Dam my rivers and I’ll salt your crops;
Cut my trees and I’ll flood your plains.
Kill ‘pests’ and, by God, you’ll get a silent spring!
Go ahead — save every last baby’s life!
I’ll starve the lot of them later,
When they can savor to the full
The exquisite justice of truth’s retribution.

(From Garrett Hardin  “Carrying Capacity as an Ethical Concept”  (spring 1976))

No matter how hard we try we can't change the Laws of Nature. Even all the lobbying money in the world from all the major corporations in the world would have no effect. Imagine a humanitarian effort to reduce gravitational acceleration to a half meter per second/per second. This would save thousands of lives from falls and being struck by falling objects. And saving lives is a noble, humanitarian undertaking. But then, if the Laws of Nature were like the laws of human society - which we earnestly hope “bend towards justice” - and our humanitarian effort succeeded, a Law which we ignore at great peril would come into play – the Law of Unintended Consequences. Turning the arc of gravitational acceleration towards this kind of justice would cause the universe and all life within it to fly apart into nothingness.

The Law of Unintended Consequences is that Law which, time and time again, shoves our faces into the reality that we live within a complex web of interrelations that interact in a closed system. Changing one thing affects everything else. As our technology becomes ever more reductionistic and our scientific research ever more specialized we seem to be losing sight of this Law at the very time we should be paying vastly more attention to it.

We hold up human dignity as the shining goal of our civilization. We seek to maximize it. We seek to protect the weak and vulnerable and punish those who would do them harm. This sets up an opposition between the Laws of Humans and the Laws of Nature. The Law of Gravity doesn’t “care” if it’s a rock or a baby that is falling off a cliff – they will both accelerate at 9.8 meters per second/per second until they hit the ground.

Setting up a conflict between human, and humane, values and the amoral machinery of natural selection faces the peril of painting the natural world as a hostile, brutish environment emptied of any divinity. I don't see it this way; some of my most profound experience of the divine have taken place in the wilderness.That makes the workings of the Laws of Nature even more miraculous in their grand mathematical elegance. And, anyway, all of our humanitarian achievements require the energy and resources provided us by the Laws of Nature. We don’t create a separate, more humane world away from these Laws; we use these laws to create things like antibiotics and solar panels. Amoral is not the same as immoral. The Laws of Nature exist; we can use them to create justice or we can use them to create great injustice.

Over and over again we have declared great victories when we believe we have harnessed the Laws of Nature to our advantage. It isn't long after that that the Law of Unintended Consequences comes calling and we discover that our victory has failed to consider the planet we reside upon as a whole system - a whole, complex, finite  system. This failure explains why so many of our manipulations of the Laws of Nature are short term successes with disastrous long-term consequences.

For most of our existence as a species we have been harnessing the Laws of Chemical Thermodynamics – burning stuff for heat. This became a proud accomplishment of the human spirit when we discovered the vastly concentrated heat potential of fossilized organic material; as in coal, oil and natural gas. We built cities. We went to the moon. We crisscrossed the planet in seated comfort.

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We began burning fossil fuels about 300 years ago but it was only about a hundred years ago that coal replaced wood as the major source of energy for our modern industrial economy. With the discovery of oil and natural gas a few years later we were launched on our great burning spree of the 20th century; riding the wave of chemical thermodynamics proudly into a prosperous future of comfort and convenience for all.

It took us awhile, as it usually does, to come up against the Law of Unintended Consequences. That's how it works. We figure out a great short term marvel and then this Law takes it's own time to meander up and bite us viciously. This time it was failing to notice that burning stuff makes smoke.

In 1969, I spoke on invitation before the American Philosophical Society on the implications of rising atmospheric CO2. This rise was of interest, I said, because if it persisted it was likely to inhibit the escape of heat radiating upward from the Earth’s surface and bring about a warmer climate

The remainder of my talk was inspired by my having helped to write a report for the President’s Science Advisory Council. Roger Revelle, the lead author of the report, was struck by the fact that the human race was returning to the air a significant part of the carbon that had been slowly extracted by plants and buried in sediments during a half billion years of Earth history. He thought that measurable, perhaps even marked, changes in climate might occur from an increasing greenhouse effect. He believed that careful measurements should be made to check such predictions.

Echoing Revelle’s concern before the American Philosophical Society, I too pondered the significance of returning a half a billion years’ accumulation of carbon to the air. I appreciated his concern because of direct personal experience, watching CO2 rise from near the oft-stated background level of approximately 300 ppm (0.03%) to over 320 ppm. I wondered what the consequences of rising CO2 would be in, say, 30 years

From Rewards and Penalties of Monitoring the Earth by Charles Keeling

This may be the first time anyone mentioned this particular result of all our burning. Charles Keeling began his measurements in 1955 in Big Sur, but it took awhile for the magnitude of the unintended consequences of our orgy of burning carbon to register. In fact, for many, it is still not registering. There are millions of people who, like those at the Creation Museum believe that Jesus will return, suck all the excess CO2 out of the air and return us to the Kingdom of Heaven. No worries!

For the rest of us we are facing a serious problem. Our prosperity, population size and technological prowess have been purchased by exploiting Laws we failed to consider as parts of a unified, whole, entire and limited planet. We are caught between the extensive suffering and death that continuing to burn carbon will cause and the extensive suffering and death that will result should we stop doing it. And we are finally beginning to realize the full extent and terrible nature of this problem.

The Laws of Nature are clear that this burning will inexorably lead to harsh and deadly changes in the climate of the earth. And they also just as clearly say we cannot continue to support the improving lifestyles and growing populations we are presently experiencing without burning carbon. And there is no corrupt "Congress of the Laws of Nature" that we can lobby or buy off to change these harsh realities and allow us to continue our greedy drive for short-term fossil-fueled profits.

So what do we do?

There are many noble and committed souls who are dedicating their lives to finding solutions to this intolerable situation. Windmill builders, solar energy engineers, green designers, reproductive health specialists; a long list with some major successes. There are miraculous solutions being proposed. These people deserve our honor and respect.

Garrett Hardin in  The Tragedy of the Commons warns us about this, however,

A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.
And it is, ultimately, changes in human values and ideas of morality that are required, in my opinion.

What kind of changes?

I like the Rights for Nature Articles in the Ecuadorian Constitution:

Chapter 7th: Rights for Nature Art. 71. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public organisms. The application and interpretation of these rights will follow the related principles established in the Constitution.

The State will motivate natural and juridical persons as well as collectives to protect nature; it will promote respect towards all the elements that form an ecosystem.

I also like this from E.F. Schumacher’s “Small Is Beautiful”
the modern economist... is used to measuring the 'standard of living' by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is 'better off' than a man who consumes less.  A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption
“The maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption” while respecting the rights of Nature to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” These are the kinds of human values and ideas of morality that we need to encourage and support; changing minds and hearts on a planet-wide scale.

It’s too bad we can't have a Constitution which enshrines these principles. Of course, rewriting the Constitution with our present political and economic systems in place would be a disaster and would certainly come nowhere close to such sentiments. The folks at the Creation Museum and the Masters of our economy would see to that. But I do think it’s possible to change human values and ideas of morality.  

These things are happening. Populations are declining in some countries - without plagues, famines or wars. Ecological economists are trying to inject some sanity into the free market lunacy that is presently hijacking economic thought. Values and morality are bending towards respect for nature and deeper understandings of happiness that reduce consumption. Every protest or populist action increases these changes in people's minds and hearts. This may even be more valuable than, for example, actually stopping the Keystone XL. Which I believe should be stopped. But stopping it won't solve the problem.

The question is if these changes in us are happening fast enough to ameliorate the inexorable changes in our environment dictated by the Laws of Nature. We can’t alter the mechanisms of these changes without changing the physical realities of our civilization. These changes are based upon raw mathematical quantities like gigatons of Carbon or the amount of land needed to support billions of new human beings. They can’t be lobbied away with appeals to justice and they can’t be papered over with rhetoric.

And they can’t be solved by the execrable mythology of the free market. A myth which accelerates the worst in us by enshrining greed and short-term corporate profits above all else. A myth which takes us exactly in the wrong direction regarding the kind of human values and ideas of morality we need to develop.

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.  – Garrett Hardin The Tragedy of the Commons
I can’t predict the future. I do know that sometimes when I contemplate the trends apparent in our present situation I am terrified by the magnitude of the predicament in which we find ourselves. How can something like a change in values and morality be considered any kind of solution to such overwhelming problems?

The Tragedy of the Commons was primarily concerned about the population problem:

Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
If there were just a few million of us we could all lead profligate lives burning as much carbon as we desired and the great cycles of our planetary home would easily deal with it. But, as we all know, the Law of Evolution has determined that we are descendents of ancestors who perfected strategies for maximizing the number of surviving offspring to reach reproductive age and, themselves, leave large numbers of offspring. And, harshly, always, in the past it was death – by predation, disease, famine and competition - that kept these strategies from allowing any species to cover the earth and monopolizes its resources.

So, now we’re faced with far too many of us; all with biological drives to consume resources and leave offspring. Talking about changing morality and human values to counteract these massive forces seems like trying to stop a river by blowing on it. But without these kinds of changes, even if the Laws of Nature chopped us back to just a few million individuals, those millions would eventually figure out how to do it all over again unless they had undergone some fundamental changes in their thinking, their values and their morals.

So that’s it. That's my fabulous solution to the huge problems facing us. Doesn't really sound like much. Naive and idealistic, maybe. Silly, maybe. But, maybe, if enough people blew on the river for long enough we could bring it to a halt and change its course. Maybe.

Originally posted to grains of sand on Tue Feb 12, 2013 at 11:14 AM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots, Climate Hawks, Climate Change SOS, and Community Spotlight.

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