|Robert L. Frodeman (photo KM)|
"Our culture is in transition from a culture of abundance to a culture of scarcity," said Frodeman. During the last three to four hundred years, the era of modernity, "our culture's attitudes and our culture's institutions have been shaped by the fundamental fact of abundance, an effective infinity of space and resources." Frodeman explored this cultural shaping and shifting in his lecture, "Geology and the Politics of Scarcity."
This assumption of abundance has had tremendous and far-reaching impact on our culture's ethics, economics, and the role of government. The ethics of the modern era, libertarianism, holds that "everyone gets to do what they durn well please," said Frodeman, "as long as you don't interfere with someone else doing as they durn well please." The modern economics of capitalism assumes infinite growth. "In fact, if growth falls to only 2 percent per annum, that's a recession. If it drops to 1.5 percent, that's a depression. This is the philosophy of a cancer cell." While the traditional role of government was to "debate what constitutes the good life," modern government became the regulator and organizer of the prevailing libertarian ethic. Government regulated behavior so that any one person could pursue the good life without interfering with another individual's pursuit.
"Today, we're bumping up against the assumptions of abundance," said Frodeman. The way we bump up against these assumptions is evident in daily challenges to modern ethics, economics, and politics. As space becomes scarce, "there's nothing you can do that's not going to Capitalism assumes infinite growth, but "can we have infinite growth in a finite world?" asked Frodeman. Perhaps technology "is the wild card."
Summarizing Julian Simon's argument that the one infinite resource is brain power, which combined with technology can overcome natural limits, Frodeman noted that maybe "technology trumps nature." Government is reluctantly driven toward increased regulations as "we bump up against one another, as we bump up against limits in resources." Thus, Frodeman suggested, "post-modernity, properly understood, is the signaling of the end of the politics of abundance, and our running up against eco-geological limits."
To explore the idea of eco-geological scarcity, Frodeman presented the thought of William Ophuls and Theodore Roszak as examples of the two extreme positions on scarcity. Ophuls, in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, relied on scientific facts demonstrating natural limits in population, food production, and resource use. Because these limits are synergistically related, Ophuls, applying the law of the minimum, stated that a shortage in any area meant a shortage overall. Frode-man asked the audience to "consider making chocolate chip cookies." How many you can make is determined by which ingredient you will run out of first. Ophuls claims it is the same thing with resources. Ophuls' argument is rooted in the assumption that "science defines the character of the real."
Roszak, in Voice of the Earth, started out by summarizing the same facts as Ophuls did, but quickly acknowledged what Frodeman calls "the phenomenon of dueling experts." For each expert, we can find an equal and opposite expert. Given that science "leaves us in a state of radical epistemological uncertainty," Roszak turned to psychology in its oldest sense, as the study of the mind and soul. Frodeman summarized Roszak's view: "Our manner of treating nature today and our patterns of consumption betray a soul sickness rooted in our estrangement from the natural world. Roszak suggested that we need to learn the concept of plentitude, of enough.
Where Ophuls relied heavily on scientific fact, Roszak turned away from science to philosophy and humanism. Frodeman prefers a middle ground, in which both science and culture offer limits and answers: "Geological scarcity must be seen as simultaneously a natural and cultural concept marked by the interplay of physical limits (always uncertain and subject to new discoveries and technological advance) and a complex array or complex range of cultural limits involving economics, ethics, ...aesthetics, ...and theology." As we wend our way toward the ambiguous future of the post-modern world, this interplay of the physical and the cultural will shape our relationship with the earth. }
An article on Frodeman's fourth lecture, Geology and Geopoetry, will appear in next week's ICS, October 22.