat and its biodiversity are unprecedented and getting worse every day.

Indifference, ignorance, and deeply misguided dogma do seem to be at the root of humanity’s inability to adequately engage this very troubling inertia.  Too many of us are blindly caught up in an entrenched cultural model that discounts compassion in favor of mindless consumption and a toxic disconnect with nature. How do we begin to marshal the global cultural commitment and focus required to survive the monumental reckoning in which we find ourselves?

Michael Tobias – It’s too glib to suggest we all must do this or do that. Clearly, the only driver of such unison has, in past years and centuries been predicated upon disaster, like the legendary fact of how the Japanese have always come together as communities during times of great crisis and mass sorrow (e.g., Fukushima). We see it in the current natural disasters in Nepal and Vanuatu. But for the two civilizations that we know have gone extinct during several millennia, vast deforestation (Rapa Nui), rampant drought (Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelley), Black Plagues, or a Hundred Years War, or four Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, etc. did not seem to phase most locals across the world. It killed or didn’t kill them. So I must adduce that these community revivifications in the spirit of camaraderie might be viewed as the exceptions.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile © M.C. Tobias
On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile © M.C. Tobias

 

So, then, where does that leave us? If we cede our individualism and, in many respects, our underlying biological interdependency to a faith in total invasion of privacy by technology, government, and law enforcement (which is increasingly outsourced to private for-profits) we can expect to see a devastating toll upon the privacy needed by other species. Every square inch of the planet has been monitored, photographed and stored continually by satellite data in image banks. It is much more than human imagination that has invaded every quadrant of the world. The contradiction hangs upon the electrical grid and what it means to people’s livelihoods, happiness and health, as measured in gigawatts (GW). These grids devour vast resources needlessly.  You are right to argue that we are seeing a massive change in the energy consuming modalities, towards far more benign technical tactics, with respect to emissions and other problems. No one has yet come up with a high probability equation for computing the absolute impact of current, or near future technologies as deployed amid a burgeoning human population (e.g., 10 billion), although there have been many fine attempts.  But, I see no obvious route towards a mollifying of the carnage occurring in that short or mid-term range, in terms of biological fall-out. It may well be that we will just have to live with it (an ironic expression).

Old Delhi, India © M.C. Tobias
Old Delhi, India © M.C. Tobias

 

On the other hand, one could “put on a happy face” and embrace everything that remains that is fine, and good and elegant and harmonious and compassionate, and let those guises be our guide.

Indeed, that is the least we must do. Other areas of consideration, of course, concern personal diet, consumption habits, our moral compasses – internal thoughts and willpower, outward expression and demeanor; setting an example of constant kindness for our friends and loved ones and those who meet us through our deeds. The example of compassion can indeed strike the match of contagion and lead to ramping-up towards that critical mass of positive emotion amid large numbers of people; a steep escalation of that biophilia propensity we all genetically probably share.

The question is to what extent do we share it? How does kin altruism actually work in terms of long-term genetic ramifications of ours and other species? This has long been a raging debate amongst biologists and neuro-physiologists. Whether, for example, that predilection towards generosity and unstinting philanthropy, kindness, unconditional love, is stifled or liberated, exhausted or rejuvenated, suppressed or set free by continuing evolution, which, by many accounts is rapidly accelerating. A “new nature” is upon us. This might be a good thing, or not.

I have no doubt that young people today throughout the world are abundantly in tune with a more virtuous and rigorous approach to the world than perhaps ever before. This is great news. They have access like never before to information. The big questions are: Can they sort through the proliferation of data in order to decipher and embrace ethical choices? Can they align themselves politically with real-time decisions that are not forced upon them, or subtly infused into their curricula, their viewing of advertisements, their reading of the world through all of the daily onslaught of media? Will knowledge gleaned on the internet suffice as a surrogate for the experience that has been gained by arduous trial and error over tens-of-thousands of years in the service of a higher and higher calling towards that murky realm we name compassion toward others?

In Rajasthan, India  © M.C. Tobias
In Rajasthan, India © M.C. Tobias

 

My fear is we are in an age of the biological asymptote. By that I refer to the two learning curves that may not ever be able (mathematically speaking) to meet. The first is that irrefutable truth that people are becoming less violent towards one another, and more violent towards animals and animal products (the vegan’s version of the aforementioned IPAT equation).   People who are ecologically illiterate, or, who simply are too stretched, poverty stricken, trapped by the major inequality gaps around the world to even consider the humane alternatives to all those cheap calorie expedients targeting them.  This is an environmental social justice issue totally out of sync with all of the ecological green alternatives narrative that might too easily calm people into thinking that the learning curve is working. Or that we are headed towards some big happy human zero emissions party that will solve everything. It won’t. It can’t.And finally, when push comes to shove, will this new generation of technologically advantaged young people (some two billion youths approaching their child-bearing years at present who are the lucky ones) have the courage of their convictions when it comes to the big picture – Nature – which they know is in a process of severe and rapid fragmentation and ruination?

The second, and equally atrocious line on that asymptotic equation is the grossest numeric reality of the Anthropocene. If we consider the much debated Toba Supervolcano approximately 70,000 years ago, that may well have hurtled the human species into a genetic squeeze in just a matter of a few years, resulting in no more than 15,000 individuals, it is clear that the 19th so called Dansgaard-Oeschger event (D-O), that is, dramatic overnight meteorological oscillations, play a critical role in the Earth’s biological systems. As one more player, our species could easily be wiped out, even with 7.35 billion of us on the Earth. Not by a volcano, but by our own indifference to ecosystems and the approximately 44,000 populations of species we are exterminating every day. This is colossally significant. Yet, we have it in our heads that we are somehow here forever and a day.  It is at the heart of our ridiculous sense of superiority over other species. This is what worries me most: that our species’ very existence hinges, in my opinion, on our humility; that that humility is a crucial factor in the meeting of two learning curves – the first, our penchant for meting out mayhem to other species and their habitat, and second, our inability, it would appear, to grasp our own vulnerability in this planetary high stakes game of life. Arrogance is a disease, in biological terms. It is especially dangerous when the bearer of that attitude is blind to the predicament.

If, somehow, we can abolish the asymptotic irreconcilability elaborated above, and replace it with a rapid calming of our behavioral frissons; our frantic consumption; our continuing high Total Fertility Rates; and our destruction of the natural world in all her guises; if we can do that, and teach that, and get everyone, or nearly everyone on board rapidly (by which I mean five, ten years), then yes, perhaps we can make it… 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