I would like you to engage in a small thought experiment. Let us imagine we live in a small tribe on a forested island, that produces saws from trees. The trees are then used to produce new saws. The saws are relatively brittle and can chop down just ten trees, before it breaks down and a new one has to be produced.
We will estimate that it takes five trees to make a saw. Four trees are used to melt the iron that’s used for the blade, one tree is used to produce the handle for the saw. The other five trees that a saw can chop down are used by the tribe, to repair the huts they live in and to make a fire that’s used to cook food.
So far, the tribe can sustain its activities. It chops down ten trees, uses five of those to make a new saw, then uses five trees to repair its huts and cook food. What this means is that the tribe can continue to chop down trees, as long as there are trees. The destruction continues unabated, until there is nothing left to destroy.
But now, let us presume that there are different types of trees to exploit for our tribe. The trees our tribe is familiar with are known as “good trees”, there are a hundred of them left on their island. There are also sick trees, that are sometimes rotten on the inside. There are fifty of them. One out of ten sick trees is too full of rotten wood to use, despite taking just as much effort to chop down.
In addition to the sick trees, there are fifty oak trees. Oak trees are sacred to our tribe, so they don’t cut them down. Their wood is also so hard, that a saw that attempts to chop down such trees can only chop down eight of them, before it breaks down.
What happens when our tribe runs out of good trees? Our tribe decides to cut down sick trees. Our tribe is lucky, until it cuts down the tenth sick tree, whose wood is so degraded that it’s effectively useless. Now the tribe is left with nine trees. It uses five of them to prepare food to avoid starvation, then it has four trees left to produce a new saw. It uses four of them to melt iron, but now is left without any tree to use for the handle. The tribe can’t cut down any more trees and their society falls apart.
But now, let’s presume that after fifty good tribes have been cut down, someone comes up with a mechanism by which the tribe can use just four trees for cooking and repairing homes. A little mound of dirt around the bowl ensures that less heat is lost to the environment and the water cooks faster. The member of the tribe, who hoped to reduce his tribe’s reliance on wood, is treated as a hero.
But what happens? Instead of collapsing after the good trees have been destroyed, the tribe can continue its destructive orgy on the island, chopping down fifty sick trees as well. After all, although the pace at which good trees are chopped down may have slowed down, the sick trees became a viable resource to exploit as well.
Similarly, if our tribe discovered some technique to use three trees to melt the iron, the tribe would eventually be faced with the question of whether it should chop down its sacred oak trees or accept starvation and perish. Quite clearly, the sacred oak trees would be lost.
What we see here is Jevon’s paradox. More efficient use of a resource means that more of the resource will be used. This was first observed with coal use in Victorian era England. This is in complete contrast to what we think happens. For environmental considerations, we drive our cars less, eat less meat, stop drinking bottled water and stop heating our homes. We use our resources more efficiently and waste less of them. If Jevon’s paradox applies here too, our attempt to save our environment would merely mean increased destruction.
Let’s return to our island. One of our tribe’s elders has made some calculations. She estimates that if more than sixty percent of the island’s trees are lost, the wind would be so hard that the other forty percent would eventually fall during storms. With all trees gone, the wind will blow the fertile soil away, the island would become a barren rock and all life on the island would perish, including our villagers.
What does our tribe’s elder recommend? If she is ignorant, she would insist that the tribe has to build mounds around the cooking bowl, to ensure that the rate of trees lost is reduced by ten percent. This ensures that our tribe buys itself some time, but eventually begins to exploit the sick trees too.
But what if our tribal elder is wise? Our tribal elder tells the villagers who are cooking food to sacrifice some food to the Gods. The villagers now have to cook more food. Six trees are used in the process. Just four trees are now left for those who have to produce a new saw. Those tasked with producing the new saw fail to carry out their task. The tribe can no longer continue to chop down trees.
Now that its unsustainable lifestyle has been destroyed, the tribe is faced with a crisis. This crisis is likely to be painful, but the earlier the crisis struck, the more trees were left on the island. This means that whatever transition the tribe will have to make will hopefully go smoother. An island with more trees should typically sustain more villagers.
So, as an analogy, perhaps if you really want to help avoid global warming, the best solution is not to ride a bus, but to buy an SUV. Of course, this is not sufficient to persuade you. The question you have to ask yourself however is as following: Do you live frugally because you think this will genuinely address climate change, or do you live frugally because it appeals to you at a deeper, guttural level?
Living frugally allows you to feel as if you are not morally complicit in the destruction. In addition, it allowed your ancestors to perform tasks more efficiently than a competing tribe. A frugal tribe that can feed ten people with a plot of land can typically conquer the land of a tribe that can feed just five people with a similar plot of land.
So what are you supposed to do with this information? Are you supposed to swap your bicycle for an SUV? This is not the point I am arguing. Rather, my point is that mainstream environmentalism is unlikely to address our crisis. Instead, a more radical and pervasive critique of the totality that we have come to inhabit is necessary.
If the impact we have on our environment is bad, the solution is not to be less wasteful in the processes we carry out. Rather, the processes we carry out have to be rejected altogether and exchanged for processes that serve to enrich life, rather than to function as a burden on life. This is in fact what non-human organisms do.
All organisms have an ecological niche, through which they help other lifeforms thrive. Just like us, a beaver chops down a tree to build a bed for itself, but rather than building suburban neighborhoods with sterilized grass lawns and enormous parking lots to house the beds in, the beaver’s dam provides a habitat for young fish. In addition, the bacteria that can thrive at the bottom of the beaver dam break down pesticides and remove excessive nutrients from the stream.
What does it mean for us humans? One outcome of this strain of thinking is to reconsider our role within our environment. In what way can we sustain ourselves while serving to enrich life and help other species thrive? Through permaculture principles it’s possible to restore degraded soils and restore life to a damaged environment.
Also important to note is that many rainforests are suffering from a lack of large mammals. Nutrient dispersal dropped by 98% after large mammals went extinct. These mammals walk around and deposit feces and urine, as well as their own bodies when they die. In addition, rainforests depend on large animals that eat fruit to disperse seeds of trees. The trees that carry such seeds tend to store more carbon than other trees.
When large mammals that once inhabited the rainforests are gone, it’s clear that humans can play a meaningful biological role there. This requires us to integrate into our environment, rather than to transform our environment to suit our wishes. This is the difference between hunter-gatherers and industrial civilization. Tribes that inhabit the rainforest can play a meaningful ecological role, as long as they do not have access to destructive modern technologies.
But even for those of us humans who can not be sustained by the rainforest there are options to pursue. Our atmosphere contains 777 petagram of carbon. Our global vegetation contains 650 petagram of carbon, while the top one meter of our soils contains 1500 petagram of carbon. Simply increasing the share of land habitable to life is the most viable path we have towards sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition to this, albedo changes as a result of abandoning tillage would be enough to reduce global temperatures by 0.2 degree Celsius according to one estimate.
Life does a lot more than merely storing carbon. Coral reefs and other living ecosystems create clouds through emissions of dimethyl sulfide. Emissions of dimethyl sulfide in the pre-industrial atmosphere were enough to reduce global temperatures by ~3.5 W/m2. Most of this is emitted during periods of intense heat. Fish and cetaceans play a vital role in nutrient recycling in the ocean, through trophic cascades, as nutrients from the depth of the ocean are dumped in the top of the ocean again in the form of whale poo.
So what can humans in industrial civilization do? We could stop the practice of bottom trawling, which was actually illegal in medieval times. Instead we could build artificial coral reefs in the ocean and restore oyster reefs. We could abandon tillage and transition to regenerative agriculture.
In addition to this, we could reimplement trade barriers and rely on locally produced food, whose seeds can be reused in their native environment. This would encourage people to reintegrate into their native environment. Free trade, globalization and supranationalism are hugely prohibitive to this goal. It encourages migration of people into cities and foreign countries, away from lands with which they have a natural relationship. It also replaces an organic sense of belonging with a spiritual emptiness that is medicated through consumerism and greed.
I am quite convinced that people can intuitively understand what a healthy environment looks like. The problem we face is not preordained, but rather, a consequence of the fundamental values of our culture, which favors isolation of mankind from nature over reintegration. To put it bluntly, this culture teaches men that the goal in life for them to aspire to is to occupy some petty paper-pushing position in an office, rather than to stick their hands into the soil and become part of the living natural world. Catastrophe is a choice we make.