January 24, 2020

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Thought Trap 3: We’ve Hit the Limits of a Finite Earth

We need to re-examine the idea that we’ve had it too good, must “power down” and learn to live within the limits of a finite planet.


By Frances Moore Lappé

(Part three of the EcoMind series)

Hit the limits? Hmm…I’m not sure, not when each day the sun provides the earth with a daily dose of energy 15,000 times greater than the energy humans currently use.

But the biggest drawback of the “we’ve-hit-the-limits” idea isn’t just the potential it encourages us to miss. The problem is that it puts the problem out there — in the fixed quantity that is Earth. Its limits are the problem.

More accurately and usefully, though, the limit we’ve hit is that of the dis­ruption of nature we humans can cause without catastrophic consequences for life.

Align with the Laws of Nature to Sustain Life

The first frame conjures up the notion of quantity, as in a fixed but overdrawn bank account.  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, energy from the sun?  For all practical purposes, it’s not.

Solar PanelsSo, in this second frame, our focus is not on narrowly cutting back but on aligning with the laws of nature to sustain and enhance life. The difference is huge.  If we conceive of our challenge as simply squeezing within the limits, our imagination remains locked inside an inherited, unecological world view of separateness and lack — precisely what got us into this mess.

It’s true, of course, that the elements of our planet and atmosphere are limited, but their configu­rations are essentially infinite.

Think of music.

Yes, there are just 88 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.

Making this core shift, we learn that, yes, we do uncover real limits on what we can do without disrupting nature’s regenerative flows. But our sights remain clear: We make these discoveries as we focus on how our actions touch and are touched by all other life and as we continue to un­cover and take inspiration from the laws of biology and physics.

Learning from The Natural World

We can learn, for example, how to cool our homes from a zebra’s stripes.

ZebrasReally. A zebra reduces its surface temperature by more than seventeen degrees Fahrenheit with microscopic air currents produced by the different heat absorption rates of its black and white stripes. In similar fashion, in Sendai, Japan, the Daiwa House office building uses alternating dark and light surfaces to create tiny air currents that control the building’s exterior temperature. So indoor summer temperatures are lowered enough to save around 20 percent in energy use.

Another downside of narrowly focusing on reductions to stay within “limits” is that we’re apt to miss a huge, crucial piece of the solution to the climate challenge.

Big mistake.

In the minds of most of us worried about climate change, averting catastrophe means cutting greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we can, mainly from their biggest current source — burning fossil fuel. That’s es­sential. But, more accurately and usefully, our challenge is restoring a balancing cycle in nature.

Restoring Balance in the Carbon Cycle

“Carbon moves from the atmosphere to the land and back, and in this process it drives life on the planet,” observes a 2009 Worldwatch Institute report. Greenhouse gas emissions now total roughly 47 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, and our earth has been absorbing only about half. Way out of whack!

The Carbon CycleTo re-establish a balancing cycle of carbon as quickly as possible, we therefore need both to reduce emissions and to increase absorption of carbon.

And how do we enhance critical carbon-absorption side of the cycle?

To get a grip on why this question matters so much, consider this:

It’s possible that deforestation, farming, grazing, and other people-caused soil disturbance during prehistoric times put more carbon into the atmosphere than has fossil fuel since 1850. And even during the fossil fuel–intensive, post-1850 era, soil and plant disrup­tion has released over one-third as much carbon as has fossil fuel.

So, in righting the carbon balance, soil and plants have a big role to play. It requires both a “stop” and a “start”:

We stop misusing rangeland and tearing down and burning forests. (The net loss of forests globally each year equals an area the size of Costa Rica, although the rate, still horrendous, has begun to slow.)

And we start caring for soil, plants, and trees in ways that increase their carbon storing — some new ways, some very old. And some pretty simple: lengthening the time between “harvesting” trees, for example, in “forests of the Pacific Northwest and Southeast could double their storage of carbon,” notes the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Better farming practices are just as key and answers start with the dirt — no surprise once one learns that, overall, soil itself holds twice as much carbon as plants in the soil do.   Since both exposed and disturbed soils release carbon, the answer is farming in ways that avoid both as much as possible — what’s increasingly called agro-ecology or organic farming, acreage of which tripled in the last decade.  Great news for the climate.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions By Half

In fact, the Spain-based, independent educational organization GRAIN estimates that if organic practices were combined globally with re-integration of livestock and farming and a big shift to local markets, plus an end to deforestation, our food and farming sector could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by half in a few decades.

In other words, an effective and ecologically attuned goal isn’t pulling back from the limits. It is aligning all dimensions of life with the rules of nature so that our real needs are met as the planet flourishes.

It’s possible.


Thought Trap 2: "Consumer Society" Is the Problem

Thought Trap/Leap 1: Growth vs. No Growth?

Introduction: Our Challenge – Developing an Eco-Mind

Ready, Set, Re-Frame! A Conversation with Frances Moore Lappé about EcoMind

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