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The (Last?) Great Wager

While in the past months Worldchanging had begun to seem to me a bit overly optimistic, a bit saccharine, I went back occasionally to check up on articles. Eventually I completely stopped visiting the site, sinking into despondence thinking myself powerless to effect any sort change, local or global. Recently though, I revisited Worldchanging and found an amazing article by Alex Steffen that I somehow missed in February — perhaps I had to file a bunch of folders in the English department that day. Once again I enthusiastically read Steffen’s articles, if not those of all the Worldchanging crew. The article that resuscitated me treats what Steffen calls the Great Wager.

In a nutshell, the Great Wager is the condition in which Steffen currently sees the world: over the last couple centuries, the industrialization of human society has seriously upset ecosystems that took millennia to become established*. If the human race doesn’t do something drastic in the next quarter century or so, the natural world (and so, human society) will be so horribly crippled that it will not recover — at least not on a human timescale.

What does it require to win the wager? In short, the reduction of each and every human being’s global footprint to around 1.9 hectares (calculate your footprint here). If we do not do that, we lose, and we lose big. This is an unpleasant situation, and its proposed alleviations also are unpleasant. Steffen delineates the four most common, which here I will caricature as: 1) the first world says fuck you to the developing world, and lets em suffer; 2) all societies must return to preindustrial states; 3) self-deprivation; and 4) the market shall save us. Steffen assails each of these in turn, and then presents what he sees to be a viable answer, sustainable technology driven society.

I find Steffen’s case compelling, but that may be because it needs to be — I need it to be. All the same, I think any plan or course that will save the world will of necessity demand that all of us be freed from commodity fetishism, and that means a serious alteration of most of the dreams of the “billions of children” maturing in the world today, whether those children desire the change or not.

* I don’t suggest that industrialization upsets ecosystems; humans upset ecosystems, and have done so ever since their expansion out of Africa. But those previous disturbances were on a much smaller scale. Industrialization ups the ante.

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