Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Can both sides of the climate change argument be right?

As physicist Michio Kaku wrote yesterday, “Global warming is controversial, of course, but the controversy is mainly over whether human activity is driving it. There is almost uniform agreement from both sides of the debate that the Earth is heating up.”

(Banner photo credit NASA/Reid Wiseman)

More specifically, the controversy centres around whether the rise in global CO2 levels is a direct result of mans’ activities or whether this is something the planet itself is responsible for. This is seen, somewhat linearly, as the engine behind the rise in temperatures. Presuming we’ve actually understood the mechanisms correctly and there isn’t some elephant in the room we’re ignoring (highly probable, given past history), can both sides be right if one says global warming is caused by human activity and the other says it isn’t?

They can if the rise in temperatures and CO2 levels is the Earth’s response to mankind’s activities.

Looking at natural processes and the extent of human interaction/interference with them, the question “does human activity impact global systems?” immediately changes to “how can human activity NOT impact global systems?”

The scale is massive. We are polluting the Earth’s air and waters. We are compromising the ‘lungs’ of the planet by felling vast tracts of dense tropical and temperate primary growth forest, destroying the self-renewing and self-maintaining multi-layered richness and diversity of the biosphere in the pursuit of single layered monocultures which can only be maintained in dead, desertified soils with the products – artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides – of the petrochemical industry. We are disrupting the free-flow of natural watercourses, draining wetlands, polluting and draining groundwater reserves. We are interfering catastrophically with global nutritional cycles, even with the genetic makeup of lifeforms themselves … how can we NOT be having an impact?!

The Earth’s biosphere is a self-regulating organism, as James Lovelock observed. It displays the same characteristics and behaviours that its lifeforms display to maintain themselves in homeostatic equilibrium. When conditions push it too far towards the edges of its comfort zone, the biosphere will respond to restore equilibrium. This is what is happening now.

Do rising temperatures and CO2 levels, melting permafrost, and an unprecedented succession of severe weather events mean that things are going ‘wrong’ and that the Earth is sick and dying? Far from it. This is a robust response with pattern and purpose.

These are the exact conditions that favour rapid and prolific plant growth in a region of the world so far relatively undisturbed by human activity. The soils are rich in organic matter and nutrients which, when the ice melts, will rapidly decompose into a fertile growing medium, releasing methane into the atmosphere which will add to further warming. It’s the quickest way to restore the critical vegetative mass the biosphere needs to re-establish equilibrium.

Elsewhere dead, desertified soils need to be recolonised and progress through natural succession to climax vegetation before their fertility can be restored. It would take too long, even supposing mankind were not to interfere with the process.

Meanwhile what better way of keeping humanity distracted and occupied than a series of catastrophic weather events continually hitting areas of high human population density and/or major food-growing areas? Not only does it keeps us distracted, but it also has the effect of focusing our attention on what we’re doing to the planet and the very real fact that we might not be able to feed ourselves. We are part of this self-maintaining system, after all, even we’re mostly oblivious to the fact.

We really are woefully stupid as a species. We’ve not learned the abundant and generous lessons that nature makes freely available to us. Instead we prefer to believe that we’re so damn clever we know infinitely better. As if! We’ve got it completely back to front and inside out. We’re the most successful and adaptable mammal on the planet, but we can’t even follow our own example. Instead of creating robust, flexible and perturbation-proof ways of growing enough food to feed ourselves, we’ve done the exact opposite. The systems we’ve put in place to feed our growing numbers are so ill-conceived, unfit for purpose and inflexible that we end up expecting the planet to adapt to us!

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity…and I’m not sure about the universe.” Einstein

It’s all to do with the way we think.

Thinker thinking

To reflect on existence requires thought. And to share and communicate that reflection, language. As we, our languages and societies have evolved, two principal ways of thinking and communicating about how we experience the world have emerged. From the perspective of one, all thought is a harmonious whole, while from the other these two principle modes of thought are in diametrical opposition. As paradoxical as that may seem in itself, it’s compounded by the fact that we’re all capable of both modes, sometimes simultaneously and mostly without being aware of it.

The different modes have become loosely and popularly categorised as “left brain” and “right brain” thinking, but those distinctions lack a true reflection in reality since thought is a distributed process capable of shifting its focus of neuronal activity. Instead, I’ll distinguish them by orientation and resultant perspective.

Process-orientation conceptualises existence mostly in terms of verbs. It lends itself naturally to holistic, multidimensional, analogical, interrelational systems thinking where everything is relative, and contingent on its context within a larger whole which is itself boundless and fluid, moving in loops, circles, spirals, cycles. Where oppositions and contradictions are merely alternating states of a single process. From such an orientation, sensing is participatory, relative, context-dependent, subjective, continuous. It’s receptive, passive. It listens. There is no objective, no goal. It’s all about the music for as long as the music plays.

In contrast, object-orientation doesn’t hear, it sees. It focuses. On nouns, things. On goals, objectives. Its reductionist perspective sees existence in terms of discrete, fixed, separate, isolated objects and singular, linear, causal, logical, deterministically predictable relationships between them that have little to do with context and nothing to do with the observer.

It’s a way of thinking that works flawlessly in closed inanimate systems with limited sets of conditions, variables and parameters; the sort of situations predominating in our man-made environment and our technology.

It’s a tolerable approximation – in the way that a straight line can fit a curve for a short distance – for modelling limited applications of processes within natural systems, but is, by its very nature, incapable of apprehending the whole. You cannot hope to see the big picture if you’re focusing on a limited set of detail and looking at it in the wrong way. (It only works if you realise you’re looking at a hologram.) And utilising linear logic to try to model the nature of life can only ever glance tangentially off the surface of the “object” of study.

Hence we rarely hit the mark, and our foundational assumptions and rational conclusions – either end of the line of thought – end up somewhere out in the middle of nowhere completely disconnected from what it is we’re trying to understand, while we fool ourselves into believing we’re correct because the point at which our line of thought intersects with a natural curve does, for a while, appear to fit.

Tangents

And fool ourselves we have. This mode of thought has so separated itself and placed itself in a position of primacy in our thinking, it would have us believe that any other is “primitive”, “unscientific”, “inferior”, even idiotic, moronic … the eye ruthlessly separates, distinguishes, compares; imagines that its perspective and its perspective alone is the only one that’s valid. So it has us in an unhealthy state of imbalance, placing all the weight on the side of stasis, solidity, permanence, fixity, illusory “objectivity”, linear cause-and effect, at the expense of the dynamic, fluid, interrelated, interdependent, ever-changing fundamental symphony of the world and the universe around us. It’s mechanical. Quite literally lifeless. And when it comes to trying to understand the workings of the natural world, it’s only marginally better than useless.

Since quantum mechanics (not to mention the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions) have demonstrated that process, rather than objects as things-in-themselves, forms the underpinnings of the workings of the universe, object-oriented languages, with their preponderance of nouns and the visually-keyed conceptual primacy given to them and to linear relationships between them, are at a disadvantage. The very language → thought process → language feedback loop itself presents an obstacle to realising a true reflection of reality. And this is where the debate gets derailed.

It’s derailing the climate change debate. It’s also derailing the peak oil debate, the sustainable agriculture debate, the oxymoronic sustainable economic growth debate, the GMO debate, the debate over the efficacy of all manner of medical techniques and treatments … in fact, any debate involving our intervention and interaction with living systems.

Both sides are tripping over the self-appointed dominance of the object-oriented perspective which has appropriated ‘science’ to itself, despite the fact that all the best scientists throughout history have moved with equal facility between both modes of thinking. The arguments have been reduced to linear cause-and-effect which, because they are inappropriate for modelling living systems, are missing the mark on both sides. Everybody is extrapolating the wrong conclusions, even if their observations – whichever side of the fence they’re on – contain a large element of truth. An association between atmospheric carbon levels and global temperatures is just that. It doesn’t prove the man-made global warming hypothesis. Neither does it disprove it. What is being argued about is a single linear relationship which is so far away from being the whole picture it’s tantamount to saying a single leitmotif equates to an entire symphony. Or not.

Even those of us who see very clearly the extent and consequences of human activity on the biosphere are still hung up on trying to put the brakes on global warming (while the naysayers laugh derisively and point to the evidence showing that it’s a planetary, rather than man-made phenomenon). Organisations like 350.org are mobilising a vast amount of popular support all over the world with the aim of limiting carbon emissions and reducing atmospheric carbon levels. If we’re working with nature, shouldn’t we be helping to increase them (without the attendant problem of adding to atmospheric pollution …)? Of course, this will likely mean losing those low-lying island nations that so epitomise ‘paradise’ to us as sea levels inevitably rise. Well we are losing our earthly paradise: to our own stupidity. How much more eloquent can the Earth be in trying to communicate with us?

At the bottom line, all it takes is a change in thinking. All it takes is for every one of us to start listening to the music, the Earthsong. To think in circles (feedback loops) rather than straight lines. To start growing our own food in whatever way we can, take care of our own waste, be responsible and thoughtful about our consumption of resources, spend less of our own resources on useless ‘stuff’ … because if a tree is pruned, the roots die back to match. There is no need even to engage in an impossibly unequal struggle with the monster of corporate greed. We just have to stand firm and stop feeding it. Stop feeding it even when it demands it, or tries to bully and frighten us into it. Just stop.

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2 Comments

  1. michele February 6, 2011

    I understood this as I read it and now I just think- wow- what can I say when you do it so articulately already .The final two words say it all .JUST STOP!

  2. Roban Bieber October 25, 2014

    Wonderful analysis. It is nice to see others seeing, thinking and understanding the complexity and beauty of the world we live in and the challenges that it presents to us and how we as humans respond to those challenges.
    Peace, Love and Light,
    RB

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