There is Still Time
by David Simcox
Peter Seidel, a longtime advocate of population reduction and friend and supporter of NPG, has released a new book: There is Still Time (360 Editions; Cincinnati, Ohio, 2015 – available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble).
This short book asks and answers critical questions for all of us concerned about humanity’s future on this planet: in the face of increasingly evident signs of impending global environmental collapse, what keeps humanity and its political leadership from mobilizing to prevent it?
Seidel has given years of thought to his subject. He first explored this troubling question in a 1998 book, Invisible Walls: Why We Ignore the Damage We Inflict on Our Planet — and Ourselves (available through Amazon).
Is There Still Time?
The title of Seidel’s latest, There is Still Time, implies a cautious optimism that man can learn to restrain his consumption, his numbers and his predation in time to avoid planetary environmental collapse. But some political and scientific leaders looking at the limited indifference toward environmental degradation in our governance may have seen a questioning title – such as Is There Still Time? – as more appropriate given the earth’s parlous state.
Indeed, an alarming number of concerned scientists and environmentalists believe that time has already run out: humanity’s uncaring ways of overpopulating the planet and abusing its support systems have already wreaked irreparable damage to our habitat. Thus, even without further damage, past excesses may well trigger calamitous feedback loops. Seidel himself accepts at least the possibility that environmental damage may have passed the tipping point (P. 101). But while the accumulated damage is grave, he still believes – or hopes – that with critical changes in human behavior and in man’s outlook toward the environment that sustains him, the destruction can be mitigated in time to preserve adequate resources for a smaller number of our descendants.
Some world leaders are quick to see hope in the willingness of the world’s nations to agree (in principle) to accept sacrifices in the Convention of Climate Change concluded in Paris in 2015. But the world’s glacial pace in reaching even this non-binding agreement illustrates the prevailing apathy about long range environmental problems, the shortage of rational thinking about enlightened self-interest, and an absence of a sense of urgency. Sadly, the persistence of apathy and wishful thinking deplored by Seidel is amply demonstrated by the sizable number of U.S. legislators who opposed this agreement and continue to deny man-made global warming.
Global warming was first identified in 1896 and identified as a problem worth U.S. and international concern in the 1960s. But even the largely procedural UN “Framework” Convention on Climate Change was not achieved until 2002, and the recent UN “declaration-of-good-intentions” Convention more than a decade later. A leading U.S. global warming foe, Bill McKibben was among those unimpressed by the 2015 Paris agreement. He noted that if implementation of this latest pact takes as long as it did to just to reach it, the earth will have long been fried by global warming.
Humanity’s Outdated Beliefs, and Their Manipulation
Peter Seidel notes at the outset that he is neither a psychologist or anthropologist (He is an urban planner). But his diagnosis of outdated or self-defeating human beliefs and behavior toward the environment shows a scientist’s penchant for close observation and inference, along with the thinker’s imagination to see the bigger picture and alternative futures for humanity. He is no stranger to pessimism about the long term outcome. His 2010 fanciful book, 2045: A Story of Our Future (available through Amazon) imagines an overpopulated, dystopian America of the future beset by water, food and energy shortages, collapsing infrastructure and authoritarian government.
For a fairly short book, There is Still Time has a lot of recommendations for positive changes: in the way we think about our place on the planet; in our misguided politics which idolize economic growth; in our economy of mass consumption nurtured by the advertising industry; and in our fiscal systems, which perversely subsidize population growth and exhaustion of resources, while often penalizing – through taxation – the prudent use of resources.
A particular target of the author is our worship of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the measuring stick for economic progress – a measurement sacred to neo-classical economists that counts depletion of natural resources as an economic gain. He calls for use of other, less material indicators of welfare, such a General Satisfaction Index.
This book is also a valuable reference tool. Part Two of it, Our Planet Today, edited by Gary Gardner of State of the World, with contributions by expert environmentalists, assesses the extent of over-population, over-consumption and environmental pillage (P. 117). Gray and his essayists examine the status and outlook in such critical specific concerns as man’s ecological footprint, food and cropland, the oceans, climate change and biodiversity.
As Seidel sees it, a profound shaping factor in modern man’s outlook is his retention of the instincts of his hunter-gatherer ancestors. Survival then was a day-to-day struggle and life was brutish and short. Humans had no place for long-term concerns about resources, cooperation for mutual benefit with other hunter bands, or imagining rational, alternative future ways of surviving. In an era of short time horizons and high child mortality, population growth was seen as a mark of biological success and divine favor.
But what is needed now is rational thought to replace our prevailing “groupthink,” to recognize man’s proper place in earth’s environment, and to demand full respect for that environment from our manipulative political and corporate elites. Along with that, the author urges the world’s educators to instill a greater respect for science and earth’s limits, and greater resistance to the siren-call of an ever-ascending standard of living.
Getting There from Here
Siedel’s prescription demands an epochal change in human beliefs and behavior. Perhaps his book underestimates the major changes in support for environmental protection and population restraint we have seen since World War II. The volume of serious books and other publications has spiraled, along with the number and power of major environmental advocacies and U.S. and international environmental protection agencies, such as UNEP, and EPA and its state government and local government counterparts. But the author is correct that much more must be done and with greater urgency.
His diagnosis calls for a near war-time mobilization of environmentalists, churches and civic bodies and their organizations and supporters. We must reform and expand teaching about man’s place in nature. We must educate media and political leaders on the severity of the crisis and press for action. And we must pressure our economic leaders and policymakers to abandon economic growth and consumption as ends in themselves and move toward a world economy that is sustainable for the long haul.
In what might be a mandate for us all, Seidel summarizes eloquently the essential goals of this fundamental re-ordering on humanity’s behavior:
“…to halt the downward spiral we are now in by significantly reducing the burdens we are placing on the world, stopping waging war on each other, sharing resources equitably, and recognizing what we really makes us happy, a smaller population can lead rewarding, enjoyable lives on Earth far into the future.”
Latest posts by David Simcox (see all)
- Growth of Foreign-Born Population Surges as U.S. Economy Recovers - November 15, 2016
- There is Still Time (NPG Booknote) - February 2, 2016
- Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot – Photo Essay: Humanity Spreads – Life Supports Shrink (NPG Booknote) - June 16, 2015