Archive for category Environment
A short blog entry tonight, reflecting on life in general.
Yesterday morning my two sons (8 and 5) were bored and we decided to get on our mud boots and take a hike. It was glorious! Our backyard opens right into the woods and trails leading to a river (which by mid-summer becomes more like a creek). Most of the trails are still covered with snow, but the melting streams of water heading down to the river, the animal tracks, and my sons’ joy in exploring nature was exhilarating. We were out nearly two hours before trekking back home.
I’ve also been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality. You can find a good review by clicking here. The book is about the possibility of multiple universes (or a “multiverse,”) which is a very active field in theoretical physics. It further removes humans from the center of reality, but also poses some paradoxes and quandries that I find thoroughly enjoyable. It also puts life in context — the political and personal dramas of the day are real, but ultimately part of something far greater.
My own favorite is the idea of the holographic multiverse. To be honest, I like it because it fits my own philosophy on the nature of reality almost like a glove. It has parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave, and empiricist philosophers like Bishop Berkeley (who had a Star Trek character named after him). Given the apparent ‘nothingness’ of reality once you dig down deep into subatomic particles, and the paradoxes and apparent contradictions of quantum physics, this kind of theory has the potential to clear that up. Reality’s paradoxes and contradictions come from the fact we take the experience of reality, which is an illusion interpreted by our senses, as being the nature of reality.
I could speculate more on what this might mean (and will likely do so in future blog entries), but at base it convinces me that it is too easy to get caught up in the “stuff” of the world or the “common sense” of the culture we are born into. We can get hypnotized to follow a myriad of suggestions thrown our way about what the world is, what we ought to do, what is normal, and what life is all about. Maybe the key in life is to look for what has meaning beyond the external stuff of the world. Connections with people, concern for the emotional state of others, putting spirit and soul ahead of power and goals.
And somehow, on a warm spring day as the snow melts, kids laugh and we witness nature shifting to a new season, I can’t help but think that despite all the insanity, pain and hatred in the world, we can enjoy a very beautiful and meaningful existence.
“You tried to be a hero, commit the perfect crime
but the dollar got you dancing and you’re running out of time.
You’re messin’ up the water, You’re rolling in the wine
You’re poisoning your body, You’re poisoning your mind
You gave me coca-cola, You said it tasted good
You watch the television, It tells you that you should.
How can you live in this way? You must have something to say.
There must be more to this life. It’s time we did something right.
Child of Vision, won’t you listen?
Find yourself a new ambition.”
(From “Child of Vision,” Supertramp LP “Breakfast in America”)
I’m in the process of reading All the Devil Are Here by McLean and Nocera, giving a detailed story of the financial crisis 30 years in the making. They don’t cover all our problems, obviously — the housing bubble and mortgage backed securities fiasco was only part of the debt driven hyper-consumption societal imbalance we experienced, or perhaps are still experiencing. But it details the unholy link between big money and big government, and how neither political party can blame the other for situations they each championed.
I also watched the documentary Food, Inc. last night. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, but it clarified the way in which big agri-business is creating an inhumane food chain that mass produces unhealthy and potentially unsafe food, while generating huge profits. The farmers who produce the food are not the romantic farmers of my great grandparent’s years, but workers treated more like fast food or even sweat shop employees than individuals of value. Companies like Monsanto and ADM achieved their dominance the same way Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae did – government connections and the brute power of massive financial resources. If you can lobby Congress, sue critics, and buy off competitors, you can control the market. Their power is near dictatorial, yet they claim it’s just success in a free market.
And, of course, in both cases ideological capitalists, blind to the poisonous power of such mega-conglomerates, defend business and call any effort to regulate and break up such massive empires “socialist.” Many on the right have been fooled by ideological bait and switch — it’s either big government or big business, if you don’t like socialism then champion those businesses that claim free market principles. In reality the two are lock step together, and it’s big money that calls the shots. If government weakens, big money strengthens. We’re in a country where large corporations shape our life style through advertising, lobbying, governmental influence, and power over the market place. From the WTO to the Chamber of Commerce, big money cynically claims free market principles while doing everything they can to use their power to stack the deck in their favor. Fooled by the “fair and balanced you decide” dualist mentality of US pundits (it’s either business or government, you gotta choose one!), Americans harmed by this abuse of power laud and defend these companies. Neither party stands up to them.
I was doing my morning step machine work out, listening to Supertramp, and had these issues in mind as I pondered the final song of on the Breakfast in America LP, penned by Roger Hodgson. America is a child of vision. The founders had in mind a democratic country, “conceived in liberty and dedicated the proposition that all men are created equal.” Respecting each others inalienable rights, we were to build a new society, a “shining city on a hill” where the benefits of liberty would call others to join us.
We were still shaped by the European biases that would lead to the slaughter of native tribes. We had to work to overcome the inequalities suffered by blacks, who were slaves for nearly 80 years after the country was founded, and women, who couldn’t vote for the first 130 years. Yet even as the past is full of moral failure, the vision is pure. As Anne Marie Slaughter put it in her book The Idea that is America, the values of liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, democracy and faith have guided the building of the US. America is an aspiration more than a place. We’ve worked hard to try to get closer to those ideals and we have a long way to go, but the only failure would be to lose sight of that vision.
Yet perhaps we are. Perhaps we’ve met one challenge that is hard to overcome, and which can lead us to stray from our values: prosperity. Prosperity seems to be a good thing, every politician wants to promise it, and right now the public is demanding that politicians “fix” the economy so we can go back to the hyper-consumption of a few years ago. Yet we are “poisoning our body” with mass produced and engineered food, which has led to an obesity epidemic and unbelievable growth of diabetes cases. We’re “poisoning our mind” as advertisers and propagandists manipulate through emotion, leading to a belief that consumption creates meaning, and success in life is based on what we own. Political pundits manipulate emotion to create a left vs. right jihadist mentality, in which the real issues and problems take a backseat to the desire to see one “team” beat the other.
By “rolling in the wine,” we become blind to the damage being done. We’re high on consumption, and become addicted to “something for nothing,” available through cheap credit and get rich quick schemes like stock bubbles and flipping real estate. Meanwhile we are poisoning our water, and our planet, setting up environmental disasters for the future. But of course the same big money that shoots down critics of agri-business or financial institutions obfuscates on the environment, accuses scientists of being too “political” and manages to manipulate the debate and use ideology to prevent action from being taken. Profit today, who cares about tomorrow? We consume because advertisers tell us that we should, consumption has become the measure of who we are, our identity.
But the dollar got you dancing, and you’re running out of time…
The current recession is real and deep. There are threats to our environment, and as noted yesterday, the days of cheap oil may be nearing an end. As a society we’re becoming unhealthy, eating poorly, and driving up medical costs. Psychologically the consumerist mentality eats away at our sense of well being and contentment; it induces stress, anxiety and depression. We are running out of time.
How can you live in this way? You must have something to say.
There must be more to this life. It’s time we did something right.
Child of Vision, won’t you listen?
Find yourself a new ambition.
Now a days its trendy to be skeptical of the long term future of the EU or the Euro. A crisis in Greece followed by a crisis in Ireland, whispers about possible financial contagion to Spain, Portugal and possibly Italy, and it appears the Euro is wobbling. Alarmist (and wrong headed) squeals about “Eurarabia” and the spread of Islam, demographic trends that show an aging European society, and soon gloom and doomsayers are pronouncing Europe all be done for. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some of these doomsayers are the usual suspects wanting Europe to fail. British Euroskeptics have been seeing conspiracies and catastrophes for decades, and many on the American right have been predicting that the “welfare state” mentality in Europe will doom it. During the heady real estate bubble, Americans gloated that we had found the secret to long term economic growth — deregulation and limited government — and that the rapidly growing low unemployment economy of the 00’s was proof.
In fact, Eurocritics have gotten so used to assuming that Europe was in decline and America remained the indispensable power that despite the recent financial collapse and US debacle in Iraq, many cling to that illusion. The reality is that not only is Europe not only still viable, but it may be on the verge of returning to the role as the leading world region. The 21st century may be Europe’s century.
There are two primary reasons why Europe has positioned itself well for the next century: 1) a realistic understanding of the problems they face; and 2) a principled approach to globalization at moves away from myopic self-interest.
The issue of global climate change is one where these two come together and have already yielded substantial benefits for EU states. First, unlike in the US, the discussion about climate change has not been hijacked by a well funded propaganda machine designed to denigrate, belittle and attack those wanting to take action. Rather, the climate change scientists are being listened to, the evidence assessed, and they recognize that while there is always uncertainty, the risks are so great and the evidence so substantial that it would be irrational to do nothing, or wish the problem away.
In the US, unfortunately, the issue has become ideological, with many people equating support for action on global warming as a “left wing socialist agenda.” Scientists are accused of graft, supposedly cooking data in exchange for government grants. Emotive attacks and derision, repeated on a variety of media fronts, have moved the US public away from an honest consideration of the science to emotion over the politics of the issue.
In 1992 at the Rio Summit, the Climate Change Convention was signed, pledging that developed states would reduce their carbon emissions to 1990 levels. The process was further refined by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to that agreement, which went into force in 2005. The US refused to participate. The result: The EU achieved the desired result, reducing emissions to below 1990 levels. To be sure, the fact that the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall was chosen helped, but nonetheless the rise in technology and the effectiveness of the effort to reduce emissions is astounding. It also provides proof that this can be done without hurting the economy.
In fact, by sticking to realism (and principle) the EU has positioned itself for a major economic advantage in the fields of alternate energy and anti-pollution technology. These are the fields most likely to radically increase in demand in the coming decades, especially as China tries to switch towards alternative fuels and cleaner burning of coal. EU companies are at the forefront of this new technology, and will likely profit handsomely from the Chinese market alone.
Meanwhile in the US, not only have carbon emissions increased by 20% since 1990, but we’re only now starting to pick up the pace again on alternative energy. With the EU pushing for a decrease of 30% of carbon emissions by 2020 (regardless of what others do), and governments very involved in supporting R&D, the chances are very good that the EU will maintain and even expand its lead in this important market.
That’s another point of realism: not letting ideology guide policy. Many Americans are still enamored with the idea of “the free market does things right,” a now rather discredited ideology given the costs of not regulating the financial sector (see Greenspan’s confession). Still, it’s a seductive and simple ideology, and speaks to traditional American dislike of government rules and bureaucracy. The problem, of course, is that markets respond to demand now, based on current conditions. Humans have the capacity to study and understand trends for the future, including the likelihood of increased oil prices and the danger of another energy crisis.
The Europeans recognize that, and work with markets (not against them) to prepare for a different kind of future. The market won’t do this on its own, at least not at a pace that will give the EU a comparative advantage when the change comes. A pragmatic embrace of a government efforts to adjust the market now will likely pay large dividends.
On issues of human rights and efforts to support development, the EU has a mixed, but generally solid record. On environmental issues, the EU is a clear leader. The core principle, inherent in the EU shift away from myopic sovereign self-interest, is that working together we can solve problems and create a more just, safe and sustainable world. This embraces a role for global governance, as states and regions can reach agreement and cooperate to solve problems.
The problem in the US is delusional thinking combined with heavily funded political propaganda which manipulates public opinion to serve the interests of a moneyed elite. They use very seductive ideas (the market can do it, government is bad, there is no need to worry about global warming, if you cut taxes problems will be solved, it’s all the government’s fault, etc.) to sell a “something for nothing” solution to our difficulties. Cut taxes, cut government regulations, and everything will fix itself! OK, that oversimplifies, but we have a public increasingly out of touch with reality, driven either by ideology or apathy. Americans generally don’t realize how far and fast we’re falling behind.
The result is that slowly the US is fading as a world power. China is rising, but given the intense problems China faces, including political instability (800 million still live in poverty) and oil price increases, the EU is in a unique position to be a bridge between civilizations, reflecting a core value in cross border cooperation and putting sovereignty aside for the greater good. Muslims in Europe are modernizing, and can play a role in helping defeat extremist thinking in the Arab world. The EU also has a generally good reputation internationally, while the US is seen as being militaristic, nationalist and arrogant. This will also work in Europe’s failure.
The US can turn around this trend, but we first need to move away from myopic self-interest, we have to recognize that sovereignty in the age of globalization means we have to cooperate and be willing to build and participate in international law, and we have to reject simplistic ideology and emotive politicization of issues. We can do this, but will we?
Humans are imperfect, machines break down, mistakes get made, and thus throughout human history we’ve had disasters. They range from Chernobyl to knocking over your coffee by standing up carelessly, but they happen.
The current oil spill that is damaging the Gulf Coast and could damage much of the eastern seaboard depending on when they can stop the flow of oil into the sea is in and of itself not an argument against off shore oil exploration. The fact is that one should never support anything without taking into account the risk inherent in that action.
There is risk in everything. Later this month I’m traveling to Europe with students. I make that decision knowing that there is a risk that something will happen and I could die, leaving two young children behind. Of course, that risk is incurred every time I drive anywhere — and when I drive with the children on board, I’m putting their lives at risk.
According to a rational actor model, we should run a risk/cost-benefit analysis every time we undertake an action. The probability of a fatal car crash en route to a family hike is extremely low, the benefits of family time, the kids hiking, and the pleasure of the event is of high probability and value, therefore we choose to undertake the risk in order to get the benefit. Indeed, if one spent all of life avoiding risk, in the end death still wins, so what was the point of living?
We’re not rational actors though. We don’t usually think about the risk of the actions we take, so often people over-react when the risk becomes evident. The Simpsons parodied this aspect of human nature skillfully in their first season, as Homer becomes safety officer and seeks to try to remove all risk from Springfield life. The result was a kind of totalitarian hellhole where nothing was allowed so all could be safe. I’ve also discussed the positive correlation between freedom and risk — the more you try to minimize risk, the more you risk minimizing freedom. (I couldn’t resist that wording — think it through!)
So if we think about oil production, nuclear energy, coal burning, and other forms of energy, we should not react from the gut — be it “I like to drive an SUV so drill, baby, drill” or “look at the birds covered with oil, shut down the rigs!” We need to think about the risks, probabilities, and benefits of the activities.
Take oil. Oil prices are over $85 a barrel, a price that could imperil the global recovery. In fact, as the economy revives, higher oil prices could push us back into recession. So one benefit of drilling off shore is that it helps the global economy. If we drift into recession due to high oil prices hundreds of millions of people world wide could have their quality of life decreased, face unemployment, and suffer untold psychological and sociological difficulties. This could even lead to war and unrest, especially in poor, unstable regions of the world.
Moreover, given the amount of oil pumped daily from these rigs, the risk of a major spill happening is low. But as we see, the consequences can be immense, and low risk is not the same as no risk. Low risk events happen all the time. There is also the risk of global climate change if we maintain an oil based economy. Even those who are not convinced that the earth is warming because of carbon fuels have to admit that they might be wrong — there is a risk there, even if we disagree on how to assess the level of risk. How can one take that into account vis-a-vis economic dangers and alternatives?
One alternate to oil is nuclear energy, but there the same issue emerges. Nuclear energy done right has a low risk of catastrophe. But when not done right (like Chernobyl) the risk is much higher, and again — low risk does not mean no risk. Nuclear energy doesn’t contribute to global warming, however, and may be a way to relieve economic pressure, as well as to remove the economic and political power oil provides to a few dictatorships. Wind power also provides benefits, and has fewer risks. Indeed, many people oppose it more for aesthetic reasons (those turbines make the hills look ugly!) than dangers entailed. Go on through the list of potential energy alternatives, and there is always a mix of costs, benefits, and risks.
So what to make of all of this? First, there is a reason these issues have such diverse perspectives — there is uncertainty about the nature of the risk and benefits at play, and people have different starting priorities. Obviously someone with oil lapping up on their beach side property will see the issue of potential oil spills in a different light than those of us living far from the ocean. Anyone who takes dogmatic positions with an air of certainty is likely wrong. Second, we can’t avoid risk. Whatever we choose, there is a potential downside, ranging from a world depression that causes war and famine, to catastrophic global warming that causes war and famine.
To me the rational thing to do is accept a variety of risks in order to try to avoid the most horrible outcomes. I don’t know if not drilling more off shore or not building nuclear plants means global depression, but I’m willing to accept the risk of an oil spill or even a nuclear accident (albeit a slight risk) to make global depression as unlikely as possible. I don’t know for sure if our carbon fuel economy is going to cause catastrophic global warming, but I’m willing to accept the risks of nuclear energy to try to minimize that. An easier call is to invest heavily in alternate energy sources — this will benefit us even if global warming fears or misguided.
So, avoiding dogmatic positions, I think we should continue offshore oil exploration for short term economic benefit, even as we work towards longer term alternatives. I think nuclear energy is a rational way to deal with short term energy issues, even as we try to work on developing economically feasible and safe long term alternatives. The possibility of catastrophic global warming, along with the political and economic difficulties inherent in relying on oil make it rationale to work towards rapidly shifting our energy economy to one based on alternatives to oil. Finally, the dangers inherent in all of these convince me that we should try to move away from a culture based primarily on consumption and materialism, to one that recognizes value in community and life experience.
But whatever one supports, it should be done with eyes wide open. If you advocate for nuclear energy, you can’t say a nuclear catastrophe is impossible. If you advocate to stop off shore oil drilling, you can’t say global unrest and depression is impossible. And if you think you can personally assess precisely what the risk levels are as a citizen getting all your information from the media or internet, then I believe you over estimate your knowledge. Even the experts are unsure and disagree. That means any path we choose is risky, but that’s OK — life is about risk!
This was a good movie weekend. On New Year’s Day we took the kids to see The Frog and the Princess. It was a wonderful Disney children’s film, with a positive message, good music, and fun. Nothing political or controversial, just one of the better Disney films. But yesterday we (sans kids) braved a significant snow storm (20 or so inches) to see Avatar. It was worth it.
I was skeptical at first. I have never liked 3-D movies or other-worldly ‘fantasy’ films. Lord of the Rings was utterly forgettable to me. However, the 3-D effects were so woven into the story that you could literally forget you had the glasses on. It didn’t have the gimmicky 3D tricks; instead, I felt transported into the beautiful, exotic, and intriguing world of Pandora. The beauty of the film cannot be understated – James Cameron created a world that was both delightful and exotic, I would watch it again for that alone.
The story, however, was both timely and powerful. Spoiler alert: do not read further if you do not want to know details of the movie. Pandora appears to be a moon of Jupiter, able to support life. It is 2154, and the earth is in dire straights. From the dialogue one hears that there have been wars in Nigeria, Venezuela and elsewhere, as apparently there has been a fight for oil and resources. Pandora has a vastly sought after mineral, oddly named Unobtanium, which will earn the corporation mining it huge amounts of money — and perhaps save the earth from an energy crisis that will cause collapse. A private corporation with hired “security” — mostly former military people — are there to protect the mining operation. Alas, a primitive native tribe lives right where the mining is supposed to occur. They refuse to leave, as the Earth folk have nothing of value to them.
This could be Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars. As a sop to the scientists, there is an effort to reach out to the natives and bribe them to leave their hometree (a huge mega-tree). To make communication easier “Avatars” are created, genetically engineered bodies which allow the humans to take the form of the natives, transferring brain functions from their own body (held in a coffin like chamber) to the Avatar. The hero, an ex-marine there only because his scientist twin brother was killed and the Avatar is built around an individual’s genetic code, is to provide security for the scientists. On his first mission he gets separated and lost, only to be rescued by a native who has a sign not to kill this “dream walker.”
I won’t go into much more detail. The hero Jake (who in his human body has lost the use of his legs) learns the ways of the natives and realizes that attacking them would be an act of evil. Yet before he realized this, he had given very helpful information to the military. The Navi accept him, and after learning their language and ways, initiate him into their clan. But the military is ready to strike, and he has to somehow defeat a high tech military power. The messages that stick out to me, however, go beyond the plot:
1) We killed our mother. In a poignant scene of prayer at the spirit-tree, Jake in his Navi body asks for help in defeating the Earth forces. He realizes that Pandora is a web of life, and in describing the forces about to attack he says “we killed our mother.” We separated ourselves from nature and from our connections to each other, replacing it with cold, rational, materialist greed. From the corporate geek heading the operation to the military Colonel who sees the Navi as not much more than blue monkeys, it’s clear who is evil and who is good. This was reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, but more poignant in that it looked much like the US in Iraq or Afghanistan, not some past incident we can look back on and say, “well, that was a past generation.”
2) The value of life. The Navi are discounted by the Earth people because they lack technology. The Navi live off the land, and by all accounts are primitive. Yet they value all life in a deep, spiritual way. Their beliefs are laughed at — such silly naive creatures, believing in a deity! When the hero and the scientists try to stop the military they are derided as tree huggers, and monkey lovers. Think about how we in the US (and Europe during colonial times) looked at other peoples. Towel heads. Primitives. Different. Savage. Their lives are worth less than ours because we have better technology and material wealth. We think nothing of wars to secure our “way of life.” How many times have people privately admitted that to protect our “way of life” (read: material prosperity) it is worth wars that kill countless innocents and destroy cultures overseas. By abstracting others into something sub-human because they aren’t like us, we rationalize evil. They are different. We need their unobtanium (or oil) and thus we can intervene and even destroy their culture.
3. How does it feel to betray your race? The Colonel asks that question as he confronts Jake as Navi. Jake did betray his race — he is condemning earth to more problems by protecting the Navi. A higher good exists than loyalty to race — or nation. Just as Germans who worked against the Nazis in WWII were indeed traitors to their country, they were nonetheless doing what is right. There is no dishonor in treason if your country is engaged in evil, and you are standing for a higher principle. When the Navi are victorious the audience cheered. When the film ended there was applause — rare these days in movie theaters. The film caused people to root against what was clearly an American military operation in favor of a strange and exotic native race. In a vivid and simple manner the film portrayed an undeniable truth: good and evil do not depend on nation or race.
The moral of the film is a time honored one of myths throughout history. The intriguing relationships and interactions also fit the model of a mythic good vs. evil story, much like Star Wars. I left the theater with emotions I’ve only experienced a couple times. When I watched Star Wars in 1977, I left feeling like I had seen something amazing — a movie unlike any I had seen before. When on January 17, 1991 I watched Dances With Wolves, the day after Operation Desert Storm began in Iraq, I felt I had seen a film with one of the most powerful moral messages imaginable, perfect for that time. This was a mix of both. The beauty of Pandora, the suspense in a nonetheless predictable story line, the powerful moral message, brought home in a way where there was a clear sense of good and evil, transcending nationalism, moral relativism, and self-interest, all make this one of the best movies of all time.
And now, as we see our environmental problems grow, increasing wars over resources, a tendency to put “stuff” over people, and a loss of connection with nature and the spiritual side of life, this movie is very timely. In our western haste to declare our individualism, we forget that no one is truly an autonomous independent individual, we are all connected, our capacities, opportunities and core beliefs come from our culture and environment. As a culture, we seem to have fogotten that. I’m sure the right wing will mock it’s environmental message and how it gets audiences to root against the US military (albeit more a private Blackwater type group) during a so-called “time of war” here. But as in the film, our wars now are wars are imperialistic, as we arrogantly try to alter other cultures for our own benefit.
Yesterday President Obama and his family saw the film while on vacation in Hawaii. I can only hope that he ponders the moral of the film as he decides how to handle the military and economic problems facing us. We don’t need a better military plan or new economic stimulus. We need a sense of spiritual renewal. Jimmy Carter called for that, but we never acted on it. A movie is only entertainment, but it also reflects and impacts our culture. I hope it makes people think a little about the hear and now, even as they enjoy a story about a mythical future.
Right now about 41% of the planet is suffering drought, an increase of about 10-15% since 1990. Given current trends in global climate change, the UN is warning that up to 70% of the planet could be in drought by 2025, potentially creating a global crisis of unprecedented proportions. So what does this mean?
First, let’s be clear on one thing. The earth is warming. Click the following image: earth temperature. Note that despite spiky results (e.g., 1997 was an especially hot year, leading to a huge spike and then drop, though now our ‘normal’ result is about at the level of that spike), there is consistent warming on average. Note that this does not correspond to sun spots but corresponds almost exactly to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Here is a short video. Climate scientists are overwhelmingly convinced that global warming is real, and humans are a partial and probably major cause. Those who dispute that are almost always driven by politics and ideology, not science. Not that there aren’t scientific detractors — science can and should have doubters of major theories, including the big bang, evolution, and quantum physics. For most, though, the science is as clear for this issue as it is for the link between cigarettes and lung cancer (which I’m sure also still has some doubters). Nothing in science is ever absolutely proven.
While I hope the successor treaty to Kyoto, which will start being negotiated in Copenhagen in December, will include the US and a goal of lowering CO2 to 350 parts per million, the reality is that anything we do now is only going to have a significant impact decades from now. I don’t think we can prevent the crisis, we can just try to mitigate it. So while the fight to do something to fight climate change is worthwhile, this blog entry is focusing on what is likely to happen anyway, and what it means for us.
First, it is probable that we in the industrialized West will avoid the worst fates. In South America, Africa and parts of Asia a mix of intense coastal weather and internal droughts could lead to extreme hunger and famine. This will lead to wars, migration, and an increase in terrorism. Future terrorism will likely expand to be general “poor vs. the rich” with economic targets. That’s already happening on the Niger delta, as western oil companies are targeted to protest the way oil revenues go to the elites in Nigeria but aren’t shared with the people living where the oil is pumped. They deal with intense poverty and environmental devastation. This kind of conflict could expand, threatening supplies of minerals and other materials the West needs.
So how will this affect us in the West? First, expect a significantly decreased standard of living. Unrest in the third world will disrupt commodity markets and lead to a general global slow down. Second, migratory pressures from South America to the US, and Africa to the EU, will lead the industrialized states to either have to open their borders and try to help as many people as possible, or to become something of a fortress, trying to protect what they have. Almost nobody thinks the former option will be chosen.
So if the EU and the US become increasingly isolated and worried about migrations, the economic slowdown will lead to localization, energy shortages, and an increased need for self-sufficiency. The US agricultural belt itself will produce less. As people decide that the crisis is so severe that they need to change practices to try to turn around climate change, there will be a shift to more sustainable agricultural practices. Meat will be limited in supply and more costly. All this is good for the long run, but will certainly end the “everything in the world you want at the local supermarket at affordable prices” era. In the future we will have limited and seasonal choices.
Canada could potentially benefit from having greater cropland available, though depending on what happens with the ocean currents, it could be that Northeast US and Canada, as well as Western Europe, will get colder rather than warmer (or the warming may be mitigated). Katrina like storms will be more numerous world wide, many coastal cities may find themselves losing large amounts of people, and be unable to rebuild afterwards due to a weakened economy.
The most dangerous effect we’ll experience is disease. Global disease threats don’t respect borders, and while the bodies of third world folk may be more vulnerable due to malnutrition, that often doesn’t matter for severe diseases. Ultimately the mix of disease, famine and war will yield a de-population of the planet. That will dramatically reduce CO2 output, and a more livable climate may emerge (long after we’re dead). Our children will dream less about traveling the planet than making sure they have supplies for the next year. They’ll rediscover the skills of gardening, hunting, and practical repair work. Communities will come closer together, realizing they have to cooperate to both survive, and to guard against those who would exploit the situation.
We’ll follow the news on the internet still, read about distant famines, and know that there is nothing we really can do to help. There will be ideas and plans on how to save people, to use technology to mitigate the worst consequences, and explore different options. Those with a profound faith in technology might think this will be enough to prevent the worst from happening. Given the state of current technology, I think that would be a very optimistic faith to hold on to! By 2100 the international system of sovereign states as we know it will cease to exist. Some discrete borders will survive, but in the US and the EU politics will be localized as bureaucratic authority is decentralized, while in other areas all will be local.
A century from now people will likely look back at the 21st century as a constant crisis, with optimism that the lessons learned will allow them to build a sustainable future. They’ll see the world wars and environmental degradation of the 200 years before as the result of a culture that was myopic, materialist, and disconnected from human ethics and the importance of maintaining the environment. They’ll wonder why we lived as we do, thinking we were deluded and naive, caught up in a materialist fantasy.
For those who doubt global warming, or human involvement in it, the above may seem wild speculation. I respect that. But I ask you to investigate the science. Ask if your disbelief is driven by politics and ideology, or by a cold, rational regard for the data. Avoid partisan sites designed to debunk or push forward views on global warming. Look for scientific sites and discussions. I’ve seen neither Al Gore’s movie nor the “anti” responses. Those are more political than scientific. Look and consider the science. If your disbelief is driven by a dislike of laws forcing companies to comply with regulations, separate that out from global warming. One can believe it exists and that humans are a partial cause without wanting a big government solution. What to do is a different question than “what is.”
Finally, now is the time I think all of us can start reconsidering how we live, what our values are, and how connected we are to our community. We may need to get closer to our neighbors sooner than we realize, we may need to change our life styles and reconsider our values. We may be at the end of the era of materialist decadence (for the industrialized West). And, of course, we can be forgiven if we want to enjoy the material fruits of this lifestyle a little bit before it goes away.
I hope my speculation is either wrong or exaggerated. For my children’s sake, I hope so! But everything I read convinces me such a scenario is very possible.