So how can we use what we know about the structure of industrial civilization, and about the most urgent problems it has caused, to inform our strategy and tactics? It’s clear that some “solutions” can be immediately discounted or deprioritized because they won’t work in a reasonable time frame, and there’s no time to waste. Unfortunately, most of the solutions offered by apologists for those in power fall into this category.
Ineffective or less effective solutions are likely to have one or more of the following characteristics:
They may reinforce existing power disparities. Virtually any solution based on corporate capitalism is likely to meet this criterion. When Monsanto genetically engineers a plant to require less pesticides, they’re not doing it to help the planet—they’re doing it to make money, and so to increase their power. Carbon trading schemes are a clear example of this problem; they are capitalist shell games that allow corporations to rake in more profits while avoiding any real accountability and passing the costs on to regular people. (If it’s not clear to you how this would play out, consider how much money the average person paid in income taxes last year, and ask yourself why General Electric paid zero dollars.)73
Ineffective solutions also suppress autonomy or sustainability that impedes profit. This is true both now and historically. Another way of phrasing this would be to say any solutions that require those in power to act against their own self-interest or otherwise behave in a way that fundamentally contradicts their known patterns of action will almost undoubtedly be ineffective, because these solutions will not be voluntarily implemented by those in power.
Solutions that rely primarily on technofixes or technological and political elites acting through large-scale industrial infrastructure will be ineffective. Adequate technologies already exist (for example, the hand wells in India) to meet human needs, but are either not implemented or are ignored in favor of more damaging technologies. Furthermore, suggested solutions are often stacked on top of (and so, increase dependence on) the existing and destructive infrastructure, rather than routing around it. Photovoltaic solar panels are suggested as a solution to problems caused by industrial civilization, but making those panels requires more industry and doesn’t address root causes.
Solutions that encourage increasing consumption and population growth as a “solution” to existing problems also won’t work. If you’ve gotten this far, we probably agree that any solution that encourages people to consume more—even if it’s a nifty new hybrid SUV—is probably not going to be a suitable answer to our problem. And increasing population as a solution to human problems, is, of course, silly. This course of action is sometimes argued for by suggesting that more humans bring more creativity. But doubling the number of people on the planet will not double the quality or quantity of solutions produced. Twice the number of people will, however, eat twice as much, drink twice as much, use twice as much energy, and so on.
Attempts to solve a single problem without regard to other problems will also be ineffective. This sort of issue crops up often with “solutions” intended to solve energy problems. For example, ethanol from corn has been pitched repeatedly as a replacement for oil. But the widespread use of corn to make ethanol would worsen habitat destruction (by requiring more agricultural land) as well as worsening soil and water drawdown. Furthermore, ethanol from corn produces only a small amount of energy beyond that required to grow and process the corn.
Ditto for solutions that involve great delays and postpone action until the distant future—for example, voluntary emissions reductions with a target date of 2050. It’s almost impossible to catalogue the consequences of further delay. Each day means more sustainable cultures destroyed, more species rendered extinct, more tipping points passed, more permanent losses. Each day also means an increasing gap between human population and carrying capacity, a gap with which we will have to reckon in the not-too-distant future.
It’s true that there is growing interest in ecology and living sustainably in much of the world. But regardless of how you measure it, you cannot reasonably argue that this psychological shift toward sustainability is happening faster than the damage done by industrial civilization. It’s great that there is a growing interest in organic gardening in the first world, but, meanwhile, millions of land-based peoples living in the third world are being forced from their land which means they can no longer grow their own food. The first-world organic gardeners are just a trickle compared to that flood. And prior to World War II and the invention of chemical pesticides, all gardening was organic. We aren’t exactly gaining ground.
A similar problem applies technologically. Some people argue that we simply have to wait until advanced green technology surpasses unsustainable modern technology, but this doesn’t make sense; unsustainable technologies have an economic edge because they take more than they give back.74 Take the problem of overdrawn aquifers in China, where water tables are dropping several meters per year. It may still be possible to use hand-operated pumps in these areas. Let’s say we wait a couple of decades for really cheap solar panels and pumps to become accessible to rural Chinese people. The water table will have fallen so far that they will need those solar-powered pumps just to survive because their hand wells will be dry. The purpose of those pumps will be to compensate for the ecological damage caused during the time it took to develop them—in other words, it won’t be any easier to get water, and it will require more expense and equipment that they will have to pay for. One step forward and two steps back. Since damage is happening so much faster than recovery can, and is often more severe than even the most optimistic technologies could compensate for, significant delays are not acceptable.
Solutions that focus on changing individual lifestyles will also not be effective. As we’ve already discussed in this book and elsewhere, our problems are primarily of a systemic, not an individual, nature. Furthermore, lifestyle solutions encourage people to think of themselves as consumers and act in the capacity of consumers. This is an extremely limiting approach that distracts us from our identities as human beings, as members of human and living communities, and as living creatures in general. The idea that vast numbers of people would simply withdraw from the capitalist economy is a fantasy. If we had a large enough number of committed people to make a dent in global consumption, we would have a large enough number of committed people to exert serious political force against destructive institutions.
On a closely related note, many ineffective suggested solutions are primarily based on token, symbolic, or trivial actions, and a superficial approach. These kinds of solutions are what William R. Catton Jr. calls “cosmeticism”—“faith that relatively superficial adjustments in our activities” will keep the industrial age going—and they result from an acknowledgment of the fact that industrial civilization is destroying the world, but a refusal to accept the full implications of this problem. Though changing to compact fluorescents may offer some relief from guilt, to consider that as any kind of a meaningful solution is to ignore the nature of our predicament.
Others focus on superficial or secondary causes, rather than the primary causal factor. An example of this is the central focus that some people and organizations have on overpopulation. Damage caused by humans is primarily the result of overconsumption, not overpopulation. Though they may consume thirty times the resources of a third worlder, by focusing on overpopulation first worlders can displace responsibility for various problems to “those people.” This ignores the fact that even very large families of third worlders likely consume less than a single first worlder. Furthermore, the overpopulation that does exist is largely caused by unsustainable industrial technology and the use of resource drawdown and conquest to create phantom carrying capacity.75
Arguments around overpopulation are often framed in a racist fashion that places blame on people of color in third world countries. Furthermore, problems like malnutrition or hunger in the third world are often blamed on “backwardness” and a lack of industrial infrastructure or technical knowledge. Of course, the key to reducing damage is, and has long been, reducing consumption and the capacity of industrial civilizations to draw down resources and expand into lands and habitat belonging to others.
That said, the fact that overpopulation isn’t the main problem now does not make us immune from the consequences of adding more people. There are more humans on the planet than the planet can support (industrial or otherwise). When drawdown mechanisms cease, we—especially our hypothetical children—will all have to deal with the consequences, and the fewer humans there are at the time the less hardship there will be.
In general, though, the worst shortcoming of most suggested solutions is that they are not consonant with the severity of the problem, the window of time available for effective action, or the number of people expected to act. The solution should not be dependent on the assumption that very large numbers of people will act against their initial inclinations if we can’t reasonably expect that to happen. If we wanted to back the idea that the solution to a problem like global warming is for everyone to voluntarily stop using fossil fuels, then we would have to reasonably believe that this is a plausible scenario. Unfortunately, it is not.
In contrast, effective solutions (or at least, more effective) are likely to share a different set of characteristics:
They address root problems and are based on a “big picture” understanding of the situation. They include a long-term view of our situation, a critique of civilization, and a long-term plan.
A corollary of that is that the solutions should involve a higher level of strategic rigor. They should not be based on beautiful yet abstract ideas about what might make a better world, but derive from a tangible strategy that proposes a plan of action from point A to point B.
They enable many different people to work toward addressing the problem. Rather than being dependent on elites, solutions should enable as many people as possible to participate. This is not the same as requiring everyone to act to take down civilization or requiring the majority of people to act in a way we don’t reasonably expect them to act. It does mean, however, that our strategy should include a way for all—from the most restrained to the most militant—to have a role if they desire.
Effective solutions are suitable to the scale of the problem, and take into account the reasonable lead time required for action and the number of people expected to act. If we can only expect a small number of people to take serious action, then our plans must only require a small number of people.
They involve immediate action AND planning for further long-term action. Crises like global warming cannot be addressed too soon. The most immediate action should target the worst contributors to each hazard, and happen as soon as possible. Subsequent actions should work their way down the severity scale.
They make maximum use of available levers and fulcrums. Which is to say, they play to our strengths and take advantage of the weaknesses of those who are trying to destroy the world. Each act should make as much impact as possible on as many different problems as possible.
And ultimately, of course, effective solutions must directly or indirectly work toward taking down civilization.