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  • Nature’s Apprentice: A Meta-narrative for Aging Empires
  • Rex Weyler (bio)

Rex Weyler is one of the early cofounders of Greenpeace, an independent direct-action environmental organization that began in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1971, and later expanded to Greenpeace International. In an interview published earlier this year in The Cascade, an autonomous student newspaper produced at the University of the Fraser Valley, Weyler stated, “I never set out in this world to be an activist. It was never particularly a goal of mine. I got active because I looked around and saw that the world I lived in was sick. The culture I lived in was contributing to the sickness. There was no way I was going to participate in that without resisting it. I think that’s a natural instinct.” In the spirit of the activist orientation of Greenpeace, Weyler stresses in the following essay a new urgency. “After a half-century of environmentalism,” he says, “we must admit that the world is less sustainable than in 1962. Why?”

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

Gregory Bateson

Piecemeal ecology isn’t working. It’s hard to save something when it isn’t really a thing. Humanity, it appears, still has to learn how nature works. Future historians may mark the period from British Petroleum’s 2010 oil-spill disaster, through the 2011 release of radioactivity at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, to the 2012 Rio+20 Climate Conference failure as the catalyst for an earth-shaking shift in ecological awareness. Veteran ecology activists are now rethinking strategies in the face of unrelenting ecological deterioration. The global Zeitgeist has shifted, at least within environmental discourse. Even before Rio, evidence indicated that our scant actions arrive too late to stop severe global heating and—more critically—that the heating itself appears as a symptom of a far more multifarious predicament.

In 2009, Nature journal published “Planetary Boundaries” by Earth systems scientist Johan Rockström and colleagues. They explained how human [End Page 187] activity has pushed seven of nine essential life-support systems—climate change, biodiversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use, freshwater use, and ozone depletion—near or beyond critical tipping points. Meanwhile, system feedbacks drive additional change, push other limits, and prove more complex than our engineering can fathom. Troubling system feedbacks include methane chimneys rising from melting polar permafrost, dying coral reefs, shrinking forests, creeping deserts, and invigorated beetles that can swarm over the Rocky Mountains.

In 2012, Nature published “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere” by twenty-two international scientists. The team warned that human activity is driving a planetary-scale transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” Canadian coauthor and biologist Arne Mooers commented, “Humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst. My colleagues . . . are terrified.” In confirmation, William Rees, a University of British Columbia professor and creator of the “ecological footprint” concept, summarized our conundrum in “The Way Forward: Survival 2100” in Solutions Journal: “Climate change is just one symptom of generalized human ecological dysfunction. A virtual tsunami of evidence suggests that the global community is living beyond its ecological means . . . by about 50 percent.”

Welcome to what ecologists call “habitat overshoot,” now occurring on a global scale. Ecologists from Rachel Carson to Arne Næss, Gregory Bateson, Donella Meadows, Rees, and countless others have warned us. We live within a dynamic network of coevolving systems, and these processes impose restraints on all material growth. This realization is now seeping into our ecology movements. Humanity’s industrial engine has hit the redline. The time has arrived to plan and prepare for the blunt realities of adaptation to a global biosphere that is in remedial crisis. The new ecology realism arises naturally from the evidence: oil and nuclear-radiation accidents, bank failures and bailouts, crop failures, famine in the Sahel, extreme weather events and fires, Arab Spring uprisings, Occupy protests, and so forth. However, after the Rio debacle, a collective gasp arose even among the more patient scientists, journalists, and...