What is the Root Issue of Our Unsustainability?


Two pictures from Falls Mill, Tennessee, depicting life in the late 1800s. The mill now houses a museum and is open for tours and a bed and breakfast is also on site.

Last week, I updated the files here with over 250 new articles and studies (see this list). There were 59 new entries in the Climate Change and Collapse file alone. So many of these files now contain new studies which are increasingly worrying; some of these new entries are located in the Species and Biodiversity Loss, Extinction, Disease, Pollution Loading, Tree Decline and Deforestation, and Ocean Acidification and Marine Life files. As can be seen in these studies, this is a rapidly developing situation which is now beginning to gather speed and overwhelming existing infrastructure to deal with the ongoing disasters.

There is a new article regarding methane emissions through permafrost thaw which is rather chilling. Another version in the Smithsonian Magazine describes the "methane time bomb" and lists a paper from Andrew Glikson from July of 2018. Over the past several years, there has been a growing debate over just how much of a threat methane emissions pose to the growing climate situation. Methane emissions coming from hydrates (clathrates), permafrost thaw, thermokarst lakes, and even from behind dams in the thousands of reservoirs we have built are growing, and combined with other methane sources, provide about a quarter of effects contributing to climate change. Some scientists have argued that these pose no threat and that "all we have to do is cut emissions" and nature will solve the issue. This is, of course, pure lunacy, and designed to prevent panic. Most are limiting their discussion to just the hydrates; which while this may possibly be true, discounts the larger methane picture overall. Obviously, when one views the rise in methane emissions globally over time, one cannot help but be concerned. This post by Gavin Schmidt helps to clear up discrepancies regarding methane and the comparison to carbon dioxide.

As is true with most of the other predicaments under the ecological overshoot banner, one shouldn't focus exclusively on any single issue and exclude the others. Therefore, to say that methane isn't a threat or to downplay that threat is disingenuous at best. This article goes into more details about the growing threat on the other side of the world in Canada, and along with another article discussing the recent heatwave, demonstrates that there is indeed reason to be more than just "concerned" about it. This year's heatwaves have had multiple consequences  above and beyond methane emissions. As I discussed in my article regarding infrastructure, permafrost thaw is having devastating consequences on roads, bridges, buildings and houses, and other critical infrastructure all across the northern Arctic. One look at this file will confirm just how large an issue the thawing and melting of the poles really is. 

In order to fully appreciate this topic, it is a good idea to become familiar with methane as a greenhouse gas. This file contains links to many different studies, articles, videos, and other media regarding methane, but one of the first things to know about it is that of its global warming potential, or GWP. Methane has a GWP of 96 over a 20 year timeframe and 39 or 40 over a 100 year timeframe. This means that it is 96 times as strong of a GHG as CO2 over 20 years or 39 or 40 times as strong as CO2 over the standard 100 year timeframe. 

Because of methane's strength as a GHG, it is very important within the overall scope of climate change and global heating. More than 25% of today's warming (as mentioned above) is driven by methane. Sadly, as is demonstrated time and again by article after article, many of these predicaments are listed as problems which discounts entirely the underlying issues surrounding the true reality. In this particular article, the third section is titled, "How can we fix the methane problem?" While there are many different ways we can REDUCE methane emissions, this does not actually solve the PREDICAMENT of methane emissions. Growing emissions from sources we CAN fix do indeed need attention, but this completely ignores the growing emissions from sources we lack agency over - hydrates, permafrost thaw, and other sources that aren't coming from our own infrastructural systems. For an interesting view of possible issues methane may cause, this documentary may be eye-opening, especially in the implications it doesn't mention.

One of the biggest issues I see is the constant repetition of false narratives, ones which sound great but lack any true ability to reduce the harm of ecological overshoot. Because ecological overshoot is precisely what is driving climate change, attempting to "fix" climate change ignores the root issue and instead works at trying to solve symptoms rather than causes. Take this quote, for instance:  

"A cleaner future is in reach. We know how to cut climate pollution while growing the economy, to create a world where people and nature prosper."

Sadly, this is entirely false. The economy is the SOURCE of climate pollution, so growing it cannot help cut it, period. If we want people and nature to prosper, we must get RID of the growth economy, not grow it. Furthermore, we have no choice in this matter in reality, considering the fact that we reached peak oil in 2018. There literally is no such thing as a "clean economy" any more than there is such a thing as "clean energy" or "clean coal" when it comes to technology, because there is no such thing as "clean" technology, either. Of course, I wouldn't expect an industry mouthpiece fund to deliver better messages, but because it popped up as I was looking for sources for the methane element of climate change, I decided to use it as a source and then critique the messages it is sending since they are considerably false.

As long as people continue to buy into nonsensical messages like these and think that we can build or buy our way out of these predicaments, no progress will be made towards a sustainable future. Civilization WILL end, regardless of whether we like it or not because it is unsustainable. It's not a question of IF but a question of WHEN. For everyone who will be entering this new phase of degrowth and contraction, the best advice is to ignore the counterintuitive messages of being able to have our cake and eat it too. 

As I pointed out in my articles regarding mindsets and traps (here and here), one of the biggest stumbling blocks to accepting the true nature of the predicaments stacked against us does have to do with denial of reality and optimism bias. We refuse to see WHY we are addicted to technology use and that it is the root of all our troubles as a species. I recently wrote this to explain wetiko, quote: 

"It is a mindset, and it is cultural. The thought that we "own" the land rather than the truth that we are a PART of the land is the same as the thought that we "own" nature rather than the truth that we are a PART of nature. This is the very mechanism behind our addiction to technology use. Once one comprehends this false belief (the illusion of control or agency which technology use provides and the attachment to it); he or she looks at technology, society, and the reality of all the predicaments we face from a totally different perspective."

I've been called cynical, negative, and fatalistic for some of my stances, but these stances are entirely realistic given the state of affairs. I often question the possibilities of a "radical transformation" of society and have concluded that such a transformation WILL occur, but only when absolutely required (once no other choice is available). Many people disagree with this assessment, and the reason why has to do with a person's cognitive functions (related to the two previous paragraphs). How a person views the world around himself or herself affects not only their viewpoints but also what actions he or she would then be willing to take. Offer a person two different options; option A would be to continue living like today with a much shorter lifespan, and option B would be to give up electricity now with a longer lifespan. The outcomes upon asking a group of individuals this question can actually be fairly predictable based upon a person's Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and a similar set of surveys done about 6 years ago by Tom Murphy. Sadly, what Tom's post demonstrates is that only a small percentage of society will even read the types of articles I write, LET ALONE actually do anything effective about the predicaments I highlight. Let's face it, if a person either doesn't realize a predicament exists or realize the difference between a problem and a predicament, then how likely is it that he or she will take EFFECTIVE action at reducing the inherent risk of said predicament? The last section points out the reality, quote:

"As stated at the beginning, my impetus for all the Do the Math work was to lay out a rational, quantitative foundation for why we should not take future growth/wealth/happiness for granted. We could really blow this thing. Our best hope, as I saw it, was to get people to acknowledge and accept the threat and thereby endeavor to make it go away. As with any 12-step program, admitting that there is a problem is step one.

Failure to acknowledge what, to me, is a wholly plausible set of major concerns triggers a strong reaction on my part. How can we mitigate what we don’t acknowledge? Failure to acknowledge the risk serves only to solidify the likelihood of the risk, in my mind. Perversely, calling me wrong outright probably makes me more right. Saying I might be wrong, or even that I am probably wrong while admitting some chance of my being on target and acknowledging the enormity if so is just fine by me.

This personality analysis helps me understand the scope of the challenge. It mostly serves to reinforce my concern. It seems we have a built-in impediment to preventive mitigation for unprecedented crises. At some level, it just makes me feel resigned: no hope in politicians, now no hope in human nature.

But as a cerebral type, it gives me some satisfaction to have insight into how and why we may fail. If the world falls apart before I die, at least I’ll have some inkling as to what’s going on, and won’t be as psychologically shattered by the affair. But I’ll be one of a pitifully small number, I’m afraid.

I've seen pushback regarding Myers-Briggs Indicators, but the implications are clear. So, once again, we face the reality that it is our very mindsets, cultural values, and anthropocentrism which is at the root of our addiction to technology, and it is our addiction to technology which prevents us from resolving or reducing the predicaments society faces (under the general banner of ecological overshoot). Because we cannot sustain 8 billion of us on this planet without technology, we continue with BAU until we cannot. This will not end well. Live Now!


  1. I was glad to see your next to last sentence. Until population growth is reversed, economies will do all possible to increase throughput. Women's empowerment and free access to contraception are activities with upside only. I agree about auto-pilot of our species (like all others). See:

  2. Thanks, Steven, for the link! I did include a link to the MPP (Maximum Power Principle) in my article about denial of reality in the very last paragraph (https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2020/12/denial-of-reality.html).
    I probably could have expanded on it, but Jay Hanson did such an excellent job that I didn't think I needed to.

  3. Good one, as always. Thanks for those methane links. I knew it was a problem but not how much of a problem... er... sorry, I mean predicament.


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