Was Kurt Vonnegut right (and if so, Now What?)

This is an edited version of a guest lecture given to Tracey Harris-Smith’s “Culture, Technology, and the Environment” class at CBU.

Here’s how Tracey pitched this lecture to me: “Mike, my class has spent the semester reading about industrial agriculture, production, consumption/consumerism, and they’re feeling pretty overwhelmed and depressed, can you come in and try to lift their spirits, maybe speak to the idea of the ‘personal is political’ or something.”

I took a look at your syllabus, and you’re all probably feeling like Kurt Vonnegut, who said about the world, “I’m sorry. It’s over. The game is lost.” This is quite a task.

I had planned to come in here today and get straight to the ‘lifting your spirits’ part, but it occurred to me that if you’ve been paying attention in class, your reaction will be along the lines of “yeah yeah but the game is lost.”

So instead I’m going to spend some time reflecting on that sentiment — that the game is lost. But I’ll ask you to bare with me, because you might find yourself thinking ‘This guy’s here to lift my spirits? Geez I’d hate to see him try to bum me out.’ I promise, it gets better at the end.

So is Vonnegut right? When it comes to the environment — the world — is the game lost? Consider what it would take to undo the damage done to the environment and society from two and a half centuries of mass production and consumption since the industrial revolution: over 200 years of industrial-strength pollution; 60 years of industrial-speed sprawl, consuming half of the world’s conventional recoverable oil supplies; and 35 years of hyper-growth fuelled primarily by debt.

The result is a triple-threat of global warming/climate change; peak oil; and global economic instability.

You’re probably right to feel overwhelmed! Especially when you look around and see governments, businesses, and institutions carrying on as usual. The only time they even talk about the environment is to call environmentalists “radicals”.

But what’s so radical about wanting to protect life-sustaining biosystems? About wanting to only consume as much energy and resources as is sustainable? And about wanting to build an economic system that is equitable?

And ‘equitable’ means equitable for all, including future generations.

This is important to emphasize. We, and our children, are going to pay the debt incurred by our parents and grandparents. And those living in less affluent regions of the world are going to suffer even more, as they pay the climate debt incurred by Western countries over the last several hundred years.

There’s a profound social justice element to environmental issues. In the case of climate change, those that haven’t benefited from the industrial revolution’s two centuries of ‘growth’ — and who therefore lack our financial means, our infrastructure, and our ability to respond to disaster — are the ones that will be hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change (rising sea levels, extreme weather events, flooding on the one hand, desertification on the other, dying fish stocks from ocean acidification, etc).

Food. Energy. Life-supporting environmental systems.

We’re talking about civilization itself. Far from radical, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to be concerned about this. It seems downright bizarre to not be concerned about it.

And because of the triple threat, not only is climate change a problem in addition to peak oil and economic instability, and not only do they exacerbate one another, but they are interconnected in ways that make it impossible to solve one without addressing the others.

For example, conventional oil has peaked (we’ll need some hindsight to know for sure exactly when). But generally speaking, until now, conventional oil production has been speeding up, and from now on, it will be slowing down. This means rising energy prices for us, consumers.

Will profits be invested in alternatives? Not enough. Instead, we’ll likely see increased investment in unconventional oil like the tar sands and a return to coal (which we never left). Meaning that right when we’re starting to feel the first effects of climate change from global warming, we’re also ramping up production and consumption of less efficient, more expensive, and highly polluting energy sources, which will increase global warming and worsen climate change.

And to complete the trinity, all this is taking place in an economic climate of fear and uncertainty. In the midst of a pathetic “Jobless Recovery”, the rhetoric of “Jobs Now!” will continue to trump all else. We’ll continue to under-invest in clean tech, meaning we won’t see the kind of technological innovation that would lead to a ‘green collar’ economy, let alone the kind of economic innovation that would lead to prosperity without growth.

I had to decline another invitation this morning to join a panel on CBC Information Morning with Steve Sutherland to discuss the federal budget released yesterday. Here’s what I would have said:

We have a Conservative government pursuing conventional austerity measures — shrinking government and cutting social programs, ultimately making life harder for ordinary people — in order to reduce the debt that they themselves created by cutting taxes and giving corporations more power, including more power to pollute. Instead, we need a stimulus package to invest in ‘green-collar’ jobs — like designing, building, installing and maintaining renewable energy systems — in order to reduce energy costs associated with peak oil, reduce global warming and avert the worst effects of climate change, and create sustainable and meaningful jobs that are good for our communities and our economies.”

Granted, that’s a sound byte, something a left-wing radical environmentalist might say. But what it basically boils down to is that life is going to be worse for us than it was for our parents, and we can expect our government to not care.

So what can we do?

One of the simplest things you can do is get involved in an online organizing and activism effort. Engagement with these types of campaigns is often dismissed as “slacktivism”, because it doesn’t require much effort — a click here, a click there. But don’t be fooled. It takes less effort to vote, and no one’s dismissing that type of civic engagement as pointless… only people who would rather you did nothing!

One of the most impressive and inspiring is 350.org, the environmental movement started by Bill McKibben. The name refers to the level of carbon dioxide in parts per million that scientists say is a safe threshold, over which things start to get dicey, you start to see feedback loops, and climate change becomes a runaway train.

(For example, if global temperature rises 2 degrees celsius above normal, it melts permafrost. Permafrost stores massive amounts of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Which would therefore increase the amount of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. Which would worsen global warming. Which would — you guessed it — melt more permafrost. Feedback loops like this are hard if not impossible to halt.)

So let’s say you join with this global movement that is mobilizing around the idea that we need to keep carbon emissions below this threshold (we’re actually already at 385 or even 400, but scientists are always moving the threshold, so it is another instance where we won’t know until it is too late).

Two years ago we held a rally as part of a global day of action: thousands of people in almost every country in the world, all sending a message to the politicians meeting that month in Copenhagen. 70 people came out, wearing their parkas in sub-zero weather and blowing snow. (I joked in my opening remarks that it would have been a tragic irony if we had cancelled due to extreme weather.)

We talked about the effect of climate change on global citizens, Canadian citizens, and Cape Breton citizens.

I know some people went home feeling empowered. But others left feeling hopeless. After all, what impact does standing around in the cold have on global carbon emissions? And the answer is… none really.

But that’s not the point. The point is solidarity and engagement with the issue. That doesn’t begin at 6pm and end at 6:30pm on the same night. The point is to take the conversation that is happening globally and find a way to plant it locally. Climate change is a good starting point for the conversation, because it is a global issue. But it is not the only environmental disaster unfolding in slow motion all around us. It is a token, though, because climate change is connected to pretty much every other environmental, social, cultural, and economic issue you can think of.

After the 350.org event, I was invited by New Dawn, a community development and social enterprise organization based locally here in Sydney, to give a talk as part of thee IDEAS Powered by Passion series. In my talk I spoke about the changing context of the world and what it means for our community.

Essentially I asked: If Vonnegut is right, now what?

Kurt Vonnegut shot himself in the head. I don’t recommend that. What I do recommend is that we instead say, not that the game is lost, but that the game is changed. Probably radically altered even. And it is this new game that we need to win now.

What we are faced with is a world that is different — literally chemically different — than the one our parents lived in, and to an extent that can’t be undone. So the game — the new question — becomes this:

Are our communities resilient enough to withstand this change (and ongoing changes)?

And are they adaptive enough to be able to themselves change with those new conditions?

When the pressure is applied, will our communities break? How can we make our communities adapt by becoming new communities for a new world?

We can’t rely — at least not exclusively — on the federal government, and even to an extent provincial governments, to help us through this transition, because they are highly bureaucratized, rigid, monolithic things. They move at a glacial pace. (This is an ironic statement: actual glaciers are now changing — melting — faster and faster.)

These institutions, some of which are hundreds of years old and haven’t changed much if at all in that time, are too rigid to bend and so they might break; too slow to adapt and so they might die.

I’m using a little hyperbole here, but this evolutionary metaphor is accurate: think not only of government, but, as Margie Gillis puts it in the above clip, think of the Catholic church, think of universities, hospitals, even capitalism itself. Institutions — or organizing frameworks — that have managed to survive for quite a long time, sometimes by changing slowly and slightly with the times. But institutions that might actually, finally, be bumping up against the limits of their ability to change.

Certainly bumping up against their ability to provide a sufficient quality of life for most people. And this includes capitalism, which is “bumping up”, to put it mildly, against the ecological limits of economic growth.

New Dawn Enterprises

Last year New Dawn went one step further and asked me to join its board of directors. New Dawn was doing some soul-searching and found that it too, like every organization reaching middle age, risked becoming too rigid and ossified to deal with the changing context of this community, which it is New Dawn’s mandate to serve.

New Dawn’s mission/vision statement is to foster a culture of self-reliance in order to create a vibrant community. It has done this over the last 36-37 years by providing affordable housing, community-based health care, career training, and various other projects like Meals on Wheels.


Pictured above is the ‘life cycle’ curve, which is usually used to talk about commercial products, but it is just as useful for organizations and institutions:

Introduction = the ‘problem’ out of which the organization grows.

Growth = the successful application of the solution.

Maturity = the institutionalization of the solution/organization.

It’s here, approaching the cusp between ‘maturity’ and ‘decline’, that the organization risks losing sight of its origins (literally losing sight, if we imagine this curve on a 3-dimensional plane, like going ‘over the hill’).

And it’s here, approaching this cusp, that the organization must decide whether to reinvent itself, or else commit to the slow decline that is more or less inevitable in the transition from vital organization to irrelevant institution.

I don’t know where New Dawn is on this continuum exactly, but it’s nonetheless asking itself: “What does it mean to be a self-reliant people in a vibrant community in the 21st century?”

Well, here are just a few examples:

Cold-climate greenhouse

It’s a working prototype, located in Westmount, designed to grow produce year-round. It may be replicated in Canada’s North where a tomato costs $14 and has to be flown in by helicopter. The greenhouse is built from glass designed and produced by a Cape Breton innovation company called Advanced Glazing Ltd. It uses a synthetic honey-comb structure sandwiched between two panels, which lets light in and disperses it evenly, and traps heat inside at the same time, acting as high-grade insulation. Significantly less energy is required to heat the greenhouse, providing a healthy, affordable, local, safe, and secure source of food year-round.

Community ownership

This has meant, by and large, fighting for what’s often referred to as the “community option” for port development.

A century ago, an industrialist king owned the means of production, owned the company store, owned the company houses. The king extracted natural resources from the community and extracted labour resources from the community, and ultimately made off with the wealth of the community, leaving a depleted economy and a toxic legacy.

Let’s not go down that road with the port.

Instead, the community should own the key assets (the greenfield site and the harbour bottom) and lease it for development. Then, whatever the development turns out to be, will produce royalties that can be streamed into a community equity fund, turning some of the profit from port development into direct investment in local businesses, education, health, and community development.

This will diversify the local economy, and avoid — you guessed it — setting up another house of cards economy that will come crashing down in 50, 25, or even 10 years.

Community Investment

With or without port development, New Dawn is pursuing a community equity fund. New Dawn runs a CEDIF, a Community Economic Development Investment Fund, which is a provincial program that allows community organizations to raise funds, mainly by having people redirect their RRSP investments.

New Dawn raised $1.5 million in February, which it loaned to Protocase, a local success story.

The CEDIF allows investors, who are people in the community, to direct investment in the community, rather than have government simply give tax breaks and other ‘incentives’ to multinational corporations, who create temporary jobs that dry up as soon as the subsidy ends or the company finds a better deal elsewhere.

Sustainability: The Long View

I’ve spent 20 minutes talking about how screwed we are, and only a few minutes talking about community-based creative alternatives. That is in part because I do want to emphasize that many of these are only at the early stages of development, as are many of the exciting things happening in Cape Breton these days. They’re only just sprouting up, and others still are hidden from view.

But these sprouts — the initiatives, projects, and organizations creating a self-reliant people in a vibrant community for the 21st century — aren’t rigid, ossified, institutionalized. On the contrary, many are about trying to become resilient and adaptive in order just to make it in the new world I just described. But also in order to actively take part in its creation and betterment. If you want a sustainable job, look to those new initiatives, and others like them, and get involved on the ground level.

Last but not least is the early childhood development item I listed. This is something being pursued by Jim Mustard, a councillor in Inverness and son of the late Fraser Mustard, a world-leading expert on early childhood development.

Substance abuse, low levels of education and literacy, poor health, unemployment, crime. These and other indicators of community health — some of which are nearly epidemic in Cape Breton — are related to the care and level of provision a person has in childhood. The years between 0-5 are absolutely critical to brain development. A child that gets off to a slow start is at a disadvantage and may not be able to catch up. In Canada we do a pretty poor job at providing for people in the most formative portion of their life.

At New Dawn we’re just starting to have this conversation. What does it mean to really think about sustainability? In Inverness, Jim Mustard is in the process of co-developing a family support coop. In both cases, the goal is not to simply target low-income families or single mothers or at-risk people, but to provide universal provision; to come together as a community and support families.

You might be thinking, “But what does this have to do with the environment?”

I gave a talk two or three years ago, part of a panel discussion on the science, politics, and community responses to climate change. I talked about the community responses. At one point I showed this cartoon:


In other words, by working to “save” the world we would, almost by accident, create a better world.

But you know what the problem is with that argument? It’s that your vision of a better world might be a techno-futuristic one, where we still use as much energy as we want, we still consume as much as we want, we still drive as much and as far and as fast as we want, we still eat whatever we want and as much as we want.

oxygen cylinder tree

We do whatever we want, but only by virtue of having invented some machines to save us from environmental collapse. Any number of the geo-engineering “solutions” being seriously considered in some quarters. Or maybe we’ll end up living under a glass dome, and eventually download our consciousnesses into cyberspace. Or whatever.

The point is, you can agree we need action on climate change. But the idea that we’ll do so by creating “livable communities” is controversial, given that our ideas of “livable” may diverge drastically.

Which means I need to defend the benefits of this vision of a livable community over that vision.

But that’s precisely where I’ll stop!

Such an argument would be a purely intellectual exercise, when what’s needed is experience. I can’t make the argument, only the world itself can make the argument. What do I mean? The way to make a better world, reduce global warming, lessen the impacts of climate change, make our communities more resilient and adaptive to the coming ‘storm’ (both literal and figurative), while retaining our basic humanity, is to…

Go for a walk.

I don’t mean ‘active transportation’ (which is great too). I mean that by living at a human scale, living at a human (and humane) speed — which is what happens when you go for a walk — whether in your own neighbourhood or far away, you get to know people, communities, cities. When you get to know some little piece of the world better, by extension you get to know The World better.

I have a feeling the more people get to know the world, the more they’ll find it perfectly reasonable to want to take better care of it.