Sunday, September 18, 2011
Can You Feel Your Hide Thickening?
We're all going to get pretty thick skinned in the years and decades to come. The more you want to cling to your way of life and the greater the global suffering that results, the thicker the skin you'll need. Some already are quite well acclimated to the misery spreading throughout the world as a result of climate change and other man-made maladies. "Inured" comes to mind, to accept something undesirable.
It's what psychologists would call a coping mechanism I suppose. It comes naturally to us, adapting to suffering, particularly when it's others, well removed, doing the suffering. Out of sight, out of mind. It's that very technique that's required when we promote products and activities that magnify or accelerate the suffering of others, elsewhere.
It's a Dark Art mastered by every one of our political classes - Conservative, Liberal, NDP - who, for the sake of expedience or personal ambition, support the development and expansion of the Athabasca Tar Sands. Make no mistake, that project is killing people only not so much right here at home. It's killing people elsewhere and we're only just getting started. But they're mainly brown people or black people and they don't have a lot of clout or money and they sure as hell don't have the sort of arsenals that might ever let them retaliate against us. To all those Conservatives, Liberals and NDP who support the Tar Sands, those little people in their droves are insignificant, irrelevant, expendable.
Of course it's not just the Tar Sands although Athabasca is fairly the poster boy of global warming. Sure, carbon emissions are the most obvious of our environmental depredations but there are others. However, in relative terms, we in the West are the "haves" while just about everyone else is or will soon be the "have nots."
For example, take "overshoot." The term means any nation's consumption of resources contrasted to nature's ability to replenish those resources. Resources are used in everything from direct consumption, as in food stocks, to natural filtering of our effluent and emissions. We're now using our planet's natural resources at roughly 1.3 to 1.5 times the earth's replenishment capacity. How can we use more resources than the earth provides? That's easy. Some forms of overshoot can be seen to the naked eye from space - spreading desertification and deforestation for example. Other examples are the collapsing global fisheries. It's called "eating one's seed corn." We're not just eating this year's corn but we're also consuming next year's.
But we in the developed world aren't just eating our own seed corn, we're also buying up the seed corn from the "have not" world. We have all sorts of vexatious means to screw with the have nots. Land grabs are becoming very popular. Instead of buying their crops at rapidly escalating market prices, why not just buy their farmland and cut out the middleman, the local farmer? Wall Street is in on the act, exploiting global food shortages on the commodities markets. And then there's the rest of us "haves" who just buy anything we want - because we can. Of course the prices we take for granted are the prices that also beset the "have nots" and inflict on them and their governments and their societies what we now call "food insecurity." The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that much of the Third World has now embarked on an era of permanent food insecurity.
It's bad enough that much of the Third World is going to have to deal with cyclical drought and flooding and other aspects of man-made climate change but they'll have to compete against our fat wallets with their empty purses for what is left. Can you feel that skin growing thicker?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's climate change advisory board, the WBGU, keeps advocating for solutions that are at once both obvious and hopelessly unrealistic. They want a global social contract, in essence the recognition of a global society, the idea that mankind is one. Within this framework we would find answers to everything from carbon emissions to resource sharing. For starters they would have the atmosphere declared a "commons" belonging to all. In that sort of regime, any nation's right to emit carbon dioxide, for example, would be a function of its population. For the major emitters that would mean severe cuts in overall emissions, something that would be especially felt by the major per capita emitters which group includes you and me. In order to do our bit and share the remaining capacity of the atmosphere with everybody, we would have to almost completely decarbonize our societies and our economies within just a few years. And along the way we'll have to jettison a culture that embraces gluttony and greed. What are the chances?
What makes the WBGU studies so important is the dual realization that they're almost certainly right but that we will never do the right thing. And we won't do the right thing because (a) it's really inconvenient and, (b), someone else gets to pay the price of our indifference. We live in the northern part of the northern hemisphere which is about as good as it gets in terms of climate change impacts this century. Better yet, we don't live in the less advantaged parts of the world where the impacts of our self-indulgent, gluttonous and greedy ways arrive soonest and hit hardest. We revel in the feast, they get stuck with the tab which is increasingly being delivered by the Reaper.
What if we woke up one morning to learn that we'd been bombing orphans in Somalia for no good reason? Would we rise up in outrage demanding that this be stopped immediately? I'm guessing we would - in a heartbeat. But what we do to them isn't that direct. It's harder to see, easy to deny, even easier to ignore. All we'll need to get through tomorrow is a slightly thicker skin.