Cassandra’s Heirs – Can We Improve on Her Fate?

Published on January 20th, 2012

By Leon Kolankiewicz
CAPS Senior Writing Fellow
January 5, 2012

Twenty-seven years ago, at a 1985 conference in Texas, prominent activists and academics convened to consider the planet’s plight and their own. The planet’s plight included the impending, overpopulation-related calamities of climate change, threatened food supplies, depletion of energy resources, an epidemic of extinctions, acid rain, toxic wastes, and nuclear warfare, among others.

The attendees’ plight, like that of the mythical Cassandra, was that not enough of us were heeding their warnings to make much of a difference in our tragic trajectory as a species.

These latter-day “Cassandra’s” included the likes of biologists Paul Ehrlich and Garret Hardin (a CAPS co-founder), botanist Peter Raven, climatologist Stephen Schneider, physicist John Holdren, and systems analyst and Limits to Growth lead author Donella Meadows. In organizing the Cassandra Conference to consider resources and the human predicament, these environmentalists not only revealed a familiarity with ancient Greek mythology but an acute awareness of their own impotence.

They were sounding an alarm that they hoped their fellow citizens would heed to steer civilization onto a more sustainable path and away from the looming precipice ahead. Yet they recognized all too painfully that the powers that be and the masses of humanity were ignoring or even ridiculing them as killjoy zealots and tiresome doomsayers.

As a refresher, according to Greek mythology, beautiful Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The god Apollo was so smitten with her charms that he granted her the gift of prophecy. But when she did not return his love, the capricious god placed a curse on Cassandra. Her doom was that no one would ever believe her predictions, including those of the treacherous Trojan horse and the downfall of Troy. Instead of a blessing then, Cassandra’s prescience proved a curse. The juxtaposition of foresight and impotence were a source of deep frustration to her. This same frustration is all too familiar to many contemporary population activists, scientists, and environmentalists, three millennia removed from that mythical era. Are we to suffer a similar fate?

Since that 1985 conference, if anything, environmental warnings have grown even direr. “Peak oil” advocates claim that global conventional oil production has already begun a permanent decline, with potentially ruinous consequences for our way of life. In the face of international intransigence on the climate change front, prominent scientists are warning that it could be “game over” for the climate, civilization, and the biosphere if drastic reductions in carbon emissions aren’t begun promptly. Instead, those same emissions jumped by a record amount last year.

In a recent speech in Belgium, Limits to Growth co-author and complex systems modeler Dennis Meadows reiterated that the most probable end to economic and population growth would be by overshoot and decline, not by gradual slowing within a limit. While technological advances could delay the inevitable decline, they could not avert it.

Environmental philosopher Craig Dilworth of Uppsala University in Sweden goes even further. At the conclusion of his magisterial volume Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind (Cambridge University Press, 2010), he writes that:

“….human civilisation – primarily Western techno-industrial urban society – will self-destruct, producing massive environmental damage, social chaos, and megadeath. We are entering a new dark age, with great dieback.”

Yet for every Cassandra on the fringe of respectability warning us that the end is nigh but for radical actions, the average media-saturated American is bombarded with at least ten well-placed cheerleaders who remind one of Pangloss. “Business As Usual!” they exhort us. “Don’t mess with success!” For those who haven’t read Voltaire’s classic tale Candide, the incurable optimist Dr. Pangloss assures any and all that the world is getting better every day in every way. On a January 1, 2012 op-ed in the Washington Post, prominent syndicated columnist and TV pundit George Will trumpets America’s “stunning abundance of fossil fuels” and “the vast, proven reserves of natural gas and oil here and in Canada.” For good measure, he scoffs at the anthropogenic climate change that burning these presumptive fuels would exacerbate and impugns the integrity of climate scientists.

The unending debates induce ennui or uncertainty in the public, leading to policy paralysis.

The majority of Americans, however, simply ignore these egghead debates for weightier matters like some new shenanigan of the insipid Kardashian sisters. On a more serious note, given the sputtering economy, high unemployment rate, and general zeitgeist of economic decline that envelops the nation, most Americans are simply concerned with keeping their heads above water or even putting food on the plate and keeping a roof over the head of their kids. In the bad times, concerns about the future are displaced by worries about the present; when the good times roll, irrational exuberance blinds us to future consequences.

We contemporary Cassandra’s also confront a sense of powerlessness/futility/inevitability even among those inclined to agree with us, as well as a pervasive sense of apathy among those caught up in the perks and SWAG and “bling” of contemporary consumer culture. And as many have pointed out, part of our dilemma in convincing our fellows of the need for prompt action on population and the environment is that the sky has not fallen, at least not yet. There are still birds, and trees, and parks, and there is still oil to fuel our cars and planes. The air and water are actually cleaner than they used to be. The weather may be funky in places but weird weather has always been the norm, after all. And so, like the proverbial frog that will not jump out of a pot of water being slowly but steadily heated up, until it is boiled to death, most complacent Americans are not jolted into action by what they see around them.

Are we modern-day Cassandra’s doomed to the same destiny as our namesake, who watched in dismay as Troy was sacked and burned after she had foreseen this and been ignored?

Not necessarily.

Let me conclude by quoting the late visionary and brilliant analyst Donella Meadows, one of the original modern-day Cassandra’s, and lead author of the landmark 1972 book The Limits to Growth, from one of her syndicated newspaper columns in the 1990s:

Some biologists are saying the polar bear is doomed.

A friend of mine, in response to this news, did the only appropriate thing. She burst out weeping. “What am I going to tell my three year-old?” she sobbed. Any of us still in contact with our hearts and souls should be sobbing with her, especially when we consider that the same toxins that are in the bears are in the three-year-old. And that the three-year-old over her lifetime may witness collapsing ecosystems, north to south, until all creatures are threatened, especially top predators like polar bears and people.

Is there any way to end this column other than in gloom? Can I give my friend, you, myself any honest hope that our world will not fall apart? Does our only possible future consist of watching the disappearance of the polar bear, the whale, the tiger, the elephant, the redwood tree, the coral reef, while fearing for the three year-old?

Heck, I don’t know. There’s only one thing I do know. If we believe that it’s effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUVs while they last, well, then yes, it’s over. That’s the one way of believing and behaving that gives us a guaranteed outcome.

Personally I don’t believe that stuff at all. I don’t see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants polar bears and three-year-olds in our world. We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there’s something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls.

This modern-day Cassandra is counseling us to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. We would be wise indeed to heed her advice.


Leon Kolankiewicz is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and a consulting wildlife biologist and environmental planner whose professional career spans a quarter-century, three countries and more than 30 states. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].

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