Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Is This Our Civilization's Obituary?

From the New Yorker.  Nicholas Thompson, on the crossing of the 400 ppm marker, tries to put our civilization's future in perspective, to show the moral collapse that we work so hard to ignore, and the brutal prospects we bequeath to our children and theirs.  It's something of a pre-mortem obituary.

We’ve got more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than at any point since the Pliocene, when there were jungles in northern Canada. And the number hurdles ever upward, as ocean levels rise and extreme weather becomes routine. Three-fifty was the old target; four-fifty is the new one. But what indication is there that we’ll stop at five hundred, six hundred, or even more?

We’ve failed collectively. As Ryan Lizza explained in miserable detail in 2010, the United States government couldn’t pass a tepid, eviscerated law. Activists have failed. We’ve all failed morally: a problem created by the world’s rich will now crush the world’s poor. In a grand sense it’s also a failure of the creators, and deniers, of climate change: the Exxon-Mobils, say, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page. A victory isn’t worth much if your children and grandchildren will one day think of you with anger and shame.

How do we get out of this mess? The political system seems hopeless. Yes, government regulation has done much to relieve us of acid rain and smog. But global warming combines two intractable problems. Reducing emissions mainly benefits people who aren’t born and don’t vote. And it requires international co√∂rdination, which is hopeless, and international law, which is toothless. We should do things like build more public transportation, which helps people here and now. We should design our cities for a future with terrible weather. But solving the problem of climate change through the U.N. is like a small man with olive oil on his hands trying to pull a whale from the water.

Asking for personal sacrifice is fine for the West. We should ride bikes, turn off the lights, and eat less meat. But the number of people in the world who want cars, lights, and meat increases every day—and most are in countries that did very little to get us to four hundred. We can ask that China do a little better; there are a million little things that make emissions lower and our lives better. But the West created this problem through gluttony; we can’t solve it by demanding the asceticism of others. 

Ultimately, we have to invent our way out. Everything we use that emits carbon dioxide needs to be replaced with something that doesn’t, whether a car or a cooking stove. Many people are working toward this goal. Many more need to. And then there’s the dangerous, fraught, and potentially essential prospect of geoengineering. Can we suck carbon dioxide or methane down from the atmosphere? Can we shoot something up there that reduces the temperature? Every option is dangerous and complicated. But every option should be studied and tested. Geoengineering, as Michael Specter wrote last year, is the scientific equivalent of chemotherapy: it’s dreadful but it may be the only way to prevent mass calamity. And that calamity becomes ever more likely as the [greenhouse gas] numbers creep ever higher.


Owen Gray said...

Every generation faces a moral crisis, Mound. So far, our generation has spent its energy denying that there is a crisis.

Dana said...

But this isn't merely a moral crisis and the failure to face it isn't merely a demonstration of weakness of character or of cowardice.

It's a death sentence for the majority of the biosphere.

The opposable thumb and consciousness has proven, ultimately, to be a disastrous evolutionary development. On many levels.

The Mound of Sound said...

Owen, as I have mentioned on this blog several times over the years, today's populace has been conditioned to act and react quite differently from previous generations.

Several years ago Bill Moyers did an excellent, multi-part documentary on the subject of "posterity" that examined its acceptance in the past, the role it played in shaping our world today and how it fell extinct.

The role of posterity in our policy making and planning was extinguished in the post WWII era that also ushered in modern consumerism, our growth fetish and our ecological decline.

As the New Yorker item argues, we have been conditioned to be unwilling to do things today for the sole benefit of future generations. In reality we actually steal their future, diminish the world they will have to live in, for our own luxury and comfort.

This is unlike any moral crisis of past generations, Owen, it is moral collapse leading to a permanent condition, a steady state in which generations bequeath the burden of their ways to those who will follow.

Progress is an incremental struggle that requires hope, vision, sacrifice and great patience. Backsliding is rapid and effortless. I'm beginning to feel we're standing on the edge of freefall.