Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Series of Significance: Catch-44, the progress trap and the greedy monkey

[The following five posts were originally published separately in November and December 2010. With unemployment in the US and my own city at 9%-plus and another recession on the horizon (coming soon to a region near you), the message is particularly timely. The posts are now collected in one place for your convenience. No extra charge.]

PT 1 Catch-44, the progress trap and the greedy monkey

I recently discovered that the term Catch-44 is pretty popular.

(By ‘recently’ I mean within the last few hours.)

Not only have I used the term twice today - thinking it was a product of my own imagination - but a Google search reveals Catch .44 is an indie crime drama filmed in Shreveport, LA., starring Bruce Willis and Forest Whitaker.

Stink. I wanted the term all to myself, just like the litre of ice-cream loaded with Smarties I found in the downstairs freezer a few days ago. (Somehow my wife knew about it!)

I like the term Catch-44 because it conjures up memories of Catch-22 (a gripping book and film with later connections to the movie and TV show M*A*S*H).

Feelings that I would describe as Catch-44-ish come up almost every day. Sometimes early in the morning before I’m even out of bed.

I used the term first while describing our predicament with rising costs - and not just related to hydro, which much on the minds of many Ontarians.

I said:

“Because no government is effectively encouraging the move toward smaller cars, homes and lifestyles, our roads will continue to support more cars per capita (and the related expense), our homes will continue to grow and demand more energy and production of household goods, and the associated costs of our lifestyle will increase."

It’s a Catch-44, which is twice as shocking and frustrating as a Catch-22 and any hydro bill.

I elaborated a bit on my use of the term in a later post when I said, “In other words, we’re in a Catch-44, a bad trap, twice as bad as a Catch-22. We’re building and paving roads today that we’ll never repair or replace in the future as far as present home owners are concerned, because they’ll be dead.”

Now, where did I get the idea that we’re in a bad trap?

Stay tuned.


PT 2 Catch-44, the progress trap and the greedy monkey

The popular term Catch-44 not only conjures up memories of Catch-22 (a gripping book and film with a M*A*S*H connection) but infers there are troubles that are twice as bad.

I also relate Catch-44 back to another term - a progress trap. Illustrative examples are found in the book A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright (see Read This, right margin).

In it he writes:

“Since the early 1900s, the world’s population has multiplied by four and its economy - a rough measure of the human load on nature - by more than forty. We have reached a stage where we must bring the experiment under rational control, and guard against present and potential dangers,” (pg. 31) i.e., lest we fall into a progress trap.

“We have already caused so many extinctions that our dominion over the earth will appear in the fossil record like the impact of an asteroid... a bad smell of extinction follows Homo sapiens around the world.”

["Asteroids - like the blunt fist of mankind"]

In Chapter 2 he reveals “what we can deduce from the first progress trap - the perfection of hunting, which ended the Stone Age - and how our escape from that trap by the invention of farming led to our greatest experiment: worldwide civilization. We then have to ask ourselves this urgent question: Could civilization itself be another and much greater trap?”

What a great question.

The book is a real page turner.

I highly recommend it, but don’t expect a happy ending a la Walt Disney, e.g., Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The tone of the book is reflected in Wright’s thoughts about some of the roots of modern civilization.

“From ancient times until today, civilized people have believed they behave better, and are better, than so-called savages. But he moral values attached to civilization are specious: too often used to justify attacking and dominating other, less powerful, societies. In their imperial heyday, the French had their “civilizing mission” and the British their “white man’s burden” - the bearing of which was eased by automatic weapons. As Hilaire Belloc wrote in 1898: “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not.” Nowadays, Washington claims to lead and safeguard “the civilized world,” a tradition in American rhetoric that began with the uprooting and exterminating of that country’s first inhabitants.” (pg. 33)

So, about that first progress trap mentioned earlier...


PT 3 Catch-44, the progress trap and the greedy monkey

About an early progress trap Ronald Wright writes the following:

“Modern hunter-gatherers - Amazonians, Australian Aboriginals, Inuit, Kalahari bushmen - are wise stewards of their ecologies, limiting their own numbers, treading lightly on the land.”

I know, you’re already ahead of me. You’ve deduced that early man did not tread lightly, were not good stewards. You may also have jumper farther ahead to modern day, our wastefulness, the corner we have painted ourselves into quite nicely.

Hey, not so fast.

["Are we nothing more than a greedy monkey?": photo by GH]

Wright continues:

“It is often assumed that ancient hunters would have been equally wise. But archaeological evidence does not support this view. Palaeolithic hunting was the mainstream livelihood, done in the richest environments on a seemingly boundless earth.”

Stop it. Already you’re thinking about how unwisely modern corporations have decimated the seemingly boundless forests and salmon stocks in the NW region of the US, aka ‘the Pacific North-west.' Let Wright finish.

“(Palaeolithic hunting was) done, we have to infer from the profligate remains, with the stock-trader’s optimism that there would always be another big killing just over the next hill. In the last and best-documented mass extinctions - the loss of flightless birds and other animals from New Zealand and Madagascar - there is no room for doubt that people were to blame. The Australian biologist Tim Flannery has called human beings the “future-eaters.” Each extinction is a death of possibility.”

Okay, it’s my turn to openly reflect on a related matter.

This from an essay I read last night from a book entitled Moral Ground (K.D. Moore, M.P. Nelson):

“We are indeed experiencing the greatest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UN convention on biological diversity. “Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates. Every hour, three species disappear. Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct,” he said. “The cause: human activities.”

Sorry, I digress.

Wright says:

“So among the things we need to know about ourselves is that the Upper Paleaolithic period, which may well have begun in genocide, ended with an all-you-can-kill wildlife barbecue. The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts... the hunters at the end of the Stone Age were certainly not clumsy, but they were bad because they broke rule one for any prudent parasite: Don’t kill off your host.”

“As they drove species after species to extinction, they walked into the first progress trap.”

“Some of their descendants - the hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into recent times - would learn in the school of hard knocks to restrain themselves.”

Question: Does modern man restrain himself?

Wright concludes:

“But the rest of us found a way to raise the stakes: that great change known to hindsight as the Farming or Neolithic “Revolution.”

And how is that going for us?

We’re inflicting other progress traps upon ourselves.

Now we’re burning rain forests to plant soy for beef cattle.

Now we’re stripping ancient forests in the Pacific NW - at the same time destroying salmon stocks - to send raw wood and jobs to Asia.

Your turn.

Do you know of other examples of Catch-44s, other progress traps?

Are we nothing but greedy monkeys?


PT 4 Catch-44, the progress trap and the greedy monkey

You may wonder where “the greedy monkey” fits in when encountering the title to my posts.

Well may you ask, as per the conclusion to PT 3, “Are we nothing but greedy monkeys?”

No, I say. We're worse.

And from an anthropomorphic point of view, I even think any self-respecting monkey would agree with me.

Though monkeys are greedy, they will never be as greedy as humankind. Though easily trapped because of their greed, their weakness is a mere nothing in comparison to our own.

For example, all one requires to catch a monkey in some regions of the world are the following materials:

A wooden stake,

a length of rope,

a hollowed out coconut shell with a 1-inch hole,

a few sweet candies.

Then follow the following instructions:

Drive the stake into the ground,

attach the stake securely to one end of the rope and the coconut to the other,

toss the candies into the coconut,

and wait for a greedy monkey.

What will happen once a monkey smells the sweets?

It will reach inside the hole and grab them. And when approached by the trap-setter, it will make a tight fist around the candies and attempt to flee.

However, can you see the monkey’s problem?

Its fist, full of candy, will now be larger than the 1-inch hole, and it can only escape from being caught by releasing its treasure.

Any greedy monkey will soon find itself inside a cage or soup pot. Many do. They are too greedy to release the prize and are held in place by their own hand.

Greed may cost the monkey its life, but the level of greed demonstrated is a mere nothing to that shown by humankind in many instances, because our collective greed can lead not just to the loss of one life but many, and to the extinction of many plant and animal species at the same time.

We know that modern man can barely restrain himself in the use of earth’s resources. Sustainable use of water, land, trees, minerals, fuels and multiple food sources is not practiced.

Though through the centuries humankind has moved from hunting and hunting-gathering to (predominantly) farming because of progress traps (we hunted so well many types of game were hunted to extinction), we’re inflicting other progress traps upon ourselves as we extensively farm around the world.

I wrote in an earlier post, “Now we’re burning rain forests to plant soy for beef cattle.”

About life on the largest scale, A Short History of Progress presents the following:

“Richard Alley points out what should be obvious: humans have built a civilization adapted to the climate we have. Increasingly, humanity is using everything (e.g., renewable and non-renewable resources) this climate provides... (and) the climate of the last few thousand years is about as good as it gets.” (pg. 52)

Ronald Wright continues:

“(Climate) change is not in our interest. Our only rational policy is not to risk provoking it. Yet we face abundant evidence that civilization itself, through fossil-fuel emissions and other disturbances, is upsetting the long calm in which we grew. Ice sheets at both poles are breaking up. Glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas are thawing (we now know that Canada’s north and Greenland are loosing their ice layers quickly); some have disappeared in only twenty-five years. Droughts and unusually hot weather (Canada has experienced its hottest year on record) have already caused world grain output to fall or stagnate for eight years in a row. During the same eight years, the number of mouths to feed went up by 600 million.”

“Steady warming will be bad enough, but the worst outcome would be a sudden overturning of earth’s climatic balance - back to its old regime of sweats and chills. If that happens, crops will fail everywhere and the great experiment of civilization will come to a catastrophic end.”

“In the matter of our food, we have grown as specialized, and therefore as vulnerable, as a sabre-toothed cat.”

Talk about your Catch-44, your progress trap, your greedy monkey.

Will humankind suffer through vast changes associated with climate change with its greedy fist caught in a trap of its own making?


PT 5 Catch-44, the progress trap and the greedy monkey

Being a man of few words, I was able to explain the meaning of the title in only 4 posts.

Though we will find ourselves in many predicaments in the near future, the greatest will be because of climate change. Our role in our own demise is now and will be indisputable.

Catch-44, progress trap, greedy monkey and countless other terms, I’m sure, will be used to describe our inability to solve a solvable problem.

It seems, though “our only rational policy is not to risk provoking it” (i.e., the near-perfect climate in which 6.7 billion of us live), we poke it with a sharp stick - our motive relates to greed in many instances - at almost every opportunity.

I concluded Pt 4 by asking, “Will humankind suffer through vast changes associated with climate change with its greedy fist caught in a trap of its own making?”

Though I said ‘no’ when wondering aloud if we are like a greedy monkey (we are far worse than any monkey), I say ‘yes’ to the above.

Consider humankind’s carbon emissions related to its pursuit of what many call the essentials of life, i.e., food, clothing and shelter, as well as a few systems upon which we have grown dependent, i.e., transportation, communication and recreation. (There are others, of course. There is no end to our pursuits).

About Canada I would say the following:

On average, bellies are getting bigger. Unnecessarily so.

Closets are getting bigger. Unnecessarily so.

Homes are getting bigger. Unnecessarily so.

The number of cars per capita is growing. Comfort and convenience wins over conservation.

The number of electronic communication devices is growing. Convenience wins again.

The number of recreational opportunities is growing, though almost no one plays checkers anymore.

Related carbon emissions are growing.

According to recent news, ‘countries that signed (the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) were supposed to cut their emissions from 1990 levels, but Canada’s have risen 24%.’ (Dec. 7, London Free Press)

The Canadian government allows emissions to grow.

So do so many other governments on planet Earth. So, climate change advances. Total calories, cotton shirts, square feet per person, cars, cells and play times advance further.

Will we slow the amassing of material goods for the sake of the present and any future generations?

Not at this time. Methinks our greed will not allow it.

Catch-44. Progress trap. Greedy monkey. All apply.

We may be at the point when only a series of major economic set backs or environmental disasters will force us to release our tight grip on a multitude of sweet treasures of so little value when compared to life itself.

Intriguing times we live in, are they not?


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