Believing Cassandra : LUSENET : Running on Empty - The Coming Petroleum Exhaustion Dieoff : One Thread

An interesting book, Believing Cassandra, talks about environmental TEOTWAWKI from an optimistic stance. Worth reading, if only to disagree with ...

Apocalypse Got You Down?
Charge Into the Future with Cassandra
By George Thabault

At the vulnerable age of nineteen, I read a small paperback book called The Limits to Growth. No other book would influence my life so greatly, though I could barely understand its message at the time . . .

So begins the tale of Alan AtKisson, one of Chelsea Greens newest and most refreshing voices on the American environmental scene. Here at Chelsea Green, we think of Alan as one of those extraordinarily lively characters you might chance upon in a cafi in a far-away city, who regales you with fascinating stories, enchanting, witty songs, and a hard-earned and definitely inspiring outlook on life.

If youve had such a cafi experience, you know it can change your life. At the very least it will stay forever in your mind. Whats the Problem?

In a way, what Alan has done with his first book, Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimists World, is to bring the entire American environmental movement into his cafi, and there, between stories of terrifying bus rides in Malaysia and mystic moments at Big Sur, he outlines our predicament.

FACT #1: The most important ecological systems around the globe are deteriorating rapidly, perhaps too rapidly to prevent their collapse.

FACT #2: Many thoughtful researchers and scientists have been toiling for years to observe and report on this disintegration of the intricate web of natural systems that have supported us for so long. (Even optimists tremble and grieve at the news.)

FACT #3: Paralyzed by the scope of the issues and a growing weight of hopelessness, frustration, and despair, many people have shut down. They reject the distress signals that Nature is sending us through our scientists. They dont want to hear any more bad news about the environment. Please change the channel, they say.

That, in a nutshell, is what Alan deftly calls Cassandras Dilemma. Greek legend has it that beautiful Cassandra, youngest daughter of the last king of Troy, was endowed by the gods with the gift of seeing the future. And then, because she spurned the gods, her gift was cruelly twistedno one would ever believe her prophecies. Todays alarming feedback from Nature about greenhouse gases, toxic waste, species destruction, or ocean pollution often prompts this ancient reaction of denial and disbelief. The dilemma is clearwe can see an immense global catastrophe coming, but we are powerless to do much of anything about it. We cant even get people who might do something about it to really hear us.

Our brains are very good at filtering out unpleasant and inconvenient information, notes Alan. We humans are wired to respond to immediate, obvious threatslike bears at the cave doorrather than abstract signals like graphs of atmospheric CO2 that simply do not look threatening, he notes.

The Worlds responses to signals it does get from Nature generally come too late, or only partially, or not at all. What weve got here is a pair of dance partners who dont do the same steps, dont feel the same rhythm, dont listen to each other, and have a growing number of bruised and bloody toes, he writes, citing Gregory Batesons summary of the issue: The major problems in the world are the result of the differences between the way nature works and the way people think.

Whos to Blame?

In a view point that might sound cavalier to some environmentalists, Alan says it's the design and function of systems, rather than the actions of individuals, that is the central problem we face.

Huge and impersonal forces are at work that are bigger than any individual actor could possibly be responsible for, whatever their motivation, AtKisson declares. The World is literally out of control. The problem is not the individual . . . unless youre a wildlife poacher who formerly worked for Greenpeace.

AtKisson focuses on the complex systems of how Nature gives us signals, or feedback, on its health, and how the World does or does not respond. And he does it without getting lost in the arcane language of systems dynamics. Heres a tasty example from his analysis of the decline of the North Atlantic cod fishery:

Although it might be therapeutic to blame Nature for not responding adequately to humanitys growing, changing needsby, say, learning to grow fish fasterits hardly helpful. Were the ones with consciousness, after all. Nature is going to do the rhumba, no matter what we do. So it is incumbent upon us to learn the music, the rhythm, the steps. In dance-floor terms, Nature leads. We have to learn to anticipate her next move.

So who, or what, is to blame? The problem is not easily attributable to technology, affluence, poverty, population increases, sprawl, economics, human greed, human evil, or human ignorance, AtKisson decides. The problem originates in all of the above . . . and while the problem is not our fault, we are obligated to solve it, he declares.

Where Do We Turn?

Part II of the book deals with the very important question: Where do we go from here in the face of all this bad news and everyones refusal to listen? Toward sustainability is AtKissons fervent hope. Sustainability is for AtKisson a coming journey for everyone, from the individual homeowner to the CEO of a transnational corporation. Alan summarizes the allure of sustainability this way: To prevent global collapse, we need something that is both visionary and highly profitable, something that can appeal to both the ardent altruist and the hardened venture capitalist. We need a source of hope that is also a business opportunity, a hot investment that is extremely idealistic. We need something that will change our higher natures and attract our baser instincts, coaxing us into the game of transformation without polarizing society or fomenting revolution. We need something that has not been seen since humans first began plowing up dirt, building skyscrapers, messing around with atmospheric chemistry. We need something that has the power to command a lifetime of allegiance, even though it does not exist now in practice, and may never really exist except in theory. We need something we can hardly begin to describe in tangible, concrete terms.

Alan carefully walks the reader through the minimum conditions necessary for a sustainable economy and society, and supports his arguments with real-world examples in the chapter, Proof of the Possible. He avoids the anti-business rant of some environmentalists. Indeed, for AtKisson, businesspeople are among the people who must help avert catastrophe. But he challenges business people to understand the difference between growth and development, and why the world needs less growth and more development.

Sustainability and environmentalism are very different things, says AtKisson. Activism to protect Nature from the ravages of the economy is different from working to redesign the economy itself, he writes. We continue to need a strong (in fact stronger) environmentalism, setting boundaries and protecting society from some peoples unfortunate tendency to try to get away with profiteering at Natures and societys expense.

But for environmentalisms NO to work, there must also be sustainabilitys YES, AtKisson declares. Sustainability encourages and provides incentives, is about transforming the economy, promotes a vision of the future, creates possibilities, and can be a political win-win situation. Sustainability is an ideal, like truth, justice, freedom, democracy, and love. We never completely reach our ideals, but we strive toward themand striving toward them is what defines us as a culture, he writes.

AtKisson believes that, in the end, society will become sustainable because it has to. Well become sustainable at some level of comfort or discomfort, by choice or by Natures forcing hand. It is far more desirable to attain it by choice, and that means studying it, planning for it, measuring our progress toward it, he writes.

This piece was written for Chelsea Green's newspaper The Junction by reviewer George Thabault, who is a freelance writer from Colchester, Vermont, a Burlington Free Press correspondent, and former communications director for The Center for a New American Dream ( He and his family also sell fruits and veggies at the Burlington Farmers Market.

-- Scott (, April 05, 2000

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