Facing Death


The industrial ecology conference is now in the past and I am at Marlboro College Graduate center teaching to the MBA for Managing Sustainability program. We have been reading Tim Jackson's book, Prosperity without Growth as the class text, adding a few ancillary articles. We're just at the point of discussing a steady-state economy (SSE)--what we mean by it, how critical is it, and how would we get there. The last two parts get all mixed together in the students' responses in class and in their answers on the assignments.

They have some trouble understanding what a SSE is. I do too. But that's not the point I want to make here. The challenge of transforming a modern economy to a SSE is immense. Every major institution within the political economy is designed to work on the basis of the expectation of continued growth. Stasis in monetary terms means economic death inside the neo-classical paradigm used to shape policy. What I have observed is that the enormity of the challenge leads to a not so subtle denial of the existential threat we are facing--that at least I and many other believe we are facing.

That threat is unlike the existential threat we all face in our own lives. Many die without ever facing the reality of the end of our lives. It comes upon us quietly in the night or abruptly on a street corner. But some have a change to undergo the transformation of death as a possibility sometime in the future to a reality now. This often happens after a diagnosis of cancer. What was only a theory is now staring you in the face and cannot be passed off for another conversation in the future. Some continue to deny what is happening, but many stop and take stock, and start to act on all those things that all of a sudden are the important ones, even if they are immensely difficult and had been put off and off.

The existential threat of the death of the Earth is very different. Even the idea of the death of the Earth is not the same. The Earth is not going to die for several billion years and, then, only when the Sun goes out. But it could die as a hospitable place for our species--a place where we flourish. But we can't think about it in the same way we can think about the death of a human--a reality we have lived with it from the time we became conscious beings.

So, that threat, the "death" of the Earth, can be nothing but a theory. We have never observed it, nor will we who are alive today. We can only deal with it as a metaphor to the way we handle the thought of our own death. Except as I noted in the cases when the threat, the possibility becomes a reality in the here and now, we deny the possibility one way or another. So it is with the death of the Earth. We deny it directly in the face of what A. N. Whitehead calls "irreducible and stubborn facts." We deny it indirectly, as my students tend to do, by arguing that any action today is fraught with so many barriers and uncertainties that action will be fruitless.

I don't believe we have the same choice, denial, we make in the case of our personal existential threat. We must act for the sake of our children, if not for the entire species. We cannot wait until we have the answers. The way we have found truth in the past is partly responsible for the problems of the present. Again following WHitehead and his colleague, William James, I believe we must act pragmatically, a word that has been in the air as we have dealt with other metaphorical deaths--the financial system. Put theory in the background for a time and start to try solutions that may seem impossible or have uncertain outcomes. Some will actually work. Most will not. But denial and inaction is bound to come up short. Unlike the short-term inevitability of biological death, it is quite possible that we can put off the "death" of the Earth for quite some time.