Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:
[Good friends - this is a longer-than-usual post. Think of it as added reflection for this sacred week.]
I want to talk a bit about the hard times coming, how important it will be for us to prepare — not just in material terms, but also, and perhaps especially, within.
Our ecological crises are leading us to hard times. We use the word ecology, as we have written before, because our problems are not just environmental problems — which makes it sound like it is a simple matter of fixing the environment, then everything will be okay — conserve some wilderness here and there, save a few species, reduce carbon dioxide emissions a few decades from now, etc.
None of these things, though each one is important, will keep the hard times from coming. We are well past the point where we can patch up a few of our most egregious offenses and then consider the world saved.
We use the word ‘ecology’ to speak of the whole. In this context, the crises include not just the abuse and waste of our natural world, but the foundations beneath the waste — the way of life, the values, of the species that is bringing about the crises. In this sense, it also includes the war in Iraq, the militarist attitudes of much of our political leadership, growth-based exploitative capitalism, the appalling and ever-widening gap between rich and poor, living beyond our means, consumerism, racism, gender discrimination — values and attitudes that we have towards one another and towards the planet that has been so generous with us despite our appalling violence and abuse.
unless we push it too far. Then it might throw us off with as little sentimentality as it did the dinosaurs and the millions of other creatures in the previous evolutionary eras.
We are in the sixth great extinction after all, not the first (this BBC link is a great article, by the way). We already know what the planet can do. And, just to fill in the picture a bit, as we wipe out species, if life as we know it in this era collapses, it does not just simply recover. No, actually, after an evolutionary wipe out, it takes the Earth about 10 million years to recover from a great extinction.
Is this news? No, not at all. The warnings have been coming for some time — and we have made no fundamental changes. I found a copy of a warning from 1,500 scientists 16 years ago about the crisis, World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. News headlines if every I saw any — but they weren’t, still aren’t. That’s why I don’t believe we can avoid the hard times.
Watch out for the bacteria. That is the essence of a story in the Pulse section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday, The Mighty Microbe.
As Earth warms, scientists worry… that bacteria living in the tundra and the permafrost – a permanently frozen subsurface soil layer – of the Arctic will become increasingly active. They will be eating carbon in those soils, breathing more and releasing increased amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That would create, some scientists say, a “positive feedback” – increased warming results in more active bacteria and more atmospheric carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas.
The burning of fossil fuels pours about 7.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. (A metric ton is about 2,200 pounds). Climate models show that the atmosphere absorbs about half of that, and the oceans and land absorb the remainder about equally, said Ankur Desai, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UW-Madison.
A major concern is a possible carbon dioxide boomerang, Desai said. As warming continues, all that carbon dioxide taken up by plants and trees to help them flourish will be put back into the atmosphere as more bacteria munch away on plants and trees that have died.
One thing all this science of disaster keeps showing us is the incredible interlocking relationships of all things natural. We spew carbon dioxide into the air from our airplanes, SUVs and semi-tractor trailers, and it melts the permafrost in Siberia which enlivens those little bacteria that feast away and put even more monumental amounts of carbon into our atmosphere — and the ruining of the planet proceeds at an ever-quickening pace.
Which will then cause more monumental drought and more extreme weather events in a world that will not reach peak human population until around 2050, adding another 2-3 billion of us by then.
How we treat nature is also reflective of how we treat one another. The abuse, the ease of the killing that goes on in war, the violence inflicted daily on women all across our world, the indifference towards the poor who suffer all these things far beyond what we encounter in our privileged lives here in the U.S., the hatred of others — other races and religions, immigrants, etc. — all of this comes from the same energy that paves over wetlands, opposes the existence of wolves, turns rich agricultural land into fuel for our cars, and on and on.
Now let’s add another ingredient into this picture (we could add thousands, but just to make our point for the day). China’s carbon dioxide emissions are outpacing by a long shot all previous estimates. You can read about it in the Science Daily, Alarming Growth In Expected Carbon Dioxide Emissions In China, Analysis Finds.
This is not good news.
Now we add this additional but related ingredient: U.S. coal exports are on the rise. What was to be an environmentally destructive source of fuel for domestic consumption is fast becoming an environmentally destructive and lucrative export product as the world’s energy appetite grows. We have written often on the destructive nature of the coal industry, from the mining to the burning, and I just invite you to use the search engine to find our many posts with lots of links for more self-education. For background on the export story, read U.S. Coal’s Global Appeal, in the Business Day section of today’s NY Times.
What a thriving coal export industry will also do is add another driver to escalating prices for energy here to heat and cool our homes and to keep the lights on. The article notes that we can expect the price of electricity to begin to rise from this source in 2009, then 2010, then 2011.
I just don’t see us making the quick shift, the big immediate transition, the ‘flip,’ that could keep the less hard times from coming. There is so much inertia in our societies, so few people, even among progressive and peace and justice activists, that are ready to say, whoa, just stop all this for a second. We have to rethink everything, including how we bring about change. The old paradigms will not do.
And it’s all happening so fast, faster than our minds, our lives, our problems, our inertia are able to adjust.
Ecological hope. So what do I mean by that, given this bleak scenario?
Well, first of all, many people have flipped. Millions, in fact. I was with a few such folks yesterday at a new eco-center growing up within an old convent in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, belonging to the School Sisters of Notre Dame, called Sunseed (more on this in a post-to-come). I have connected with many others ’round these parts, and they, we, are everywhere.
Such folks are living new lives within the old all across the world — in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and even in the wealthy countries of Europe and North America.
Hope is not optimism, as we have said before. Unfortunately, it way too often takes disaster upon disaster to make us wake up to the new thing in our midst, the new thing required of us. More of us know what is coming than want to admit to it or say it out loud.
Preparing for hard times is a spiritual work, because it will take a great deal of inner strength not to give in to fear and despair, to anger and violence, as the world goes through this turbulent transition.
But the crisis itself is our teacher — about who we are in the scheme of things, about the destructive tendencies within the human and the repercussions within Nature, about who we are called to be in the healing process, about what we must do to get through the transition with humanity still alive, still possible, still vibrant with potential for the next phase of evolution.
Evolution will go on with or without us. Awesome, isn’t it, that this is actually our choice, a decision we must make. Awesome, terrifying, thrilling. See if we can do it with honesty, humility, integrity, and a profound sense of the common good of all the Earth’s creatures.
[tags] ecological crisis, ecology, environmentalism, sixth great extinction, coal industry, dirty coal, coal exports, carbon dioxide emissions, conscious evolution[/tags]
Arctic Ice Melt, NASA
Katey Walter, article at MSNBC
Scott Fisher, exposed garbage in Lake Okeechobee, The Sun Sentinel
Pollution over China, NASA Earth Observatory
Mountaintopping coal mining, Island Creek KY, ilovemountains.org
Earth’s atmosphere, NASA Earth Observatory