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Set Up for Failure

As a society, (or a species, take your pick), we are terrible at planning and strategising much further than what we are planning to eat for dinner. while Japanese companies plan for world domination in five generations, we are stuck in a revolving door of problems that need immediate attention. But even when we get a crack at addressing one of these problems, there is such a disparity of beliefs and suggestions that it becomes near impossible to make a decision or achieve a consensus between all the stakeholders. Add to the mix the fact that some of the stakeholders have very deep pockets, and it becomes evident that the only decision that is likely to be made is the one that they support (and fund).

Our myopic and blinkered perspective on our current situation leads economists to claim that we’re in a financial crisis; geographers to claim a land use crisis; agro-scientists, a food crisis, water and sanitation engineers, a clean water crisis; biologists to claim an environmental crisis; climatologists, a climate crisis;  engineers, an infrastructure crisis and energy scientists to claim a fossil fuel crisis. Very few of these experts have a global perspective of the issues at hand and how they are all interconnected  at a root level.

The Impact of Humans and Our Inability to Change

While this is not a mainstream concept, I am far from the first to have suggested it. Back in the 70’s , the Club of Rome published a great read called “The Limits to Growth” that I wrote about here. They certainly saw this coming, as have a whole bunch of experts in many varied fields of practice. Unfortunately, people don’t change. At least not without a good reason. Some of those reasons may be social, some may be survival. I spoke about this at a meeting the other day and was met with a mixture of withering or bewildered looks from some hopeful participants who obviously believe that humans will innately do what is best for the species as a whole. To counter this, I would argue that our ability to influence the global climate, resources, land base and water has never been higher and that humans are not equipped with the ability to recognize future peril at a scale larger than that of their immediate community, at most the size of a village, consisting of perhaps 150 people.

Bill Rees gives a talk where he describes the traits that he believes humans use to define themselves above other species, these are the ability to plan, the ability to display empathy, and logical reasoning. But in Bill’s estimation, many of our current crises clearly show that we lack any level of “humane” response on any of these levels. It is almost as though we have far exceeded an ability to coherently respond to the problems we’ve created. Even Obama, the greatest political campaign based on change and a brighter future has floundered once the polls were closed – not because of Obama, but because the resistance to change is extreme. It appeared that there may be the start of a groundswell of change with Obama, however, we soon returned to putting out fires and pretending to plan, instead of using our creative talents to shape the low impact world of the future .

Now there may be corporations who are practicing what looks like “sustainable” business, or individuals who have a small ecological footprint compared with the rest of us, but these are few and far between, and most of these examples still exceed any reasonable estimates of the “carrying capacity” of the earth – even out here in the Kootenays, where many believe t we are on a path to green heaven, the true measures of sustainability, (not just the feel good social ones), score woefully poorly.

Is Failure Inevitable?

The answer to this depends on what you view as failure, and how far away you believe your emergency is.

If you believe in growth as an unretractable paradigm, then you might be in for trouble. Basically, the world has seen massive amounts of growth only as a result of industrialization, before that, the population was mostly stable for centuries, or perhaps millennium. At a 1% rate of population growth, in 100 years the population would have almost tripled; in 1000 years, the population would be over 21,000 times larger. Economic growth, population growth and fossil fuel usage have followed almost parallel trajectories over the past 150 years – this simple calculation shows just how ludicrous the expectation of unrestrained growth is.

If you believe that the society we live in represents a stepping stone to a higher state of existence, where technology actually does make our lives easier and more filled with leisure time, then again, you are probably headed for murky waters. The likely end state of today’s situation is that we will come to understand that this period has been an oil experiment. We have polluted, depleted, exhausted, strip-mined, exploited, deforested, and deepwater-drilled our way into this mess. The earth will likely bounce back, but we have used up the easiest of the fossil fuels, and perhaps as much as half of them. The minerals and rare metals that technology rests on are non-renewable resources, (at least the way we currently use them), and will reach a peak, just like oil.

If you believe that returning to a lower carbon, lower energy state of society is failure, then you might need to re-evaluate your goals. I don’t want to romanticize the past, or glorify a future with less fossil fuel consumption and less overall energy, because  if this is the future, it is not going to be any of the things we’ve come to value as a society, convenient, fast, full of technology and distractions, 24/7 entertainment.

Setting a Path

The long term strategy of any society should be to maintain a reasonable quality of life with no net detrimental impact to the supporting environment. And I’ll lay out the premise that the strategy we’ve selected over the past 100 years appears to be a poor long-term choice – in the short term, we’ve seen countless amazing developments in every industry, including ones that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago. We now have such a huge impact on places we will likely never see in our lives. Factory cities in China, banana plantations in Latin America, grain farmers on the prairies, water users living downstream of us – the practices of modern industrial production, agriculture and society have been a curse as much as a blessing. The quality of life for millions of people around the world has declined as a result of the North American way of life – if the effects were in our own backyard or village, there would be a lot less tolerance for these corporate behaviours.

If we are on a path to failure now, we should be working actively toward a different state. Here are some ideas…

  • one that has less reliance on technology (not because technology is inherently bad, but because it inevitably fails, sometimes with catastrophic consequences).
  • one that has a fair basis for economic transactions (and speculation is tempered by externally verified auditing).
  • one where food production has a larger role to play in society
  • one where ethics and values are held in high regard
  • one where the true cost of energy is calculated and forms the basis for decisions
  • one where social justice and corporate accountability play a role in business and societal decisions

So while we worry about the price of real estate or the current interest rate we are missing the point that the big issues remain unresolved. People have considered solutions to all of the conceivable problems we face, but as a society we’ve done next to nothing with this information – we are still setting ourselves up for failure.

What, barring a catastrophe would make us radically change the way we live to make a measurable change toward real sustainability, (not just the type that is one the car ads)?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

4 thoughts on “Set Up for Failure

  1. Mike, another thought provoking article and you have suggested some ideas which is good.

    This morning I am feeling gloomy, and I really think that nothing short of a calamity will make our species change. We really are no different to any other species on this earth who have no control over their lives and only live because Mother Nature allows.

    Of course, we have many people who are aware of the course we humans are on, but the non-thinking and the still unaware peopel are in the majority. Sometimes I just wish that I was one of the unaware and could go on happily living my little life.

    If only it was the majority who think and are aware like you., Mike, the world could be a wonderful place.

    P.S. I do hope the rain clouds clear and we can have some sunshine to cheer me up.

  2. As I read your post and pondered peoples’ reluctance to change, I remembered the model for change described by the Heath Brothers in their book Switch. It’s a must read if you haven’t already read it.

  3. I will check it out; perhaps it will give me some hope for the future.
    Meanwhile I will still do my best for the people and this Earth.

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