Here Mary Odum, Howard T. Odum’s daughter, talks about “a prosperous way down“. If someone named Odum thinks we are going down, there is a good chance we are. It’s pretty depressing stuff that seems like an individual could have little impact on, but later she suggests that doing away with your lawn is a good first step.
Many chaotic current compete for our attention, yet the speed with which they are occurring suggests we are in an era of tipping points. How does one describe the collapse of an empire—where do we start with so much chaos in the world, and a global world view that promotes the mandate for economic growth? Do we begin with politics, or culture, or the financial system, pollution, or even renewable energy? Those competing current events are all related, but only if we use systems thinking to view the picture at a larger scale. The focus of most people on single causes such as climate change, or politics, or tech-happy solar futures, is comforting, since reductionism to single cause issues creates solutions such as adding technology (and thus more energy and pollution) allows us to keep on with our lifestyles. We tell ourselves (or we read too much Grist or Treehugger who tell us) that we don’t have to do anything except to buy more technology—we can keep what we’ve got, and the problems lie at the larger scale with us as helpless victims. We can buy a Prius, or a solar panel, and just keep on trucking, while blaming a powerful other, such as a presidential candidate, or Exxon, when it is the entire system, including us, who is responsible. Voting for one political party or the other is inadequate. Staying quiet while xenophobia and gun violence takes hold of your country is inadequate. Focusing on single cause environmentalist issues is not enough.
Reductionism closes the conversation to the real problem of growth, and the big picture, creating denial and a comforting absolution to Business as Usual (BAU). Reductionism allows us to fit in culturally to a world whose religion is economic growth, but it is a form of self-deceit. Our mandate that insists on the economic need for growth has to change in order for us to accept our personal responsibilities in all of this, and not blame our problems on scapegoats or find solutions that just make things worse.
I pretty much agree with all this. It’s not that the ideal concept of “growth” or improvement in our standard of living is wrong at its core. There is no theoretical limit to how much we could improve ourselves. But as long as we are dependent on planet Earth and its resources, there is a physical limit to how large our ecological footprint can grow without causing overshoot and collapse. Some technologies enable us to reduce our footprint per person or per joule of energy used or per dollar exchanged in the course of our economic lives, but when we adopt these technologies we often just take it as an opportunity to add more people, use more energy and exchange more dollars. And of course, not all technologies reduce our unit footprint – many increase it. In aggregate, our footprint is continuing to grow, most likely at an accelerating pace. There are only two possible endpoints – either a serious setback that forcibly reduces our footprint for us (like, god forbid, catastrophic war/plague/famine), or a turning point in technology/policy that allows us to begin shrinking our footprint while still improving ourselves. While the latter is theoretically possible, I don’t see any evidence that we are anywhere near it. Instead, we pat ourselves on the back for small reductions in our footprint per unit of growth, or even a reduction in the rate of growth of our rate of growth! For example, a reduction in our annual carbon emissions, despite the fact that they are too high and every year they are too high makes the situation worse, not better. That’s not the system thinking that H.T. Odum advocated.
Which brings me to Mary’s lawn. Ecological gardening is one of those “simple things you can do to save the Earth”. Not sufficient, but necessary. So let’s do it!
We can be the change, beginning today. Plant trees, as they take a long time to grow. Convert your lawn to native plants. Stop irrigating, except for watering new plantings by hand. Stop using fertilizers and pesticides. Begin building soil instead of depleting it. Compost on your property, Return hardscapes to permeable surfaces, and use rain barrels and rain gardens to limit runoff. Use a corner to plant an organic vegetable garden if there’s room and sun, to add to your sustainability. Foster a complete ecosystem for the critters. And finally, talk to your neighbors and friends about the changes and why you’re doing them. While you’re at it, talk to the person who manages your kid’s soccer field, or the golf course. Why are you letting your children roll around on a carpet of pesticides, or eat food grown by a poison-maker?