my musings along the way . . .

Lessons from the forest – and a garden hose

This week I was very excited to get my hands on a quantity of crushed glass from the local council’s recycling facility.  Turns out all that glass we faithfully recycle in Australia has nowhere to go since China stopped accepting our waste! So in an attempt to avoid landfill the council crushes it and uses it as an ingredient in road base. It comes out of the crusher a sandy-gravelly material that sparkles beautifully in the sunlight and is, surprisingly, quite safe to handle with bare hands. While I have a specific project in mind for it initially, there is also a sense that it is potentially a very powerful material for an artist of my particular bent. As a material it is rich in meaning, not least because of what it says about the difference between “economic sense” and actual sense!

Crushed recycled glass - Papillon 2018

The first thing I learned about this material is that it needs to be washed. The process of crushing results in a proportion of very fine silt-like particles that coat the larger particles and make it ‘dirty’. Plus there is a lot of contamination from paper labels, bits of plastic, polystyrene and metals. But how does one wash crushed glass when you are living in a forest without access to running water? Turns out you can’t really. Putting it out in the rain on a large mesh certainly wet it up, but it would take hours of torrential rain to actually wash it clean. And even though I was catching buckets of rainwater off my tarps it soon became clear that it would take much more water than I had access to to wash it properly. I had hit a hard limit – water availability – and my ‘noble’ desire to recycle one resource was brought to an end by the lack of another.

Of course I couldn’t settle for “no” as an answer, so I carried everything out of the forest again and visited the property owners to use their water supply. And as I stood there gleefully washing the glass with an abundant supply of fresh spring water gushing from a hose I suddenly realised what I had done. I did what humans always do!

In the face of a resource limitation, rather than live within the limits, I relocated and mindlessly exploited a new resource where I didn’t have to think about limits.

Living simply in the forest as I do is teaching me a lot about limits and how to live within them. Water has to be carried in by hand so I have learned to limit its use and to count every drop.  Electricity is generated by the sun which (ironically) is limited by both the forest canopy and clouds, so I have to carefully monitor my power use less the batteries run down and my little camp fridge stops working. Access to food is limited. Hours of daylight are limited. Rain-free days for working outside are limited. Physical energy is limited. Living as I do has brought me face-to-face with the physical limits of both my own body and of my environment. Either I submit to those limits or I suffer. Hypothetically, if I continued to ignore the limits and had no means of escape I would die.

How do you read it: "drive to suit conditions" or "no limit"?

How do you read it: "drive to suit conditions" or "no limit"?

And that was part of yesterday’s lesson from the hose! If we as a species can’t learn to live within the limits of our planetary systems we will suffer and, eventually die. Because despite what the science fiction writers would have us believe, there is no place we can relocate to. Not all 7 billion of us anyway.

The other part of the lesson was from the hose itself. This magical piece of technology decoupled my use of a resource from my awareness of the limits of that resource. While I was scooping rainwater from buckets to wash the glass I was acutely aware of how much water I was using and how quickly I was depleting a strictly limited resource. In fact I stopped doing what I was doing because I was aware that if I continued I would suffer.

But as soon as I started using the hose I felt a great sense of relief that I didn’t have to think about it anymore. And that sense of relief shocked me. And I began thinking about how our modern lives are designed to avoid us having to think about any limits. In most of contemporary Australia if you need water you turn on a tap. It’s unlimited. If you need electricity you flick the switch. It’s unlimited. If you need food you go to the supermarket. It’s unlimited. Need more daylight? Turn on the lights. Too hot to work? Turn on the airconditioner. Too physically demanding to do something manually? Use a machine powered by fossil fuels.

When I thought about all these things I realised that the only ‘real’ limit we face in each case is money. Money! Basically if you have enough money you can buy an unlimited quantity of any of these things. So not only do the technologies we employ decouple us from the physical limits of our resources, the fact that we procure them all with money, an abstraction, means that we aren’t even thinking about the physical resource. We are just thinking about our bank account. Or perhaps our credit card – because credit is yet another clever technology that lets us [temporarily] avoid the harsh reality of real limits.

From the personal to the global

All this thinking about resources and limits reminded me of a 2009 paper in Nature by Johan Nordstrom, Will Stephan and co-workers. They defined 9 planetary systems they believed critical to human survival and attempted to assess what the safe operating limits for those systems are and where in relation to those limits humanity is currently operating.  Of the 7 systems they felt there was enough data to assess, they found 3 had already been pushed way beyond the safe operating limit. Their central graphic is copied here and links to the papers are at the bottom.

Figure 1 from Nordstrom et al (2009) (see link below)

The details of their analysis are not so important here. The point is that this is the global equivalent to my experience with washing the glass yesterday.  There are real physical limits to the world we inhabit, but with determination and ingenuity we humans are able to develop technologies and systems that decouple us from our awareness of those limits. History shows that when the limits begin to impinge upon our consciousness we relocate, either ourselves or the problem. We move ourselves to new territories, or we begin to import resources from and/or export our problems to other territories. (Recycled glass to China perhaps?) And historically we have gotten away with it. Prior to the Industrial Revolution our population was relatively small (barely 1 billion people), our environmental impacts were relatively localised, and there were still ‘other places’ to go and exploit. But not now. Not with 7.5 billion people. Nor with the 9 billion people we will have in 2050. Or the 10 billion we might reach in 2100 if we get that far.

The solution? I honestly don’t know. I was shocked by how easily I was lured into a false sense of security by a water hose yesterday. One piece of comforting technology and all my awareness of real limits went out the window. Maybe as humans we just need to suffer the impacts of real limits before we curb our behaviour? Think of water restrictions in times of drought. Power blackouts. Shortages of goods and services after natural disasters. When reality bites we seem to be able to make changes. Maybe we are doomed to suffer, some even to die, before we will make the adjustments needed to live within the limits?

But here’s the rub. Millions (perhaps billions) of people already are suffering, and many are already dying as a result of our collective inability to live within the limits. But these are the poor and the powerless. As I observed before, if I have enough money I can purchase effectively unlimited resources delivered through technologies that decouple the resource from any sense of a limit or any awareness of my consumption. Money cuts me off from the environmental impacts of my life style and insulates me from the suffering I would otherwise face. But in our civilisation money also gives us power. So the most powerful on the planet, the richest nations, and the richest individuals within nations, are the least likely to feel the impacts of our collective overshoot. Unfortunately, by and large these are also the people who make the decisions about our economic and political systems, who make the laws that govern our trade, our commerce, our land use, our water use – even our human rights – these are perhaps the people least likely to suffer the consequences of those decisions.  

And so on we go.

Now to make something from that recycled glass . . .

Patrick Smith