Thursday, March 3, 2011

Titanic Choices

My search for a new career seemed to be making great progress last week. I was sure as I attended the Transition conference last weekend that I was going to make a major breakthrough in narrowing the choices that would propel me into full-out preparation this week. Instead, I hit a familiar snag, and now I feel like I'm starting over again.

For a number of reasons, the options I had settled on were academic. I would go for a master's or doctorate degree in either social ecology, human ecology, or ecology, or revisit my minor in history to contribute to the emerging field of “big history.” My primary motivation was to pursue my research into the variables affecting consumption and population growth in a rigorous, credible way on a full-time basis. After staring potential population and ecological collapse in the face for so long, I've been compelled to work toward keeping it from happening, and my default approach has been to understand its causes and then convince people to take appropriate action (while doing so myself). In various ways, people far more knowledgeable than me have been doing this for decades, and with what I think are novel and useful insights, I'm strongly tempted to join the chorus in a more vigorous way than just publishing thoughts on blogs and in self-published works of creative writing.

I even bought some books to help make my decision. Murray Bookchin's “The Ecology of Freedom” makes a compelling case that civilization's dominant, heirarchal social structure is responsible for our ecological crisis, which was already in academia's sites as early as the 1970s. His legacy is an interpretation of social ecology, manifested as a field of study and activism, that strives to develop new and healthier ways for people to relate to each other and the rest of the natural world. Frederick Steiner's “Human Ecology: Following Nature's Lead” is a theoretical primer on the relationships between people and Nature from a more physical perspective, but with (at least superficially) the same goal as Bookchin's. Human ecology seems to be more pervasive than social ecology, perhaps because it is more of a science than a philosophy. Fred Spier's “Big History and the Future of Humanity” is the latest contribution to an effort within the history community to put human experience in the larger context of the evolution of the Universe. In its broad sweep of time and space, this latter subject best captures my personal interest as a student of the ultimate big picture. Meanwhile, I've been plodding through “Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems” by Begon, Townsend, and Harper, a textbook on the biology specialty that summarizes the relationships between life and its environment. My “plodding” has been mostly due to the subject's heavy dependency on biology and natural history, which I've been learning about in parallel.

The Transition conference confirmed in my mind the timing found in my own research, that the world has no more than a decade to make major changes to the way we relate to each other and Nature before disaster becomes unavoidable. Transition itself is basing its activity on the inevitability of “energy descent,” the reduction of consumption to a level sustainable by low-energy and predominantly biological resources, and making that descent as painless as possible. The experience (and reinforcing current events) made a strong case for changing my personal focus from study and hazard avoidance to mitigation and adaptation.

It's a hard fact that any academic path I take now will require a lot of new debt (bad) and from two to six years of the ten that remain before I can even make much of a difference in my chosen field, with the real possibility that the large, centralized infrastructure that supports higher education and use of such abstract knowledge will implode soon afterwards. The most practical and self-serving case is for using my current, high-tech skills to deal with my financial situation, getting all I can from the current economy, and pursuing these other “interests” as the equivalent of hobbies to try to prepare for whatever might come later.

One of my favorite analogies to the current situation is the fate of the passengers and crew of the Titanic as they discovered the impending collision with the iceberg that ended up killing most of them. In that analogy, I feel like one of the passengers who sees the iceberg, and has almost no power to do anything about it. I'm stuck belowdecks, needing a job to even leave my cabin (remember, it's just an analogy, not necessarily a good one). If I could become one of the crew (get a higher college degree), I might have a chance to influence the course of the ship, but it would require a lot more time than we have. All I can do now is shout to anyone who might be listening (such as the dozen or so people who visit my blogs and Web site) what I see and what I think should be done about it. Nearby, there are some fellow passengers who are plotting in desperation to build their own lifeboats out of local materials, certain that only the rich and powerful will have access to the existing ones. Unfortunately, the crew and richer passengers who want to get to their destination sooner are pilfering some of that material (extracting more non-renewable resources and polluting the environment) to use as fuel for the engines so the ship can go faster, either ignorant or in denial about the fact that doing so will make things much worse.

In this situation, what I need to do is clear. First I need to find a way to get out my cabin (get a job or find another means that frees me but doesn't commit me to helping the ship hit the iceberg). I have to continue alerting the other passengers and any crew I find (keep writing and talking to people). I also must try to reduce or stop the pilfering (contribute to conservation and anti-pollution efforts), and help the other enlightened passengers to build and safely position new lifeboats (create resilient, self-sustaining communities) to escape the sinking of the ship if it happens. Hopefully, the crew and captain (business and political leaders) will catch on, and try to steer the ship away from the iceberg, assisting with (or at least not hindering) emergency preparations just in case. Surviving the crash is plenty to do, but to ensure we don't all die on the open ocean, even in our lifeboats, we'll need to put some effort into provisioning and determining a course to someplace safe (possibly something I can apply my particular talents to, maybe even justifying additional education).

I'm still left with determining the details of my next step. I'm far too altruistic to take the easiest and most self-serving alternative, which would be to try to suck up to the powers-that-be so I might get into one of the cushy “lifeboats” (I'm not altogether convinced that they don't see the “iceberg,” and aren't following the simple logic of competition that might see a “collision” as the easiest way to eliminate almost everyone else). Most jobs unfortunately involve aiding and abetting accelerated consumption (“speed”), especially the high-paying ones, so perhaps I should look for something more having to do with “navigation.” This leads me back to the higher-education option, or if I can get a lot better at marketing and zeroing in on popular, positive messages, focusing on writing.

At this point, let me digress to a brief discussion of my on-again off-again consideration of higher-education. There is a lot of important, valuable work being done by academia to understand what's happening around us, but I sense that it's not getting the traction it needs in either the public's collective mind or that of our society's leadership. Heck, I'm struggling right now with the complex analysis in “The Ecology of Freedom” and “Ecology,” and I'm already inclined to read such things. Then I look at the popular culture (including what passes for news), and am appalled by the huge traction achieved by the frankly idiotic ramblings of the so-called opinion makers, especially on (but hardly limited to) the political right. Aside from my own enjoyment, getting official credit for what I learn, and contributing to a body of knowledge which is likely to be among the first casualties of civilization's unraveling, what would be the practical benefit to becoming an official part of the intelligentsia? This a variant of the argument I had with myself in high school when I realized that a career in astronomy wouldn't help deal with what I saw, even then, as an emerging entropic crisis that could render that knowledge useless. In the intervening years, I saw the quality of education decline as people focused more on facts than on understanding and real learning (and with my father, tried at huge personal cost to do something about it). Now we're all paying the price, with what I call “the appearance of functionality” dominating people's decisions about what to buy and create. When recognition of quality goes down, so does quality itself. It's hard not to ask, “What's the point of knowing something if no one else cares, or would know what to do with it if they did?”

In my Titanic analogy, I didn't ask to see the iceberg (the destruction and disruption of the biosphere we are part of and depend upon for survival, manifested simplistically as consumption of “resources” and pollution), I just heard some people talking about it (read a lot) and chose to look out the porthole and see for myself (applied my analytical skills to publicly available data and learned enough about the natural world to recognize the signs). At another time, I would have gladly accepted the judgment of many of my conservative friends that it's all a hoax, part of a grand conspiracy to take over the economy for people who don't want to work for what they get. Having gotten to know the alleged perpetrators, and come to understand that they are not only right, but have the purest of motives in trying to do something about it, I'm deeply ashamed that I lived in denial for so many years when I could have been helping. That's in spite of the fact, in my defense, that I was working on the education problem, and then, after my father died, doing a lot of much-needed growing up and self examination that led to both learning and caring about the fate of everyone on the “ship.”

This perspective hopefully lends me some credibility, to make up for what I lack official recognition for, when I ask those who are still in denial to step outside their comfort zones (open the “portholes” or go “on deck” if possible) and look around. Recognize that we're all in this together, we need each other to survive – and then, with some work, we can eventually find a better “place.” In the mean time, I'm going to keep looking for a way to get out of this “cabin,” and any help would be appreciated.

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