Gaia, also known as Planet Earth, has a problem. That problem, as many see it, is over-exploitation, over-heating, and over-crowding. The gradual changes in government and the growth of "green" activism are natural responses to that problem. One can argue that the planet is responding to its need for balance, and that not only the plant and animal (non-human, that is) ecosystems are changing due to a planetary immune response, but that human society is also evolving in response to planet-wide needs.
The question I want to raise is whether the patient, Gaia or Planet Earth, will be saved by its immune response. Just as with human illness, not every immune response is adequate to avoid severe consequences. I should also define "saved" briefly, since the word could be interpreted in many ways. In this paragraph, I am raising the question about whether the industrial-production and growth-based way of life with which we are familiar, certainly adjusted and reduced in scope but unchanged in its nature and underpinnings, can be "saved" by the responses that human beings will be offering towards that aim.
Those who look closely and with an open mind can not avoid seeing the signs of threatening change, in a vast variety of locations on Earth. There are melting ice caps and glaciers, there is increased desertification of the earth's surface, average temperatures world-wide continue to rise, and clean drinking and farming water is becoming more and more a precious commodity, especially to those who do not have it.
I see the election of Barack Obama as another part of Gaia's immune system response. You may argue that his election over the business-and-military-as-usual John McCain was due to the timing of the economic crisis occurring right before our election here in the USA. But I would point out, as Daniel Quinn, Derrick Jensen, Richard Heinberg, and many others have done, that the over-heating and over-exploitation (is there ever such a thing as the right amount of "exploitation") of the planet has led to both the economic crisis AND the unfolding environmental crisis. The perpetual need to grow and conquer leads inevitably to instability and a dead end, as we hit the wall of the finite resources that the planet can provide. No economic system, and no resource-based system, can continue to grow forever in a limited environment.
So, the same forces are behind the environment crisis and the economic crisis: the undying urge to grow and conquer.
For the first time ever in human history, we live in a global economy and a global resource pool. Food, water, and mineral resources and products such as steel and aluminum are shipped world-wide. This can be seen as a boon that allows a richer life for all, but when that system has a crisis, it means the entire developed world is in crisis – and even the hearts of Africa and Asia are for purposes of this discussion part of the developed world, because they are with a few exceptional pockets dependent on and enmeshed in the world economic system.
As Daniel Quinn points out, the current crisis does not occur for the "leavers" (Quinn's terminology for groups following a certain cultural approach that he defines). The "leavers" continue to live a simple life, more-or-less as humans lived 10,000 years ago. Quinn also points out that living in that manner does not mean living in grass huts, necessarily, but it does mean abandoning the attitude of perpetual growth and conquest, and replacing it with a vision of harmony between humanity and nature, humanity and planet. The "leavers" however are a very small part of the planet today, as global industry has reached deep into formerly traditional lifestyle areas and made them dependent on food, clothing, and construction resources from other parts of the world.
So, to return to the question, does Gaia have a cold, which will soon be cured by a set of techno-fixes? Or does the planet have extremely drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR TB) which threatens to become a fatal attack? Or is there a third, middle choice that describes the condition of the planet as serious but not quite as severe?
Terminology has arisen addressing some of the possible answers to this question: the "bright greens" are people who think that society will respond to the need of the day and of the century, and will develop technologies and processes that will provide new, clean sources of energy, will reduce greenhouse gas output, and will allow life to continue as before, even continuing to grow, with only a minor speed bump on the super-highway of societal progress.
On the other hand, the "dark greens" are people who feel that about 75% of the world's population will disappear through war, disease, starvation, and possibly through lower birth rate (Russia already has a declining population just due to birth rate and life span declines). Dark greens feel it is too late for a solution to our problems, if there ever was one that real people and societies would willingly adopt. The best we can do is to try and create social structures that can endure an onslaught of chaos and survive into a foreseen era of greater stability in, say, 100 years. James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia concept, feels that a relatively small population of people will live near the Poles in a vastly overheated planet.
Well, which is it? Where are we headed?
Honestly, no one can be completely SURE.
In terms of reducing risks, the rational response would be for governments and individuals to change lifestyles and policies quickly, to conserve the maximum possible of all resources, to provide incentives of all kinds for growth of individual, community, and utility-owned renewable power generation, and through education at all levels to change the view of ideal family size to better match the planet's carrying capacity.
I believe a social science and physical science view of the near- and mid-term future can identify three major problems with being optimistic about that near- and mid-term future (about the next 100 years): 1) people are not changing nearly quickly enough to have the needed effects on greenhouse gas creation and resource use, 2) even if we wanted to do so, there are very likely not enough resources on the planet to quickly stop using fossil fuels (to avoid more greenhouse gases) while continuing to have sufficient energy to farm intensively and irrigate and distribute food, and 3) in a world with less available energy and fertilizer and topsoil, we will not be able to feed the nearly 7 billion people currently on the planet; the number that can be supported is more likely to be between one to two billion people, even if we assume an orderly society that functions efficiently in the new reduced-energy, reduced-resource planet of 100 years from now.
Since there are large numbers of people already dying daily due to lack of clean water, I think it is very safe to say that the planet has worse than a cold. I honestly don't know to a certainty whether we have contracted a disease that will leave us permanently (for thousands of years) crippled, but my belief is that even the richest countries will be affected in a dire way starting in the next 10 to 20 years. After careful review, I have decided that the current economic crisis is an initial bump in a very slow moving collision between the ocean liner of world economics / world resource demands, and the giant iceberg (unmelted) of world ecosystem reality. The true impact of that collision will unfold for years, gradually and at times nearly invisibly to the casual eye, but with some sudden changes, impossible to ignore, becoming visible along the way.
One of next big changes according to some projections is a collision between world oil production capacity and world demand, even taking place in the next year or two. This will heat up the world political and military scene, and as the discrepancy between demand and available supply grows, the pressure on governments to acquire fuel will only become more severe. At some point, even wealthy and strong countries will not be able to get the oil and other fuels they need to run smoothly, and thus we will enter more deeply into a time of great change. Supplying of fertilizer, of irrigation capacity, of transportation, and of manufacturing basics, all will become difficult.
What is the value of thinking about and talking about all this? It could be "depressing", although I do not feel depressed thinking of all this – I just want to change and improve the outcome as much as possible.
The value of this discussion is to help us each understand what we can change in our lives to help not only the planet, but ourselves and our communities, to plan for an oncoming reality.
The other, related value of this discussion is that when these predicted realities become widely visible, as I feel confident they will continue to do over the next several years, it will be important for leaders and decision-makers to have a realistic understanding of what is really going on, and therefore to have a framework guiding the most productive responses, so that we can do whatever possible to reduce suffering and to increase the health of the society that remains as it evolves under the great pressures of global change.
That awareness, at a personal level and all the way up to government, is what I believe will allow us to preserve some strong human and humane elements during and after the changes that will lead us all into a new world society over the next 100 years.