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Eric Toensmeier told me that humans are not poisonous to the planet by nature. It's the system we live in that makes us toxic to the planet. He didn't say what aspect of the system is the noxious part, and so I wondered if he meant capitalism. The Soviet Union created loads of pollution and waste, and they were ideologically opposed to capitalism.

I doubt that Eric meant that overpopulation was what makes us toxic to the world we depend on because overpopulation is not what I would normally describe as a "system." Someone directed me to a video by Dr. John McMurtry in which he dispels the idea that the ongoing doubling of human population is degrading the carrying capacity of the planet because the majority poor don't control much in the way of resources.

I don't really know how to do the math to determine how much credence to give that claim. I've heard it said that 8 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population, but much of that wealth is abstract. Those 8 people don't eat as much food as 4 billion poor people. They don't emit as much carbon, nor inhabit the same amount of space nor have the same embedded energy in their cars and houses as the bottom half of the population. Wall Street hedge fund managers don't cut down trees to make charcoal. Nor do they poach rhinos or kill gorillas for "bush meat."

I'm as eager to blame the billionaire class for the planet's ills as the next person, but when I know that I want something to be true, I try to direct extra skepticism toward it. Wishful thinking is like walking downhill. If you seem to be gaining a lot of ground with very little effort, you're probably losing altitude.

Dr. McMurtry claims that the damage comes from the resource extraction that is driven by the imperative of transnational companies to create commodities with ever more waste. His statements come rapid fire, and I don't have access to them in print, so I can't really be certain that I'm doing them justice with my attempted summation, but it does seem like he's on to something.

The need for economic growth in order to pay maintenance on ever-growing debts seems like a good candidate for that part of the system that makes us toxic to the planet. Because we have debts to service and rents to pay, human beings are driven to find a way to generate economic activity. We have to "work" even though the mechanization and automation of tasks that once required lots of human labor have left us in a situation in which a small fraction of the population is capable of generating all the food, clothing, shelter and manufactured goods necessary to sustain everyone.

That leaves more and more people in a desperate scramble to find some way to make money, but with ever fewer genuine needs to fill, we must invent new wants that can then be construed as needs which we can then meet. This generates a lot of waste, and all the failed attempts to create new markets and new industries generates lots of debt which feeds back into more desperate scrambling to generate economic activity.

I'm not convinced that the sheer size of the human herd is a non-issue, but the part of the system that drives us to strive and struggle to meet artificial needs when our actual physical, social and psychological needs could be met with much less hustle and bustle seems like a prime candidate for the "system" that Eric Toensmeier blames for our toxicity.

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February 2019


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