Sunday, June 30, 2013

An Unprecedented Emergency

The Guardian has an excerpt of Stephen Emmott's new book, Ten Billion, about the effects of overpopulation on the environment.  The situation is dire.  I haven't read the book, but in the excerpt he delineates that we're definitely in a state of unprecedented emergency.  Unfortunately he fails to offer any significantly radical ideas to follow that could actually happen to save us all.  Here's what Emmott says,
The only solution left to us is to change our behaviour, radically and globally, on every level. In short, we urgently need to consume less. A lot less. Radically less. And we need to conserve more. A lot more. To accomplish such a radical change in behaviour would also need radical government action. But as far as this kind of change is concerned, politicians are currently part of the problem, not part of the solution, because the decisions that need to be taken to implement significant behaviour change inevitably make politicians very unpopular – as they are all too aware....We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don't think we will. I think we're fucked.

Absolutely.  Because, really, people in this part of the world are not going to stop shopping through their own compassion for the planet.  Shopping is the new therapy!  How better to cope with all the crap going on in the world than to buy some pretty new things?  I still get head-shakes and eye-rolls for not owning a car yet.  Yet.  Like I haven't really grown up, but there might be hope for me one day.  And we've been offered little ways to save the planet that won't do jack shit beyond relieving our cognitive dissonance a spell.  They give us enough of an illusion of saving the planet to keep us arrogant and complacent:
Switch off your mobile phone charger; wee in the shower (my favourite); buy an electric car (no, don't); use two sheets of loo roll rather than three. All of these are token gestures that miss the fundamental fact that the scale and nature of the problems we face are immense, unprecedented and possibly unsolvable.
I fell into a bit of despair this year at school when our strike action prevented me from taking out buckets of compost to the green bin each night, and a vice-principal offered to do it for me because he hates to throw all his Tim Horton's cups in the trash every day.  My stomach sinks just writing that - because we shouldn't be grinding up and heating plastic to spray on our fields (the Blue Box won't take Tim's cups because of the plastic in them), because he needs so many cups of coffee in the first place, and because he can't find a way to successfully use a travel mug.  Few in the office can.  Practically nobody in the school.  So I didn't even make a move towards EcoSchool certification.  Even though we do what's necessary to get another sticker on our plaque, it's all bullshit.

How, exactly, are we to convince the masses to stop consuming and start conserving??  I can't get a staff of 80 to use travel mugs.  I have utterly failed in this mission.  How can we possibly change the behaviours of billions of people to do something that will incidentally cause fewer profits for hugely powerful businesses that are all enmeshed with the politicians that lead us?  I kind of want to read the book to see if he has an answer, but then again I don't because it's all so depressing - and I don't want to find out for sure that, as he alludes to above, there IS no answer.

And then he gets to what is considered by many to be the heart of the problem:  overpopulation.
I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us....Only an idiot would deny that there is a limit to how many people our Earth can support. The question is, is it seven billion (our current population), 10 billion or 28 billion? I think we've already gone past it. Well past it.
In our current position, would it be ethical to put birth control in the drinking water?  I know that won't work and would be disastrous for all other life, but generally, should governments prevent children from being conceived?  Maybe add something to random vaccinations we get so only a few people win the lottery and are capable of conception?  Or, as Alan Weisman suggests, should we allow women everywhere to have just one birth, then sterilize them??   Emmott recognizes that reproducing is a fundamental drive - but we need some method of controlling it.  And most people won't go willingly.

Or maybe, in this part of the world where we make the most mess, we could ask for volunteers when they're young and not yet interested in starting a family.  Offer a grade 10 class $100 cash to each person that will willingly undergo permanent sterilization - right that minute, and we might solve this problem in a generation.  Actually, grade 12s would work better since the grade 10s will likely need parental permission - just at a time when their moms are longing for grandkids.

I've told my own children they might want to avoid having their own kids, not because of an altruistic drive to save the world, but because there's nothing worse that watching your kids suffer.  And the future doesn't look pretty according to Emmott:
And recent research shows that we look certain to be heading for a larger rise in global average temperatures than 2C – a far larger rise. It is now very likely that we are looking at a future global average rise of 4C – and we can't rule out a rise of 6C. This will be absolutely catastrophic. It will lead to runaway climate change, capable of tipping the planet into an entirely different state, rapidly. Earth will become a hellhole. In the decades along the way, we will witness unprecedented extremes in weather, fires, floods, heatwaves, loss of crops and forests, water stress and catastrophic sea-level rises... And the entire agricultural system will be faced with an unprecedented threat. More "fortunate" countries, such as the UK, the US and most of Europe, may well look like something approaching militarised countries, with heavily defended border controls designed to prevent millions of people from entering.... Indeed, anyone who thinks that the emerging global state of affairs does not have great potential for civil and international conflict is deluding themselves. It is no coincidence that almost every scientific conference that I go to about climate change now has a new type of attendee: the military.... I asked one of the most rational, brightest scientists I know... if there was just one thing he had to do about the situation we face, what would it be? His reply? "Teach my son how to use a gun."

Our attitude towards food, water, and land shortages will mean the difference between going out with graceful integrity or ruthless violence. If we have no control over our demise, at least we can control our personal attitude towards it all.  Our time is begging for existentialism.  We need to live more authentically, painfully honest with ourselves about ourselves.  We need to take moral responsibility for all our actions within our control, and they're all within our control.  And we need to profoundly acknowledge our own mortality.  We know we're all going to die, but typically in an intellectual sense only.  Now we also need to take a short leap past that towards getting our heads around the imminent extinction of our species and to recognize what those last days might be like.  And we have to do it well.  And soon.

We'll likely get distracted by the minutia of daily life:  from educational reform that's requiring a re-write of our courses to whistleblowers taking over the news to the next season of Breaking Bad or the next music festival.  And there's always kittens!  It gives us a respite from it all.  But it ain't goin' away.  The unfettered destruction of our habitat is ever looming in the background.  The people who might be able to help, won't act because it's too immediately harmful to them in terms of votes, profits, and alliances.  Technology won't save us.  And there is nothing I can do to put the brakes on it all.  I won't run out and buy a car because I still want to avoid adding to the problem (on the off chance that there might be some hope), but neither will I continue to try to convince people to use a travel mug or do all the paperwork necessary to maintain our EcoSchool status.  And the last time I wrote to Harper, he sent me an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of himself.  It's all for naught.

But I do believe that, when things get worse, we can manage it without guns.  At the very least, as individuals, we can choose to be kind until the end.  We must.  It's all we've got.  


The Mound of Sound said...

Hello Marie Snyder of Waterloo, Ontario. We behave like a patient with emphysema who won't give up his 3-pack a day habit.

The advent of cheap energy allowed our species to embrace a growth paradigm that, by virtue of our very finite planet with its very finite resources, prescribed self-destruction. We grew in production and in consumption and in population. We pursued environmental conjuring acts, pure sleight of hand, to overcome (if only temporarily) obstacles to growth.

If you're not familiar with it, you should visit, the home of the Global Footprint Network. Scientists there monitor what's called "overshoot" or our over-consumption. World Overshoot Day is the day each year on which mankind exhausts a full year's worth of renewable resources - water and biomass. A few years ago Overshoot was pegged at late October. Now it's arriving in early September. (BTW, the footprintnetwork folks have worked out that the maximum viable population of mankind should be about 3.5-billion)

We get by after Overshoot day by "eating our seed corn." We fish species to exhaustion, collapsing global fisheries in one part of the world before moving on to the next, most desirable fish species. Our industrial fishing fleets are hunting down fish species that just a few years ago were considered junk.

Visible to the naked eye from space are the spreading ravages of desertification. In many countries they now work their farmland to exhaustion, using ever more fertilizers and irrigation to keep growing crops until the core nutrients and biomass in the soil is gone and it is transformed into desert. Those massive dust plumes that come out of China and are photographed crossing the Pacific to North America are the tell tale.

We have to decouple our civilization from this lethal growth paradigm and return to the "steady state" or "full earth" economics that served our species reasonably well for millennia. We can't do that so long as we refuse to decarbonize our societies and our economies.

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia Theory, suggests our civilization's only hope lies not in sustainable development but sustainable retreat, shrinking consumption, doing better with ever less. Unfortunately we've been conditioned to see a better future as something quite different to that. Consider it one aspect of our societal mental illness.

Marie Snyder said...

Mound- Thanks for the resources! You'd think we'd have big enough brains to figure this all out, but we don't. A few millennia back, Plato lamented our lack of skill in the art of measurement - knowing how to measure short term vs long term gains. It seems just to be human nature. Our collective tragic flaw.

Lorne said...

I enjoyed your post, Marie, as disturbing as it was. Have you read either of Jeff Rubin's books, Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, or The End of Growth. His thesis in both of these books seems to be that whether we like it or not, economics and a scarcity of cheap resources, especially oil, will ultimately force a massive change in our lifestyles. While I'm not sure that I agree with all of his prognostications, he does offer a scenario that is far less grim than the one we seem inevitably headed towards.

The Mound of Sound said...

Marie, if you've ever read Jared Diamond's "Collapse" you'll know that advanced societies end quite abruptly and at their zenith. In part that's due to the pattern of conjuring acts they adopt to continue their quest for ever more - wealth, numbers, power. Past civilizations, just like our own today, become utterly dependent on counterproductive, short-term practices and Diamond cites evidence that we do this even when we know the consequences will be both inevitable and catastrophic.

We may be nearing our zenith now. We're seeing dramatic climate change, most notably severe, extended drought; recurrent, severe flooding; and major storm events of increasing frequency and intensity. We continue to look at each of them in isolation, failing to connect the dots to discern their real meaning.

I use the analogy of a prize fighter. You're not betting on whether that boxer can take a punch. Of course he can, that's how he got into the title fight. What you're betting on is how many punches he can take over several rounds without winding up sprawled out on the mat. How many mega-floods, how many mega-droughts, how many crop failures, how many hurricanes and tornadoes, how much sea level rise can a society withstand before it suddenly winds up on the mat, that's the question.

Where I live we're overdue for a once-every-300 years mega-quake. It's expected to possibly exceed the Fukushima quake. Vancouver Island, we're told, all 300 by 100 miles of it, will be moved 15-feet eastward.

That reality has made survivalists, preppers if you like, of most of us. Our government encourages us to keep ample stores of food and emergency supplies because it could be several weeks before we can all be helped. It also furnishes a nice legitimacy to preparing for climate change and, yes, that means guns and knowing how to use them. I have the gear and knowledge to harvest food from the sea - clams, oysters, mussels, crab, prawns, salmon, cod and halibut. I can hunt game for meat - deer, elk, bear, cougar (I'm told they're delicious). Now I need to work on veggie gardening although I have a good supply of fruit trees and berry bushes.

Could it happen? I doubt it but if need be I at least have most of the stuff necessary and enough knowledge of how to use it effectively.

Like you, Marie, I worry far less about myself than about my kids. I too have grave doubts about whether they should have children but, having voiced my reservations, it's not right that I should hector them.

Lorne said...

Mound, your reference to collapse put me in mind of another sobering book, A Short history of Progress, by Ronald Wright which traces the history of civilizations and their propensity for destroying their own habitats. He argues we are now doing this on a worldwide scale but, unlike in the past, there are no new vistas that offer the opportunity for replenishment.

Marie Snyder said...

Hey Lorne - Yes I've read Rubins. I quite like the idea that we'll stop using fossil fuel before we run out because we'll have to. I'm dubious about his optimism, yet hopeful. My concern is, how late in the game will it be that people start to change course? And Jane Jacob's Dark Age Ahead is another book in the genre that shows us how similar we are to the end times in previous civilizations.

Mound - I loved Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, but haven't gotten to Collapse yet. I'll have to add it to my list! Even without climate change, earthquakes and meteors can do a number on us. We're a fragile lot. I have a piece of land up north, much further from the U.S. border, just in case of anything military happening, and a bit cooler in the summers. Sometimes I feel paranoid; other times I think I'm just one of few people paying attention! I think we should be teaching kids how to can food in schools. Even if the end isn't near, it's a handy skill to have in case of drought or food transport issues.