As Texas burns and downpours continue, national conversation about climate change still impermissible

Posted September 7th, 2011 in Blog, Featured 5 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

First question for this post: should the word ‘hope’ still be in the title of this project? I’m not kidding: I really want your thoughts on that. Given the long string of ecological disasters and diminishments in recent years, given our cultural incapacity to address the causes which are deeply rooted in industrial society and growth economics, is hope an appropriate word to describe our human prospects for the the near and distant future?

Second question, or request: can you help support this project with a donation? Contributions are needed if we are to continue into 2012. If you value what we are trying to do here, we can use your help.

Third question for this post: will we ever be able to have a rational conversation about climate change in this country?

Now, once again, we will be charged to have caution about ascribing any particular weather event to climate change. Again, that mantra is becoming increasingly problematic when patterns over many years indicate that computer models predicting global warming impacts are being borne out in actual experience.

Check out this AP article on MSNBC’s website back in 2007. Some highlights:

Researchers studied 19 computer models of the climate, using data dating back to 1860 and projecting into the future, to the year 2100… The consensus of the models was that climate in the southwestern United States and parts of northern Mexico began a transition to drier conditions late in the 20th century and is continuing the trend in this century, as climate change alters the movement of storms and moisture in the atmosphere. The models show the drying trend continuing all the way to 2100 — for more than 90 years.

“If these models are correct, the levels of aridity of the recent multiyear drought, or the Dust Bowl and 1950s droughts, will, within the coming years to decades, become the new climatology of the American Southwest,” the researchers wrote.

Photo: Texas Forest Service

So last time I checked, more than a thousand homes had burned to a crisp in the new Texas wildfires. One of the most recent articles, this one from the Washington Post:

As of August 30, 81 percent of Texas’ land area was classified as being in the grips of “exceptional drought” conditions, which is the direst category on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale. At the end of May, only about 51 percent of Texas was in the exceptional category, illustrating just how significantly the drought expanded and intensified during a summer that featured unrelenting heat and very little rainfall.

Fear of fire: to view embedded video

But if you try to talk about global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change to the Texas Gov and presidential wannabe, Rick Perry, you get utter dismissal. Apparently it is a greater priority to salvage the oil and gas industry in the state than to keep the state from burning to a crisp, running out of water, and becoming uninhabitable.

Perhaps Perry has his eyes on the fantasy Great Lakes pipeline should the nation achieve the level of brain dysfunction that would put him in the White House. Then the Great Lakes states just might consider separating from the union.

Global drying - UCAR: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

But, seriously, how is it possible to approach the challenging concept of hope in a nation of this much cultural denial, media manipulation, and irrational religious extremism (you know, the kind where God gave us brains and then demands that we not use them), in a nation in which we have allowed a few very wealthy billionaires and mega-corporations involved in fossil fuel production to make off with the truth about our situation?

So here is a good Op-Ed on this from the LA Times a few days ago. Betting the farm against climate change: Global warming is extracting real costs, even in states where the governors are in denial.

It points out that states suffering some of the worst impacts of climate change right now are also states being governed (really, is ‘governed’ the appropriate word here?) by global warming deniers.

UCAR projections for global drying

So what are we hoping for here? If you read my book, you know I long ago gave up equating ‘hope’ with a belief that we can still keep very bad stuff from happening. Bad stuff is already happening and more bad stuff is going to happen, and we still can’t address our reality like adults fully cognizant of the danger we are in.

So we are going to have to do something else – learn how to live in danger, learn how to live in crisis, learn how to live in disaster, learn how to live in a world of growing scarcities and tumultuous change – because that is going to be the context of our lives for generations to come.

Is there hope in that? There can be, if we learn a different way of life from that which dominates the global economy and the US culture right now. In the midst of this crisis, a small group of us are working on a project to promote the notion of ‘conviviality,’ a term opened up and expanded upon by Ivan Illich many years ago, certainly beyond the dictionary definition of the term (‘feasting, drinking, and good company’) though these would certainly be elements of convivial life, especially the ‘good company’ part, a life in which friendship becomes a central reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

For Illich, convivial life has everything to do with accepting and embracing limits, “a modern society of responsibly limited tools,” actually, a society of responsibly limited everything, especially as we move into an era of diminishing resources and rising population. Illich speaks of re-embracing, reclaiming, the word ‘austerity,’ apostasy in today’s culture. Yet, he reminds us that for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, austerity “marked the foundation of friendship.”

Convivial life - Photo by the Mom

Surely in times like these, and the ones we are leaping into headlong, austerity becomes a central value if we are to be friends and not enemies. (I don’t mean ‘fiscal austerity’ here, I mean, austerity that implies living within limits and sharing abundance so that there is enough for all).  Limits and austerity must become embedded within the central value of compassion – how we share the challenges of living on this planet in a way that respects the dignity of all living beings and ensures future abundance – not abundance as in taking as much as we can from the earth for our private benefit, but as shared in balance within the ecosystems of the earth so that life might flourish.

Right now, life is not flourishing, except for a shrinking number of wealthy people who are still able to live over and above the fate of the rest of us – like the thousands of people in Texas who have just lost their homes in a raging inferno, or those in Vermont who are picking through the mud and rubble left by the floods.

This is a different planet we are living in now, different from the one into which I was born just 6 decades ago. That being said, we must learn therefore how to live differently within it – and we need to do that starting, oh, about now.


Illich references, Tools For Conviviality, Ivan Illich, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1973, from the introduction


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5 Responses

  1. hombredelatierra

    first question: it is exactly BECAUSE of the current crises that I am more hopeful now than I have been in decades. Without these crises there would be no “drivers” of change, no possibility of evolution. Let’s face it, the “System” is hopelessly inbred, self-referential, “narcissic”, functionally “dead” (Erich Fromm: “necrophilous, biophobic, inorganic, robotising”) – utterly incapable of any real evolutionary change. The much touted “innovation” neocons like to prattle so much about is generally nothing more than “chrome shuffling” (as automobile engineers spoke of auto design in the 1960s): superficial, cosmetic changes of no real consequence to the functioning of the “System”.

    third question: at this late date, do we actually need a “rational debate”? CAN we still have one? The rational debate should have been back in the 70s (if not in the 60s when Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring”). Now is a just a tad late one would say!! like 40 – 50 years..

    My reading – which may be wrong, of course – is that the “debate” will come soon, much sooner than most would dare to imagine. It will be less a “debate” in the classic sense, more like a tallying of costs and panicked, ad hoc planning to save as much of the furniture as we can. I further predict that the real, short term kicker will be Peak Oil and its economic impacts (the current “Recession” is the 1st act).

    For the long run, God knows what climate change will bring when IT really begins to kick in :0 X 25

  2. hombredelatierra

    from the sweats to the wets

    flooding has hit Manitoba province, Canada badly. It is becoming a regular thing: a regional climate shift?

  3. hombredelatierra

    Thomas Homer-Dixon seems to have it right:

    For him the important debate is the one that should be PRIOR to all others, the one the neocons taught us to forget about: what values are we willing to live for (on this day, on this earth):

    “Whether we effectively take advantage of what I call “moments of contingency” will largely depend on whether we know where we’re going. And we won’t know where we’re going unless we’ve had those values conversations ahead of time. Those conversations have to start now.”

    “Those conversations have to start now” – Amen!

    The best place for such discussions to take place is in families and communities. In re/building community resilience we have an opportunity to discuss / discover values (those we are willing to live for, individually and collectively). Movements like Permaculture and Transition Initiatives serve as points of “re-sourcement”, re/discovering the sources of value and meaning within ourselves and in our relations with others.

    The English word “source” commes from the French “source” = “point de jaillissement d’une eau souterraine”: a spring or “point where subterranean waters spring forth”. We should try to see movements of renewal like Permaculture and Transition Initiatives as places where the subterranean waters of life spring forth to the surface in patterns of creative human exchange. This should be the goal / ideal, anyway. “Where two or three of you are gathered together..”

    If we get this part right then the techonological and governance issues become solvable.

    If we DON’T get this part right, technology can only be a weapon we turn against ourselves..

    Priority – what we prioritize – is primordial!

  4. Margaret

    Thanks for these comments. I agree that the various manifestations of crises are making it more possible to get people thinking about ecological changes. The problem, of course, is that by the time the crises become extreme enough to disrupt the inertia, the drivers of tumultuous planetary change will already be far along and irreversible. Even now, there is no going back to the climate of 3-4 decades ago. Depleted aquifers and large regions undergoing desertification – these are things that in our time scales are basically permanent changes.

    How well will we do as we encounter shock after shock – like this year, or when Katrina hit New Orleans, or on and after 9/11? Moments of heroism and breathtaking generosity and compassion, and also war, selfishness, and deepened fear of ‘the other.’

    Our future will be a lot like that. I do believe that one of our most important works is to create a culture of compassion and generosity as things break down. That is our best chance of getting through it, of creating and inventing our way through it, as we force-learn what it means to live simply and humbly on the planet. If we are not about creating that kind of culture, it will just get uglier.

    Homer-Dixon is a great source. “The Upside-of-Down” is always on my list of recommended books.

  5. hombredelatierra

    I hope this is not too off topic – literature speaks a kind of truth too. Sometimes more effectively than non-fiction.. This is an elegy on roots, love and resilience:

    “Alistair MacLeod: No Great Mischief, McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1999, 283 pages

    A strange, poetic, elegaic on roots and love.

    The McDonald clan migrated from Scotland and live on the same Cape Breton soil they first set foot upon, during the American Revolution. They have deep roots..

    Theirs is a tragic tale. An unknown fatality weighs on the land and its people. The Soil is scrabble poor, poverty forces the MacDonald men to the mines of Ontario and South Africa. Life is hard for the McDonalds and they’re tough people. Yet somehow, though doomed – as we all are, they have survived with dignity. “No Great Mischief” is an elegy to common folk, whom MacLeod loves, facing adversity and fatality with dignity.

    Grandma’s mantra, “All of us are better when we’re loved”, cycles like the returning beam of a lighthouse through the concluding chapters and ends the book. Another popular family mantra, “Blood is thicker than water”, is ironically betrayed by a young man from the branch of the clan most enamoured of the phrase.

    “No Great Mischief” is really a story about love. MacLeod tells us that, facing the void, facing adversity, facing pain, our sole real arm is love: love between spouses, in family, love of the land, love of life itself.

    A sad, elegant poetry runs through the text, giving the feel and tone of epic or legend:

    “On the east coast, the native peoples who move across the land, harvesting, are stilled also.. They are older than the borders and the boundaries between countries and they pay them little mind.”

    “Once we sang to the pilot whales on a summer day. Perhaps we lured the huge whale in beyond his safe depth. And he died, disembowelled by the sharp rocks he could not see. Later his body moved inland, but his great heart remained behind”, echoing the migrations of the McDonalds inland, to Ontario’s mines, driven by poverty, not desire. Their hearts too remain behind in Cape Breton.

    But there is more than poetry in this tale. One could call it a “philosophical novel” in the sense that MacLeod invites us to a deeper reflection on life and real values but subtly, without posing a specific question; it is left to the reader to pose his own questions. Thus MacLeod ceaselessly points to quotidien tragedies, ironies and absurdities: the young man who graduates from dental school on the same day that his namesake cousin loses his head in a mining accident.

    MacLeod’s universe is not a happy one though it has room for joy, lots of wonder and, above all, it honors love which, ultimately, redeems this lost world.

    Alistair MacLeod is a national treasure though I fear he risks being forgotten: he lacks the imposing oeuvre whose sheer volume demands attention. Worse, he has favored the short story, not in favor in academic circles.

    Nevertheless, his work fits common definitions of “great literature” well enough: universal in scope while parochial in content. MacLeod’s prose is idiosyncratic – difficult if not impossible to translate or paraphrase without losing much. At its best, his work has the punch, the bang for the buck, all great literature gives. I recall reading his slim volume of short stories, “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” and ended up knowing more about the maritime soul than if I had waded through several thick academic tomes on settlement history and economic activity. This is surely a mesure of great art: much is said in little space and the heart is moved.”