An Overview of the Major Existential Predicament Created by Modern Civilization*

Hopes and solutions for ending the climate crises, preventing the massive loss of biodiversity, and continuing to supply resources to maintain the current human population are unrealistic. 

(The following article is by Alvin (Al) Urquhart: Alvin is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and the founder and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. He holds three degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and was trained in anthropology, soil science, ecology, and geomorphology, as well as geography, his home department. Al is also a member of the Job One for Humanity Advisory Board.)

Over the past 200 years, the collective will of humans has come to rely on ideas of growth and progress. The goals of the dominant world economies and politics, as well as the aspirations of educational and medical establishments have successfully striven to provide the “good life.” Humans now have longer and healthier lives, travel and communicate with greater ease, and consume goods and services unimaginable during the lifetime of everyone alive today. All this was made possible by tapping the energy from fossil fuels and the technology based on the expansion of scientific thought. 

Until recently, the availability of sources of energy and the disposal of waste products has been of little concern. Social, political, and economic systems have encouraged growth despite isolated warnings and evidence of the dangers of the increased use of energy and of its waste products. The use of resources exceeded the Earth’s ability to provide and absorb them in 1970. Nevertheless, consumption of goods and services continues unabatedly. And today, fifty-four years later, nothing has been done to slow the juggernaut of progress even with increasing awareness of the negative results of exponential growth in energy use, pollution, and population.

The United States’ production of fossil fuels is at its highest level ever. Worldwide, human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are larger than ever. As a result, environmental disruptions continue at record levels. One presidential candidate, Trump, says, “drill, baby, drill” about fossil fuel production. He wants to continue to enlarge economic growth by making more goods and services, while denying the cascading effects of doing so. The other candidate also wants to continue economic growth, primarily by addressing the substitution of renewable energy for fossil fuel energy and by making energy use more efficient. But, renewable energy is not replacing fossil fuels; it has only added to greater consumption of energy. Substituting renewable energy for fossil fuel energy may decrease polluting greenhouse gases; and greater energy efficiencies in energy use might allow continued expansion of goods and services. But neither addresses the basic questions of decreasing the demands that humans place on the Earth through population growth and continued extraction of the resources of the Earth.

Relationships between human culture and the Earth’s ecology are ignored. On one hand, human cultural demands increase. On the other hand, natural resources such as fossil fuels and unpolluted atmosphere and oceans decrease. Environmental crises have become increasingly apparent. Scientific models indicate that further climate disasters are inevitable without immediate cultural changes. Some natural scientists also report that the continued exploitation and pollution of the Earth might be reversed if non-scientists stop doing what the scientific models project and if non-polluting technologies are developed ‘in time’.  However, most recent hopes for generating and adopting technological solutions seem unlikely to overcome the cultural inertia that supports “growth and progress.” 

As a result, an unimaginable future for billions of people lies before us. The easiest and most likely path ahead is to continue with the ways of modernity guided by ideas of growth and progress, which goals will fall apart as natural systems are pressed beyond their normal limits. For billions of people, life will become more stressful. Most will die at a younger age. Energy supported educational and medical systems will breakdown. The scale and rapidity of environmental changes in the remaining years of the 21st Century will far exceed those of any human time of the past. Probably, the ways in which societies unravel may be best imagined only by writers of futuristic novels. We live in an unprecedented time!


So, What to Do in an Unraveling World!

With many grim possibilities in mind, a person might ask, “How can I now live a valuable life?” Above all, each of us must know that we are part of natural systems that are larger than ourselves. Religions have been the principal way cultures have consciously related to larger systems. Many people relate to a system in which God explains their place in existence. Other societies have used more personalized gods that guide their existence. All cultural systems—religious, social, political, and economic—create and develop imaginative stories focused on supporting their beliefs. Most of these stories involve relationships among people and events that affect other humans. Because they ignore the subordinate position of humans to wider natural systems, many of these cultural stories are irrelevant today. That humans are complex organisms--evolutionarily advanced animals--that are deeply and physically embedded in the natural world has not been essential to the stories we tell ourselves. As a result, our early modern cultural beliefs have produced over eight billion people, consumed or polluted more of Earth resources than the Earth produces, and has altered the evolutionary path of thousands of organisms.

With the development of scientific ideas, starting in the 19th Century, humans could be seen as an naturally evolved life form. Their role as part of complex natural ecological systems also emerged with scientific theories that show that humans are intimately connected with other organisms, natural matter, and energy. Humans should no longer rely strictly on pre-modern, imaginative stories that their unique form of consciousness allows. Today, human’ stories should also be based on scientific evidence of ecology and evolution. Ignoring scientific discoveries by older religious, social, political and economic stories is a leading cause of current environmental disasters. Especially concerning is the lack of understanding in modern civilization of the depth that evolution and ecology play in human existence. Even the best stories told by advocates of environmental technology--how to manipulate small parts of the natural world to correct other problems—do not address a deep understanding of ecology. Most often they are presented in terms of mainstream economic or political stories. As a result, ecological and evolutionary disasters will continue.

I have tried to examine ways in which humans can live successfully on Earth as they ignore or radically disrupt evolutionary and ecological systems. Often, I find that many inherited cultural ideas and actions conflict with the processes of the natural world. To become more aware of the dissonance created by this new examination, I use an approach that I call Environmentalists Anonymous.” (It is modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve steps.) *

The first step to becoming environmentally aware is to admit that we are powerless over our continued exploitation of the Earth–that our lives have become unmanageable. 

“If we are to remain sane and healthy, we must find a way to recognize both (a) the life and culture in which we have lived and (b) that we are part of a system in which humans and environment, are not opposed. The realization that we are merely part of a naturally evolving and ecological world is truly a humbling experience for those of us raised in the traditions of The Enlightenment and Modern beliefs which stress the power, rationality, and individuality of humans and humanity.”

“To surrender to this new way of thinking is, for most modern Americans, a great threat to our current ways of life. But viewed in the context in which every technological triumph disrupts some ecological or evolutionary relationship, often in startling and precipitous ways, one catches glimpses of disasters far more threatening than alterations of our current lifestyles. Continued human survival in ecological and evolutionary terms rests outside our own control; our technological addictions only precipitate the disturbance of the many interrelated natural systems of which we are but a small part. However, if we act within this new way of thinking–this new epistemology–that emphasizes the conviction that we are merely “part of” something much greater than ourselves, we may extend the positive aspects of being human– love, kindness, learning, and community, further into the future.

“If we accept this new fundamental perspective, we can actively and honestly become part of it by physically acknowledging, and wherever possible rectifying, the wrongs we have done in the past, not perpetuating them today, and avoiding them in the future.”

Doing so requires us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We can do so by 

1.  Admitting to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs to the Earth.

2.  Listing the environmental and ecological systems we have harmed.

3.  Making direct amends to such systems wherever possible, except when doing so would further injure them.

4.  Continuing to take personal inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it.

When acknowledging the environmental damage we have done, we must, then, wherever possible, try to rectify the damage. This is a very difficult task that will never be completed because we have grown up in a modern civilization where growth and progress, capitalism, social, political, and national concerns have paid little heed to the emerging perspectives of ecology and evolution as the overriding context of life. However, if we are to live with a worldview in which greater harmony of humanity with nature is our goal, our thoughts and behaviors must change.

How can a person act when the insistent pull of recent history conflicts with current scientific knowledge of Earth systems?  In essays on life practices, Jem Bendell* suggests that we may help resolve some human/environmental discord by asking important questions jointly with others. He writes of “The Four ‘Rs’ of Deep Adaptation”: questions that arise in situations where the expectation of simple answers given to us by somebody else are not going to help as much as exploring the following ideas with others.

Resilience. “What do we most value that we want to keep and how?” 

     This questions our deepest values but in the context of existing natural and social systems.

Relinquishment.  “What could we let go of so as not to make matters worse?” 

      How can we let go of actions, behaviors, and things that disrupt ecological systems?

Restoration.What could we bring back to help us in these difficult times?”  

      How can we renew and repair natural landscapes and ecological systems?

Reconciliation. “With what and with whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our common mortality?”

      These four questions should be at the forefront of how we humans strive to cooperate with both others and nature.

At present, humans want to make over the Earth to create more goods and services. We have little concern for how best to live within the natural systems of the Earth.  Even as the world around us may seem to fall apart, the ‘Four Rs of Deep Adaptation’ may guide us in positive ways of being part of the natural systems of the Earth. Bendell’s ideas are a major part of caring for the Earth with the knowledge that humans cannot cure the Earth of the disruptions to its ecological systems that they have caused. Caring for Earth brings the satisfaction of living a valuable life even if it cannot solve today’s environmental disasters.


At present, humans have a worldview based on the ideas of growth and progress. Since the discovery that energy from fossil fuels could be harnessed by technology, humans have exponentially satisfied many of their innate desires to grow and reproduce. However, the results—the enormous benefits of modern civilization--now cause major environmental disruptions. Scientific ideas of evolution and ecology show that human current economic activities can no longer support modern civilization without also damaging the ecological and evolutionary bases for life itself.  

In very recent times, humans have wanted to control their environment by technology. They continue to believe that with technology, they can control natural ecosystems and solve cultural problems. But Earthly systems are larger than the cultural systems modern people want to control. To maintain their lives in the longer run, humans must humbly care for the Earth as their home, not use it as an endless treasure house. 

*You can find references to and sources of these ideas in my Environmental Blog: 

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  • Lawrence Wollersheim
    commented 2024-07-19 08:56:30 -0700
    Thank you, Stephen. We hope you will become a member and financially support our research and analysis and independent climate voice. The global fossil fuel cartel has corrupted many climate researchers, including the IPCC, with their billions of dollars. They have also intimidated many climate academic voices with payback programs, causing those voices to remain silent even though they know how bad it is. We are one of the few completely independent climate research voices remaining.
  • Steven Salmony
    commented 2024-07-11 15:21:09 -0700
    So wonderfully well put. Thank you.
  • Lawrence Wollersheim
    published this page in Blog 2024-07-03 14:30:37 -0700
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