Saturday, January 17, 2015

This Changes Everything? I Doubt It.

I finally got around to finishing Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything." While it's insightful it didn't break much ground and was disappointing in discussing just how we'll ever "change everything."  Klein gets it.  There's more than climate change at work threatening mankind.  She has a handle on over-population and over-consumption, resource shortages and such but she seems to pin her hopes on some sort of uprising in the miasma emanating from our excesses.  I'm unconvinced.

When I look at the world today, I think that, barring some planet-wide epiphany, some massive revolutionary change, we're hooped.  

I try to stay current with developments in environmental science, the latest reports and such.  Many of these studies are behind paywalls but you can usually find the executive summary and a few informative reviews to put the pieces together.

The past six months have seen new science that has certainly dimmed my outlook.  There was the World Bank study that found we have already locked in 1.5C warming for our grandkids even if we stopped carbon emissions today. What that means is that all of our ongoing and steadily increasing carbon emissions are adding to that 1.5C.  It seems to confirm projections that we're heading for 4 to 5C of warming by the end of this century and nobody contends that's survivable.

In September we received the Living Planet Report 2014 of the WWF, the Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London that found we have lost half of the wild life on our planet since the early 70s.  Half of it is gone.  We're now working our way on the remaining half.  How can that be?  It's easy.  Mankind is now consuming renewable resources at more than 1.5 times their replenishment rate.  When we're taking that much, what's left for all other life forms?  Certainly not enough to sustain them.  We won't do without so they have to until they can't.  We get politely concerned when lakes dry up or rivers no longer reach the sea but we're talking about habitats that other animals and plants cannot live without. Sometimes, as in the collapse of global fisheries, we go at them directly for our own consumption.  Sometimes it's our pollution, especially nitrogen and phosphorous discharge, that kills them off.  If you're a non-human life form today you have to contend with climate change impacts, loss of resources and habitat, human predation and the steadily accumulating pollutants and contaminants of many varieties.

Then there were the reports released this week, apparently for the World Economic Forum, Davos.  The WEF released its "Global Risks 2015" report. The future it foresees is increasingly challenging, an "increasingly complex risk environment for which the world is "insufficiently prepared."  Inter-state wars, resource wars which are wars for survival, are the predominant threat to global security in the coming decade.  Water wars are the prime culprit.

Most troubling for me was the report on the 5-year study of the nine key factors that "ensure a livable planet for humans."  We're already in serious trouble on four of the nine and the trend is not encouraging on the others.

The report reinforces a conclusion I reached some time ago that climate change/global warming is not a stand-alone problem but one symptom of a much greater disorder that confronts and threatens the continuation of mankind.  The comments of the lead author, published in The Guardian, speak for themselves about the mess we're in.

Since 1950 urban populations have increased seven-fold, primary energy use has soared by a factor of five, while the amount of fertiliser used is now eight times higher. The amount of nitrogen entering the oceans has quadrupled.

All of these changes are shifting Earth into a “new state” that is becoming less hospitable to human life, researchers said.

“These indicators have shot up since 1950 and there are no signs they are slowing down,” said Prof Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Steffen is the lead author on both of the studies.

“When economic systems went into overdrive, there was a massive increase in resource use and pollution. It used to be confined to local and regional areas but we’re now seeing this occurring on a global scale. These changes are down to human activity, not natural variability.”

We are clearing land, we are degrading land, we introduce feral animals and take the top predators out, we change the marine ecosystem by overfishing – it’s a death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “That direct impact upon the land is the most important factor right now, even more than climate change.

“If the Earth is going to move to a warmer state, 5-6C warmer, with no ice caps, it will do so and that won’t be good for large mammals like us. People say the world is robust and that’s true, there will be life on Earth, but the Earth won’t be robust for us.

Some people say we can adapt due to technology, but that’s a belief system, it’s not based on fact. There is no convincing evidence that a large mammal, with a core body temperature of 37C, will be able to evolve that quickly. Insects can, but humans can’t and that’s a problem.”

Steffen said the research showed the economic system was “fundamentally flawed” as it ignored critically important life support systems.

It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive,” he said. “History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

The two studies, published in Science and Anthropocene Review, featured the work of scientists from countries including the US, Sweden, Germany and India. The findings will be presented in seven seminars at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which takes place between 21 and 25 January.

All of these studies that are coming in point to one conclusion.   We, mankind, have painted ourselves into a very dangerous corner and there may no longer be a way out.  We cling to forms of organization - economic, industrial, social and political - that outlived their utility as far back as the 70s when we began expanding past the limits of our environment.  Whether we even have the ability to solve our challenges isn't the issue.  What's holding us back is a complete lack of will, especially among those we empower and rely upon to safeguard our nation and our children.  


Toby said...

We are living on the global version of Easter Island. While a very few might manage to get off the island and search out another place to live, most are doomed.

Marie Snyder said...

Excellent info, Mound! I'm tired of proving things. It's time to just tell people what to do to stretch things out a little longer.

@Toby - I have students very sure we'll be able to find another planet and that's where we should put all our money. But there's really no place else to go - not in the time span we have available to us.

I still try to couch the info in hope for my students, but I think I have to stop that practice and start to use the data to scare them into convincing their families to change their lifestyles. Maybe, just maybe, it can help. A little. Revolution, however unlikely, is all we've got left.

Anonymous said...

I read both your and Marie's posts on this topic, Mound, and it seems clear to me that our capacity to rise above our own narrow and egregiously selfish concerns. I used to think that if enough people realized the perils we face, some action would result. That was foolishly optimistic. Take, for example, the fact that with gas prices in decline, sales of big trucks and gas-guzzling SUVs are really climbing. These are not the choices truly evolved and truly sentient beings would make.

Lorne said...

PS. The about comment was from me.

Dana said...

The opposable thumb and consciousness are proving to have been an evolutionary dead end.

I suspect it's true elsewhere in the universe as well.

It may well be that intelligent life forms have a self-constrained term of life.

lungta said...

third time back to try to comment
something this huge should elicit some response
my crisis tipping point was in the 60s
carsons silent spring did it
since then there have only been laments for the losses
and the slow motion documentation of the trainwreck as it happened
i just don't have any rage left
i'm over feeling betrayed by those who would pretend to lead
death has lost a lot of her power
all things have a beginning, a middle and an end
including planets and stupid greedy monkeys

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Marie. I thought about what it must be like for your young students that they have to imagine traveling to another planet for refuge. How does a kid cope with that idea? I think it may be best that you continue to couch your comments. It's hard enough for us to bear these realities but kids, I don't know. When I was your students' age we had to cope with the prospect of nuclear annihilation but that was always a remote possibility at worst.

@ Lorne. I still struggle to comprehend how our complacency ever extended into nihilism. Then again look at the populations of so many countries that sat by quietly while their leaders led them into WWII. I wonder if there's an element of ancient fatalism embedded in the human psyche?

@ Dana. Maybe it comes down to hubris. We've done so many things mainly because we could without pausing to consider whether we should. Over time those "things" mount and compound and then quietly slip out of our control.

@ Toby. I wonder how long it will be before we begin to see the ravages of our excess really devastate the weakest and poorest nations. There'll be quite a spectacle for the people of the most advantaged countries to behold.

@ lungta. Yes, it should elicit some response but, as we've seen, there's a huge inertia blocking action.

the salamander said...

.. when the shit really begins to hit the fan, we'll see the true reality of hysterical political animals a la Harper Baird Clement Oliver Moore Poilievre .. propped up by the elected likes of Del Mastros, Calandras, Anders etc.

With environmental calamity, poverty, uprisings, dirty bombs, persecution.. will come uncontrolled 'immigration'. And to adapt & misquote that preening glib buffoon James Moore.. it would go like this..

'is the government.. am I responsible for our starving and homeless other countries?'

The projected realities in your article, Mound.. sail far past the self serving and delusional views of Canada's so called leaders. We ended up with a PM so adamant on stripping resources for export, that nothing .. nada must stand in the way. Its like he moved forward in life as a functioning sociopath, still using his sandbox tantrum & control pathology to always get what he wants.

In future.. The 'now' future.. local MP's will need to prove their honesty, responsibility and capability.. first to their local ridings. and to the greater aspects of being part of a national Parliament. Ignorance of science, biology, environment, culture and society are not human or Canadian values

The Mound of Sound said...

Hey Sal. Conditions, such as those suggested by these studies, will present major population control issues, some internal, some at our borders. We know, from a number of now public studies by the Brit's Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon that we'll also be wrestling with some serious security/military threats.

I think this suggests a steady descent into increasingly illiberal democracy well beyond today's authoritarian, secretive, undemocratic surveillance state. In a world of chaos, martial law regimes seem inevitable only it won't be for "the duration" as our parents and grandparents experienced emergency powers, rationing, etc. There'll be little place for the vox populi.

Anonymous said...

Stupid is as stupid does!