In my essay, “Park City is Damned: A Case Study in Civilization,” I described the vicious cycle Park City, Utah is caught in and explained how the city cannot exist for much longer.
There are far more humans in Park City than the land can support, so the necessities of life must be imported. Importing these necessities costs money and requires an industrial infrastructure. Park City makes its money through a tourist industry that relies on snow, but climate change, produced by the same industrial infrastructure bringing the necessities of life, is destroying the snow. The industrial infrastructure must be dismantled to stop climate change so the snow may survive. Either the snow or the industrial infrastructure will fail.
And, Park City will, too.
Not long after the essay was published, I attended a gathering for an emerging group PCAN! or Park City Action Network. The gathering’s goals included to “create a network for young professionals and build community, to learn what’s going on in local politics, and to find other like-minded individuals to create a strong collective voice.”
I think I’m still young (turned 30 in March), I have a law degree and license (in Wisconsin), and I’m interested in finding like-minded individuals to create a strong collective voice, so I went.
A man approached me, and said. “You’re Will Falk, right? You wrote that article?”
I was embarrassed and nervous people were going to hate me for what I wrote. But, his eyes and body language were sincere, so I told the truth. He asked, “So, you think Park City won’t last?
“Can’t physically last,” I clarified.
“ Right. And, solar power isn’t the answer? Wind power, either?”
“No,” I responded. He looked at me earnestly for a few seconds, looked around at the room of concerned, young professionals, and said, more to himself than to me, “Park City is still damned huh?”
“Still damned,” I said. He sighed and asked,“What the hell have we been working on all this time?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I could see acceptance in his face. I simply tried to meet his gaze. Finally, he asked, “What can I do?”
Park City’s vicious cycle is a reflection of the vicious cycle the global human population is caught in. There are far more humans than the planet can support sustainably, so the necessities of life must be stolen from non-humans and the future. This theft is managed through an industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels and the operation of this infrastructure is destroying the planet’s total life-supporting capacity. It is pushing the climate to temperatures too warm for most species, pushing oceanic life perilously close to total collapse, and contaminating, with toxins and carcinogens, the bodies of every civilized individual.
Unfortunately, with more than half the global human population now living in cities, most humans depend on this system for food, for clean water, and for shelter. Humans have backed themselves into a corner. If this system collapses, huge, urban populations of humans will be left without the necessities of life. But the system must collapse for the planet to survive. Ignorance of physical reality cannot save us from it; either the planet or the industrial infrastructure will fail.
Basic ecology gives us another way to understand this. In ecologic terms, humans have overshot the planet’s carrying capacity through dependence on a drawdown method of temporarily extending carrying capacity. Crash is inevitable, and the longer drawdown occurs, the smaller Earth’s total carrying capacity will be after the crash.
Humans are animals and, as animals, require habitat. Every habitat has a total life-supporting capacity, or carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is the maximum population of a given species which can be supported by a particular habitat indefinitely. Earth, even as the largest habitat, is finite with a specific carrying capacity.
In his ecological classic Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Dr. William R. Catton Jr. explains that civilized humans “have several times succeeded in taking over additional portions of the earth’s total life-supporting capacity, at the expense of other creatures.”
Catton’s phrase “at the expense of other creatures” is a nice way of describing extermination. Using 1970 population totals and current trends, the World Wildlife Fund recently published a prediction that by 2020 two-thirds of the Earth’s total vertebrate population (mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles) will have been killed by human activities. Biologist Paul Ehrlich, who studies population at Stanford University, says that half of all individual life forms humans are now aware of have already disappeared.
Civilized humans have learned to rely on technologies that augment human carrying capacity in temporary ways. These augmentations are necessarily temporary because the finiteness of every habitat places physical limits on population growth. In other words, you can’t steal more than everything.
The latest and deadliest of the technologies humans have used to augment carrying capacity revolve around the exploitation of the “planet’s energy savings deposits, fossil fuels.” Through these exploitative technologies powered by fossil fuels, Catton argues, civilized humans are now engaged in a “drawdown method of extending carrying capacity.” This method is “an inherently temporary expedient by which life opportunities for a species are temporarily increased by extracting from the environment for use by that species some significant fraction of an accumulate resource that is not being replaced as it is drawn down.”
Civilized humans are destroying countless so-called “resources” that are not being replaced as they are murdered. The extraction of fossil fuels is an easy example. But, civilized humans are also cutting forests and plowing grasslands faster than they can grow back, they’re stripping topsoil faster than it rebuilds, and they’re heating the planet more intensely than life can evolve to keep pace.
This drawdown has allowed humans to overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity. Overshoot leads to a situation where a portion, or even all, of a population cannot be supported when temporarily available, and finite, resources are exhausted. When these resources run out, crash inevitably follows.
Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, describes what is happening as the ecological phenomenon known as “population bloom” in his book The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. When a species finds an abundant, easily acceptable energy source (in our case, fossil fuels), its numbers increase while taking advantage of the surplus energy. Speaking to the inevitability of crash, Heinberg writes, “In nature, growth always slams up against non-negotiable constraints sooner or later…Population blooms (or periods of rapid growth) are always followed by crashes and die-offs. Always.”
Crash following overshoot is bad enough, but the problem doesn’t end there. If a population exists in overshoot for too long, drawing down too many of its habitat’s necessities of life, the habitat’s carrying capacity can be permanently reduced. To use simple numbers, start with a carrying capacity of 1000 humans. What happens if 1200 humans, then 1500 humans, then 2000 humans live on the land for too long? Or those original 1000 humans steal other creatures’ carrying capacity and convert it to human use?
That land base’s carrying capacity can be permanently reduced to 800 humans, 400, and so on, over time, all the way to zero. Eventually, the population will crash and that land base will never be capable of supporting humans, or any other life, again. This is as true for the carrying capacity of a small locale like Park City as it is for the carrying capacity of the whole planet.
The horror we live with comes into focus. Most human lives are made possible by a system that will collapse, and the longer that system operates, literally eating Earth’s total carrying capacity, the less chance other lives – human and non-human – have to continue existing.
We have two choices. We can live in denial, even as the evidence of the planet’s murder piles around us. We can anesthetize ourselves with the comforts produced by this insane arrangement of power. We can pray for our own death before the worst of the collapse happens. In short, we can do nothing.
Or, accepting responsibility as people who love each other, love our non-human kin, and love life, we can stop the industrial system from destroying our beloveds.
Once you’ve decided to stand on the side of life, the question becomes, How? How do ensure as much life as possible will survive the coming crash? How do we stop industrial civilization from permanently reducing the planet’s carrying capacity to nil?
Longtime environmental activists and writers Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Aric McBay created a concrete strategy for an effective resistance movement in their book Deep Green Resistance. They named that strategy “Decisive Ecological Warfare (DEW).”
Before you object to the term “warfare,” consider this: In the past, wars killed humans. Today, with human activities killing 200 species daily, we are engaged in a war where whole species are exterminated. We readily recognize the chemical warfare characterizing so many conflicts of the last century and, today, industrial processes create a reality where every mother on the planet now has dioxin, a known carcinogen, in her breast milk.
This is a war. And, we are losing. Badly. If we’re going to win this war, we need to act like a serious resistance movement.
DEW gives us a comprehensive strategy. It is centered on two primary goals. Goal 1 is “to disrupt and dismantle industrial civilization; to thereby remove the ability of the powerful to exploit the marginalized and destroy the planet.” Goal 2 is “to defend and rebuild just, sustainable, and autonomous human communities, and, as part of that, to assist in the recovery of the land.”
Disrupting and dismantling industrial civilization is primary. If industrial civilization is not stopped, then the second goal will be impossible. The land will be pushed past its ability to recover and there will be too few necessities of life left to support autonomous human communities.
Accomplishing these goals will involve five smaller strategies. First, resisters will “engage in direct militant actions against industrial infrastructure.” This may frighten some people and others may feel physically incapable of actions like these. If you can’t engage in these kinds of actions, the people who can will need your material support. In a place like Park City, steeped in privilege, the most obvious form of support the community could offer is money. Those in power are incredibly well-funded. We’ll never match them dollar for dollar. But, that doesn’t mean money can’t be put to good use.
Second, they will “aid and participate in ongoing social and ecological justice struggles; promote equality and undermine exploitation by those in power.” My friend Rachel Ivey, a brilliant feminist writer and organizer, often connects social and ecological justice with the truth that, “Oppression is always tied to resource extraction.” This means that industrial civilization has been built on the backs of people of color, indigenous peoples, the poor, and women. These groups are often on the movement’s front lines, fighting for survival. We must join them in true solidarity.
Third, they will “defend the land and prevent expansion of industrial logging, mining, construction, and so on, such that more intact land and species will remain when civilization does collapse.” Pipeline and port blockades, tree sits, and other forms of non-violent direct action aimed at physically preventing those in power from destroying more of the land is an essential piece of the puzzle. There are roles in the resistance for pacifists and others personally and philosophically unwilling to engage in more militant actions.
Fourth, they will “build and mobilize resistance organizations that will support the above activities, including decentralized training, recruitment, logistical support, and so on.” A serious resistance movement needs artists, writers, and those skilled in marketing and mass media communications. It also needs quartermasters, organizational psychologists, and others trained in logistical thinking.
Finally, resisters will “rebuild a sustainable subsistence base for human societies (including perennial polycultures for food) and localized, democratic communities that uphold human rights.” As collapse intensifies, we are going to need permaculturists, gardeners, and urban farmers to produce food when the industrial networks, currently transporting food, fail.
All kinds of skills will be necessary to stop industrial civilization, but the most important thing is that industrial civilization is actually stopped. All of our efforts must support this primary goal. Right now, the dominant system is barreling down a path that ends in total ecological collapse. Not only is the human species endangered with extinction, but every species – save, maybe a few microscopic species of bacteria – is threatened with annihilation. Before anything else, we must knock the dominant system off that path.
I return to answering the question, “What can I do?”
This is the wrong question. Don’t ask, “What can I do?” Instead ask, “What needs to be done?”
Go outside. Look around. Take a deep breath. Feel the oxygen, exhaled by trees, seep into your lungs. Let your breath go, and listen as the trees inhale the carbon dioxide your breath releases. Ask those trees what they need.
Climb to the top of the nearest hill. Find a boulder to sit on and wait. Match the land’s patience. Let gravity pull your bones closer to their ancestors, the bones of the earth. Watch the ants march, dutifully performing work for their community. Listen to the geese arriving for the spring, celebrating their return. Ask the stones, the ants, and the geese what they need. Ask them what needs to be done.
They’ll tell you they need to live.
The trees will tell you that warming temperatures cause cavitation, or bubbles, in the water flowing from their roots to their topmost leaves and that these bubbles kill them as surely as artery blockages kill humans.
The stones will tell you how quickly everything has changed. They will tell you how species they used to watch disappeared faster than stones, who exist on geologic time, can contemplate. They will tell you about mountain top removal, open-pit mining, and earthquakes caused by fracking.
The ants will tell you how they’ve long been involved in planetary cooling processes. They’ll show you how they’re working as hard as they can to build limestone by freeing calcium carbonate from minerals in the soil. And, in the process, trapping as much carbon dioxide as they can.
The geese will tell you of frantic searches for disappearing wetlands, of once wild rivers dammed, drying, and no longer flowing to the sea.
When you stop asking “what can I do?” to begin asking “what needs to be done?” it is true, you may expose yourself to a world in pain. But, you’ll also find countless allies asking the same questions you are. You may rip the scar tissue of denial that has been shielding your eyes from the near-blinding truth. But, once you let the sunlight in, once you step outside into the real world, you’ll open yourself to a world fighting like hell to survive.
We’ve been waiting for you.
This essay originally appeared through the San Diego Free Press.