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Posted by wastedenergy on June 21, 2012

A common analogy or allegory among environmentally concerned circles is the tale of brewer’s yeast.  Beer and other alcoholic beverages are of course produced by yeast that feed on carbohydrates, gradually building up in population by feeding on this limited energy source until finally it approaches exhaustion and the yeast become overwhelmed by their own toxic byproducts, and the colony dies off.  The question as it pertains to humanity is then:  Are we smarter than yeast?  Or are we fundamentally no different from simple, single-celled organisms, driven by the same fundamental urge to consume and reproduce in a purely selfish manner, with no regard to the greater good or the needs of our progeny?  Are we perhaps too clever for our own good, finding endless ways to extract and consume to serve our every whim today at the expense of stewarding the ecological resources that have sustained us for countless generations and continue to do so today?

I find in my travels there are two constants anywhere I go in the world, at least wherever there are people around: trash and automobiles.  Of course, no single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood, so most of us probably don’t associate our own daily commute by car or the cigarette butt we casually toss on the ground with the depletion of our stocks of natural resources, the irreversible alteration of the planet Earth’s climate or the choking masses of solid waste and runoff poisoning our rivers and oceans.  But the fact is every day we make choices that impact upon both present and future quality of life and even our own species’ very chances of survival.  Our choices are reinforced by social pressures and messages we see and hear in the media, constantly telling us to live for today and that ecological concerns are the sole purview of hippie environmentalists.  Why should I care if polar bears lose their habitat?  What matters to me is the price of gasoline today, so drill, baby, drill.

The fatal error in this thinking is the assumption that human and natural capital can be separated, that a human society can exist apart from the ecosystems in which it evolved.  Much noise emanates from the ivory tower concerning the transition to an “information economy,” but in the end we all still gotta eat, and you’ll find your computer motherboard does not provide much in the way of nutritional content.  Some theorists have even suggested that it does not matter if we wholly deplete our natural resource stocks because we will simply mine asteroids and colonize other planets, so who cares if we render our home planet uninhabitable for ever greater numbers of species, including our own?  However, it is obvious to anyone even casually interested in the facts that this Jetsons fantasy is far from becoming a reality.  We are still the same protein-based lifeforms we were 10,000 or a million years ago; the only difference is we have hit upon a one-time energy bonanza that has allowed us to turbocharge our growth, like yeast that has suddenly discovered a huge motherlode of carbohydrate stocks.  But what will happen when the yeast reaches that critical halfway point where the population explosion can no longer be sustained by the resource base and the toxic byproducts begin to overwhelm the organism?

Well, you don’t have to guess, because we are starting to reach this point today.  Since 2005, worldwide production of petroleum, the primary energy source that has allowed humanity to grow its numbers and living standards at an unprecedented rate, has been more or less flat even as its price has continued to increase, reflected in the prices of most basic goods and services.  This phenomenon, whether you prefer to call it “peak oil” or some other name (and the naming is merely an exercise in semantics, changing nothing of the facts underneath the ground), can be seen as a primary driver of the gap between wages and the cost of living, though it is exacerbated by hoarding among wealthy individuals and institutions.  At the most basic level, what is happening, due to the way our economic system is organized (and it is worth remembering the Greek etymology of the word “economics,” oikonomos, or knowledge of the home, not merely the creation of paper wealth as it has been construed in the economics profession) is that more and more human organisms are being forced into debt servitude, a continued existence solely at the whim of those who control access to the remaining, dwindling stocks of wealth.  We are literally being priced out of survival.

So to return to the initial question:  Are we smarter than yeast?  It depends on your point of view, and the ultimate answer to this question is far from certain.  On the most fundamental level, yes, we are smarter than yeast.  The greatest evolutionary advantage of humans is our large brains and therefore our ability to create and invent and hence adapt to changing conditions, as we have done countless times throughout history.  In theory, we are in no way trapped by the existing infrastructure we have created to foster dependence upon resources that deplete and will ultimately be exhausted, or the literal mountains and oceans of waste we leave in our wake as if some sort of galactic maid service will surely visit our planet and clean up after us (any day now).  But on the other hand, each day we fail to acknowledge the facts and change our behavior, each day we fail to seize power and take responsibility for our own lives and instead cede these choices to the powers that be, those with vested interests in extracting treasure from the planet and labor from humans with no respect or value for the living, as if there were no tomorrow and we were merely automatons, our choices become more constrained, and the chances for a decent existence diminish further.

The clock is ticking.  What are you going to do about it?

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