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Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro: stop and think, about whether resources are OWNED and protected

The Grist online environmental magazine lent its pages this week to a pessimistic climate change activist, Adam D. Sacks, former director of the Center for Democracy and the Constitution.  Mr. Sacks, echoing a despairing piece (“Beyond the point of no return”) by Ross Gelbspan in Grist in Novermber 2007, in a piece entitled “The fallacy of climate activism” paints a remarkably grim and obviously heart-felt picture about the prospect of unstoppable climate change and other environmental challenges. 

While we may indeed be irretrievably embarked on what prove to be a very bumpy climate voyage, it`s Sack`s policy prescriptions that are most startling. Here are excerpts of the chief points:

In the 20 years since we climate activists began our work in earnest,
the state of the climate has become dramatically worse, and the change
is accelerating—this despite all of our best efforts.  Clearly
something is deeply wrong with this picture. …

Climate activists are obsessed with greenhouse-gas emissions and
concentrations.  Since global climate disruption is an effect of
greenhouse gases, and a disastrous one, this is understandable.  But it
is also a mistake. …

The first error is our failure to understand that greenhouse gases
are not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do
little but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms,
possibly somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.

The root cause, the source of the symptoms, is 300 years of our
relentlessly exploitative, extractive, and exponentially growing
technoculture, against the background of ten millennia of hierarchical
and colonial civilizations.
This should be no news flash, but the seductive promise of endless
growth has grasped all of us civilized folk by the collective throat,
led us to expand our population in numbers beyond all reason and to
commit genocide of indigenous cultures and destruction of other life on

To be sure, global climate disruption is the No. 1 symptom.  But if
planetary warming were to vanish tomorrow, we would still be left with
ample catastrophic potential to extinguish many life forms in fairly
short order: deforestation; desertification; poisoning of soil, water,
air; habitat destruction; overfishing and general decimation of oceans;
nuclear waste, depleted uranium, and nuclear weaponry—to name just a
(While these symptoms exist independently, many are intensified
by global warming.)

We will not change course by addressing each of these as separate issues; we have to address root cultural cause. …

The second error is our stubborn unwillingness to understand that
the battle against greenhouse-gas emissions, as we have currently
framed it, is over.

It is absolutely over and we have lost.

We have to say so.

There are three primary components of escalating greenhouse-gas concentrations that are out of our control …

The most expert scientific investigators have been blindsided by the
velocity and extent of recent developments, and the climate models have
likewise proved far more conservative than nature itself.  Given that
scientists have underestimated impacts of even small changes in global
temperature, it is understandably difficult to elicit an appropriate
public and governmental response….

Bitter climate truths are fundamentally bitter cultural truths. 
Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always—but always—ending
in overshot and collapse.  Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most
likely both.  We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to
acknowledge it or not.

Because of this civilization’s obsession with growth, its demise is
100 percent predictable.  We simply cannot go on living this way. Our
version of life on earth has come to an end.

Moreover, there are no “free market” or “economic” solutions.  And
since corporations must have physically impossible endless growth in
order to survive, corporate social responsibility is a myth.  The only
socially responsible act that corporations can take is to dissolve.

Some of our most important thinking happens while developing the
problem statement, and the better the problem statement the richer our
That’s why framing the global warming problem as
greenhouse-gas concentrations has proved to be such a dead end.

Here is the problem statement as it is beginning to unfold for me. 
We are all a part of struggling to develop this thinking together:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the
hardest collective task we’ve ever faced.  It has given us the
intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under
natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years—but
none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora’s Box tightly shut. 
We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our
bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand
nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life.  It is past
time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally
and sustainably.  Living locally means we are able get everything we
need within walking (or animal riding) distance.
We may eventually
figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to
bring things home, but our track record isn’t good and we’d better
think it through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local
resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic.  We have much
re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears
who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways
that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand

Desperate hopes notwithstanding, there are no high-tech solutions
here, only wishful thinking—the tools that got us into this mess are
incapable of getting us out.

All that being said, we needn’t discard all that we’ve learned, far from it. But we must use our knowledge with great discretion, and lock much of it away as so much nuclear weaponry and waste.

Time is running very short, but the forgiveness of this little blue
orb in a vast lonely universe will continue to astonish and nourish
us—if we only give it the chance.

Our obligation as activists, the first step, the essence, is to part the cultural veil at long last, and to tell the truth.


Wow.  It strikes me that though Sacks might very well be right the we have irreversibly embarked on a bumpy climate ride, are we to conclude not only that the best solution is to abandon civilization as we know it and live as hunter-gathers, but that we can actually persuade anyone to abandon the use of energy?  Not only does Sacks offer no prescription from getting here to where he thinks we need to go, but he completely ignores the institutional setting of the problems that concern him (tragedy of the commons), and thus any discussion of potential solutions (fprivate or community property institutions). Certainly environmentalists may wish to start experiments in alternative living – this might provide useful knowledge or even necessary in dire situations – but unless such experiments prove that they can provide shelter and sustenance for the world`s population, they will not address the needs of others who will make their own choices, based on modern civilization and technology.

I left a short message on the Grist comment thread, as follows:

Posted 2:32 am
27 Aug 2009

I`m with Dave, and more so.  There are no useful takeaways from
thise piece, because the author, while showing an understanding of
climate science, evinces no understanding of the institutional factors
that are driving climate change and other resource problems.

Garrett Hardin largely nailed the problem decades ago – the “Tragedy of the Commmons” that results when there are no clear or enforceable property rights (private or communmity) that enable users to protect resources from destructive exploitation.

the environmental nightmare of the formerly communist countries, the
resource abuse in kleptocratic developing countries, and incompetent
bureaucracies, sweet insider deals and poorly managed “public” lands
and fisheries have subsequently informed us of the corollary problem –
the tragedy of the government commons.)

We understand both the nature of our problems, and the directions in which solutions lie.  Let`s have at at `em.

BTW, I realize that we have barely begun to scratch the surface on addressing climate change; this is a tragedy of the commons problem on which it appears we can have only marginal impacts at best.

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