Objective Crisis, Subjective Crisis

Every day the world moves closer to achieving the ruin of the human project. That is unfortunate but true, true because the earth is our ‘anchor’ and our source of life, and we are making it uninhabitable.

Uninhabitable? Yes, uninhabitable. Human beings, along with all life on this planet, are immersed in the material causality attributed to nature, core systems that are real and unsurpassable by humanity. But human beings are more than instances of a mere natural kind. Humans also have souls or psyches. We do not just live and breath, eat and move, we also think, emote, speak, marry, etc. We join groups and associations. We are citizens or not. We also produce and reproduce institutions that include macro systems like an economy and polity but also micro systems like this or that family, any given person, the local grocery store, etc. These institutions as well as any existing individual person strongly depends upon and thus emerges from that material stuff. It is because we are material beings, albeit beings with consciousness, that we as individuals and as a species have material enabling conditions which must be met if there is to be any human life at all.

Which leads us to the following questions: Are we destroying the planet? Are we making it uninhabitable?

To answer them: We might lack to capacity to destroy the ‘planet’ — to annihilate it — but we can make the global environment, the environment now available for all living beings, hostile to many if not all forms of life. We ought to but do not universally consider this a problem. That is astonishing because the state of the world today is undermining, interdicting or eliminating humanity’s enabling conditions. We, as human beings, have physical needs that must be met if humanity is to endure. We know from written history and through archeology that the premodern eras provided just the right fit for humanity to survive and even to thrive sometimes. The modern world, however, turned thriving into an art form. It gains this abundance because of the numerous technologies that were introduced and which consume these natural resources and replaces them with waste. Some of this garbage warms the earth’s temperature, kills plants and animals, befouls the water, replaces oxygen with carbon dioxide, etc. The upshot: We are now slowly cooking in our own shit, so to speak. And our struggle will worsen as time passes.

It thus has become clear to some humans that humanity as a species cannot act as it pleases, to act as if the consequences of its actions are irrelevant, manageable and even overstated. Humans do not exercise sovereign or supreme power over the earth and everything found there. Any appearance indicating that humans have this power is a delusion. The earth is not our property. No one gave it to us; we share it with countless other beings. We are, to use the choice language of a philosopher, of, for and in nature, but nature is not for us, an exploitable resource. Indeed, the effort to make nature for us is a key source of our current predicament.

Concerned individuals can experience this crisis as an objective possibility, as a situation produced when humanity creates dangerous problems it cannot solve. What we can see today with some degree of certainty is the eventual elimination of the animal world, the world to which humans belong. (The Earth will survive, as mentioned.) We can believe this prediction to be true because critical events and processes are not poised to resolve themselves favorably and humanity has failed to attend to the crisis with the respect and effort it deserves.

What establishes the ecological crisis as objective? The evidence: Today, speciescide is common, so too desertification, the loss of potable water, etc. Powerful weather events damage parts of the built environment that were not constructed with the expectation that they would need to withstand 100 mph winds, deep water or earthquakes caused by excessive mining, the draining of aquifers, the felling of forests. The resources we use are determined as such by human needs and practices. Some of those needs — e.g. for clean air — are elemental. These too are diminishing. And the problem will continue: Transnational firms and the countries which provide them homes are racing to control what is left of these resources (Klare, 2012). That’s a fool’s errand. It is not that some entity will win this race, the problem is humanity and the beings which share the planet with us will all lose. The forms of life we have now might and probably will not exist in the future. We know this because the global mean surface temperature rises continuously, moving past previously identified points of no return. The world today is marked by wildfires, floods and other natural disasters. Our planetary population, the practices of which drive these disasters, grows while our ability to manage this crisis is all but non-existent relative to the pressing tasks at hand. After all, war-making is always in season. The conditions which produced this situation remain active. The environmental crises, which include far more than a world too hot to inhabit, looks as if it will put down or destroy the human world, our Umwelt or surrounding world. Our situation is noticeably pregnant with this possibility or, better, with a collection of possibilities that include such a disastrous and deadly outcome. Thus perceived and the cause identified, the environmental crisis merely reveals the destructive potential inherent in the modern system of production, a carbon economy which is now living on borrowed time. It is, as some economists might state, an externality which humans are too limited or are unable to internalize. (If only we could transform CO2 into gold….) Since a modern economy uses the natural resources on the planet, which is to say that it uses our natural endowment, but transforms those resources into waste that can kill us. At sometime in future, given our wanton exploitation of first nature, we will ‘drown,’ so to speak, in this waste.

The environmental catastrophe which we experience as a crisis situation includes a general but also objective possibility: namely, the destruction of a world — effectively, the only world in which humans can live and thrive. (I bet the swells believe they will move to Mars or live in self-sustaining spaceships to live after the Earth dies at their hands!) We are, as the philosopher Heidegger once noted, thrown into the world. We find the world as a pregiven result of past human and non-human actions, of events which show the mark of a human author or authors. Of course, as single persons, we do not constitute the real world we experience. That would require the power of a God. The real world, in which our actions mostly have limited scope and effects.

This possibility makes hash of the neoliberal conceit which has afflicted modernity since the 1970s (and longer if we consider, say, Ordoliberalism and 19th Century liberalism as actual precursors of our disorder). There is little today which inspires confidence in the various governments of the world who use neoliberal concepts and practices to reform and manage their economies. But the true believers march on because what would they do otherwise? What would they do otherwise? Neoliberal theory makes sense to them, its adherents, because the theory in its variants inform current practices in much of the world. That said, neoliberalism includes rationality claims it cannot meet. Who today believes we can put into place ecologically sound practices of production and consumption?

The upshot: Actions meant to resolve this crisis will be, and can only be, radical.

Bees are our friend

Water shortage → food shortage

According to the New York Times:

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the [High Plains Aquifer] no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.

On some farms, big center-pivot irrigators — the spindly rigs that create the emerald circles of cropland familiar to anyone flying over the region — now are watering only a half-circle. On others, they sit idle altogether.

The emergence of factory farming after World War Two is the culprit in this disaster. Driven by profit-seeking investment, made sensible by blissful ignorance about our place in nature, farmers depleted the water table by using this finite resource without a concern for the limits set by this complex system. Droughts, perhaps reflecting the changes in the environment caused by the mechanisms driving global warming, only intensify this problem.

It appears we’ve reached another “Drill baby, drill” impasse, one that will resolve itself by destroying the economies which brought it into being.

Consider Corn

You don’t, do you. Well, you should because corn is a component of ethanol and meat production. People eat it too. Corn prices have risen a bit over the last month because the drought of 2012 has punished America’s corn producing states. Thus:

A wise person will adjust her personal spending habits to account for this problem.

The future has begun

A New York Times
article tells us that “From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.” Worse still is the fact that “Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.” Briefly put, “all that’s solid melts into air….”

The forecast: Hot

See it, believe it, laugh at it

(h/t to Think Progress)