What seems to have gotten lost in the public acrimony over anthropogenic global warming is the disposition and fate of the overall web of life- the biosphere. We hear bits and pieces about the bleaching of reefs, endangered apex predators, and the loss of Amazon rain forest. These are important of course, but they are components of the entire biosphere.

Recently the Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted the same rights as a human being. Likewise, the government of India has granted legal rights to the Ganges and the Yamuna Rivers. According to an article in The Guardian, this new legal status in India will allow the ” … courts broader scope for intervention in the river’s management.” It remains to be seen how the new status will affect the current practice of discharging raw sewage and industrial waste in to the rivers.

Naturally, this assignment of legal status to rivers is an anathema to right-thinking capitalists or political parties. After all, to the capitalist what is the countryside but a map of interlocking private properties of which on the surface, crops are grown and subdivisions are built. And what is the ground beneath our feet but a cache of mineral resources to “recover” and soil to be farmed to exhaustion as we please.

The concept of private property is sacrosanct in the capitalist countries. Western cultures have evolved very elaborate rules and customs around ownership. Briefly, to own something is to have the exclusive right to use and enjoy an object, land, or intellectual property. The firmament supporting this custom is the existence of an accepted codex of practices and statutes backed by the authority of the state. The thing to note is that ownership relies on cooperation, volunteered or enforced. Ownership is not based on physics. It is a concept that exists only to the extent that there is broad agreement that it not be violated.

In exchange for living in a stable society with career opportunities and lifestyle options, those of us not born into wealth are disinclined to rob or attack those with large fortunes. That is part of civilization. But here is a question. What if an egalitarian and wealthy nation, where comfort and safety is at least possible through hard and steady work, becomes unavailable through machinations by undisclosed self-interested parties?  Like boiling the frog, a slow transition from better times to poorer times may happen without panic and civil unrest.

What happens when well educated young people graduate from college having completed a course of studies also taken by their parents and they find that the career paradigm has changed. In fact, the system of paying for career skills and credentials has changed dramatically in since the 1970’s. Today much more of the cost of higher education has been shifted to the student and family. At one time higher education was viewed as something the state substantially supported. Over time, through competition for students, schools have upgraded their facilities and have added premium offerings in terms of programs staff, and facilities. It is a kind of creeping featurism that organizations are prone to.

If clear thinking citizens are alarmed about this but cannot get the attention of political figures, what are they to do? The indebtedness of college graduates has become a serious threat to their futures. This is a serious societal issue that is not self-healing. How much restraint and respect for the system and the people behind the curtain who run it are they entitled to? I’m beginning to believe that civil disobedience or the threat of it is all we have left.

What has happened more than once in history is that an uprising occurs when an underclass or other aggrieved or marauding groups decide that they will no longer abide by the agreements supporting the ownership of property. One element of the French Revolution giving rise to the overthrow of Louis VXI was that the French aristocracy and clergy were not paying taxes to the King. The state was going bankrupt and food was in short supply.

The Earth-Moon oasis as viewed from Saturn.  Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Desperate people did what desperate people will do- they revolted. Heads actually rolled and the establishment fell. The question for the USA, by analogy, is this: what is the limit of tolerance to income inequality and decreasing spending power that the 98 or 99 % of the US population are willing to withstand? As the middle class continues to collapse and wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of a small number of groups, at what point is revolution the only option? Add to this the increasingly remote and inaccessible legislative and executive bodies and you have an established oligarchy or plutocracy that finds itself in a defensive posture.

Are baby boomers an aberration?

Perhaps the post WWII American middle class expansion is the exception to the rule? Maybe great wealth inequality is the natural condition absent something like the baby boom after WWII. I would offer that one of the conditions that was different about the US baby boom period is that the transition from 1930’s technology to 1950’s technology resulting from the war was exceptionally rich in new industrial goods. This period saw the birth of the nuclear industry including power, weapons, materials, mining, propulsion and medicine. Advancements in aviation and aerospace grew dramatically through the war and has kept going to the present day. The invention of the transistor and the television became huge economic drivers as well.

It is good practice to return to fundamentals now and again. The earth is an oasis of life on a wet rock in the vast vacuum of space. Presently, it is the only habitable spot for as far as anyone can see in any direction. We living things are stuck here with nowhere else to go. Plants, animals, insects, birds, and microbes are born, live, and die here. Who is to say that one or other living species should be forced into extinction? Who are humans to thoughtlessly poison or crowd out other living things?

Unfortunately, our species has evolved stories whose passages claim that we have dominion over the earth and its living things. Taken literally this doctrine has given license to ignore the rights of all the other living things. We could sit back and allow habitats to collapse, fresh water supplies to become polluted and scarce, populations to rise, and mindless consumption of resources to accelerate. Or not.

Think about how people perceive the world around them. The atmosphere looks infinite when you direct your gaze upwards. No upper boundary can be viewed. But it is a fact that the 500 millibar level (1/2 atmospheric pressure) of the atmosphere is at 18,000 feet (+/- a bit) in altitude above sea level.  At this altitude, approximately half of the molecules in the atmosphere are at 18,000 ft or below. This altitude is only 2000 ft below the summit of Denali in Alaska. Certainly nowhere near infinity.

Given the reality of the limited depth of half of our atmosphere, anthropogenic warming might seem a little less implausible. Now add to the picture the world-wide loss of land habitat through development, depletion of the fisheries, the recent sharp decline in insect populations, agricultural monoculture, desertification, etc. While people are preoccupied with belligerent politics, exponential economic development, and just their own lives, the biosphere is continually loosing vitality.

These deleterious human-induced trends will eventually self-correct through wars, famine, epidemics, and other unthinkable events. The question is then, what does it take to arrest a slide into a more cruel and uncivilized world?

We can begin by reminding people that a few decades ago a there was a social movement in the US that recognized the merits of resource conservation. Reduced consumption is the only way that we can maintain our advanced civilization in the face of rising global population. More at a later date