Toward a Sustainable Society

Arthur Noll

Sustainability is a matter of not taking resources faster than they renew. You cannot cut trees faster than they grow, or net fish, or burn fossil fuels. You cannot pollute faster than pollution breaks down. There is a balance of resources, using too much energy to take resources tilts the balance away from sustainability.

Like the concept of interdependence, the energy efficiency of partnership, the idea of consistent measure, this seems so obvious that one almost wonders why it has to be said. One can wonder how an addict can avoid seeing easy logic as well. Ultimately, the argument comes down to the existence of magic, of infinite growth on a finite planet. The people who argue that resources are unlimited, that it is OK to not be efficient, because there is so much, are basically arguing that resources are infinite, and one can go on being wasteful and building up bubbles that will never burst. For their defense, they point at how limits have been reached in the past, but alternatives were found, and growth continued. They predict that this can always happen. Larger populations of people are good, they say, because in those populations will be found the individuals that will be clever enough to find alternatives.

Unfortunately, one can find plenty of examples where this sort of confidence was an utter failure. Ruined cities are found around the world. It seems clear that people in those situations didn’t feel they were building something that was doomed, or they wouldn’t have done it. But it was doomed. And probing about often shows how resources were depleted. Jared Diamond, (The Third Chimpanzee, Easter Island) has reported about this, he is not alone. The garbage dumps excavated by archaeologists show how diets changed, animals killed off, and size of the trees cut to build with shows the decline of forests, the presence and absence of pollen grains in sediments show how things were reduced to dust and ashes. Bones of the people tell stories of declining health.

So, if it has happened before, it is clearly not impossible to happen again. The clever people in those situations failed. And I see nothing about the present situation to make me feel that there is anything we have learned to change the equation. The societies of the earth are nearly totally dependent on fossil fuels that they burn far faster than they are replaced, and are polluting areas far faster than the pollution can be broken down. And in size, the situation is far more grim than ever in the past. In the past, these cities were isolated cases, the people probably died in large numbers, but they could also flee to places that were greener. This time, most all the world is involved. There is no place favorable to the life of people that isn’t crammed way past sustainable carrying capacity, we will look at this in more detail in the chapter on agriculture.

A more sober approach to technological advances, is not to bet on them until you have them, and the use of them is clearly sustainable. Jumping off of a cliff, expecting to invent and build wings on the way down, is not a good strategy.

Let us take a more detailed look at changing over to a society based on sustainable, energy efficient actions.

Since this is such a profound proposal, a complete change of lifestyle, lets look at it some more, from different angles. Lets assume that you can somehow get together with people who share the view that these principles of measurement and understandings of our nature cannot be ignored and you form a social group. It would be a difficult task, with your instincts and previous education being of little help, fumbling to see who does what the best, learning a new way of living. Your new social group would be as a child, to begin, making tentative movements, getting bruised sometimes. You need “parents”, to provide support, somehow.

In many places around the world, you could expect to be ignored by people in the market economy, if you go to places considered wastelands, and learn energy efficient ways of life like herding, and learn to fit seamlessly into these areas. The trouble with doing this, is that while market people may ignore you, they are not ignoring each other, they are sliding into an abyss, and they have some extremely nasty weapons that if used in quantity by desperate people, could cause you a lot of trouble.

If things did not go with a bang, but went slowly, you could find yourself no longer ignored, but being hunted for even your small possessions. Your reproduction would be a very chancy thing, given these uncertainties. In the beginning, you would be as a child, and not even think of reproducing, but if things dragged on for years, you would gain strength, and you would also be growing older and needing to think about reproduction, but your position to reliably do so would not be good, if you were being hunted.

This does not look good. Some other strategy is needed. We cannot have things drag on for years and years, nor do we want massive explosive endings. I think there is a way, it is relatively simple. I came to it by observing people’s reaction to me when I explained the previous thinking about interdependence and honest measure. It is usually easy to tell people the things in this paper, as long as you don’t push them. You leave them room to get away down avenues of philosophy or religion, and everyone can agree to disagree. But if you shut down avenues of escape, and calmly point out serious flaws in the thinking of philosophy or religion, you can find yourself with a person who is shaking with anger, because they do not want to be reasonable, and they do not want to look like a fool, either. It is an unsolvable problem, for that person, and experiments with animals have shown that animals pressed hard to solve a problem that is beyond their capability, will go crazy, suffer nervous breakdowns. Norman R. F. Maier of the University of Chicago published about this in 1949.

It is worth outlining this experiment. Rats were trained to a behavior, jumping at one of two doors, one of which was fastened shut, and one that opened, so that they got a reward, food. Then the conditions were changed, the door was fastened shut, and the behavior that had worked, no longer was effective, it brought pain, a bump on the nose, and it was beyond the ability of the rats to figure out the new system. Rats would often prefer to starve than to make a decision about how to behave, which door should they jump at, under the new conditions. But if forced to make a decision, by a stimulus of pain, they would always try the old training, choose the door that used to open, accept the pain if it didn’t. When this reaction was well established, the goal of food could be put out in the open, by opening the other door, and the rats would continue with the old painful behavior of jumping at the closed door. We are apt to say, “stupid rats”, but look at the situation. To change behavior is to go into the unknown. The rat knows what one behavior produces, a survivable pain. In this new painful world, what might the unknown contain? Openly displayed food actually is approached with great caution by wild animals, since predators are prone to hang around food sources.

The unknown is greatly feared by all creatures, including people. If the pain was increased, continual decisions were forced, to the point that is began to feel life threatening, the rats went crazy, banged madly into things, went into mental shock, nervous breakdown. People who have suffered nervous breakdowns tell of having no place to retreat, no escape. The rats were not given the opportunity to explore their decisions, but even exploring the unknown can be very frightening. Rats and people will often chose the pain that they know, rather than explore, because even the exploring is so scary. It takes a high level of mental sensitivity, a good sense of reason is part of that sensitivity, to explore and learn a new environment with confidence. Most people will self-destruct under the pressure, going back to their trained behavior with ever more frantic energy, until they go over the edge. It is not necessary for everyone to be driven over the edge. When one person in a position of authority goes, the whole structure can go in a chain reaction, with the stress level so high.

Seen from this angle, this seems very cold blooded. Truth as a weapon sounds devastating. But what is the choice? To allow the existing situation to continue looks even more devastating. Should we allow ignorance and outright lies to continue to hold the course of human affairs? I see no other choice.

Now, you want to be careful, because an angry person might choose to show you how he is right with physical force. That is what has led us to this point, after all, fixed hierarchy, fixed in place with physical force. It is a good idea to point out that physical strength is not a good indicator of mental strength, before things get to this point. If you tell a person that what you have to say may make them very angry, which is true, then people generally will resolve to show you to be wrong, and they hide their anger from you, perhaps even hide it from themselves, and explode in frustration further down the road, smash themselves trying to prove irrational things. You want to approach people as if they are potential friends, not enemies, for a few people will indeed be friends, and this keeps you out of trouble, finds friends, destroys enemies, all with the same action. Very energy efficient.

There are of course, some problems here. First, you have to shut down arguments of religion and philosophy. While people often go around and around endlessly on these things, it is really not hard to shut them down. Second, a problem that has plagued me, is the escape of status. If you haven’t spent time gathering status in this society, feeling that in such confusion it was better to gather knowledge and understanding, when you go to share what you have learned, you find that very few pay any attention to you because you don’t have status!

It is assumed that if you don’t have advanced degrees, then there are probably flaws in your arguments, and it doesn’t even matter if they can’t come up with those flaws. They assume that someone else in another field would have no problem knocking down your ideas, and do not even bother to check to see if this is true. It is frustrating, and amusing, too. It is clear that people are thinking on the level of chimpanzees to behave like this.

Konrad Lorenz, in his book, “On Aggression”, reports an experiment in which a low status chimpanzee was taught how to open a box with a complex opening, that contained fruit that chimpanzees like. This poor ape was completely unable to teach the others how to open the box. They would take the fruit from him when he opened the box, but simply could not grasp the idea that a low status member could teach them anything. When an alpha male was taught how to open the box, all the apes crowded around and learned from him how to open the box. It does make sense, in a limited way. High status apes win their status by out competing the rest in both brains and brawn. Low status apes are more likely to be wrong about things. All of this applies to humans, as well.

But clearly there are times when such instinctive behavior is flawed. Truth is where you find it, which anyone who is truly intelligent and deserves status is aware of. It doesn’t say much for the worth of high degrees, when so many who have them think on the level of chimpanzees. In my experience, anyway. We should consider whether information is based on repeatable observation and logic, more than whether a person has a reputation. A true scientist, faced with the fact of being unable to find the flaws in an argument, would check the situation further.

When we combine the understanding of this experiment, with the experiment on the rats I gave earlier, the problem reveals itself as double, not only is status lacking, but I’ve opened a different door to solve a problem, which looks attractive, but has elements of the frightening unknown.

More–> The above essay excerpt is from a little book called  Harmony, which I highly recommend.