We live in fraught, interesting, and dangerous times. The inescapable underlying realities are shaped by the consequences of accelerating climate change. The common shared, and disparate human experiences in the ecosphere now express rapidly deepening dislocation of our experiences in our familiar lifeways.
Are we, in fact, trapped on a path toward ecological self-destruction and collapse? There are 100-year floods now occurring yearly. Epochal drought shrinks once huge lakes and reduces mighty rivers to trickles leading to failed harvests and economic ruin in the rich nations and starvation for the poor. Class 5 hurricanes and typhoons devastate communities globally.
At times it feels that we can only make futile and helpless efforts to try to push back the rising ocean tides that our fossil fuel-powered industrial civilization has unleashed.
And yet as Emily Dickinson wrote:
"Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops - at all [...}
I want to suggest that, in fact, what may appear to be a daunting and impossible task for individuals facing a global calamity is difficult but not at all impossible if we each act as if our lives and our collective futures depend upon our actions because they do.
Our successful response to mitigating climate change and building a durable ecological civilization as a consequence of the pursuit of sustainability on all levels is within our power. We can be guided by a philosophical doctrine that I call “essentialism”.
Essentialism means to be mindful and guided by our existence as creations within the biosphere and participants as self-conscious actors in the fundamental co-evolutionary response of the biosphere in response to all influences. This is a stream of equilibrating and coevolutionary actions within the biosphere to help maintain and sustain and, if necessary, restore conditions favorable to all life. It is essential, yet voluntary, to align ourselves with ecological norms. This is an example of self-conscious acts that serve as evolutionary selected collective behavior with consequences that accelerate selection.
As a species, humanity can use our minds and our ever-evolving technological power to participate in the fundamental dynamic of the biosphere in pursuit of sustainability. This means focusing on agriculture, forestry, aquaculture, and industrial ecology in pursuit of ecological restoration and habitat revitalization, supporting wildlands and species protection and natural means of carbon dioxide removal and sequestration.
These measures form a complex and interactive matrix that creates positive feedback loops, sequesters carbon and protects and restores habitat. Replanting trees from deforested areas, for example, is much more than just typical mono-cropping for future logging. It will include careful attention to habitat and the use of measures such as genetic engineering to increase root carbon uptake and sequestration, and understanding and optimizing the relationship of the roots with forest arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM), and ectomycorrhiza (EM).
A spectacular example of the biosphere in action is the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum unleashed by mass vulcanism pouring huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to 3,000 parts per million, 52 million years ago, albeit over a much longer time period than humanity’s fossil fuel imperium. All the ice melted. The sea level increased by some forty feet. The Arctic ocean became a semitropical sea with limited circulation and a top layer of warm fresh water from rivers pouring into the arctic ocean.
This established ideal conditions for the growth over time of enormous mats of tiny Azolla ferns. The rivers also poured lots of phosphorous into the ocean. Azolla thrived, doubling its biomass every three days. The math behind a three-day doubling leads very quickly to enormous mats of Azolla taking advantage of warm water, phosphorus and unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide. The Azolla removed and fixed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, died, and sank to the bottom of the ocean with little oxygen eventually becoming the arctic oil deposits we find today. Azolla over 800,000 years reduced the atmospheric carbon dioxide to temperate climate levels.
This is the biosphere in action in response to all influences. Azolla cultivation could also represent one of the many tools that humanity could use in our self-conscious pursuit of ecological restoration through biological negative emissions (NE) not simply reducing fossil fuel emissions but removing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
This means the application of restorative basic methods like planting a trillion trees globally, turning agriculture and food waste into biochar and used as soil fertilizer, large-scale use of digesters to turn manure and food waste into fertilizer and biogas, to the large-scale treatment of sewage to create a mixture of fertilizers, syn gas, biofuels, to large scale cultivation of coastal kelp plantations for carbon sequestration, food, and biofuels.
This is not just something new. Biochar called terra preta was used for centuries in the Amazon for fertilizer to help make jungle soils support agriculture. An aggressive global biologically based negative emissions program to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans is a key and essential part of our response to climate change and ecological restoration. This is far more useful than building machines to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or capture and sequester carbon from fossil fuel plants.
Essentialism provides a broad framework for action guided by the dynamics and facts of life within the ecosphere which provides a wide scope for remediation. It does not require or express a reductionist trope of economic or political determinism. Rather, essentialism is rooted in the expression of the value that supports the co-evolutionary response of sustainability in reaction to existing conditions. And in this case, in part, dynamics are created and unleashed by our collective behavior.
We measure by the minute the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 past per million in pre-industrial times to 325 ppm in 1970 and 419.8 ppm on Feb. 19, 2023.The highest in at least 800.000 years. Notice how the rate of increase has markedly accelerated from 1970 as the global fossil-fuel-powered economy and expanded rapidly.
We can also use Clean Technica’s 2022 A 100 Percent Renewable Electricity Calculator For The United States spreadsheet to run your own simulations based on four decades of real hourly solar and wind data and adjust the amount of solar, wind, and storage to optimize the costs per kilowatt hour of a 100% renewable energy grid.
There is a wide range of possible responses and values to inform the response to accelerating climate disasters. There is no inevitable future social and economic set of relations that we must be drawn to. In that regard, our freedom provides wide space for difference and the emergence of new forms, of things not yet experienced. There are market systems that do not mean capitalist maximization and senseless ecological destruction.
Market systems can be focused on ecological value and on self-management, of B-corporations and cooperatives as the norm, on, redefining fiduciary responsibility as the pursuit of making ecological economic growth mean ecological improvement and the pursuit of ecological and social justice. These are a result of the practice of democracy shaping the nature of business.
We can follow economic paths for community-based entrepreneurship and cooperation and sustainability. We can use, adapt, and refine development tools followed for example, by the loan circles for millions of poor women by the Grameen Bank model, of the high technology Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque Region of Spain with its cooperative bank, integrated industrial coop system, and comprehensive educational institutions, the extensive million members Italian cooperative network.
Our values inform and shape our choices and the paths to follow. Response to climate change can vary widely from complex democratic processes to hierarchical authoritarianism and other possible orders in between.
It’s important to understand that ecological and economic values can be expressed in radically different contexts. We can value sustainable economic conduct by monetizing such value. For example, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the EPA now value carbon displacement at $150 per metric ton of carbon dioxide now displaced by renewables and efficiency. This as a regulatory asset can be monetized on the books of banks as paid-in capital and as cash to be invested in future carbon dioxide displacement.
The common magic of banking means 10 dollars invested for each dollar of a bank’s resources. Thus 37 gigatons of industrial carbon dioxide emissions provide a potential yearly creation of 370 billion dollars in sustainable assets for investment in further ecological improvement. It’s also important to understand that such mechanisms can be practiced by both authoritarian systems and democratic ones.
Trillions will be spent on the efficient renewable energy transformation from fossil fuels. A key part of the pursuit both of climate change mitigation and social and ecological justice is to make this transition mean that all energy users become energy owners with equity and a seat at the table determining our futures. This ownership transformation can be accomplished by taking advantage in the U.S. of tax equity and the investment tax credit to transfer ownership of systems from builders to energy users, in year six financed by the stream of income from the energy users and low-interest revenue bonds.
Top-Down authoritarianism and democratic choices
The imposition of top-down authoritarianism is, of course, one option supported by the values of obedience, conformity, fixed hierarchy, punishment, pyramidal power, and orgiastic crowd behavior in support. The value theme is obeying order expressed globally. Mitigation of inequalities is only instrumental and undertaken only if necessary to maintain the hierarchy. This values system is an expression of unfreedom as a core value embracing the maintenance of existing social relations and inequality unless so ordered by the hierarchy. Top-down authoritarianism embraces the ecological realities in pursuit of ecological ends as being a convergence between maintaining hierarchical power and ecological healing.
The value system in pursuit of an ecological civilization supports democratic processes expressed by new market rules, laws, and regulations that make economic behavior and economic growth result in ecological improvement within the context of ecological and social justice. The value theme is re-creating ecological order and global convergence of sustainable norms for all. Mitigation of inequalities is a crucial expression of a global convergence on sustainable norms. This value system is an expression of freedom and substantive equality and cooperation as core values. It rejects the endless maintenance of existing social relations and inequality that both threaten ecological collapse and ecological and social justice as key requirements for ecological success.
That means, in practice, for example, global convergence on global per-person carbon dioxide emissions at 2 tons per person per year. 2 tons is an ecologically sustainable level if combined with bio-energy negative emissions (NE). In 2019 data, the U.S. is now at 14.7 tons per person. Cambodia is 1.0. Nigeria is 6 India is 1.8.
Essentialism can be expressed in multiple value systems. I consider authoritarianism both undesirable and sub-optimal in meeting and maintaining ecological ends effectively. But either path must address the co-evolutionary basic functions of the biosphere in response to all influences has enabled the survival and restoration of life in the face of repeated mass extinctions, driven by climate disasters, by the consequence of natural events like massive volcanism increasing global carbon dioxide that melted all the ice, or meteor strike that ended the rule of the dinosaurs that turned day into night.
And now, we face mass extinction in the progress of our own collective making, of the Anthropocene. It is our self-conscious essential imperative to participate in and lead the healing response to industrial excess that will lead not just to climate mitigation but can build a sustainable ecological civilization.
Ecological civilization is the emergence of a new model for a sustainable future that means economic growth results in ecological improvement. For example, the global transition to the use of renewable energy to drive our civilization and enormously reduce pollution, depletion, and ecological damage. Essentialism means this transformation must be systematic and all-encompassing, expressed not just by renewable energy but encompassing agriculture, forestry, industrial ecology, and aquaculture.
Essentialism is rooted in ecological reality and for all living beings and our self-conscious participation in healing response to the catastrophe we have created by our technology and our earth-shaping actions within the biosphere.
Our accelerating technology has meant that humanity is indeed suffering from the apparent consequences of eating from the tree of knowledge. We have, we thought, subdued nature and freed ourselves from its restrictions and limitations. I watched three men with machines clear a Mink Hills mountainside of trees to build a trophy house on top using a feller buncher on treads to grab groups of trees and eviscerate them near the ground with a huge spinning blade and then deliver the trees to a skidder that carried them to a chipper that ground most of the trees into chips to make paper or fuel power boilers.
We are at a decisive pivot point for our civilization. It’s now essential to guide our behavior on the basis of ecological imperatives. Our choices and values matter. Our actions will substantially determine whether or not we can substantially mitigate the threat of ecological global calamity and collapse. Our response to climate change can be the building of a sustainable and peaceful ecological civilization. Self-destruction or revitalization are the choices on the table. Please choose wisely.
Carbon emissions per person per year by country, here and here.
Azolla and Paleocene - Eocene Thermal Maximum.
Environmental and genetic effects on the formation of ectomycorrhizal and arbuscular mycorrhizal associations in cottonwoods.
Terra Petra in Amazonia.
Clean Technica’s 2022 A 100 Percent Renewable Electricity Calculator For The United States.