Tag Archives: climate change

The Blues

Remember that scene in Annie Hall where the young Alvy Singer is sitting in a doctor’s office with his mother? The doctor asks him why he’s depressed, why he won’t do his homework and he says “The universe is expanding.”

That’s the way I’ve been feeling lately. Maybe it’s just February—which is itself expanding this year–or maybe it’s the several hours I spent on the living room sofa last Saturday evening watching The Corporation, or maybe it’s the headlines that land on our front steps every morning (yesterday morning it was health care costs headed into the trillions, gas going up to $3.40 a gallon, and what’s being called a “Doomsday” seed vault in Norway), or maybe it’s just that everything seems to be falling apart a lot faster than anyone expected or can respond to.

Usually I feel pretty hopeful about the world. Maybe not about the way the world is going right now, but about the resilience of the human spirit, about our innate capacity to make pleasure and happiness out of whatever materials we find at hand. But this week…I don’t know, I keep thinking about Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins exhibited by P.T. Barnum back in the 1830s. After they retired they moved to North Carolina, married a pair of sisters, bought farms and raised families. But Chang was a heavy drinker; in January of 1874 he contracted pneumonia and on the night of January 17 he died. His brother Eng, healthy up until then, died two and a half hours later. On days like this I feel like Eng, sharing vital organs and a circulatory system with a profligate twin whose habits are going to bring us both down in the end.

So let’s just go with it. Be forewarned: this is the jeremiad edition of my blog, a round up of some of the things that are making me feel bleak and hopeless and scared this week. Enjoy.

Here in the Southeastern U.S. we’re in the middle of a drought; by late last summer the lawns were parched, the fountains in the park downtown were silent, and the farmers at the farmer’s market were closing their tables early because they didn’t have enough to sell. The middle part of the drought map—the part where I live—is marked in dark red indicating “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.”

“We didn’t expect climate change, we didn’t pay attention,” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said in October as that city looked at two to four se-drought-12908.jpgmonths of water left in its reservoirs. On the other side of the country Lake Mead is drying up—mighty Lake Mead, whose waters are essential to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California. “We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Tim Barnett, one of the scientists studying the lake’s future. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.” On the other side of the world the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting because of climate change; the UN predicts that by 2030—2030!–they’ll be mostly gone. The glaciers act as a giant reservoir for the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and many of the other great rivers of India and Southeast Asia. When the glaciers go so does the water that sustains the two billion people who live along those rivers.

It’s everywhere. The U.N. estimates that by 2025 fresh drinking water will be a scarcity for two-thirds of the world’s population. Is there anything in our recent history to suggest that the remaining one third of the world—a lot of which is us–will gladly share? My guess is that not only will we not share, but that we’ll see the scarcity as another opportunity to leverage our own power. In 2000 the people of Bolivia rose up when the government sold water rights in the city of Cochabamba to a subsidiary of Bechtel and water prices increased by 35 percent. After massive protests during which several people were killed, the contract was canceled and the water operation became public again, but the problem isn’t solved: people in the poor sections of Cochabamba still pay ten times as much for their water as households in wealthy neighborhoods.

People are killing each other in Ethiopia over access to water and pastureland; in Kenya Kikuyu and Maasai are fighting over a river diversion project, and throughout northern Africa the desert is creeping southward. The bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan was set off by drought and water scarcity caused by climate change. Closer to home Tennessee and Georgia are squaring off over water, and feelings are running high in the upper Midwest as other parts of the country begin drought-driven legal maneuverings to get hold of the Great Lakes water.

It’s like some horrible metaphor: 72 percent of the planet is covered in water, over half of our own bodies is made up of water. Hunger is bad, but thirst is a thousand times worse. The French philosopher of gastronomy Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825: “The sensation of thirst is so intense, that in all tongues it is synonymous with excessive desire, and irrepressible longing: thus we thirst for gold, wealth, power, science, &c., expressions which never would have become common had men not have been athirst and aware of their vengeance. Appetite is pleasant when it does not reach the point of hunger. Thirst is not so, and as soon as we feel it we are uncomfortable and anxious. When there is no possibility of appeasing it, the state of mind is terrible.”

This isn’t oil we’re talking about. This isn’t the raw materials to make cell phones or Krugerrands or shampoo bottles. This is the essential ingredient of all life on this planet. When we use access to water to coerce or punish or harm other people, when we use access to water to enrich ourselves or to increase our own power without any regard to the effect of our actions, when we foul and disregard and dishonor water, we commit a crime against our own humanness. That’s where we’re headed. And we did it to ourselves.

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Disaster Preparedness

I think I’ve reached my limit on lists of “15 Ways You Can Stop Global Warming”. Oh sure, we’ve switched to energy saving lightbulbs at our house, we ride our bikes more often than we drive, we turn down the thermostat and put on sweaters when it’s chilly, we water the garden from the rain barrel (or at least we did back in the days when it still rained), but I don’t believe for a minute that we’re stopping, slowing or even slightly jostling global warming. I think it’s too late, and all the lightbulbs and hybrid cars in the world aren’t going to save us. We can’t consume our way out of this one.

So let’s start with this premise: a disastrous witch’s brew of climate change, peak oil, and species extinction is headed our way (read the stats below if you dare) and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We’ve promised developing countries a way of life that even the fat and happy developed countries aren’t going to be able to maintain much longer. It’s no longer simply a question of hotter summers and longer lines at the gas pumps: we’re looking at resource wars (we’ve got one over oil already; water may not be far behind), millions of displaced people, food scarcities, unemployment, disease. The list goes on.

But wait a minute, no, let’s start with this premise. The disaster has already struck and goes on striking. Right this minute the rug is being pulled out from under someone somewhere. In the last couple of decades it has happened dramatically and on a large scale in places like Russia, Cuba, Argentina, and of course New Orleans and Iraq, but it’s also happening every day to someone in the town where you live. We’re looking at a giant rip in the global safety net through which our whole familiar way of life is falling, but we shouldn’t overlook the smaller safety net failures. Some people survive the fall and some people don’t. What’s the difference?

Last night I watched a documentary called The Power of Community. It was made by a group out of Ohio called The Community Solution about what happened in Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its access to cheap oil. For much of the 1990s Cubans experience a stringent time called “The Special Period”, during which much of the Cuban way of life was transformed. Food shortages—Cuban agriculture had been heavily dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides as well as transportation–led to organic gardens, permaculture centers and localized economies. Gas shortages led to better public transportation and decentralized services; energy shortages led to the use of solar and wind power. Cubans actually came out of the Special Period with stronger communities and healthier lives.

I’m convinced that we’re headed for our own Special Period. In some ways I hope it comes as abruptly as it did in Cuba so that we can recognize it when it gets here. Emergencies often bring out the best in people; a slow and unevenly distributed decline in the quality of life often brings out the worst. In any case, I say forget the bottled water and the barbed wire. It’s time to prepare for disaster in the ways that really matter.

Get to know your neighbors and your neighborhood: When the Argentinian economy collapsed in December of 2001 spontaneous neighborhood councils took over, providing everything from daycare to soup kitchens. In New Orleans the Common Ground Collectivebegan in the days after Katrina with three volunteers and $50; while FEMA and the Red Cross were still floundering Common Ground had gathered enough volunteer support to feed people, put them on bikes, and set up a free health clinic. In Boston residents of the Dudley Street neighborhood, collapsing under the effects of poverty, red-lining and neglect, took their community into their own hands and beat the odds. The isolationist survivalist bunker mentality only works if you already have every skill and commodity your family is ever likely to need. It’s much easier to like and trust your neighbors.

Develop skills and share them: During the Depression people used to say: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” We’re living in a strange little era of endless stuff, but it’s not going to last–in what some people call the “post-carbon world” Americans will simply go back to living the way most people have lived through most of human history (and the way most people live in the world now). Richard Heinberg, who has written several books on Peak Oil has just published a new one called Peak Everything, pointing out that it’s not just oil–we’re facing a complexity of shortages including natural gas, coal, fresh water, copper, and platinum. But he goes on to outline some of the things that are nowhere near their peak: personal autonomy, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. Learning to sew your own clothes or build a compost pile or change your own spark plugs may not seem like the first step in a revolution, but it is (and don’t forget that learning to admit when you need help is a skill too…).

Redefine abundance: This gets onto shaky ground for some people—a little too spiritual. But it’s real. Dmitry Orlov, a Russian who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union has written a useful reminder about the lessons Americans can learn from that experience:

“The people who are most at risk psychologically are successful middle-aged men. When their career is suddenly over, their savings are gone, and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth is gone as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.

“If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.”

In other words, learn to value the things that money can’t buy.

I recently came across a statement by something called the E. F. Schumacher Society (“Linking, people, land and community by building local economies”): “A ‘post-carbon world’ does not have to be a dreary place,” they say. “The age we are entering will be an opportunity to celebrate our return to an acceptable level of complexity. Once again we will be able to embrace our neighbors as resources for a better community. The existing skills of the community have been ignored due to abundant energy in the form of coal and oil. Decreased energy supplies would encourage us to create local systems for fulfilling our needs. Waning fossil fuel supply would bring about the harnessing of human energy. Our labor saving devices, powered by the assumption of cheap oil, would be replaced by the skill, craftsmanship and the ingenuity of our neighbors.”

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The Scary Stuff

CLIMATE CHANGE
This one has gotten the most attention. It’s true: the weather is warmer, storms are more severe, glaciers are shrinking, droughts are more common and are lasting longer, oceans are warming up, sea levels are rising, polar ice is melting. And therefore….diseases are spreading, plants and animals are shifting their range (when they can!), forest fires are frequent and more intense. You’ve heard it before, but if you don’t believe me look at the Global Warming Map.

PEAK OIL
The first oil well was drilled in 1859; we’ve probably got another 40 years—at most–of oil left. “Peak Oil” is not that moment when the oil runs out, it’s the moment when all the usable reserves of oil have been found and the shortages begin. Some people say oil will peak in the next ten years. A lot of people say it already has. Our fossil fuel addiction has led to climate change, but withdrawing from fossil fuels without some alternate plan, and in the context of a relentless growth economy, is a recipe for economic disaster and resource wars.

SPECIES EXTINCTION
We haven’t seen a mass species extinction like this since the last big meteor impact 55 million years ago. Seriously. We shouldn’t just care because it’s sad—we should care because ecosystems are delicately calibrated Rube Goldberg machines and when one piece is lost the whole thing suffers. Some 1300 scientists from around the world recently released the four-year Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. They concluded that of 24 ecosystems identified as essential to human life, 15 are “being pushed beyond their sustainable limits,” toward a state of collapse that may be “abrupt and potentially irreversible.” Some 10 to 30 percent of mammal, bird and amphibian species are facing imminent extinction.

Sheesh!

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