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13 June 2024
Welcome to the 21st Century - Time to "turn21" PDF Print E-mail
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by turn21   
20 December 2014
ImageThis is the time for our species to “turn 21”: to transition from adolescence to responsible adulthood as citizens of the planet, before we destroy our own future. asks only two things of you who are reading this: that you take the time to understand the human predicament as presented below, and that on the 21st of every month from now on you make some effort to spread this understanding to one or more other people.

The story so far

We are living through the middle stages of a slowly-moving tragedy, in which the human population and its resource consumption have grown far beyond what the earth can sustainably support. We are now, effectively, waging war against our own descendants, and against all other forms of life on the planet.

This is a moral problem unprecedented in human history, and with a special character that makes it more difficult by far than any previous stage in our moral evolution, because this problem is all about consequences at planetary scale. Because of this, individual actions like giving up flying, or becoming a vegetarian, are essentially useless. Only a collective decision by the species has a hope of making the future significantly better. In other words, we need a revolution, because business as usual, and politics as usual, are evidently not going to be up to the challenge. One could argue that in a sense we need a religious revolution, in that we need to appeal to the side of human beings that values something beyond their own comfort, and beyond their own lifetime.

The main cause of the tragedy that is unfolding is this: we have been cursed with a huge supply of carbon and hydrocarbons representing the accumulated energy of many millions of years of photosynthesis, which we are now burning over the span of a century or two, without allowing the real costs of this strategy to have any economic impact on our decisions. The most familiar cost is climate change, but it might be better to think in terms of changing climate. Even if we were to stop burning fossil carbon right now, our actions have already guaranteed a period of changing climate for many decades to come.

A war with three fronts

But changing climate is only one front of the undeclared, undiscussed war that we are waging against our own children, our own future. A second front is the size of the world’s population, with its demand for food and water and the other basics of life. Population has tripled in the last 65 years.

Some argue that we have not exceeded the planet’s sustainable population: that there is enough food, just not equitably enough distributed. What they are ignoring is that most of that food is grown and brought to our tables using fossil carbon inputs that represent many times the caloric energy we get from eating it. Energy is involved in the use of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, pumped water from wells or dams, mechanical planting and harvesting, refrigeration, and shipping. The so-called “green revolution” indeed averted predicted famines, but it did so by spreading a higher-input style of farming.

The third front in our war on the future is perhaps the least acknowledged: it involves expectations. Those living in the rich part of the world have become deeply accustomed to a high-energy lifestyle, and to an economic system that only works well during conditions of robust growth, conditions that are not going to continue for very much longer.

Politics and economics

There is a belief that is near the center of the thinking of many conservatives, especially libertarians: that if the government would reduce its role to the minimum and “get out of the way,” market forces would solve all our problems.

Markets are one of our most powerful inventions, but markets will only produce good decisions if prices correspond to reality. In the case of fossil carbon, this relationship has broken down completely: the ease of extracting coal, oil, or gas from the earth in no way reflects the cost of burning it and adding the resulting CO2 to the ecosystem, as well as the coming psychological cost of readjusting to a world in which energy is increasingly expensive, after becoming accustomed to a world in which energy is extremely cheap.

It seems unlikely that most people understand how cheap energy is, even now. Maybe this will help: remember that in the absence of fossil fuel, transport for the richer stratum of society involved horses. It takes about five acres of pasture land to support a horse, and a horse does not provide speeds of seventy miles an hour, nor the ability to haul multi-ton cargoes. If we think of energy as being about a thousand times cheaper than it has been through most of human history, we will not be far wrong. And this cheap energy is entirely the result of a geological/biological accident.

The truth is that we missed our best chance to steer the world toward sustainability by not enacting a large and continuously rising carbon tax many decades ago. We should still do it, but we will now need to couple it with other measures to reduce the pain of the resulting economic disruption.

One day a month

The truth is very painful, but living in and with the truth is the only way to keep our self-respect. There may be no hope for a better outcome; it may be that despite our assumption of the name Homo sapiens, “the wise human”, we will show ourselves as merely clever rather than truly wise.

So suggests that you live the best life you can in the light of this knowledge, realizing that any one person’s level of responsibility for the future is very small. But keep the 21st day of each month as a time to bring your understanding of the big picture to the foreground of consciousness, and to say to people you meet, “Business as usual may be inevitable, but it is still morally unacceptable.” As the movement gains momentum, the 21st could become a day for flash mobs, media stunts, even general strikes.


* * * * *

This essay first appeared on and in September 2014. Thoughtful comments may be emailed directly to turn21 at "at" although their ability to reply is limited.

Comments (3)Add Comment
Educating someone on the 21st of each month is not sufficient. We have a moral obligation to act collectively and effectively, and fast. What follows focuses on what we need to understand to be able to carry out that moral obligation.

The real key to solving climate disruption is to pull the plush polar bear skin rug out from under the fossil fuel industry. To do that we need to understand a bit of mathematics called exponential growth, another bit called chaos theory, and the chasm theory of marketing. I'll try to be concise:

The solar energy industry is on an exponential growth curve, multiplying by a significant number every year, so that it may reach saturation within ten years, especially if the collective moral response kicks in. The wind industry would be too in the United States, but the Congress keeps letting the incentives expire. Still, it is likely to leap forward again in 1-2 years, and once there is another major cost reduction (for which technology already exists), it can grow explosively without any subsidies. Between the two of them, and the others forms, like ocean waves and currents, we can go from 2% to 98% renewable energy in ten to fifteen years from 2016. How can you help? By putting your money into solar and battery systems, and pushing the PUC to stop permitting fossil fuels, rescind the permits already given for plants not yet built, on cumulative environmental impact grounds, and to push the utilities into rapid growth of storage and renewable energy.

Chaos theory says that for a major shift to occur, the foundations need to be laid. Then it often happens quite suddenly. Don't ever buy another fossil-fuel powered car, unless it is an extended-range plug-in hybrid. If you want more range, wait until close to the end of 2016 to go shopping, and look at all makes, not just those from the major manufacturers. Lobby your transportation and planning departments to start plans to require solar over all parking lots, with charging stations below, and on some streets. That will be less expensive in 2 years, also. Also lobby them to take the master plan back to the drawing board, along with the ecology or environmental sciences department at the local college or university. Finally, study and lobby for smart, islandable microgrids as the fabric of the grid for the future.

The Chasm Theory of Marketing says that people fall into categories regarding when they adopt new ideas, or a new way of life. There are Pioneers, who develop and adopt them. Early Adopters, who listen with fascination to the Pioneers, and follow them to the frontier. Then comes the Chasm! Once the Early Adopters market has been saturated, no one else just steps up to buy -- why? Because they are the people who wait until an idea has been proven, and who rely on authority (called Opinion Leaders) to believe it. How do you cross the chasm? By selling into niche markets and making sure the Opinion Leaders can see how well you are doing. Once you 'start hitting strikes and spares' in the bowling alley of the niche markets, the Opinion Leaders decide it has been proven, and when they buy in, the whole front half of the bell curve (on the far side of the Chasm) rushes to join them. (That's when you need to have your production capacity and supply chain ready, or someone with deeper pockets will jump in and steal the market, or corrupt the idea.) When the front half of the bell curve has jumped in and appears happy, then the back half of the curve decides it must be a Standard, and then they start buying in.

The ideas we need people to buy into are stringent energy conservation and energy efficiency throughout our economy, with an end to gasoline and diesel fuel use, 100% renewable energy for the needs that remain, water conservation starting with an end to industrial agriculture (a 6 to 8 inch humus cover can cut water use by a factor of 5 or more), and rigorous selection of actually needed goods for the least environmental and social damage, which wakes us up and brings a halt to the consumer culture. That will also end the excuses for bloating the military and the arms industry.

Put these three major ideas together and implement them fully, along with lots of more specific actions, and we will have a strong chance of winning this battle for the lives of all humanity and all our Relations.
Mark Roest
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I appreciate the desire behind this article but there is a major conceptual problem here.Turning 21 does not make a person an adult.Initiation make a person an adult.It is not possible to initiate ones' self.All pre agricultural and some pre-industrial societies
fully understood this.Without initiation,one remains a child no matter the age.Proof of this is easily seen by looking at our society.Crazed BOYS in power ,acting like boys.
Jeffrey Bodony
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The time for any possible remedial action, individually or collectively, has come and gone.
At this point, nothing matters. The only question to be answered is whether humans will suffer a dieoff or extinction.
not important
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