Editor’s Note: In the following piece Frances Moore Lappé presents several widely held ideas and beliefs about the environment, presenting a challenge to the notions and premises that underlie each of these thought traps. Backed by science and research, she shows how we can reframe these ideas and use them to create the world and future we really want.
We’ve Hit the Limits of a Finite Earth
We’ve had it too good! We must “power down” and learn to live within the limits of a finite planet.
“We’ve been living beyond our means for a long time and now it’s all blown up in our faces,” scolds Sir Jonathon Porritt, recent head of Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission. Over the last sixty years or so, we’ve all binged at a big fossil fuel party, we’re told. Now that party’s over and, well, too bad, we must pull back.
Conveying the “power down” message quite vividly is Earth Hour. In 2008, from Sydney to San Francisco, people worldwide were encouraged to turn out lights during the same hour. More than 50 million people joined in. Since then, Earth Hour has gained enthusiasts, with people in 135 countries participating in 2011.
Wonderfully, such massive involvement is yet more proof of people’s longing to be part of the solution. But does Earth Hour signal that the climate crisis and the end of cheap oil mean more darkness, so let’s all start getting used to it?
True, fear can motivate action, but it can also backfire. It’s a “fundamental truth,” says psychology professor Tim Kasser, that “when sustenance and survival are threatened, people search for material resources to help them feel safe and secure.” Insecurity can heighten fixation on material acquisition.
“We have a problem with Earth Hour,” said student Victoria Miller at the University of Michigan, “because it suggests that the proper route to progress for humanity is shutting down and moving backward toward the Middle Ages.” So Miller organized “Edison Hour,” encouraging everyone to turn on lights to celebrate technology’s contributions to progress. The students’ response suggests that, at least in a culture like ours, where we’re encouraged to go it alone, “shutting down,” as Miller calls it, can feel scary.
By the way, choosing the incandescent bulb, Thomas Edison’s baby, as a symbol of progress is ironic, as it turns into light only 5 percent of the electricity it uses. Edison himself saw a lot of room for improvement.
The Limits of Limits Thinking
“Fossil fuels made the modern economy and all of its material accomplishments possible,” writes the Worldwatch Institute, which I greatly admire, in its State of the World 2008. And in their green economics textbook, Ecological Economics, environmental leaders and professors Herman Daly and Joshua Farley tell us that “fossil fuels freed us from the fixed flow of energy from the sun.”
Hearing these assessments, it is easy to assume, Whoa! Without fossil fuel, human ingenuity would never have come up with other ways to power our lives. The end of oil will mean giving up all the wonderful, modern “material accomplishments” that fossil fuel has made possible, as we get used to living constrained, once again, by the sun’s “fixed flow.”
But wait. Each day the sun provides the earth with a daily dose of energy 15,000 times greater than the energy humans currently use. The sun is in fact the only energy that is not fixed in any practical sense. The energy of the sun is not even renewable. Rather, it is continually renewing. We can’t stop it!
But the biggest drawback of the “we’ve-hit-the-limits-of-a-finite-earth” idea is this: It frames the problem out there—in the fixed quantity that is earth. Its limits are the problem. This frame is carried, for example, in British environmental leader Tim Jackson’s phrase “our ecologically constrained world.”
But, more accurately and usefully, the limit we’ve hit is that of the disruption of nature we humans can cause without catastrophic consequences for life.
The first frame conjures up the notion of quantity, as in a fixed but overdrawn bank account. The problem is the darn limit of the account, and the solution is to cut back what we withdraw. The second frame keeps attention focused on us—on human disruptions of the flows of energy in nature, which, if considered as systems, are renewing and evolving. Oil and coal, for example, are limited, certainly, but, as just noted, energy from the sun, for all practical purposes, is not. So, attention in this second frame is not on narrowly cutting back but on aligning with the laws of nature to sustain and enhance life.
Beyond Limits to Alignment
If we conceive of our challenge as accepting the limits of a finite planet, our imagination remains locked inside an inherited, unecological worldview, one of separateness and lack. Precisely the thinking that got us into this mess. It’s true, of course, that for all practical purposes our planet and atmosphere are made up of a limited number of atoms. But their configurations are essentially infinite. By conjuring up a fixed and static reality, the finite-limits frame draws us away from the deeper reality of our world—that of dynamism, which can offer stunning possibility if we learn to align with nature’s rules.
Think of music. Yes, there are just eighty-eight keys on the piano. But if we instruct ourselves to focus primarily on this limit, we won’t get very far in creating beautiful sound. It is the possible variations on these eighty-eight keys that are important. And they are virtually endless; some are gloriously harmonious, others harshly discordant. Such quality is what must command our attention. A limits frame asks us to focus on the number of keys we use, but creating beautiful music requires deep learning of the principles of harmony. It requires both discipline and invention. Only by focusing on harmony can we know whether more or fewer keys are needed.