The new planet

Posted April 9th, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on The new planet

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

This news just came into my email box a bit ago from ClimateProgress:

Carbon Dioxide Levels Just Hit Their Highest Point in 800,000 Years

Well, most of us already know we’re living on a new planet, or at least a different one than the one into which we were born. That’s a high number, a long, long time; but the 800,000 years may be well short of the mark.

Writing about the 400 ppm recording last year, climatologist Peter Gleick pointed to UCLA research “that suggested we would have to go back at least 15 million years to find carbon dioxide levels approaching today’s levels” and another article in the journal Paleoceanography “on paleoclimatic records that suggest CO2 concentrations (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) may have been around 400 ppm between 2 and 4.6 million years ago.”

So we have never lived in conditions like these before. Even more sobering, we will not have lived in conditions anything at all like what’s coming, and we have to figure out how to do that as we reach peak human population at the middle of this century.

This is not good timing. We are maxing out resources we need to support our nature-hostile industrial civilization, and those we need to live at all (like water and arable land), as populations spike and the impacts of warming really take hold.

Land Surface Temperature Anomaly

[NASA Earth Observatory – LAND Surface Temperature Anomaly –  global anomalies in March 2014. Getting mighty warm up there in the northern hemisphere. Click on the link to see an animated view of anomalies since 2000]

Of course, all those things are interrelated, despite the human fantasy that we can alter one of those things – the global warming drivers – without having to deal drastically and urgently with the others, with industrial civilization itself (which has caused the planet to change) and population growth.

It has all become unsustainable pretty quickly, in a few generations, not even enough time to catch our collective breath, much less do anything really meaningful about it.

Remember peak oil? It’s a bit of a quaint notion now since industry has found ways to do monumentally more damage to the planet to hold peak at bay for a few more decades, but the principle remains apt. As we approach peak in just about any matter of extraction, production, consumption, and waste, the pace of all this actually picks up. Just like the peak oil theory, the peak is reached not when we are experiencing scarcity but when we are at peak flow. That’s one of the reasons people don’t “experience” peak until it is in the past, until the decline begins, sharply and quickly.

The demand on the Earth’s gifts (which in our human hubris we call “resources,” as if they were meant for us) is reaching peak in terms of what the planet can withstand while still holding its living ecosystems together. We are well past peak water and peak arable land, food and water prices are going up accordingly, and life-threatening scarcities are being felt in many parts of the world.

To make things worse, a lot of those water sources that we rely on are horribly contaminated and becoming more so. Fossil fuel, chemical, manufacturing, and mining industries continue to dump enormous amounts of contaminated stuff into our wetlands and rivers, lakes and oceans, our air, and the soil farmed for food. Deforestation all over the planet proceeds apace, sea levels are rising and some small island nations are being submerged. Bangladesh will need to figure out soon what to do about the 18,000,000 people about to be inundated by the sea while Miami Beach residents and tourists find themselves wading through sea water flowing in the streets at high tide.

One response, of course, is the one that dominates the culture: proceed as if nothing is happening, as if nothing is going horribly wrong.

But polls show that even if the population at large is not prepared to make big changes in their lives because of the unfolding crisis, they are becoming more aware of it, are actually experiencing more of the changes, and are getting a wee bit nervous about it all.

Arctic Report Card 2013 – from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

It has become more than obvious that we are going to be dealing with abruptly changing our lives in the midst of crisis, rather than changing our lives in order to avoid it. It seems we humans have adapted this way, softened, distracted, and, because of the comfort industry and technology have brought to our lives, unable to detect the danger in which we now live.

On Facebook recently, a good number of environmentalists and others who care about these things have noted cases where our justice system comes down harshly on someone who points a gun at another person and opens fire (or attacks fellow students with a couple of knives), but that corporations can be responsible for massive deaths and suffering because of their intentional practices, but this is legal and okay. And even when it is illegal, they get off with fines that have little impact on their bottom line (see Exxon, BP, Enbridge, Golden Sachs, to name a few egregious examples, and then view the trailer below for a particularly great example of what I mean).

Rising Up – A Trailer Film about the BP Oil Spill and the Disastrous Clean Up Efforts from Phyllis Koenig.

Our values and ethics are incredibly skewed as we head down this path. 402 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere is no joke. But by the end of the century, on a business as usual course, we will surpass 600. That will create in the next century a world we truly would not recognize. Hey, I won’t be there, so rake in the shareholders’ dough now, right?

That seems to be the ethic these days. ExxonMobil recently, under pressure from shareholders concerned about their long-term investments, acknowledged the reality of climate change but then insisted it will not leave a drop of extractable oil in the ground. They are going to bring it all up, no matter what…

I don’t think that will happen, but investors have cause to worry. Here’s the stupid thing about the current oil economy. Companies claim value in part by the amount of their reserves. A lot of stock value is based on the future of those reserves. If the global economy or the international pressure to take action on carbon emissions begins moving in the direction of leaving those reserves in the ground, guess what happens to the stock value? A fossil fuel economy based on future expectations collapses.

It not only will collapse, but it must collapse. At the tar sands industrial site. Photo: Margaret Swedish

It not only will collapse, but it must collapse. At the tar sands industrial site. Photo: Margaret Swedish

And so it goes, the whole pathological logic of capitalism. Like it or not, despite all its fierce defenders in the world, we cannot stave off disaster using that model. For all the pro-market aficionados who try to wed capitalism and the “free” (i.e., fixed) market with “environmentalism” (a word I like less and less), it ain’t gonna work. The market right now has no real incentive to move in that direction to the scale required. They speak of decades, and we have mere years to begin to make the transition.

So while more and more of us predict more and bigger disasters, we have a lot of differences about how that unfolds. Guy McPherson is going around the country telling people it will all be over by 2030 if we keep on this course. Well, I will be beyond bold (not really, it does not take boldness to write this) and tell you that we will mostly stay on this course at least and probably beyond then and that it will not all be over in 2030.

However, we will be in more trouble. What I do believe is that there is no easy way out anymore. Those times are past. As a culture, as a global economy, we refused to pay attention to the indicators over several decades (at least since the 1970s) that told us we would be exactly where we are now. On a planet in which we have been living beyond its ecological capacity to support, much less sustain indefinitely, our levels of technology, consumption, and waste since the 1980s, there is no way to get back that planet that we have ravaged so voraciously.

BUT – no matter the level of crisis we move into (and that is the part still up to us – just how bad it’s going to get), what we will have all along the way is the opportunity to create radically new ways of living appropriate to the crisis, commensurate with the crisis. We will be facing a steep learning (or re-learning) curve on how to be a species within a living planet once again, to re-find our place as the Earth is no longer able to support us as it did, as it sheds perhaps much of the life it created in this evolutionary epoch (including many of this species), as its various dynamics and energies go about finding a new equilibrium, a process that will take perhaps thousands of years – maybe longer.

In the midst of all this, we will really be faced with the meaning of life, that perennial human question. But if we don’t find the courage and the grace and the resilience within ourselves and our communities to move forward like this, then, while McPherson is grossly wrong about our imminent demise, that demise will be in our future somewhere down the road, a short road in evolutionary time.

Where this narrative goes from here rests largely in the decisions we make in the coming years – not decades – years. Can we finally come together and make this work (the work of ‘new creation’, inclusive, creative, diverse, and beautiful) the reason for getting out of bed in the morning? Trust me, it will be the most important work humans ever done.

The only one we know...

The only one we know…

Alice Walker – “We Have a Beautiful Mother” – from Jennifer Berezan’s magnificent, Praises for the World

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