Thinking About the “Unthinkable”

Most people in our society don’t want to hear about or even imagine the present ways of societal organization coming to an end, whether by natural disaster, unnatural disasters, or human revolution. They resist the very thought of it partly because they are so heavily invested in the status quo—career training, grad school, military service, parental and familial bonding, “needing money,” and being in debt—those realities all work towards preventing people from even considering the possibility of turning to other ways of life. The general rule is that the more heavily invested in the status quo, the harder it becomes to accept the possibility that there might be a better way of collective life, or societal organization. Marriage and parenting tend to deepen the investment and make it even harder to believe that all you have worked for and given your life to might not really have been the best path to have taken, or that maybe you should be living in a very different kind of society.

So, how will most people respond and what will they do when it becomes clear to them that our “way of life” and the ways of life of most modern industrial technological societies must change drastically because those ways have become essentially unsustainable? Oh, oh,… a red flag just went up in the mind of my reader and, before I can go any further, I’d better explain and provide a little proof regarding this “unsustainable way of life” claim. Most people in this country think that there might be certain practices that are unsustainable, like factories dumping all of their waste into the rivers or clear-cutting the forests or littering, but our basic, “glorious way of life” remains untouchable to them, and leaving it is “unthinkable.” Well, here is a brief outline of what the modern industrial technological, overly-consumptive way of life has brought us to that is clearly unsustainable (meaning: makes the continuation of most life forms on earth impossible), and therefore should not continue:

1. The upper limit for a safe amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere is 350 ppm (parts per million). Above 350 ppm, the atmosphere becomes too warm to sustain the balanced life systems of nature. The CO2 level in our atmosphere is currently at about 398 ppm and expected to hit 400 in 2014. The average CO2 ppm throughout the history of planet Earth until the expansion of the industrial revolution less than 200 years ago was about 275 ppm. It has been rising at an increasing rate ever since.[1]

2. The increase in CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere has caused the average atmospheric temperature to rise 0.9° C since the beginning of the rapid increase in large-scale industrialism during the 19th century, accelerating exponentially since the 1870s, shortly after the internal combustion engine was invented. The vast majority of scientists from all over the world have agreed that the unsustainable, irreversible damage to the Earth point for this temperature rise is 2° C (3.6° F). At the current rate of global warming, the Earth is due to reach that point in about 15 years![2]

3. What would a warming level of 2° C do to life on Earth?[3]

     – completely melt the polar ice caps (the ice caps have already been reduced by 50% since

       1969, when photos of the Earth were taken by the first men to walk on the Moon)

     – raise sea levels by 20 to 50 milimeters, flooding many small islands and coastal cities and towns

     – accelerate the rate of warming even more, due to the lack of the white ice caps which have

       always reflected sunlight and heat back out into space, and increase exposure and release

       of methane gas, which is currently covered by the remaining ice caps (this process has

       already been occurring)

     – continued and accelerated warming and acidification of the oceans, leading to mass

       exterminations of all sea life (due to warming of the water and loss of food and habitat)

       (the oceans are now 30% more acidic than they were 30 years ago)

     – more erratic weather patterns (larger and wetter storms, with long periods of drought in

       between them) due to loss of the stability of jet streams that have always been relatively

       stable due to the presence of the ice caps

     – more wildfires due to the droughts and buildup of fuel from dead trees and vegetation

     – massive extinctions of all life forms and species of plants and animals[4]

4. When measured by weight, the amount of carbon that would be in the atmosphere if we reach the unsustainable 2° rise in temperature will be 565 gigatons. The current reserves of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) on hand (already extracted and in storage and processing) is enough to produce 2,795 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, or five times the level that is unsustainable for Earth’s atmosphere! In light of just that fact alone, what is the point of continuing to extract any more of these toxic fuels from the Earth? We have alternatives.[5]

So, in light of all that (and more that I did not list), how can we rightly continue on this path, especially when we know that we can devise, cultivate, and live by healthy alternatives, including consuming less? We know of solar energy, small-scale hydro power, small-scale wind, and pleasant ways to live without electricity at all. We also know that we don’t need to eat so much and live in such large houses. We know that if we lived directly from the land upon which we dwell we would not need to drive anywhere in cars, except maybe for occasional trips. We also know that for most of the vast span of human history, about 94% of the history of homo sapiens sapiens, humans lived very well directly from the natural resources in their own surroundings, without the use of money. Or do we know that? And if most of us humans don’t know all of these things, why don’t we? Why have we not learned this? Why isn’t this information taught in our schools and community centers and made available through all media as a public service? There are many reasons why we feel bound to the dominant paradigms and prevailing social systems and are not aware of the dire, immediate need to engage in alternative ideas and ways of living. Unless we make a deliberate and diligent effort to educate ourselves on these matters, we do not gain that education—mainly because the status quo society actually works against us finding out what our situation and the possible alternatives to it are. Educating ourselves and each other on these matters immediately is probably about the most important thing that we can do right now. It is also why we still need electricity and the internet for at least awhile longer, due to the fact that currently, the fastest and easiest way to access and spread the necessary information is through the internet. Eventually, when we have enough of this information in people’s hands on paper and, more importantly, in our minds, we will not be so dependent on electronic media.

In a future essay I plan to write about some examples of and possibilities for future alternative, sustainable, small scale societies. In this essay I am focusing on what is “unthinkable,” why we need to think about and act upon the formerly “unthinkable,” and the obstacles built into our social context and our minds that, thus far, have prevented most of us from “going there.” On the topic of alternative future societies, I will just say for now that our fears regarding non-industrial, light industrial, or “low-tech” ways of life are not something natural that we were born with. Those fears are the product of the strenuous and constant efforts of corporate advertisers, education systems, popular media, and duly frightened parents and grandparents, understandably and with the best of intentions, passing those fears along to their children. For example, anthropologists during the first hundred or so years of massive, large-scale industrialism consistently slandered the lifeways of pre-industrial, indigenous peoples worldwide with phrases like “primitive,” “backwards,” and “meager subsistence,” carried that bias into all their work, and passed it on to their students. While some of that bias can occasionally still be found in academia, there has been a notable change since roughly the early 1960s, as less biased (and therefore more scientific) field work on the few remaining pre-industrial traditional indigenous societies who still had much of their traditional lands, resources and knowledge, began to reveal a much different picture. What anthropologists, like Marshall Sahlins, Richard Lee, and many others since then, have found is that traditional indigenous peoples in their intact socio-ecological enclaves are healthy, have plenty of healthy, natural food to eat and clean water, teas, and juices to drink, a wealth of naturopathic medicinal knowledge, spend much less time working than modern industrial/techno people do, spend a lot more time socializing and laughing, and have very rich cultural and ceremonial practices.[6] Of course, those vital societies and their ways have also been endangered and driven to extinction and near-extinction by destructive industrial/technological practices.

If traditional subsistence economies were so “bare” and “meager,” why did the people make such big baskets?

illustration for Thinking the Unthinkable

Now, we shall move on to the obstacles in our minds, absorbed there through the pervasive conceptual paradigm in which we live. Industrial technological society operates under several unquestioned assumptions: the technologically new is always equivalent to technologically “advanced”; faster is better than slow; more is better than less; convenience always improves upon difficulty; and economies must always “grow.” Combined with the ultra-competitive, or ruthlessly competitive, modern market economies (both capitalistic and “socialistic” alike[7]), things that are technologically new are expected to give their creators and/or owners a competitive edge in the market place. For that reason, there is a built-in incentive within the creation of new technologies to minimize testing for possible negative effects of the new technology and rush it to the marketplace, before some industrial spy (of which there are multitudes in nearly every large industry) steals the technology and markets it first. Product testing is done mainly to avoid suits and regulatory laws, and products are launched into the marketplace as soon as their creator/owners have enough assurance of a likelihood of either immunity from prosecution, victory or an easily absorbable penalty if they are prosecuted or sued in the courts. Public or environmental safety is therefore only considered to the minimum extent necessary while in the process of maximizing monetary profit.

The major mental obstacle that perpetuates that unbridled pursuit of monetary profit is the failure to see that monetary profit and economic profit are not one and the same! True economic profit is gaged in consideration of its impact on the natural resource base, the core source of all wealth. Human beings have not yet gained the ability to create matter out of nothing and probably never will, so we are still bound to receive all of the substances that are necessary for life from the Earth or biosphere. When people who seek monetary profit do not take into account the costs of their industrial/technological economic activity to the Earth or biosphere itself, they are not really thinking economically. Harmonious interaction with the life systems of the Earth and biosphere was the original economic system for all living things, who all once lived in that sustainable, reciprocal balance. For probably a variety of reasons—perhaps the foremost being a fear of death, the very natural process by which all physical bodies return to the earth—humans in some societies began to think that they could alter and control the life source in ways that could protect them from death and pain. Avoiding death and pain is a natural instinct, but finding ways to do that (including through technologies) can either be done in harmony with the Earth’s life systems or in opposition to those systems, and the latter approach ultimately creates more death and pain. When human beings think that they have a right to do whatever they find it is in their power to do, without regard to the well-being and continuance of biological life itself, they are thinking in a toxic, life-destructive, and therefore self-destructive manner.

Funny cartoon on changing the worldA most timely example of this toxic way of thinking is the concept of “climate engineering,” which is the use of new, untested technologies in an attempt to alter the course of global warming by further manipulating the biosphere’s natural systems, which is the same kind of thinking that started the human-caused aspects of global warming in the first place! The reason that I said “untested technologies” is because the devisers of these climate engineering technologies also wish to sell these technologies for a maximal profit-margin, and therefore we can expect them to engage in as minimal effort in testing their products as possible, based in the principles of competitive monetary economics I described earlier. Ironically, the corporations involved in creating and promoting the climate engineering technologies could possibly be conglomerated with the same corporations that have produced the climate destruction, due to the recent trend toward more corporate buy-outs and mergers, which concentrate more and more wealth and power into fewer hands. These entities cannot be trusted to have the well-being of the biosphere and all who live within it as their first priority. The historical track record of this industrial market economy and its culture tells us that it is unlikely that they care much about anything other than what they perceive to be “profit.” This is largely because their concept of economic profit is thoroughly enmeshed with the pursuit of currency. To them, the man-made product called “money” is wealth, not the life-sustaining systems of the natural world.

The man-made exchange currencies (money) of the world are not part of the original biological economic system, in which all beings or all species—including ours—exchanged life-sustaining natural substances with the biosphere for the mutual, reciprocal benefit of all life forms. There was trade between neighboring small scale, independent, sustainable human societies before there was money, but that form of trade was more like gift exchanges, designed to maintain inter-community peace, friendship, and stability, and neither neighbor was dependent on the other society’s goods. Once local overpopulation threw human social groups into unsustainable disharmony with the natural systems of their local homeland ecosystems, they began to experience scarcity, and became dependent on trade and/or conquest to acquire the resources of neighboring societies. Dependency on trade led to the creation of trade currencies (money), which were based on mutually agreed to numerical values placed on certain objects formed by humans from natural substances, like carved rocks, gold coins, or specially marked paper. The numerical values were (and still are) arbitrarily arrived at, based only in beliefs agreed upon by the humans. In a world held captive by beliefs in the value of currency, in which we are compelled to do some things that are actually destructive to the life of the biosphere in pursuit of currencies that we are forced to accept as essential for continuing our lives, we humans now find ourselves in an unsustainable, self-destroying, life-destroying downward spiral.

Due to our toxic thinking, our unnatural, unreasonable beliefs, our untested, unregulated technological experiments, and our failure to re-engage with our former, life-connected, loving and nurturing ways of being, we are now looking at some possibly immanent extinction level events. Such events include the ones mentioned at the beginning of this essay, plus some others that were not mentioned there: toxic, unbreathable atmospheres due to industrial pollution, such as much of the heavily industrialized regions of China are experiencing now; unsurvivable levels of radiation from nuclear power plants destroyed by natural disasters, such as we now see spewing forth from the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan, which is presently causing the fish of the northern Pacific ocean to become sick, inedible, and dead; the destruction and toxification of vast expanses of tribal homelands and waters in Canada due to the tar sands oil extraction fiasco; the attempt to control the world food supply through copyrighting genetically engineered vegetable seeds; the rapid depletion of the water table of the Great Plains of the U.S., due to the continuation of the deadly practices of corporate monoculture agriculture; the toxification of earth and water through fracking; and more, worldwide. But, if humans created these circumstances, through improper, unsustainable ways of living and thinking, could we also possibly reverse those processes by ceasing to live and think in those ways? If a “need” for money, or currencies, has us trapped in these life-destructive systems, and we humans created those currencies and sustain their value and destructive power based on our beliefs in those currencies, could we possibly just stop using and giving value to those, and all, currencies? Can we possibly return to living in small, sustainable, natural resource-compatible, non-monetary economic systems?

As you begin to do your own research on these topics, you will no doubt run into lots of misinformation perpetrated by climate change deniers, who are generously funded by the various industrialists who have an interest in the matter (although some are foolish enough to do their bidding for free). One tactic that they use is to point to a temporary downward fluctuation in global temperature as “proof” that global warming is “a hoax,” while completely ignoring the obviously upward long-term trend, as illustrated by this chart.[8]

[1] . Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012. 

[2] Because we normally think about temperature change in terms of our day to day weather, one or two degrees of temperature change seems like nothing, and would cause most of us to say, “What’s the big deal?” Where I live, in Montana, I have seen temperature fluctuations of 40° F in one day several times, over the last 28 years. But global temperature rise over a long span of time is something very different. Consider this analogy from Michael Kelberer, “If you’re sitting in the sun, and the skin temperature on your arm goes up 5 degrees – no problem, you’re tanning. But if your body temperature goes up 5 degrees — you take your fever to the emergency room. Local temperature rise – no problem. All-body temperature rise — big problem.”–1-degree-thats-all-you-got.aspx#ixzz2oWCO6MfR James Hansen, et al, “Climate sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, September 16, 2013. . McKibben, ibid. For the United Nations Summit on Climate Change conclusions, see: 

[3] For a more technical collection of information and analysis from many scientists try, Josep G. Canadell, ed., et al, “Interactions of the carbon cycle, human activity, and the climate system: a research portfolio,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 2010, 2:301–311.  .

[4] We are currently in the largest mass extinction since the time of the end of the dinosaurs. For a complete, clearly explained, scientific report on that, see this from the website of the Center for Biological Diversity: 

[5] McKibben, Do the Math… . The continuing extraction of fossil fuels is very comparable to what was going on during the race to build and possess the most nuclear weapons. Even when the U.S. and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear missiles, combined, to destroy the world 100 times over, and a nuclear war would have ended before they could have detonated 5% of the weapons, they kept on building and storing them. Of course, by a certain point, the arms race had little or nothing to do with protecting nations, but everything to do with making profits for the weapons manufacturers and their affiliated industries. In the same manner, fossil fuels extraction, by a certain point, became no longer about “supplying the energy we need,” because those forms of energy had become unsustainable and therefore no longer “needful.” The continued extraction then became all about continuing to supply the exorbitant profits of the industrialists.

[6] Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Chicago, Aldine/Atherton, Inc., 1972. Richard B. Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, Boston, Cambridge University Press, 1979

[7] Both the Soviet Union and China provided us with plenty of evidence that a socialist nation can be just as environmentally destructive as a capitalist one. The commonly-held assumption that the only alternative to capitalism is socialism is a false dichotomy which blinds us to the incredible potential of human minds to come up with something better. Once our minds are freed from that dichotomy, along with the imprisoning paradigms of unquestionable technological “progress,” unlimited and insatiable “economic growth,” and several other toxic, unsustainable concepts, we can begin to come up with new, viable, sustainable economic systems, hopefully based within the guiding parameters of the first economic system, Earth’s biosphere itself.

[8] This essay was written by George Price, a teacher and organic farmer who lives in western Montana, U.S.A. See,  for a simple, easy to follow answer to the deniers.