Originally presented at:
A. D. Latornell Conservation Symposium on

Your Watersheds, Our Grate Lakes

by Mike Nickerson, November 16, 2007

the Metamorphosis of Human Culture

Look closely at your next drink. Whatever it is, it is mostly water
- water upon which all life depends.

There are millions of billions of water molecules in your drink. For the most part, those molecules have been present on Earth since it first cooled, four billion years ago. Because water circulates in streams, rivers and ocean currents, through evaporation, wind driven clouds, rain, snow, and dew, you can be sure that what you are about to drink has been everywhere on Earth and in and out of every form of life that has ever lived here.

Water unites us all on this living planet.

Over the last generation, a fundamental change has taken place in the relationship between people and our planet.

For over 100,000 years it has been good to have more people to share the work of living, and better tools with which to do that work. Today as humans press up against planetary limits, this inclination for expansion has become our greatest problem.

This is a fundamental change, which, if civilization is to survive, will require an equally fundamental change in how we manage things.

In Canada, the change has been powerfully illustrated by the East Coast Cod fishery.

When European's first visited our east coast, cod were so abundant that a person could drop a bucket over the edge of a ship and draw up fish. Today, the East Coast Cod is an endangered species.

Over the hundreds of years in between, if people wanted more fish, all they had to do was invest more in fishing. More time on the water, more boats, bigger nets. More investment brought in more fish, earning more money that could be invested in more fishing. The cycle of more fish, more money, more fish, more money was a classic economic success story until one year, less fish were caught. Soon after that, there was so little cod left that the fishery collapsed.

Today, the amount of fish that can be caught depends, not on how much is invested in fishing, but on how many fish there are in the sea.

Until recently, we could always have more of anything we wanted if we could find the money to invest in it. This is no longer the case. If we were to invest twice as much in fishing, we would come to catch even fewer fish. It is not about money any more, it is about the availability of natural resources. This same change is happening with forests, fresh water, fossil fuels, soil fertility and the ability of the environment to absorb our wastes. After centuries of being able to have more of anything we wanted, this change is a wake up call. It marks our maturity as a species.

Given our maturation as a species, we are no longer a young offender. We are fully responsible to the laws of nature and will answer in the court of natural selection.

Nature has only two laws that we must obey.

One is the Law of the minimum:

The activities of any species that has grown to fill its habitat are limited when some substance or circumstance, among those it needs, is not available in sufficient quantity. Only one required condition need be lacking to keep the numbers of that organism low, or absent, even when all the other necessary conditions are met in abundance.

The other law is the law of tolerance:

If conditions in an area are intolerable for particular organisms, those organisms won't be able to live there. The production of wine illustrates this. Yeast thrives digesting the sugar in fruit juice. The by-products are alcohol and carbon dioxide. The CO2 bubbles away and the alcohol accumulates until its concentration exceeds what yeast can tolerate. Somewhere between 12% and 14%, the yeast goes dormant or dies and the wine is ready for bottling. You will never find wine with an alcohol content higher than 14%. Any drink with more alcohol has been refined.

These two laws essentially govern how much natural resources civilization can consume and how much waste we can produce. All of our major problems are the result of pushing the limits of one or the other of these limitations - or from trying to avoid the limits by imposing upon other people.

Life is not hard to manage.

There are some very simple organisms that have been successful on this bountiful planet for millions of generations. Human beings should expect no less.

Back when science was re-emerging from the middle ages, Jean Baptist Van Helmont was studying what came to be called Biology. He was studying life in what is now the Netherlands.

In one experiment, he took exactly 200 pounds of well dried soil, put it in a big pot and pressed into it a five pound branch from a willow tree. He watered it with distilled water or rain water for five years. The branch set out roots and grew. After five years, he separated the plant from the soil, dried out the soil again and weighed both. The branch had grown to 169 pounds yet, the soil lost less than two ounces in weight.

164 pounds of growth from less than two ounces of soil . . .

The rest of the growth was carbon from the air, and oxygen and hydrogen from air and water.

This experiment shows that, if what we want from life is to live, most of life is a gas, - a number of gasses that are available practically every place on Earth.

Another image that illustrates how life can be maintained indefinitely is pattern integrity.

When I was with the Institute for the Study of Cultural Evolution in Toronto, Buckminister Fuller came to talk in Guelph and a car load of us went to hear him speak.

I learned this from Buckminister Fuller. Fuller was the head of a design school at the University of Illinois in Carbondale. The 1960s, was the "World Design Science Decade," in honour of which Fuller initiated the "World Game." The objective of the World Game is to make the World work for 100% of humanity for all time to come through comprehensive anticipatory design. Fuller set his entire faculty and student body to work producing an "Inventory of World Resources Human Trends and Needs" What does our planet offer, what do people need, what do we want, and what have been the trends among those factors over time? Fuller popularized the study in his small book "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth." It is on-line at:

One of the many ideas he presented that evening was "Pattern Integrity." He illustrated it with a slip knot on a piece of string. As the knot moves along the string, material enters the knot at one end and passes out the other, until there is no physical substance in the knot that was in it when you first saw it. It is the same knot, however. It has integrity.

The thing about pattern integrity that relates to ourselves is that we are pattern integrities. The substance of our bodies is constantly changing. After seven years, there is practically not a trace of any of the physical substance from which we were composed seven years earlier. But we are the same person.

We are spirits enmeshed in the stuff of the Earth.

It is with our spirits, in the midst of the material substances from which we compose our physical forms, that the solution to the sustainability crisis will be found.

Spirits enjoy things of the spirit. We can derive more satisfaction from a friendship than we can from material acquisitions. Once the material necessities of life are met, the expansive sense that comes from understanding, the pleasures derived from art, music and dance, the challenge of sports and exploration, the calm of meditation and appreciation, and the rewards of service to others, all speak more directly to ourselves than do material things,

Friendship and creativity are the "real thing." Coca-cola is an impostor!

There are so many ways that we can enjoy our aliveness that one might think that the purpose of being human is to enjoy living. If we recognize this to be the case, we could be having so much fun that we wouldn't have time to damage the Earth.

Getting back to the slip knot, the entire length over which the knot travels is like the sum total of all the physical substances that you draw into your body, use for a while and then pass back out into the environment, from the moment you are conceived until the day that you die. All that substance is what the Navaho call your "Long Body." Your long body is all the water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, potassium and other material substances from which your body is formed over the course of your lifetime. Only a small portion is inside your skin at any one time. Most of it is out in the broader environment.

The long bodies of every person in this room are in the environment around us. The long bodies of every person on Earth share the same biomass. As does every animal, plant, insect and mushroom. Indeed, the long bodies of every thing that has ever lived on Earth are in the same biomass.

One of the first things that we have to do as a mature species, is to get toilet trained. It is totally irresponsible to take substances that are harmful to life and let them escape into the biomass from which all life builds its material forms.

Until a few hundreds of years ago, when we started to mine metals and minerals in large quantities, practically everything that we used could be dropped on the ground where it would decompose and become food for other living things. With large scale mining operations, and more acutely since the chemical revolution after the second world war, we have been producing things that do not belong in the cycles of life. Many are harmless, but some disrupt the normal operation of life and ought not be created if there is any chance that they will find their way into the biomass.

If we take the two ends of the string with the slip knot on it and join them together, the knot can move around the loop forever. This demonstrates what organic agriculture can accomplish. Take the human waste, the kitchen waste, the garden waste and anything else that will rot down, compost it and feed it to the soil. The multitude of living things in soil love that stuff. They consume it and pass it on in forms that plants use. The plants grow and we eat the plants, or animals eat the plants and we eat the animals.

When we metabolize food, energy radiates away, but plants replace that energy by absorbing energy from the sun, resulting in a system where biological substances can cycle through the various sorts of life for as long as the sun shines.

There is more to human culture, the Collective Human Organism, as I refer to it in "Life, Money & Illusion," than just the physical elements of our biological lives. There are materials that we draw into our collective "body" - society - for clothing, buildings, tools and all the other things that we use. We take resources from the material world, process them into things that we use for a while and then dispose of as waste.

In order to sustain civilization, we must also join the ends of that "string" together, so that necessary materials can be managed in continuous cycles.

"Extended Producer Responsibility" is an example of a program that can facilitate this. Producers participating in the program are responsible for their product when no one wants it any more - including the packaging. Knowing that their products will be returned leads companies to design them to be useful for as long as possible, and, when they come back, to be easily recycled.

Mercedes Benz, in Germany, participates in such a program. They went from having 20 different plastics in their cars to having only three. The cars are assembled in a way that when the they come back to the factory, the various parts can easily be disassembled and tossed into the appropriate bins and moved down the line to be recycled into new products or safely disposed of.

William McDonough in his book, "Cradle to Cradle," gives many examples of similar industrial practices. As do "Eco-Economy" by Lester Brown and "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken.

We can adapt to our full world if we choose to do so. But we have to choose. Do we want to perpetually expand human activity, or do we want to aim for sustainability? It is a Question of Direction.

Humans are an incredibly gifted species.

We have thumbs. Thumbs enable us to hold, carry and otherwise manipulate objects. We can see, hear, taste and feel. While our senses are not the best on the planet - an eagle can see a mouse moving in the grass from a mile up in the sky - we have tools. We have telescopes with which we can see like the eagles, and beyond, to the edge of the universe. We have microscopes that can see to the centre of atoms and we have all manner of other devices that enable us to sense what is happening around us in unprecedented detail.

We have the mental ability to take the information from observations and find patterns that indicate what is happening, how things work and how we can work with them to serve our needs. We communicate. When an individual discovers something, he or she can share the discovery with another person, with a group, or if circumstances warrant, with the entire world.

We can pass information through time. We have a huge inventory of knowledge that has been passed to us by past generations and we can pass everything we know into the future using books, videos, DVDs and the like.

On top of all this, we cooperate. An individual can do great works. A small group of people organizing for a task can accomplish far more. When hundreds, or thousands of people coordinate their activities we are capable of accomplishing feats that individuals cannot even conceive of. And there are over six thousand million people on this planet who have a vested interest in solving the problems arising from our maturity as a species.

We have what it takes to live on this abundant planet for as long as it is bathed in sunlight, but we must recognize our changed circumstances and proceed accordingly.

One example of where we decided to solve a problem and succeeded is Acid Rain. In the 1980s the level of acidic precipitation resulting from burning sulfur and nitrogen containing fuels had reached the point where lakes and forests were dying over vast territories. People in both Canada and the United States had drawn attention to the problem so effectively that the two countries jointly passed legislation saying that the facilities responsible must reduce their emissions by 50% within 10 years.

An SO2 emissions trading scheme was established to encourage the process. With emission trading each polluter is given permits to emit a portion of the maximum allowable amount. Those who can reduce their emissions, faster than the regulations called for, can sell their extra permits to firms that can't keep up with the reduction schedule. It provides financial incentives for reducing emissions more quickly than required, and allows some leeway for companies that are having trouble keeping up.

Industry protested the proposed legislation saying that trading permits would cost $1,400 to $1,500 per ton. The governments tried to ease their concerns by predicting that the trading permits would only cost in the $1,000 to $1,100 range. The environmental groups said they were all being alarmist and that trading permits wouldn't cost more than $500 to $600.

In the end, the legislation was passed and all polluters were required by law to participate. In only seven years, the goal of 50% reduction was achieved. Once they were committed to trying, companies found that it was so easy to reduce emissions that SO2 trading permits ended up selling for under $100 a ton.

While the SO2 reduction process was a great success story, it has come to reveal another problem which, unless we address it, will render all such efforts futile. The SO2 reduction targets were source emission targets. This means that each individual source had to reduce its emissions, on average by 50%. The problem is that because the economic system has been growing almost continuously since the reduction was achieved, we now have close to the same level of acid precipitation that we had when the crisis spurred the two governments into action.

Source emission reductions is what Stephen Harper and George W. Bush want for CO2 emissions. While such a scheme might reduce point source emissions, as long as the number of points emitting CO2 continues to grow, we could end up with as much or more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere every year.

As long as we continue to grow, all our efforts to reduce pollution, or resource draw down, will be compromised.

Why do we have to grow?

This question focused my study of Cultural Evolution following a series of events that started with the tabling of the Brundtland Commission's report "Our Common Future." The "Brundtland Commission" was established by the United Nations as the "World Commission on Environment and Development." It was named after Gro Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway, who was its chair. The vice chair was the vice president of the Sudan. All of the other Commissioners had similarly impressive credentials. They traveled to every continent on the planet and talked with anyone interested in environment and development: government departments, academic institutions, businesses, citizens' organizations and individuals.

After four years, they tabled their report at the United Nations. There conclusion was that we are indeed overwhelming the Earth. They documented a dozen different issues where we are causing increasingly serious harm. While the picture they presented was alarming, they said that we did not have to succumb to the problems. We could learn to develop sustainably. The phrase "sustainable development" was coined in this report.

With the tabling of "Our Common Future," a significant shift in attitudes took place. I noticed it through my work with the Kingston Environmental Action Project (KEAP). They had been trying to get a recycling project going in Kingston. They were turned down each year for four years. When they resubmitted their proposal the fifth time, after the Brundtland report, the City Council said, "Of course we have to set up such a program." Within two months they had 80% participation from the people of Kingston. Responding to the crisis of non-sustainability had become legitimate.

People were ready. We had been hearing "reduce, reuse, recycle" since the early 1970s. The Brundtland report made it legitimate to act and people did. Stories similar to Kingston's were reported across North America and around the world. The amounts of metal and glass and paper that were being recycled was growing exponentially.

It stands to reason that people were also reducing and reusing with the same enthusiasm with which they were recycling. This is a hard observation to prove - How much didn't you buy today? What we experienced, however, was Reduce, Reuse, Recession!

When we went into recession in the early 1990s and the rhetoric about reduction and reuse was dropped. Because it provided materials that could be fed back into the process of economic expansion, recycling continued. Reduction and reuse, however, presented a problem. Amidst concerns for getting the economy growing again, the legitimacy that had arisen for responding to the sustainability crisis gradually faded.

As long as our goal as a society is to expand production and consumption, reduction and reuse are immoral!