“Dance Don’t Drive: Resilient Thinking in a Turbulent World.”
I get tired of telling people I write about "the environment." Recently someone asked me what I write about and I answered, “hubris, humility, resilience, and folly.” A blank stare and an awkward silence followed - not quite the response I was looking for. Hopefully, the following essays illustrate my point.
"Dance Don’t Drive: Resilient Thinking in a Turbulent World” is first up. It’s an abridged version of a keynote speech I delivered at a conference on sustainability organized by the Stegner Center at the University of Utah’s Law School in March of 2010. Wrap-up keynote speeches are supposed to be upbeat and this one is, though it is hard to be optimistic about the inevitability of economic and social collapse. Until we find the humility to see ourselves as bounded by the limits of a finite natural realm that includes us, we have no hope of living sustainably. Since what is unsustainable eventually fails, we need to learn how to build resilient communities and economies that can survive when the culture of faster-bigger-more fails. Citizens across the world have begun this important work – “transition” towns, “post carbon” projects, and “relocalization” networks are being built from the grassroots up. Unlimited growth for growth’s sake without regard to ecological context is folly, plain and simple. I may escape the consequences of our wasteful ignorance and hubris, but my grandchildren will not. Hopefully we will shed our self-destructive habits and reconnect ourselves to the living communities that sustain us before it is too late.
The first link is to an abridged version of my speech was published at The Catalyst Magazine, a magazine based in Salt Lake City that is run by friends. It's a great example of how a local publication can serve a community and achieve excellence. Thanks Greta and John. The second link is to a more complete version published by the University of Utah's "Environmental Law Review." The University printed many copies for distribution at conferences and so on.
A substantially edited, expanded, and improved version of this is being published by the University of Utah and printed in a booklet in the spring of 2012. the link to the booklet at Amazon is here: http://www.amazon.com/Dance-Dont-Drive-Resilient-Turbulent/dp/160781191X/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1330205997&sr=8-4
I have reprinted the opening paragraphs of that newer version of Dance, Don't Drive below the links to the Catalyst and Law Review versions that follow because they are the most direct statement I have written about the subject of sustainability.
Note: if you are unfamiliar with the web format at the Catalyst site and how to navigate this page, go to the icons at the top of the text and find tools for enlarging the type. The little hand icon can be used to move the page after you enlarge it.
Catalyst version: https://pubs.zipadi.com/catalyst_1005/p/14
Law Review version: http://epubs.utah.edu/index.php/jlrel/article/viewArticle/470
"The fundamental contradiction of our time is this: we have built an all-encompassing economic engine that requires constant unending growth - a contraction of even a percent or two is a crisis - but we are embedded in ecosystems that are indeed limited. There is only so much fertile soil, so much fresh water, so many fish in the ocean. The atmosphere can only absorb only so much CO2 and stay benign. You can get around this contradiction for awhile by conquering your neighbor’s habitat after you have used up your own, by extending your natural resources through technological advancement, or by stealing from the future by using up soil, minerals, and water that your grandchildren will need. But there are limits to those familiar and largely successful strategies, too. At some point humans discover that they do not live outside the boundaries of a natural world and, as it is with every other species, if you overload the carrying capacity of your habitat, you crash."
"When I am told that industrial civilization as currently configured is “unsustainable,” I think the statement is so plain and bloodless that it anesthetizes the listener. You could say, accurately enough, that a bus full of children that is careening madly down a steep road that dead-ends at a cliff is on an “unsustainable path,” too, but that description hardly conveys the horror that is likely to unfold unless that bus is stopped. Our civic discourse about sustainability needs to be reframed to convey its importance, the consequences we face, and the choices we are making. "
"Occupy Earth: Nature is the 99 Percent, too"
The Occupy Wall Street movement inspired many of us who have been on the barricades for years and waiting for others to wake up and join us. This essay was a response to Occupy's main theme, the glaring and dysfunctional disparity between the so-called 1 percent and the 99. It was my way of bearing witness and I was proud that it was distributed at Zucotti Park by a local Utah-based group, Peaceful Uprising. The essay appeared first at my friend Tom Englehardt's site, Tomdispatch.com and went out far and wide from there. The link is to the version at Grist.org.
"After BP, the Age of Precaution?"
The ecological and economic catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico that followed the accident on BP's deep sea oil rig is, hopefully, a watershed event in our understanding of the consequences and limitations of our carbon-based industrial way of life. I wrote an essay for Alternet.org. about the meaning of the disaster. The original title is above. Writers don't always get to have the titles they choose - that's negotiated with editors and I've never been too pleased with what Alternet's editors do to my titles. Still, I am thankful for the coverage.
Throughout my work as an organizer/activist, I confronted again and again a regulatory regime based on the notion that risks from technology can be adequately assessed by hired "experts." Most risk assessments were woefully inadequate even by their own minimum (and delusional) standards. The bogus risk assessments justified all sorts of dubious projects that endangered people and creatures who live downwind and downstream from them. I named the first grassroots organization I co-founded Families Against Incinerator Risk because the acronym was FAIR. It spoke to a theme we repeated as we organized: risk is not a math problem to be solved by distant experts, but is a question about who is put at risk and for whose benefit, about whether the distribution of risks, liabilities, costs, rewards, and benefits is FAIR. Those are political questions that should be answered in an open, inclusive, and informed civic dialog. Based on my hard experiences with our current risk assessment regime, I believe a paradigm based on the precautionary principle is a better model.
"How the Peaceful Atom Became a Serial Killer"
The tragic nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima facility in Japan was another wake-up call that tells us that nuclear power is not the answer to our energy crisis. My essays on nuclear power can be found further down at this blogspot in the "older posts." I put this one up front because it is my most recent essay on the subject and because the catastrophe at Fukushima is ongoing. Consider this testimony from someone who spent many years on the frontlines of struggles to keep nuclear utilities from rolling over impoverished people and remote communities in the American West. Friends and neighbors are "downwinders." The essay speaks for itself. The link is to the copy at Mother Jones. As is the case with most of my writing, the essay first appeared at Tomdispatch.com and went across the web from there.
"How the West Was Lost" or "Fire's Manifest Destiny"
Another recent essay, this one solicited by my friend/mentor Tom Englehardt for his Tomdispatch.com web site and out from there to scores of other sites. Epic wildfires are becoming routine in the West as the weather becomes more extreme and unpredictable on a globally warming planet. This piece generated a surprising volume of hysterical hate mail. I was labeled a "warmist," a term I had not heard before. My critics called me a clueless idiot or a clever conspirator, depending on if they saw me as a conscious agent of the global warming hoax or a mere "sock puppet" of the real conspirators. I am no stranger to hostile responses. I encountered plenty of that while organizing campaigns to make polluters accountable. But in those cases, jobs and profits were at stake. In this instance I had only offered observations and opinions about forest fires. I suspect that my critics understand intuitively that admitting humans have altered the very climate of the planet we live on and then deciding to do something about it means that an entire way of life and way of looking at life is threatened. Ideas about the necessity and value of economic growth, of progress and success, are challenged as soon as we get it into our heads that the earth is finite and has a carrying capacity that cannot be indefinitely violated. Here is the essay as it appeared at Huffington Post:
"The Big Bad Wolf Makes Good: A Yellowstone Success Story"
Over the years I have researched and written about conservation issues, I have been inspired by the conservation biologists I have met. They are devoted to both the rigors of science and also to the health and integrity of the ecosystems they study. In Yellowstone, they put forward a bold experiment that worked - a cherished and unraveling American ecosystem is being restored. Sadly, outside of Yellowstone, uncivil and hyperbolic discourse has muted the valuable lessons we could be learning about the ecological role of large "charismatic carnivores." Ranchers understand that restoring wolves to Western landscapes requires change they don't want. Hunters understand that the days of fat elk and easy hunting are over. But do the rest of us understand what is at stake?
A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times. From there, it went to the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Kansas City Star, Denver Post... In its original and complete form, it appeared first at Tomdispatch.com and then to the usual online sites that my essays go to - Huffington Post, Truthout, Mother Jones, Atlantic Free Press, and dozens of others, even the CBS web site. Although I appreciate the broader audience I got from the LA Times, I prefer the full version and the link to that at Tom Englehart's blog is below.