Go Green: Root Causes of Climate Change and Toxic Waste Problems
Real Green solutions come from deep thinking about the root causes of problems we have created over hundreds of years. Crises like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Dust Bowl; the BP Oil Spill, and Love Canal have deep roots in human actions, and we can learn to prevent them or reduce the harm they cause.
The Thinker, By Rodin
Civilization, as a whole, is like a drunk driver on the road. Blind drunk, barely able to see, the driver careens from one crisis to another. It seems like one tree, and then a light pole, and then another tree, rushes up at him. Sometimes, he dodges the collision. Other times, he crashes, leaving behind a fire or a gasoline spill - environmental damage.
From inside the nightly news, we are like that driver. The headlines go by: In 2001, the dot-com bubble bursts, pushing the U.S into recession; In 2004, the tsunami and earthquake in the Indian Ocean kills over 230,000 people in 14 countries; In 2005, Hurricane Katrina breaks the levees in New Orleans and floods the city; In 2007, the real estate bubble bursts, triggering a worldwide economic collapse that is still happening; In 2011, the tsunami in Japan destroys the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex, causing three level-7 meltdowns and shutting down all nuclear power in Japan indefinitely, and in 2012, Superstorm Sandy a relatively weak, but large, hurricane floods all of the mid-Atlantic coast and much of new England, causing over $65 billion in damage and lost economic value and killing over 250 people.
Good writing guidelines would say I should have made that a bulleted list. But I didn't want to. I want you to read through that paragraph so that it makes you breathless. That's part of facing the overwhelm that we must see, and grow through, to truly understand the depths of the climate, environmental, and social crisis we face as a civilization.
We need to step back and see that the problem isn't in the crisis. It's in the way we are driving. Using the unique human capacity of self-awareness, we can see ourselves, as a civilization, and how we create these problems, or at least, make them much worse than they should be. Then we'll learn how to turn around.
Look deeply, and learn.
Root Causes and Real Solutions
When we step back far enough, we see that the pattern of environmental destruction and species extinction with ecological and social or economic crises is tens of thousands of years old. For more on this history, see Global Warming and Toxic Waste: Issues and History of Go Green.
For tens of thousands of years, human activity has led to the extinction of animal and plant species and the change of entire ecosystems. But now it is happening much faster. And some of the changes are ones we may not be able to adapt to. There are two reasons for this acceleration and worsening of the damage to our world:
- Since the 1860s, we've been able to harness power for manufacturing, transportation, heating, and cooling. Global warming is the result of our massive release of fossil fuel reserves, built up over millions of years, in just a century or two.
- Through mining and chemistry, we've developed and spread chemicals previously unknown in living ecosystems. Any new element or chemical is a likely poison, and a likely carcinogen. For example, mercury is a poison for every living animal. And mercury is now found in every navigable river and throughout the oceans of the world, except for frigid arctic and antarctic waters. Mercury poisoning is so ubiquitous that, for safety reasons, we should eat only two portions of fish per week.
There are three results of these changes:
- Global climate change creates higher high temperatures; lower low temperatures; stronger hurricanes, deeper droughts, and greater floods. The news focuses on the big storms, and they are costly and destructive. But the deeper danger lies in the loss of fertile land. When once-fertile land dries up or temperatures go extreme, the land will become less fertile. It may not be arable at all. We are actually reducing the amount of food that we can feed ourselves, decade by decade.
- Environmental collapse and mass extinction: For example: bee colonies collapsed across North America a number of years ago, and this is a major reason for reduced plant fertility and increased cost of food. The problem has been traced to a set of pesticides made by one company. European nations that have banned the pesticides have brought the bees back. The U.S., under pressure from this company, has not yet banned the pesticide, and our bees, many plants, our food chain, and we, ourselves, are paying a steep price.
- Our food chain is poisoned at every level: Wild and farmed foods are poisoned at the source, preservation of food for delivery adds toxic risks, food processing adds toxins, and many food additives and food packaging materials are known to be toxic - and more are untested. This is leading to outbreaks of epidemic diseases, and, worse, increases of disease of unknown cause. Many people will die before we know why the deaths are occurring.
These three results keep happening over and over again. We need to look deeply and find the root causes behind the entire cycle of crisis.
The Atmosphere is Warming Because of Us
For anyone who pays attention to real science, the results are in. Natural temperature fluctuation in the last 50 years has been less than 1/2 a degree Fahrenheit, and goes both up and down. Results of human activity including releasing carbon dioxide and other gasses into the atmosphere have warmed the Earth - going up only - about 1 degree Fahrenheit. One degree wouldn't be much, if it were evenly distributed. But it comes in cycles and waves. Given the size of the Earth's atmosphere, one degree is a lot of heat, and a lot of energy. The energy comes in cycles and waves. It's rapidly melting the ice cap at the North Pole, and it's increasing the power of hurricanes. You can learn more from NASA's Earth Observatory.
The Human Cost of Katrina
Realities are Deeper Than Names
Ordinary thinking gets us stuck in the names we give things, that is, stuck in the superficial. Ordinary thinking and naming are part of the problem, not the solution.
If we want to get to the depths of the issues the Green Movement, we have to look deeper than the names of the events and their proximate causes. It's easy to talk about Superstorm Sandy (a very big, but weak, Category I hurricane in 2012) or hurricane Katrina (a powerful Category IV hurricane that broke the levy and flooded New Orleans in 2005). It's easy to talk about the real estate collapse of 2008 or the stock market crash of 1929. In all of these cases, the names make it seem like the problems are sudden and caused by nature, or by specific individuals. When we look deeper, though, we see that our habits as a society build up these crises over a long time, until the dam (or the levee, or the governmental policy) breaks.
Let's look at this, using the combined economic and ecological crisis called "The Great Depression" as an example.
The Illusion and Reality of the Great Depression
The name, "The Great Depression" contains two illusions. The first illusion is the false idea that it was a unique event. In fact, the Great Depression was simply the largest in a cycle of depressions and recessions going all the way back to 1776 and going forward right up to today's recession, which started in late 2007. The second illusion is that it was primarily an economic event. It was as much environmental and social as it was economic.
Real Causes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
It is easy to blame the economics of the Great Depression on greedy business practices in the stock market. But the reality of the economics is much deeper than that. Over and over again, as corporations gather money, they gain political influence. They then do whatever they can - from open politics to behind-the-scenes scandals - to reduce government regulation. The greed creates a win-lose mentality where companies succeed in the short term by competing with one another and destroying natural and human resources to gain profit. But the larger system - the economy, the society, our ecosystem environment - can't handle the pressure, and things break down.
As Stephen Covey points out, American business is in a perpetual cycle of failing in self-renewal, of repeatedly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
The Dust Bowl is blamed on a severe drought in the 1930s, but that is also not true. Fundamentally, it was created by the same greed and inattention that caused the stock market crash. The farmlands of Oklahoma had yard-deep topsoil built up over thousands of years and held in place by prarie grass with deep roots. Those plants were removed and replaced with shallow-rooted cotton and food crops. And fields were left burned and bare to eliminate pests. In addition, straight plowing instead of contour plowing was used for convenience and greater profit. These elements led to dry, bare soil. So, when the drought hit, the rich topsoil blew out in brown clouds across Chicago and the East Coast cities and washed out into the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the lands where the Dust Bowl blew are still less fertile - and sell at a lower cost per acre - because of the Dust Bowl.
The real question, therefore, is what causes this cycle? Most of the damage from natural disasters is preventable. Global warming can be slowed, and perhaps reversed. All of the suffering from economic collapses and toxins in the environment can be prevented. Let's look at how to see these things coming, and how to steer in a different direction.
A root cause is a simple, single, deep cause for many similar, repeating problems.
Understanding Root Causes
We've already started to look more deeply at the root causes. The first step is to set names aside and gather the real facts of the situation.
Finding the Root Cause of Religious Warfare: An Example
For example, the Protestants and Catholics fought many European wars of religion from 1524 to 1697. Looked at separately, we can focus on the 30 years war, or civil war in England, or the origins of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland. But if we look at all of them together, we see religious sects each claiming to hold the truth and believing the opposition to be evil. From this idea, it is right to make war against the opposition, and kill them if possible.
Through the same period, the ideas of religious toleration and religious freedom were slowly growing. At first, these ideas were limited, tolerating some sects or religions, and not others. Gradually, though, the notion of universal religious freedom came to the fore, supporting the right of any individual to believe or preach as he or she saw fit, without becoming the object of war or persecution. In 1763, Voltaire took a giant step forward, introducing the idea that all men are brothers. At the same time, he was extremely hostile to many religious ideas. (After all, brothers fight a lot.) The idea of religious freedom, first fully expressed in a national legal document as the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, put a final end to the idea that religious warfare in Europe and America made any sense at all.
So, while the wars of religion in Europe had many causes, ultimately, the root cause was the idea that religious belief can be coerced. Bringing an end to that idea can bring an end to religious wars. It worked in the U.S. and Europe, and now it has a chance to work worldwide. (In fact, we made a step forward the day I am writing this hub: The UN has recognized Palestine.)
Root Causes are Simple
As the above example shows, root causes are simple. And, in society, they are almost always in the realm of ideas.
Ordinary causes are complex. There are many of them, and some are physical, others emotional, others mental. But, as we go deeper, we find that root causes of large-scale problems involving nations, civilizations, and ecosystems are simple. We also find that a change of heart and a change of thinking are at the center of the solution.
Let's take a closer look at how to find root causes of large social problems.
The Steps of Finding a Root Cause
Root cause analysis is a technique developed in Quality Management. It's purpose is to find real causes, not superficial symptoms. Why? Well, when we find the real cause, we can come up with one solution that prevents the problem from ever happening again, at least for a long while. We illustrated this above, showing how philosophers in Europe and America slowly became aware that religious intolerance was the cause of religious war, and how religious freedom was the permanent preventative solution. (For a more technical discussion of root cause analysis, with a fun example, see my article Root Cause Analysis & 5 Whys: Six Sigma Tools to Business Success.
The Steps of Root Cause Analysis
- Go deeper than names to gather the real facts of the situation.
- Realize that we are dealing with several complex systems, and try to understand each system, and then how the systems interact.
- Identify crises that recur.
- Analyze the cycle that ends (and begins again) with the crisis.
- Look for similar cycles in different contexts. For example, the cycle of control and poverty, loosening control and wealth, greed and power, and then collapse is the same in the two causes of the Great Depression, the Stock Market Crash, and the Dust Bowl.
- Think outside the box: Use analogies to expand perspective, but don't be attached to any specific analogy.
- Ask "Why is this cycle recurring?" Ask "Why?" again and again, until a simple answer is discovered. That is your root cause.
In this article, looking at the cycles behind the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, we've already done steps one through five in relation to the core issues of environmentalism, the problems we hope to solve with the Go Green movement. Let's move ahead with steps 6 and 7.
Root Causes of Global Crises
So, what have we seen so far? Global crises - whether economic, or about environmental destruction - build up in cycles. The cycles have gone on for tens of thousands of years, bringing about species extinction, mass extinction, and environmental destruction that have caused civilizations to fall into ruin and forced societies to change. Now, the cycle is accelerating as we feed the planet more imbalances and poisons faster than ever.
We have an analogy - a car driven by a drunk driver.
Why is all this happening?
- Like the drunk driver, civilization sees one crisis after another, but is not able to step back and see the bigger picture.
- Again, why? Civilization is disconnected. It runs like a bunch of different creatures gathered in interests groups, such as corporations, national governments, and religious faiths.
- Again, why? Civilization is made up of people who's concerns, at best, are for their own lifetimes, and, at worst, focus on quarterly profits and today's emergency. Collectively, we can't take the long view.
- Again, why? Responding to threatening crises, our nervous systems and social communications shut down. Individually and collectively, we are responding from fear, and not from the heart.
- Again, why? Our vision is narrow. We are faced with a crisis of survival larger than we can understand, and we are reacting from fear.
So now we have the root cause: The individual and collective habit of fear. When fear is in control, human higher brain functions shut down. As a society, when we get locked into a cycle of fear, we either lock down into old habits and ignore their consequences, or we move towards war.
Fear is a great slave but a terrible master. Interestingly, if you search the phrase in Google, you will find it is also applied very frequently to: the mind; money; and technology. All of these, when guided by fear, create an out-of-control situation like the drunk driver crashing again and again.
In the first three pages of Google, a few other things are called "a great slave, but a terrible master," and the list is informative: anabolic steroids; a story, and systematic morality, and leverage. The first is a system-altering substance, and the others are ways of thinking that can either lock down the mind, or free it, depending on the presence of fear. The last is a tool that takes anything and uses others to make itself more powerful.
The lesson: Whenever our thinking is smaller than the problem we face, we fall into despair, confusion, and fear. We become disconnected. Fear reduces our ability to use higher brain functions, to see clearly, and to think. And so we get stuck in a cycle of fear and confusion.
The solution is in our hearts, in our hands, and in our voices.
If Fear is the Problem, What's the Solution?
Let's look at the elements of the problem, and the opposite for each one.
- Root Cause Element : Solution Element
- Fear : Love
- Confusion : Clarity
- Despair : Hope
- Disconnection : Connection
- Limited sight and foresight : Vision
- Seeing the small picture : Living the Big Picture
The Solution is Spiritual
The problem is in our thinking, but the solution is spiritual.
In facing the crises of global environmental disaster, we are going through a process parallel to the growth in understanding that brought an end to religious wars in Europe.
I did not know this when I started. I learned this through the process of writing, through the process of analysis, through the process of looking at root causes.
I learned this because I love this world, and I'm willing to look at the truth of the situation.
And the truth is both inspiring and humbling: Individually and as a society, we need to complete a spiritual transformation that is already in progress. Here are the steps we've seen:
- Before 1860, we were almost universally unaware of the problem.
- In the late 1800s, the beauty of nature, and the possibility of its destruction, brought forth a vision of the stewardship of nature through Conservation and Preservation.
- Limited vision, fear, greed, and war continue to guide most of our actions. At the same time, with the advent of ecology, a new mindset, one of participation, communication, and cooperation, is coming into view. Great thinkers have been developing and sharing this vision for 150 years.
- Now, we can see the pattern and the consequences. The problems and the solution are not new. Indeed, they are as old as humanity itself.
From Understanding to Action
Now, we know what to do: Live in love, and cast out fear. Commit to clear sight and clear communication, and end confusion. Celebrate life and enjoy simple living to renew our hope for the future. Connect with nature and with one another, to feel and act as part of a single, whole, living Planet Earth.
For specific ways of renewing our connection to the Earth and working to make a difference, please read Going Green: Is it for real, or is it a scam?
For a deeply hopeful look at our challenging future, please read Go Green in Time: Stop Climate Change & Clean our Global Environment.