Signs of cognition, maybe? In the haystack of contentious arguments on climate change at Copenhagen it seemed only the occasional unofficial commentary pointed to the real solvable source of our monumental collision with the limits of the earth. Somehow in the process of growing ever bigger, mankind got "big", and continuing to grow still bigger is optional. Yes, it sort of "happened naturally", and is also natural for us to be a bit confused about the whole turn of events it precipitates. It is still also definitely our own choice to be doing it too, and our cultures are simply not paying much attention to the looming problems of many kinds it creates.
It may be easy to question the morality of how the Chinese chose to limit their population growth by limiting personal freedoms, but they did notice and face their mortal challenge. You really can't argue with the fact that the western cultures and media are just ignoring that same profound moral dilemma, that multiplying affluence naturally lets people multiply people and impacts on the earth. Instead what we have is a world desperately trying to mitigate climate change with an unqualified commitment to of sustaining the continual growth of affluence forever.
Our technique for doing that is also our choice, trying to decrease our impacts on the earth by multiplying wealth more efficiently. What that actually does is feed our appetites at multiplying rates for profit, as our first and last priority. Some say making products more and more efficiently reduces the growth rate of our multiplying impacts. What no one disagrees is that it continues to multiply them, and that reduces the earth toward becoming barely livable and entirely unprofitable. Yes, why we seem caught in growth may have ancient origins. The policy to sustain growth as a way to reduce its impacts, though, is completely voluntary and purposeful. Surely everyone swept up in steering the planet with that policy intends something rather different than making all our problems ever more insolvable, but that is the physical effect.
People even mostly know and understand that at natural growth limits in general, as strains multiply, the cheapest way to reduce the strains and waste of energy is ALWAYS to just skip the option of adding to your investments in expansion. If the house needs a roof and another floor might make it unstable, use that lumber for the roof! That trick is even seen in nature's greatest success stories. Every organism that survives its own explosive growth from a single cell, for example, uses the completion and perfection of its own design as its way of bringing its own growth to an end, resulting in a smooth transition to a sustainable climax in good health!
Anything that reaches its climax at a peak of vitality does so by completing its design at a point that is worth sustaining. Our economic rule has been closer to "every good thing must be discarded". The alternative is "only finishing the job is needed", to just turn off growth pumps when they start to cause trouble. Then the task is sorting things out to find what's worth keeping and perfecting. That's actually the formula for sustainability people normally use for themselves on big and small projects of all kinds, and that we rely on for things that need to take care of themselves in nature too.
Still, where is the cognitive path? Humanity clearly believes in and is devoting its most concentrated efforts on making its growth machine more efficient, to grow its way out of the earth's ever more severe physical constraints...
Growing your way out of environmental constraints is a plan that does work splendidly sometimes, as for a little chick inside it's egg, yes, or an infant in the womb. Then bursting from severe environmental constraints reveals fields of grain and new worlds of choices waiting, for which the new organism only has a limited appetite. The plan to just crash your limits often enough also works OK in pursuing "the impossible dream" in the worlds of ideas, within the 'noosphere', where the only real limit is imagination and failures of imagination are of little real physical consequence.
The physical world is different from the mental world though, and accumulating physical change erupts with unforeseen complication. We now have a whole planet of leaders who believe we only need to physically grow our economies ever faster to burst out of the limits of an entire planet! They truly act as if just wishing we had the limitless resources and freedoms of the past would surely cause them to reappear. That's the worst kind of fundamentalist delusion, a most extreme sort of misguided sophistry.
Is it a mass hysteria? Is it a case of worldwide Alzheimer's disease, leading us to withdraw into our emotional detachment from the natural world and bumble around waving amazingly clever self-deceptions... like using growth to reduce impacts? I wonder, instead of creating ever more dramatic diversions in response to our ever more desperate situations, could we 'wake up' as from a dream? It would be a great deal less expensive, in fact. Could we just shift the use of our creative powers to discovering this new reality we find, that we've clearly seen approaching for decades of decades?
There's also a need to help people understand why efficiency , productivity, hard work and big families used to be so good for everything. In the early days of growth they created bounty, relieved burdens and provided freedoms for both the people most benefiting from them and also everyone else too. That was the magic of economic growth. The problem now is that the very same causes have the reverse effect. Now that the meaning of growth naturally reversed it is multiplying complications and constraints for everyone instead.
I think that's what has everyone fooled, that as mankind proceeded to get bigger and bigger we silently crossed a threshold of becoming "big", say between 50 and 75 years ago. After that, and quite unnoticed, our normal way of relieving burdens on ourselves, our hard work, productivity and efficiency, started ever more dominantly multiplying burdens on each other and the earth... More growth now pushes everyone ever harder against nature's limits instead of giving everyone more freedoms.
Continuing as we always did, now that the responses of the planet have so dramatically changed meanings, seems to be how we ended up trying to reduce our burdens on the earth by multiplying them. In a world as changed as ours is, living in the past or dreaming of returning to the past, as all the world's leaders promote, is really a kind of dementia and disorientation. Nature changed her orientation and we just didn't notice...! Just pausing to learn about this unfamiliar place and our unexpected arrival might be a more productive diversion than arguing about how to get our vehicle going ever faster again. We're marooned, as it were, on a part of the planet we never saw before, and it's a bit of luck really too. We're apparently both nearly out of gas and saved from heading over the next cliff only by few flat tires and grinding gears in the transmission.
Thanks to Emily S in Massachusetts and Li Xing "China says rest of world must submit to Chinese style population control if global warming deal is to be made." (China Daily 12/10/2009 page 10)
Phil Henshaw is a scientist who studies and writes about uncontrolled natural systems. His work began in the 1970's with watching air current networks in houses as they competed for flow channels and evolved new organization several times a day as the sun moved around. For air currents smooth growth can erupt in complications called turbulence. He thinks modern change became naturally confusing due to growth, amplified by our cultural pre-thinking of situations never faced before. Nature's systems are animated and too complex to realistically predict. Watching how they are developing is then the way to raise better questions. Notes on his still developing methods and work are at www.synapse9.com.