Thursday, December 11, 2008

Decision Time: Change or Collapse?

I wrote the following as an Op-ed piece for the NY Times. They declined to print it. Hmm, why am I not surprised? Don't want people thinking that their advertisers don't actually have anything worth buying? Or becoming aware that there might be an alternative to economic cannibalism that will not only improve their lot in life, but act as an effective response to global environmental crises? Or that it points out that our new Emperor has no clothes either? Or am I just not up to the Times' writing standards? Anyway...

Decision Time: Change or Collapse?

A recent editorial in the NY Times
"Save the Economy, and the Planet" rightly points out that the financial crisis is not a sufficient excuse to put off taking the necessary steps to deal with the global warming crisis. Indeed, putting it off will greatly aggravate both the financial and planetary crises, as national-level reports from around the world are showing.

However, President-elect Barack Obama seems content for his proposals to apply little pressure to either of these crises while primarily ensuring the protection of business as usual. His grand proposal to institute change consists of doing, according to the Times, "the minimum necessary to...avoid the worst consequences of global warming."

This is leadership?

Don't put any more effort into what many are calling the greatest crisis to ever face humanity and civilization (sometimes someone will bother mentioning the planet in an off-hand kind of way as well) than we absolutely have to, and let's just suck it up and learn to tolerate all the intermediate negative consequences. That is, only if this "plan" of action even comes close to delivering the expected results.

This isn't even change.

The increasingly common political goal of 80% greenhouse gas reductions by 2050, while well-intentioned and heading in the proper direction, is based on evidence that is at least 5 years out of date. It assumes the planet can handle 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentrations, when the effects of the 385 ppm that we already have today is not only pushing the environment into irreversible tipping points, but these are occurring many times faster than the climate models have been predicting.

This is the difference between modeling and reality. And clearly points out why the denialists should be cautious in using this in the attempt to substantiate their claims about a so-called global warming "agenda" or in their attempts to create an atmosphere of public doubt over the existence of a crisis due to modeling inaccuracy or errors. The only thing that truly matters in the case of global warming is the reality we're actually experiencing.

The actual minimum reduction thought to be required is 90% below 1990 levels by 2030. It's not expected that even this will keep us from all the tipping points -- the uncertainty is over which one will be first. Things are going to change, but these aren't going to be the changes we heard mentioned on the campaign trail by about anyone other than the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney. The Obama plan is to get the US back to 1990 levels by 2020, and this after we've experienced a rise of 14 percent since 1990. This simply won't be sufficient. Anthropogenic global warming was well underway before 1990. Do the math; it's elementary school level.

If Obama really wants to pursue a comprehensive approach, which he says he does, he must find the courage to start addressing the root causes of the global warming crisis. These causes are directly tied to the unsustainability of industrial and financial growth; the fetishization of these concepts in the creation of what can most kindly be called shallow social status; and the belief that we can treat our only planet -- our sole life support system -- as if it is both an infinite supply of resources and a bottomless pit for waste.

It can, however, be quite easily shown, from a number of different perspectives, that neither materialism nor growth actually increase quality of life beyond a certain level, and even then only for a segment of the population. These concepts are inherently unsustainable and often unfulfilling even in the short-term. And this is even in spite of Industrial culture spending much time and energy trying to convince people that increasing their material standard of living is an acceptable substitute for the lives they really do want and are so desperately missing.

This brings us directly and inescapably to what must become the fundamental question for our times: Which is more important, profit and power, or people and planet? If after deep soul searching and, just as importantly, rational analysis, you find yourself answering in the affirmative for the latter, it's time to start directing President-elect Obama toward evaluating a systemic alternative to business as usual instead of irrationally trying to protect it.

From a sustainability standpoint, protecting the growth status quo will prove to be a futile attempt anyway. We're way too far into the realm of ecological overshoot. Fisheries depletion, deforestation, top soil loss, diminishing freshwater, dwindling energy supplies, and increasing overall biospheric toxicity and its effects on declining ecosystem and species health are all measurable manifestations of this fact.

One well-researched alternative that is beginning to be put into practice in communities around the world is relocalization, which the popular Transition Towns movement in the UK is based upon. Relocalization is a systemic process to create a sustainable future based on ecological wisdom, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy. It seeks to move production of food, energy and goods closer to the point of consumption, and create thriving local economies that exhibit many of the principles of steady-state economics as developed by former World Bank senior economist Herman Daly -- basically, better instead of bigger.

A fundamental aspect of this process entails reconnecting our lives to the natural world, which includes to each other and our communities. This entails developing lifestyles, organizations, and communities from the models and metaphors provided by the natural systems principles which increase diversity and the opportunities for the mutually supportive relationships any sustainable ecosystem requires to be healthy, vibrant and -- most importantly in crafting the urgent response necessary to today's looming crises -- resilient.

It really just depends on making new choices, based on a new understanding of the human role within the web of life. This is the change we need to both see from our elected representatives and participate in ourselves.


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