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 –  A very sobering assessment to be sure.  It’s clear, as a human species, before we can adequately respond to our collective dilemma, we must reach a tipping point in understanding, and find a common commitment beyond that.  The key is education, but the current political climate favors rote learning and ‘one size fits all’ standardized testing over the fostering of creativity and critical thinking. Television programming, particularly in recent decades, is less about being informative and more about programming that amounts to mind numbing empty calories. The mass media – newspapers, magazines, television broadcasters, and radio – has been captured and largely made feckless by a handful of conglomerates that put the interests of their advertisers ahead of their viewers.   At the root of this is the sell out of our political system to Wall Street bankers, self absorbed billionaires, and gigantic, profit obsessed transnational businesses.  Their game is denial, obfuscation, and the blunting of reality in favor of big profits and ‘business as usual’.  Any solution to the unprecedented, global scale, cultural maelstrom in which we are trapped must start with a reordering of our economic and political systems, so that they serve the common good.  Would you agree with this, and if so, what is the best course for us to follow to remake our cultural institutions so they reflect political transparency, economic fairness, and proper stewardship of the biosphere?

Michael Tobias –   That is an ambitious new order of thinking and action you are calling for. Indeed, several new constitutional amendments and/or rewrites. You are essentially taking on the circumstances of the Declaration of Independence, and the frailties of the Continental Congress and asking for all of us to press the “refresher button,” so to speak.

And not just the U.S. Constitution, obviously. Anyone familiar with America’s 27 Amendments, especially the first ten of them from September 25th, 1789, knows that our politics are essentially focused on procedural matters; matters of freedom, of voting, of who gets what within the system, up until the most recent Amendment, number 27, which, to quote, “Delays laws affecting Congressional salary from taking effect until after the next election of representatives.” (Ratified May 7, 1992).  Proposed 203 years earlier, in essence this amendment – given as much importance as, say, the abolition of slavery – prohibits the Congress from giving out raises mid-term. I imagine most Americans were more interested in the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Endeavor on that day. My point is, the Constitution may have obviously helped concretize our revolution under George III. But was it a document for all time? Probably not. The 40 male signatories representing Thirteen colonies, 23 of those men veterans of the Revolutionary War, some of them quite possibly in the throes of likely post-traumatic stress syndrome from the punishing war, with not a clue just how large North America was, only scanty population or biodiversity data; these forbears of our political system had no idea whatsoever how many rivers flowed, how many lakes and mountain ranges there were across the land they proposed to legislate. Nor the extent of animal abuse and poaching occurring right under their noses, which was no priority on their part.  Not to mention the whole debacle of divided states and slavery.

It was not much better when Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase, although he had some idea that a veritable land-grab was in progress and the U.S. Government had better start engendering the geographical preconditions to serve a demographic avalanche. But today, as with every other nation, democratic, non-democratic (roughly half of the nations are democracies at this time), there is no simple formula, to be sure, for re-constituting economic and political realities. The Saudi King can dole out billions of dollars to undermine criticism of human rights abuses. North Korean leadership simply has those who fall out of favor, or doze off during meetings, executed. Indeed, there are different approaches to governing the masses. But until there is true chaos, as occurred during the French Revolution, we are unlikely to recognize new shapes and forms of viable governance. It is as if until the forensic teams arrive on scene, we don’t know what we’re dealing with. But this matter of justice is more than a series of splashes on a Jackson Pollock canvas. We cannot experiment with the future of life when it is so clearly vested in our hands, right now, as environmental citizens with the power of a vote; the megatonnage lodged in each and every conscience.

Whilst the political lead-up to November 2016 promises to be amusing, given the chaos within the GOP, that said, there is nothing humorous about what is at stake in the world. News junkies, many of whom are friends of mine, get all agitated over 30 minutes of incendiary coverage, while another hundred species have gone extinct. As I type out these words, the same is occurring. And by tomorrow morning (it is late at night, presently) another approximately 115,000 people will be born, mostly into poverty; and by this time tomorrow night, eight billion 219 million + vertebrates (mostly marine creatures – fish, but also well over 2.7 billion terrestrial vertebrates) will have been killed by our species, in addition to another 200,000 acres of rain forest destroyed. These are broad statistical aggregates drawn from several dozen up-to-date, scientific and government websites that track such specifics and pack within their data crunching, varying levels of confidence, but ascertainable trends, make no mistake. What such statistics must necessarily teach us is that we cannot rely on our economists or politicians to change systems that are feeble and defiant at all costs. Einstein said it more eloquently: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

That’s why the first Rio summit in 1992 was really more about NGO’s and NGI’s (Non-Governmental Individuals) than it was about governments. Thoreau said, in so many words, that his parents – while sending him to study economics at Harvard – drove themselves into irretrievable debt. Thoreau, who would sell pencils part-time for a threadbare living, while spending those two+ years at Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, saw America with astonishingly clear eyes.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

 

Now remember, while Thoreau was busy observing nature and writing The Highland Light and the famed Maine Woods, just ten years after his glorious Walden, the Sand Creek massacre by 700 U.S. Government militia of 70-163 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in Colorado Territory, two-thirds women and children, the whole village described by posterity as “peaceful” took place. At that very moment of infamy in November of 1864, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, and would soon be ratified, only to leave out any rights for Native Americans. It would take much more than Abraham Lincoln to do right by those millions of individuals and their tens-of-thousands of years of sublime culture, and those lands they called their ancestral and spiritual homes.

Rather, it was the photographic Rembrandt of his era, Native American ethnographer Edward Curtis who, with the publication of his twenty-volume The North American Indian (1906-1930) would finally see justice from Washington, DC aimed at the 80+ tribes Curtis photographed. In other words, it took an artist and a President working in tandem – and eventually Congress – that would ultimately help save indigenous peoples from extinction in this country.

We cannot re-order our economic and political systems until those two interdependent engines of illimitable pain and distress are humbled – economics and politics.  Out of ruins has always arisen something at least partly new, though even this notion is prone to a word you trenchantly employed, namely, “obfuscation,” given how clearly history demonstrates the maxim that old habits die grudgingly.

Despite the fact so many philosophical adages remind us that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, genocides and ecocides that call upon the human conscience to demand, as in the case of the Holocaust, “Never Again,” “We will never forget,” the unbelievable truth is that violence continues.  Perhaps violence that cannot be compared with Auschwitz and the many other “camps” – a more grotesque and unimaginable saga of evil in modern history than words can possibly hope to describe. Indeed, never has a cluster of nations ever plunged willingly into such depravity. But a terrible evil, nevertheless, namely, our slaughter of other animals, populations, and habitat.

A Bovine singing  © J.G. Morrison
A Bovine singing © J.G. Morrison

 

Certainly, there has been no lack of efforts to achieve greater fairness for all, whether in the work of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, or of the anti-war reformer John Wilkes, who endeavored at great personal sacrifice, for the “natural reason” movement and the Society for the Defense of the Bill of Rights (1769). From the Luddites to Move to Amend, we have seen good people and whole communities of like-minded individuals trying hard to find methods, popular votes, actionable causes and steady-of-hand research in order to better break down the barriers that exclude and/or divide the 99% of people from all those life-lines and essentials that have been consolidated in the form of power and privilege for the few. In some countries, it comes down to a few families, royal dynasties, or percentage, as you rightly indicated, of billionaires. These imbalances represent ecological perturbations, given how vast and grossly inordinate the influence of our one species in the natural order.When we calculate, even in broadest strokes, the concurrent cruelty that has become the modus operandi of human societies, all those facts and figures corresponding to the human induced Anthropocene, in addition to the probably three trillion vertebrates humans kill every year, it is quite difficult to fathom what geo-political and economic systems might work – so that they are working with, not against, nature – amid a human population heading rapidly towards 8, 9+ billion of us. This is, as I have indicated earlier, a totally unprecedented madness.

Post-Apocalyptic drama has been the stock-in-trade of that feverish collective imagination that sees no end to this continuing pattern of inequality, inequity and economic disarray. Our additional burden, certainly since the earliest indications of the Industrial Revolution, is what Marxist ideology also came to recognize with respect to the imbalanced ownership – ownership of any kind – of private property and the ravages of materialism. I would recommend John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology, Materialism, and Nature (2000), among many other works that have sought to pry open the dysfunctional ties between human need and human greed, as recorded in the ideologies of the last 175 years or so. Gandhi, Thoreau, so many in their path, have attempted to make sense, at their moments in time, of the complex and too frequent grievous crises all around them that pivoted upon the fundamental lack of fairness between most people, not to mention people and other species.

Orangutan, Borneo  © J.G. Morrison
Orangutan, Borneo © J.G. Morrison

 

Today, we are indeed distracted by a mob of media. There is the compounding sense that too much is happening too fast for even the most sanguine, multi-tasking level of brilliance to encompass it all with nobility, whilst setting a fine, sustainable example and maintaining some sense of humor. The rash of second-by-second news absorbs our cravings in a very sick manner, it seems to me. We are overwhelmed by bad news, obviously, and good news is increasingly difficult to ensure. Yet, we are looking for examples that can liberate humanity from its appalling and escalating impact on the planet. In this conundrum we are as in a dark tunnel, but also enjoy the endless possibilities that are real, in the many templates of dramatic new discoveries in science, engineering, and technology. Such developments are vastly outpacing the evolution of new political and economic systems. This represents a peculiar, and possibly unstoppable dilemma.

In the democratic nation of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness, as opposed to Gross National Product has been developed in government circles at a level that is far greater than a mere lovely-sounding mantra, and it has caught on with increasing traction throughout the world. But, if you place Bhutan under a microscope, there are issues (See, for example, the essay, “Animal Rights in Bhutan.”  , or, “The Last Shangri_La?”)

In A Moss Garden, Kyoto Greenbelt, Japan  © J.G. Morrison
In A Moss Garden, Kyoto Greenbelt, Japan © J.G. Morrison

 

In nation after nation, there are similar contradictory situations, as with Bhutan, from Suriname, or Denmark, to “clean green” New Zealand, to little San Marino or Andorra. Wherever there are people, there is human nature, which translates into some level of conflict. Yet, in those aforementioned six countries are spectacular examples of ecological governance from which the rest of all nations can take away some valuable lessons, whether in the realm of family planning, animal and habitat protections, or the distributions of goods and services and social welfare nets at various levels.

So, I can only conclude by suggesting we keep trying, with vigilance, and a sense of faith in the genuine possibilities of humanity. We do have what it takes, in my opinion, to ultimately get it right. But time is of the essence.


This dialogue first appeared May, 2015 in three parts in Geoffrey Holland’s blog  and is re-published here in full with his permission. Please view the original here- http://www.ecstatictruthpdx.blogspot.com.


MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/discussion-fate-earth/

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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