Thursday, 12 July 2012

Perfect Storm

Evolution equipped us to deal with threats from dependably loathsome enemies and fearsome creatures, but not with the opaque and cumulative long-term consequences of our own technological and demographic success. As cartoonist Walt Kelly once put it, “We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.”
Deforestation, agriculture, and the combustion of fossil fuels have committed the world to a substantial and possibly rapid warming that will last for hundreds or thousands of years. Rising temperatures, whether gradual or sudden, will progressively destabilize the global climate system, causing massive droughts, more frequent storms, rising sea level, loss of many species, and shifting ecologies, but in ways that are difficult to predict with precision in a nonlinear system. These changes will likely result in scarcities of food, energy, and resources, undermining political, social, and economic stability and amplifying the effects of terrorism and conflicts between and within nations, failed states, and regions.
Action to head off the worst of what could occur is difficult because of the complexity of nonlinear systems, with large delays between cause and effect, and because of the political and economic power of fossil fuel industries to prevent corrective action that would jeopardize their profitability. Political leadership has been absent in large part because no government is presently organized to deal with the permanent emergency of climate destabilization. The effects of procrastination will fall with increasing weight on coming generations, making our role as the primary cause of worsening climate destabilization the largest moral lapse in history.
Climate destabilization is not just an issue of technology and policy, but a symptom of deeper problems rooted in our paradigms, philosophies, and popular delusions. In particular, a great deal of the conventional economic wisdom—including “neoliberalism,” and the prevailing faith in infinite economic growth—has been proved wrong in many ways and tragically so for the poorest.
The “perfect storm” ahead, in short, is caused by the convergence of steadily worsening climate change; spreading ecological disorder (e.g., deforestation, soil loss, water shortages, species loss, ocean acidification); population growth; unfair distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national and ethnic tensions; and political incapacity.
Nonetheless, we might still head off the worst of a future that Cambridge University scientist Martin Rees describes as possibly “our final hour.” We have good reason to believe that this will be the closest of close calls, but we must hope that humankind will emerge someday from “the bottleneck” chastened but improved.
From the other side of that bottleneck, the components of a transition strategy, presently hotly disputed, will appear as merely obvious and necessary. The journey to a more resilient and durable future for humanity will require, first, a strategy to overcome the political gridlock that variously afflicts all developed countries and to build an informed, energetic constituency to launch the essential steps during the transition. Early warnings about climate change began in the 1960s, but neither the international community nor any developed country has yet adopted policies adequate to the situation. In the years of lassitude and drift, we exhausted whatever margin of safety we might otherwise have had.
As a result, in the United States and elsewhere, grassroots organizations are mobilizing communities around transition strategies that address energy, food, and economic issues without assistance from central governments. Similarly, mayors, cities, regional organizations, and states are engaging with the public, colleges and universities, corporations, and faith communities in a broad effort to lower carbon emissions and build economic and social resilience. These efforts coincide with a growing recognition that security, in the full sense of the word, must be broadened to include access to food, clean water, energy, employment, health, shelter, safety, ecological health, and climate stability.
. The combination of bottom-up organizing with a larger grand strategy suggests the possibility for new political coalitions that cross worn-out national, political, ethnic, and class divisions, and for new opportunities to create an engaged and ecologically competent citizenry networked across the planet.