Saturday, May 24, 2014

Is it all over except the collapse?

Life on Earth (capitalized) as we know it is coming to an end and there is now nothing we can do to reverse the effects of overpopulation, overuse of fossil fuels, massive CO2 emissions, deforestation, the filing of marshes, destruction of wetlands, overbuilding, and runoff from farms and factories. The latest American climate change report issues in May of 2014 notes that many of the largest US airports will be flooded, Miami is already seeing sea level bubble up from the sewer system flooding parts of south Florida, drought in some parts and more serious rain in North East, and devastating forest fires are in our future.

All symbolic gestures notwithstanding the ship of Earth is set on an irreversible course.

The ice caps and glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, sea temperatures are hotter, ocean acidity rising dramatically, and conditions for much more severe weather phenomena including floods, droughts, and hurricanes becoming more favorable every year.

Faced with this gloomy scenario the best thing to do is find a nice farm somewhere green and remote, become self sufficient, go off the grid, raise a family with the least dependence on the modern services and products, live off the land, and wait for the collapse.

Surprisingly these scenarios come from the thinking of Paul Kingsnorth a long active and passionate environmentalist from England. Daniel Smith wrote an interesting profile of the evolution of Kingsnorth’s thinking in the New York Times Magazine and it has caused quite a stir. He is a former deputy-editor of The Ecologist and a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project.  “The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.” Mostly Dark Mountain adherents no longer believe that the current path of humanity is viable, acceptable, and sustainable.

The also observe that hybrid cars, wind energy, LED lights, not using paper, “saving trees”, and recycling are all silly. The scale of the problem is so disproportionately huge compared to these baby steps we’ve taken that there is no discernible change in the downward trend line. And, most of the Prius drivers also take extended vacations on jet planes to Africa, Latin America, and Asia. I know some passionate environmentalists who climb Mt Kilimanjaro and hit the Galapagos real hard with all the ecological damage that involves.

Giving up is just not the way of the modern, rational, and scientifically empowered. It certainly runs totally counter to everything that academics believe since the university is by definition the place where solutions are found. And let’s face it it’s just plain un-American to give up!

Most surprising where the responses to Smith’s article as compiled by the New York Times.

Eight percent argued that people have been predicting the end of the world for a long time and we will be fine. Another eight percent believe that population control is the answer. Eleven percent believe humans will become extinct but Earth will go on without us. A significant 27% think Kingsnorth is “irresponsible” and argue that we can still save the planet. But a whopping 46% agree with Kingsnorth – we humans are doomed.

I recently had extended conversations with several world respected scientists who to my surprise and dismay shared most of the pessimism about how much progress we have made. One problem is that we cannot conserve and restore ecosystems unless the underlying conditions that threaten them are benign. Think Tigers, Rhino’s and Elephants. In spite of the fact that we seem them shrinking in numbers every day we have made no progress in slowing the encroachment on their habitat nor have we presented a robust and credible deterrent to the poachers who don’t fear the limp enforcement that has been put in place. In those cases we are too weak and too cowardly to do what would need to be done to stop poaching in its tracks.

We see coral reefs wilting and bleaching from pollution, runoff from construction on shore, warming oceans, divers, fishermen and souvenir hunters. Meek limitations on all those activities have no measurable effect. In response we try to grow coral in laboratories to reseed reefs. BUT, the conditions that require human intervention in the first place are still present so how do expect the new reef “seedlings” to survive?

 It seems to me that the biggest problem we face is our faith in science as the solution when in fact politics and policy would in almost every case stop and reverse the destructive trends. We can research the condition of coral reefs to learn more about them and find strategies for perhaps strengthening the reef and make it more resistant to the assault. However if we had bold and successful public policies enacted and enforced with vigor we could slow, stop and reverse all those bad practices that have gotten us into this terrible mess.

I’m going to write Mr. Kingsnorth and encourage him to go to graduate school, get a degree in public policy. I’m pretty sure that the battle to save planet Earth can be found in what we political scientists have to offer. It’s not too late.

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