Monday, August 06, 2012

A New Civilization for a New Epoch

Goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene.   The Holocene epoch of the past 12,000 years is said to be giving way to a new epoch, one in which man will be the key shaper, hence the name "Anthropo - cene."   The most significant feature of the new epoch will be a far harsher climate driven by anthropogenic or man-made global warming and we've only had a first taste of that lash.

The Earth will adapt to the new epoch.   Not every species of life, of course, but the planet itself will get by just fine.  It has endured extinction events several times before.

What's far less clear is the prognosis for man's greatest achievement, our civilization.   Just as we were making progress on spreading democracy, lifting the poorest out of poverty, improving access to safe freshwater and sanitation and other altruistic goals defining civilization at its best, our efforts are being overtaken by the ravages of global warming.

In the context of climate change there are also "have" and "have not" nations generally organized according to each country's equatorial proximity.   The nearer the country to the equator the more likely it is to be a have not nation.

The dwindling ranks of climate change skeptics scream ever louder to deny it but the consensus is holding and strengthening that global warming is real, is worsening and is mostly man-made due to post-Industrial Revolution CO2 emissions.   In essence, what has landed on our doorstops is primarily man-made and made by the men of the greatest "have" nations.   It is the fallout of the very processes that made them supermen.

But, while generations of supermen worked tirelessly to transform their nations, their societies into the best of the best, most of the most, they managed to export the scourge of their efforts into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions.   No need for ocean-going tugs and barge convoys when a simple smoke stack would suffice.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it's very much an "us versus them" world that strains the ties that hold together our civilization.   The "have" versus "have not" dichotomy is growing ever starker.  Here's an example.   The recent extreme drought that has swept the American breadbasket states will send a sharp spike in global food prices for at least a year or two.   Americans are being warned to expect a 3-4% overall increase in food costs.   For some Americans, the very poorest, that will be a hit but probably not life-threatening.   For most Americans the blow will be as bearable as a spike in gasoline prices.   But what about the peoples of the have not nations?

The have nots are already reeling from the droughts and floods brought to them by global warming.  They're already on the ropes.   Yet they too will have to meet the same food price increases as the peoples of the have countries.   If anything, they're more dependent on staple grains and legumes than the more advantaged and affluent sectors of civilization.  The UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs warns the poorest and most vulnerable will take the greatest hit from rising food prices.  For them it's a recurrent struggle with cumulative effects.

 As global grain prices begin to climb, the Sahel countries of West Africa, those in the Horn, and in central and southern Africa - many of which depend mainly on imported cereals to feed their people - are most exposed to the impact of more expensive food, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Around the world plenty of people are already living with high food prices, and more will be joining them.

The international prices of cereals
began to rise to record levels in mid-June this year, when the implications of one of the worst droughts ever to hit the US, the world's largest producer of maize and soybeans, became breaking news and commodity markets reacted.

Soaring food prices in 2007/08 forced the poor to sell their assets, cut down their spending on quality food, education and health, leaving them more vulnerable to future shocks, said FAO.

And there, you see, lies the hook.   For several years these countries have experienced permanent food insecurity.   That's their starting line when something like the megadrought of 2012 comes along.   They've already had to flog their assets and slash their spending on decent food, education, health and just about anything else they could trim.   These people are literally standing at the abyss.  The "haves" have utterly transformed the meaning and consequences of  the "have not" status the vulnerable did almost nothing to deserve much less create.

One of the arguments favoured by the fascist Right in the U.S. and elsewhere is that global warming is a hoax designed to permit the transfer of vast, unearned wealth from the "haves" to the "have nots" of the world.  It is a "socialist plot," the establishment of the dreaded World Government.

We must not let the idea take hold that their suffering is, in significant part, the outcome of our prosperity.   Think I'm kidding?  Find a Western government - left, right or centrist - that has been willing to link the global warming consequences visited on the Third World with our own two centuries of industrialism.  It's a truth that must not be spoken.   The whispered mention of it by a head of state would open the floodgates to torrents of demands for compensation.

Perhaps that is what will define civilization for the anthropocene,  a general and probably violent retreat from our aspirations for inclusion, cohesion and mutual advancement into a world of narrow alliances and a brutal "every man for himself" decline.

  'Welcome to the Anthropocene' Earth Animation from Globaïa on Vimeo.

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