Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Backstage with Prospects of Eco-Upheaval

In January the reluctant body stands up from the driver's seat of the car and remembers its muscles which, in some people, may whisper faint, forgettable pleas for vigorous use, even now in this dim set-back time and place. In the North, which can still be bitter cold this time of year, you know your face will blaze and chill and deaden, your nose will seep onto your upper lip and your ears, if you forgot a woolen hat, will smart with need for the hood on your jacket. These are the January conditions that most people loathe and flee from or hide indoors from; winter like this is considered deadly. Of course it is deadly, for beings with no defenses against it. Those of us who thrive in subarctic cold somehow trouble ourselves to hold heat against our skins or generate heat by metabolism or artifice. If we stand up in the doorway and then get moving by our own initiative, walking or jogging or pedaling uphill, we know that we're starting cold and dry, then maybe a little footsore or muscle-sore or wind-burnt, but soon, despite what we first felt, we'll be popping sweat down the grooves of our bodies and will maybe, before long, be opening snaps, buttons and zippers for fresh cool air. This cause-and-effect won't fail, we're reminded, as long as we're alive. And despite the ferocious heat that may have disgusted us for hours and days last summer, the old earth is still capable of bringing us a short stint of January freezing, when the sun is so far to the south that we seem to be backstage from the main brunt of the world's happenings.

Backstage is somehow my habit and preference. Where there's a reputation for arctic chill there tend to be way fewer people, though they do pass through. This past week a 60-page booklet came in the mail from the non-profit organization Negative Population Growth: The Best of NPG - Celebrating 40 Years of Working Towards a Sustainable U.S. Population. I've been a member of NPG for years because the loss of open fields and pastures, bird and wild-animal habitat has grieved me all my conscious life, wherever I have lived, and I automatically reject the bias of governments and industrialists that the earth and economy are all about consumer values for people and the bias that 'life', in the language of groups who fight legal abortion, is ultimately symbolized by a human baby. The 'Right to life' catchphrase implies that trees, reptiles, birds, furry wild animals, beetles, soil microbes and fish are not life, but unborn human babies equal life-at-large and have the pre-eminent right to life because we're all human, and how could we be biased against ourselves and God who favors us. I have never known if most right-to-life activists are confident that the more babies are brought into the world the more we are blessed by literally every addition.

But since the social movement to officially promote quality of life over an ever-increasing quantity of lives squeezed into cities and countryside is still an untouchable topic to American political leaders, the leaders and the people they most listen to seem to entertain a false vision of a planet earth ever-growing in soils and surface area, along with the burden of our cities and agriculture and mining, or a vision of no life but what's fenced in by sanction of the major industry and whatever else is able to take harmless root through the cracks. Apparently a majority of people are comfortable in some similar vision of a world without the wild and free-ranging, since that's not a part of their experience or a conduit to their imagination. At any rate, Americans and people elsewhere refuse to entertain thoughts of what kind of policy it would take to humanely stop our take-over of nature's support systems via unlimited population growth, which leads either to co-opting of the support systems or to their overwhelming by alien, synthetic chemistries.

Out of many available measures of population explosion in the United States I cite NPG, from one of its posters produced in 2011, saying that the 2010 census counted 308 million people in the U.S. as of April 1st, 2010. In 2011 the count had grown to 311 million. Another NPG poster of 2011 showed that U.S. population arrived at 100 million in the year 1915, which was 139 years after the founding of the nation in 1776. But it took a much shorter 52 years, between 1915 and 1967, for the numbers to double to 200 million. After that it took only 39 years to reach the new bench mark of 300 million. Many of us living now are likely to see these numbers attain 400 million or even 500 million, with all the predictable cutting down and paving over of forest and prairie, water shortages made especially dire by long droughts and heat waves, and extinctions of life forms given little worth by everyday people and organizations to whom 'urgent' has a whole host of other meanings. It appears that reversals of population growth, at least in American society, are not possible unless brought about by disaster like warfare, plague, storm or  seismic cataclysm such as what might come of ever more fracking in ever more places out of ever more demand for natural gas.

So much shortage could be alleviated by reining in the demand for whatever we're worried about, just as so much excess could be relieved by cutting back on the agents (people) who drive that over-abundance. Two examples of over-abundance are atmospheric carbon and unemployed workers. If we had fewer people to house, employ and manufacture for, fewer people jetting and gas-pedaling over the skies and continents, we would have less combustion and less threat from an upset carbon balance in the atmosphere. If we had fewer people going broke and hungry where resources have been exhausted and competing for jobs in markets that formerly had well-matched ratios of workers to jobs, we would have less economic desperation. As my friend Laura said, a child could grasp this kind of common sense. But all that American policymakers seem to be able to recommend are schemes for 'more'--energy generation whether it's fossil or renewable, jobs, funds--ever more of everything for ever more people as if there's no way of breaking those cycles based on more for more people, to produce more for more people. The more-and-more cycles will break down sooner or later at one or more weak point, such as available water, or capacity to contain carbon, or maybe, in the case of earth's surface, weight-bearing ability over the zones undermined by fracking.

Whereas folks who have been named 'technological optimists' argue that society is re-making itself on a series of new models that free us from dependence on nature and therefore from worry about what all that we're depleting--who, I wonder, would prefer to live in a totally contrived setting where every substance taken in by the body has been made or re-made by the devices of industry and there's no choice of escape from all that? Maybe the technological optimists would embrace things like desalinized water piped into underground bunkers or orbiting outer-space cities as the sum total of modern living. But maybe, after having done so, these people would also be seen to have withered, physically and in terms of cosmic awareness. Their life support systems would in all likelihood be ultra-expensive to build and keep going, and just maybe flawed in terms of supposed independence of natural resources. Vast majorities of traditionally earth-loving ordinary people with a streak of stewardship for nature would be shut out by lack of funding and lack of inclination. What in any case would happen would be a process of severe attrition in societies the world over, and new segregation of surviving peoples based on whatever modes of living had become their best option. All of the above is likely to happen, too, given the intractable resistance of so many people to plan, or to come into a balance with the other creatures who vary our kingdom and still enchant so many of us who use our eyes, ears and bodies for getting out at least somewhat the way our ancestors did.

Maybe, though, we who are probably the majority will prevail, those many of us of all ages who thrill at glimpsed evidence that the wild is still with us, claiming footholds in our cities. We breathe with a moment's contentment to remember sections of wild land that are yet out there, though sadly stranded from each other. In spite of the days when our vision was submerged in ghettos of impersonal  chain-store shopping places and one-way corridors of concrete, and when every slice of bare ground seemed for sale or foreclosed, there are individual people, or teams, staking out and politicizing a beach or a tongue of wooded land for a wild species like the spoon-billed sandpiper that is in danger of dying out. There are condors and whooping cranes suddenly, on an old migration route, where no one expected the joyous surprise of the sighting. There are new park lands, ocean sanctuaries, and dazzling encounters with the wild that make dried little hearts electric as never before with fellowship. There are nature centers established and local sanctuaries created where a toxic pond sat a generation ago. There comes a rush of tears at the realization that what we love, that is not ourselves yet is in ourselves, merits the love and is likewise held in hearts residing far away or just over the hill and our joint love engenders an epic feat of salvation whereby, yet again, there's a wild community, big or small, where anyone can go  for re-invigoration.

I continue in my fear for the loss of open spaces. The more people on earth, the less space or opportunity for seeing the raw earth and weather in their grandeur devoid of our mess-making. With NPG and the other organizations working to establish a population policy I often wonder what's been achieved, since we still have limitless expanding numbers of people to this day, driven by higher fertility among the native-born but most of all by immigration and births to immigrants. The writing put out by these organizations attests as much as ever to no-end-in-sight population explosion and almost never cites any real successes borne of lobbying and other organized efforts, many of which started during the 1960s and 70s.  However, one of NPG's forum papers quoted in the booklet refers to the American feminists who met at Seneca Falls, New York back in 1848 on behalf of women's suffrage. Little did they know, the paper said, that the women's right to vote would be enacted only after seventy-two years of campaigning for it. Could the campaign for a population policy probably take at least as long?

Obstacles, or deadly compartmentalization, persist in the minds of the folks who set up the schemes for protecting wild plants, creatures and natural wonders. What are so many community leaders afraid of in the notion of a stabilized human population--that if any society isn't growing it's dying? That their conventionally-minded donors will be scandalized? That there can never be such a thing as replacement levels of birth matched with death rates, and that each rate isn't capable of adjustment?  I agree with the NPG writers' critique against so many environmental organizations for refusing, out of some kind of repugnance, to connect land conservation and protection of wild species with a mandate to contain the exponential crowding and consumption by too many people till a brutal die-back sets in and there is no more water or cropland because we've maxed out the use of what's left; most of the wildlife will be long gone by the time our kind is living stacked in numberless concrete apartment blocks or in an unbounded sprawl of recycled-material huts. In fact, whenever I make any gesture of support for a measure to protect the climate or wild lands, I plan to add a comment urging the need for that organization to build alliances with groups advocating lower human fertility and better family planning.

Here is a vision, and it's not just my own:  it's of a time yet to come when our colossal problem of over-reach has inevitably been corrected, both by the ravages of nature and by a form of public awakening in which we rank everything alive, not just the human, as having sacred dignity, and nations or continents boast of their fame for having the most kinds of interrelated creatures to define and exalt this place, ours, that you really must visit, whether it has a chilly, hot or four-season climate. You should be freely able to see the fabric of the earth, the liquids and the solids in all their shimmering balance, for how they preceded us and are able to swallow us back.

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