We live in what sustainability pioneer Wes Jackson calls “the most important moment in human history.” The various challenges confronting us are like a bright warning light shining in the dashboard of a speeding vehicle called Civilization, accompanied by an insistent and annoying buzzing sound, requiring immediate attention. I call this moment the Age of Consequences – a time when the worrying consequences of our hard partying over the past sixty years have begun to bite, raising difficult and anguished questions.
How do you explain to your children, for example, what we’ve done to the planet – to their planet? How do you explain to them not only our actions but our inaction as well? It’s not enough simply to say that adults behave in complex, confusing, and often contradictory ways because children today can see the warning light in Civilization’s dashboard for themselves. When they point, what do we say?
As a parent and as an author, this anguished question created a strong desire to document the sequence of events that I was witnessing as well as attempt to explain our behavior as a society. So, in 2008 I began to blend news headlines with narrative and observation, travel and research into chronological installments, crossing my fingers.
Meanwhile, my work with the Quivira Coalition revealed answers to various Age of Consequences concerns, including many ‘low-tech’ solutions involving sunlight, soil, plants and animals. Practices include holistic grazing, edible backyard forests, biochar, weed-eating livestock, rooftop farms, rainwater harvesting, animal power, bees, bears, wildlife corridors, and more. We saw it as connected – soil, grass, water, food, people – all working in nature’s image of health and regeneration.
By 2012, I viewed these anguished questions and hopeful answers as two sides of the same coin and explored both in detail in three books: Grass, Soil Hope (2014), the Age of Consequences (2015) and 2% Solutions for the Planet (2015). Their common message is a simple one: hopeful answers exist to our problems if we’re willing to work together and try new ideas (and some old ones). While there’s much to worry about, there’s also a lot that we can do together at the grassroots – beginning literally with the grass and the roots.
While writing these books, however, a loose end kept nagging at me. As a student of history (and a former archaeologist), I wondered when did the Age of Consequences actually begin? For a long time, I pushed the question aside, thinking it an academic issue. What did it matter, after all, when a particular period or era began? The buzzing warning light in the dashboard was all that mattered, not when it popped on the first time. The issue was turning the alarm off – fixing what ailed the speeding vehicle and getting on with life.
I don’t believe that anymore. That’s because the dashboard alarm is louder than ever, with no sign of stopping anytime soon. Now that my ears are officially ringing, I wanted to know how long has this annoying buzzing been going on?
I’ve settled on an answer: the Age of Consequences began on August 29th, 2005 – the day Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. I’ve considered this date before, but it wasn’t until the news coverage of the tragedy’s tenth anniversary that I realized how significant the date had become in the larger picture. The reason is simple: as we enter the second decade of what is likely to be a calamitous period of time, it’s safe to say the Age of Consequences is here to stay.
On August 29th, 2005, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, attending a Conference on Cooperative Conservation organized by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. I was not a fan of the Bush administration, to put it mildly, and I suspected the three-day event would be mostly political theater despite its goal to “broaden cooperative conservation with state, tribal, and local governments, communities, private for profit and non-profit organizations, and private citizens.” Out West at the time, the administration had a notable reputation for non-cooperation on environmental issues on public lands, unless you considered bending over backward for the oil-and-gas industry to be cooperation.
Still, I viewed the event as a sign of progress. For years, collaborative conservation had been treated as a kind of leprosy by major players involved in natural resource disputes in the West. In 1995, the Chairman of the Sierra Club, Michel McCloskey, famously attacked the emerging movement in a memo to the group’s Board of Directors. “A new dogma is emerging as a challenge to us,” he warned. “It embodies the proposition that the best way for the public to determine how to manage its interest in the environment is through collaboration among stakeholders, not through normal governmental processes. Further, it proposes to do this at the community level through a consensus process.”
At the other end of the spectrum, groups advocating for the “wise use” of natural resources also staunchly opposed locally-based efforts, fearful of disempowerment by the collaborative process as much as environmentalists did. Continued brawling was the preferred option by both sides. Some of us sought a middle path, however, and began calling this burgeoning cooperative effort the ‘radical center.’
I eagerly signed up when I cofounded the Quivira Coalition in 1997 with a rancher and a fellow conservationist. We endured a flurry of slings-and-arrows from both sides during the first few years but prevailed and were pleased to watch the movement grow and expand energetically. By 2005, it was even politically palatable to the Bush White House!
I accepted an invitation to attend the Conference mostly to rub elbows with fellow radical centrists from across the country. Ultimately, more than 1200 people participated, representing a wide diversity of cooperative projects, with most of the real work being done in the halls at breaks or over lunch, as normal. There was a wonderful energy in the air as all of us celebrated the movement’s coming-of-age moment.
Halfway through the conference, however, a shadow passed overhead – literally.
News of Katrina’s strike on New Orleans swept through the event. Although we had no idea of the extent of the damage, the images on television were deeply troubling. But what really hit home for me were the menacing clouds that appeared over St. Louis the next day – remnants of the hurricane itself, broken like shards of gray glass, spreading slowly and ominously over the city.
I took a walk in their shadow, sensing that something bigger and deeper had drifted in. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but there was something different about those clouds and the hurricane that produced them, something different about its intensity, its destructiveness, and its meaning. It felt portentous, like the turn of a big wheel, or the striking of a giant chime.
On September 6th, author and activist Bill McKibben confirmed my feeling with a short essay he wrote as a response to the calamity engulfing New Orleans. “The picture of the sodden Superdome with its peeling roof,” he wrote, “will dominate our politics in the coming decades of this century: America befuddled about how to cope with a planet suddenly turned unstable and unpredictable.”
The scandalous lack of planning that led to the collapse of the city’s levees, McKibben wrote, was nothing compared to the scandalous lack of planning that has kept Americans from even beginning to address global warming and face a future that will see frequent recurrences of this kind of calamity. It’s what happens, he said, when increasing amounts of heat are trapped in the atmosphere, expressed as more wind, more rain, more heat, more melt, on and on. Over the last century, changes in human societies sped up to an almost unimaginable level, stressing every part of our civilization. In this century, we’re going to see the natural world change at the same kind of rate.
The hurricane signaled the start of a new world, McKibben proclaimed.
“Our rulers have insisted by both word and deed that the laws of physics and chemistry do not apply to us,” he wrote. “That delusion will now start to vanish. Katrina marks Year One of our new calendar, the start of an age in which the physical world has flipped from sure and secure to volatile and unhinged. New Orleans doesn’t look like the America we’ve lived in. But it very much resembles the planet we will inhabit the rest of our lives.”
Welcome to the Age of Consequences.
Ten years later, I wish I could say that McKibben’s prophesy was off the mark, that his words, written in the heat and passion of an unfolding crisis, were overblown or just plain wrong. I can’t. Quite the opposite – not only has the buzzing of the original warning light become louder and more insistent, other alarms have gone off, filling Civilization’s dashboard with anxious noise. A decade on, the anguished question has become: what do we do now?
You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See: http://www.chelseagreen.com/two-percent-solutions-for-the-planet]
My web site: http://www.awestthatworks.com