Sunday, January 12, 2014
Some Fights You Can Never Give Up
Climate change threatens to undermine our very way of life. Doing anything effective about climate change also threatens to undermine our very way of life.
After mulling this over for years it has become apparent to me that mankind is not organized - socially, politically or economically - to handle a challenge of the magnitude posed by climate change. Lemmings, meet cliff.
Marie, at A Puff of Absurdity, offers a thoughtful exploration of the apparent pointlessness of doing everything right to slash her personal carbon emissions in a society that really doesn't care. I'm sure her frustration is common to those in the front, the leaders who wonder if others will follow and when.
My conclusion is that Marie and all her good works will have to wait for a bit of chaos to ensue before our species becomes willing to change our ways and yet we may have crossed the point of no return before that happens.
There are science types who suspect that our planet's sixth major extinction has already begun and they've got plenty of research to support their theories. There's another group that shares the same views but feels that acknowledging it would be to surrender to despair and defeatism which must be resisted at all costs.
Bemoaning climate change seems, to me, to understate the challenges that confront us. We have a lot of problems to address that are directly or tangentially related to mankind's footprint on our planet from desertification and deforestation; severe weather events of increasing frequency and intensity; flooding and drought; sea level rise and coastal inundation; resource depletion and exhaustion, particularly the looming global freshwater crisis; species migration and extinction, especially the collapse of global fisheries; overpopulation and population migration; disease and pest migration; greenhouse gas emissions and natural feedback mechanisms; air, soil and water contamination of all varieties; and a number of manmade issues including food insecurity, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and regional arms races particularly in south and east Asia.
All of those troubles arise out of our social, political and economic organization. All of them, every one. As anthropologist Jared Diamond explains in his book Collapse, effectively solving any of those problems will necessitate solving them all. How do you like our chances?
Some, like James Lovelock, believe the only way forward requires us to embrace the notion of "sustainable retreat". That would mean the "haves" would have to agree to become "have lesses" while the "have nots" would likewise have to trim the sails of their aspirations. Yet we're nothing if not a growth-driven civilization. In some of the poorest regions, it's common for almost everyone to have a cell phone even if just a small fraction have a toilet. So much for the "rational consumer" theory.
Speaking of economic organization, there's a not remotely radical school now calling for the abandonment of growth-based/GDP economics in favour of "steady state" or "full Earth" economics. The big difference is how steady state economics approaches growth. The main principle is that growth - be it in production, consumption or even population - must conform to the environment and its finite limits. How radical is that, eh?
Compared to the way in which mankind is organized today that kind of thinking is very radical, to some even heretical. Their thinking, and it is mainstream, is that we can accommodate infinite growth through substitution and other conjuring tricks. They continue to treat the despoliation of the biosphere as an "externality" to be omitted from the books. The vanishing forests or vast swathes of once arable farmland transformed into sterile desert, stuff visible to the naked eye from space, simply do not compute. The collapse of global fisheries is a distraction. Yet these are just three examples of how we're overworking our natural resources to exhaustion. The depletion of global groundwater resources is even worse yet although we don't notice our depleted aquifers until the water runs out.
The Global Footprint Network has done a terrific amount of work analyzing how we over-exploit our natural resources both globally and nation by nation. At their web site you can explore how they calculate World Overshoot Day, the day each year on which mankind consumes an annual supply of our planet's renewable resources. The date keeps advancing more rapidly from one year to the next reflecting our increasing population and our ever increasing, per capita consumption.
All but about five countries consume more biomass than they generate renewably. Wealthy countries offset some of their deficiencies by importing foodstuffs and other natural products from poorer countries. Britain, according to the former Labour government, consumes the equivalent of the country's annual agricultural production by Easter. As the biomass is fundamental to cleansing pollution, the deficiency often results in sustained and worsening contamination, a problem that now plagues China. Yet it is the manner of our social, political and economic organization that keeps us hurtling along toward this cliff ever faster.
Five or six years ago, World Overshoot Day fell in October. This year it was reached in August. What that means is that we're now consuming half again our planet's supply of renewable resources. See where this is heading? We are indeed eating our seed corn.
Those who want to lull us to sleep assure us that mankind can reach 9-billion and still have sufficient resources to go around. There's a possibility that could be true but not the way we are currently organized - socially, politically or economically. 9-billion humans living within our biosphere's finite limits will be living far differently than we are today and, if we're to stave off a large scale extinction, we would have to implement dramatic change fairly quickly which, face it, is simply not in the cards.
Does this mean we should throw in the towel and party like there's no tomorrow. Hell no. You don't stop doing the right thing while it's still the right thing to do. You keep at it and always hope for the best even as the prospects of that dim. Isn't that what makes us human? Bear in mind that the choices we take today, how we choose to act, will still have a direct impact on our grandkids. We can still make their lives harder and more dangerous than need be. That's your choice and that's a good enough reason not to give up.