Saturday, 1 January 2011

Whither or Wither the Planet -- by Hugh Robertson

The author is a member of Ottawa Monthly Meeting. This article, 12th of a series, is online at his site Ecology Economics Ethics.
If we live as if there is no tomorrow, there really won’t be one.
-- Kurt Vonnegut
2010 is turning out to be the hottest year worldwide since temperature details were first documented in the 1850s, while the past decade has been the warmest ever recorded.
Russian wildfires by Jotman
Wildfires scorched Russia and Israel and parts of the interior of British Columbia were once again on the burn.
Pakistan flood damage: whatisthetrend
We have notoriously short memories but surely we have not forgotten the floods and landslides that ravaged Pakistan and China, the oil spill that will permanently cripple the Gulf of Mexico, or the toxic red sludge that engulfed the Danube.

The World Meteorological Organization has just announced that global concentrations of the main greenhouse gases reached their highest level in 2010 in almost one million years.

Is it any wonder that, with increased planetary warming, a massive chunk of the Greenland ice shelf broke off and slid into the ocean this summer or that species extinction is escalating?

One of the most reputable international think tanks, the New Economics Foundation, recently reported that the world went into ecological debt on 21st August this year. Earth Overshoot Day occurred a whole month earlier than last year. On that day we exhausted our annual environmental budget and we are now eating into our natural capital by extracting more from the planet than it is capable of reproducing.
Our shrinking earth -- ha. per capita 1950 to present: GRID-Arendal

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, explains the problem in economic jargon to make it clearer: “We are liquidating earth’s natural assets to fuel our consumption.” No amount of Federal Reserve stimulus funding or bailouts can rescue us from this meltdown.

Enough doom and gloom? Read on.

One of the most frightening studies ever published appeared in July earlier this year but it sailed right under the radar screen of public awareness. It was reported in Nature that the concentrations of phytoplankton or plant plankton in the top layers of the oceans had declined by about 40 percent since 1950.
phytoplankton: Wikipedia
Plummeting levels seem to be linked to rising ocean temperatures triggered by global warming and to widespread contamination, such as oil spills and plastic pollutants. Increased acidification of the oceans, another consequence of global warming, is also suspected in the disturbing decline of the plankton.

Phytoplankton form part of a complex photosynthesis process that produces oxygen. It is estimated that half the world’s oxygen is created by marine photosynthesis – every second breath we take is dependent on the health of the oceans. In addition, phytoplankton help cool the planet by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The microscopic plankton also perform another vital role as the base of the ocean food chain.

The other half of the world’s oxygen supply is produced through photosynthesis on land by trees, grasses and plants. North America has been operating at an oxygen deficit for the last 40 years as we clearcut forests, ploughed under grasslands and burned fossil fuels in increasing volumes.
To deprive our unborn offspring of life-sustaining oxygen would be a crime of epic proportions. And just because, as the late Carl Sagan put it, we were too lazy to change our destructive lifestyles. We have no moral right to download the costs, both economic and ecologic, on the backs of future generations or to squander their birthright.

We have probably one decade at most to dramatically control our greenhouse gas emissions, reduce pollution and learn to live within the natural limits of the planet. If we remain so resolute in our refusal to modify our lifestyles and our consumption habits, ecological tipping points will kick in with consequences far beyond human control. No technofixes will ever rescue us once we pass the point of no return.

The environmental crisis in its different manifestations is the defining crisis of the 21st century – not terrorism, not unemployment, not nuclear weapons or socialism vs capitalism. Environmentalism is not simply another –ism or ideology. It is our life support system.

We are better informed than any generation in history about the dangers threatening the environment and yet we appear immobilized by the magnitude of the problems. We have to frame, and face, the critical questions that will help provide us with a sense of direction
to combat the impending crisis.
  • Why do we recoil from using language such as "morality, ethics, values, principles, emotions, feelings, compassion, justice, empathy and spirituality" when discussing environmental issues?
  • What are the relative roles of the individual and institutions, such as the media, corporations, churches and government, in confronting environmental problems?
  • How do we shape an environmental conscience among the corporate, political and moneyed elites?
  • Why do we promote infinite progress and prosperity on a planet with finite resources?
  • How do we persuade individuals to reduce their ecological footprint?
  • Since advertising is aimed solely at expanding consumption, should marketing programs in colleges and universities be converted into departments of ecological economics and sustainable business?
  • Should we consider draconian measures, such as restricting the size of houses, limiting the number of cars per family and rationing airline flights?
  • How can we hold governments to account on environmental policies if the electorate is not engaged or is ill-informed?
  • Do we have the right to protest government environmental policies until we have set an example and curbed our own consumption?
  • How do we depoliticize so important an issue as climate change in our partisan political system?
  • Are the wealthy developed countries, with their over-sized ecological footprints, creating “climate apartheid” in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu?
  • Is the climate crisis not more of a consumption problem in the developed countries than a problem of over-population in the developing world?
  • If Canada is already overpopulated in terms of its biocapacity, should we discourage immigration and devote funds to improving the lives of people in other countries?
We will never solve the environmental crisis until we see it as a moral problem. Some years ago, Wendell Berry, the renowned writer and ecologist, wrote that the environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of character; it still is. Dr James Hansen, the dean of climate scientists, describes the ecological crisis as both a legal and a moral problem because it is an issue of intergenerational justice. To modify a Marshall McLuhan metaphor: the moral is the message.

countries with food riots, 2008: coathangrrr
It is a moral issue because our conscious decisions and lifestyle choices affect others, not only the unborn but also the disadvantaged struggling to survive in societies shattered by climate change and pollution. If we are not personally aware of the dangers of unrestrained consumption, we have the responsibility to inform ourselves of the impact of our lifestyle decisions on the less fortunate. We are, after all, a sentient species governed by conscious free will, not by programmed determinism.

The environmental crisis is also a crisis of ideology. How sustainable, both ecologically and socially, are the values embedded in our market economy, that focus on self-interest, competition, consumption and growth? Does an adversarial political system that frequently appeals to our baser instincts, best serve our long term ecological and social interests?
melting ice sheet, Antarctica: Getty Images
Furthermore, it is a crisis of emotions. Somehow, we have to develop and demonstrate the empathy to feel and sense the anguish of the environmentally dispossessed: the submerged Pacific islanders and the victims of floods, fires and droughts. Dare we forget our own northern people as the melting ice and the thawing tundra destroys their age-old lifestyles. How can we even imagine and envision the plight of future generations on a ravaged planet, if we are alienated and estranged from our own emotions?

family, Cape Dorset: Wikipedia
Above all, the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis. It is not spiritual in a “new age” or narrow religious sense. What we desperately need is an all-embracing, ecumenical spirituality built around a reverence for the divine in nature and focused on the perpetuation of life on a vibrant planet – a “reverential ecology” in the words of Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence magazine.

Sacrifice is central to spirituality. Our individual Canadian carbon and ecological footprints are among the highest in the world, far exceeding nature’s regenerative capacity. Our level of spiritual commitment must be measured by the sacrifices that we personally are prepared to make in our material lifestyles that will allow us to live within the sustainable limits of the planet.

The eminent ecologist E.O.Wilson’s blunt assessment of the anthropogenic causes of global environmental degradation is that we live in an era of Stone Age emotions, mediaeval institutions and, in our arrogance, we attempt to play God with our technology.

Canada's carbon footprint: The Tyee 2008
Judging by a recent vote in the Canadian Senate, that institution is still mired in a mediaeval mindset. A procedural problem enabled a majority of Conservative-appointed senators to defeat Bill C-311, The Climate Accountability Act. The bill had twice won majority support in the elected House of Commons but it was overturned by an unelected Senate without any discussion. It has been decades since the Senate attempted to defeat a Commons bill without discussion.

Intense lobbying, especially by the fossil fuel industry, reinforced the resolve of the Conservatives to defeat the climate initiative. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce even circulated a request to its members encouraging them to pressure the senators to kill the legislation. Their message could not be more blunt: “Bill C-311 must die in the Senate.”

The Canadian Climate Act simply laid out targets for our greenhouse gases: 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. These emission caps, according to the vast majority of climate scientists, are the only way we will limit the earth’s temperature to a 2 degree increase by 2050. Lest we forget, the 2 degree temperature increase was the target that the majority of countries, including Canada, accepted at the Copenhagen climate conference a year ago and then reaffirmed at Cancún this month.

Government spin claimed that the climate bill, if enacted, would shut down the economy and create mass unemployment. One does not have to be a statistician to estimate the unemployment rate in 2050 on a plundered planet. Future Canadians will weep at our self-indulgent narcissism that allowed a minority government to derail a climate protection plan by exploiting a tactic as inane as a procedural matter.

It is crystal clear that we cannot rely on our governments for ethical and enlightened environmental leadership. Partly it is because of the constant pressure exerted on our politicians by corporate lobbyists and partly because of our own fickle voting nature. The lack of political will largely reflects a lack of public will.

Sadly, there is no critical mass of voters to drive public policy on the environment. Many governments, including Canada, have sensed this lack of domestic electoral commitment to climate issues and, consequently, they are cooling on their emission pledges. We need look no further than the results of the recent mid-term elections in the US as a possible portent for progress on climate change initiatives. How tragically ironic it would be if it was democracy that dashed international attempts to save the planet.

The latest polling numbers indicate that Canadians rate climate change as only the eighth most important global issue. Canada’s role as a co-conspirator in the slow death of the Kyoto Protocol, with the execution date set for December 2012, was inspired largely by a careful reading of the electorate. Kyoto will be viewed by future historians as our “Climate Munich” where politicians abandoned principle to appease the party faithful, and then capitulated to voter whims.
from Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip
Although we need national governments to develop progressive environmental policies and to seek international cooperation on ecological issues, we must never rely on them to legislate our attitudes and to restrain our consumption. Joel Salatin, the hero of Food Inc puts it succinctly: There is no salvation through legislation. Furthermore, government decrees merely absolve us from the moral responsibility of regulating our own behaviour.

The onus is on us as individuals to initiate and to ignite the changes that will revolutionize political and public attitudes and action. We can only lead through personal example, not through preaching or through protesting, and the revolution must start in our own homes and in our hearts. Just as Gandhi reminds us that our priorities are best expressed in actions, so must we also anchor our aspirations in actions.

If, as the psychologists suggest, reducing our consumption and moderating our lifestyles, is largely a matter of behavioural change, what is delaying us? We are the arbiters of our own behaviour. Surely we don’t lack the courage or the conscience to change our behaviour for the benefit of our offspring.

Appeals to circumscribe our consumption are not new. The prescient English poet of the late 18th century, William Blake, was ahead of his time when he asked: How do we know what is too much, when we don’t even know what is enough? Jeffrey Sachs, the respected humanitarian, in his address to the graduating students at Carleton University recently acknowledged that “our consumerism has too often overtaken our common humanity.”

The first step in an action-based crusade is to quantify our consumption and establish our personal ecological footprints. We have to measure and monitor the full sweep of our lifestyles from waste disposal and personal shopping to fossil fuel use and vacations. Earlier articles in this series suggested ways of both reducing and measuring our footprints.

Conservation is really no more difficult than consumption, partly because we already waste so much food and energy in North America. Conserving a litre of gasoline or a kilowatt of electricity not only reduces carbon emissions and pollution, it also preserves scarce resources for future generations. The cheapest, cleanest fuel is that which we leave in the ground or the electricity we do not use. Furthermore, modifying our lifestyles and reducing our use of fossil fuels will eliminate the need for government regulations to "price carbon” in the form of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade policies.

We must examine all our lifestyle decisions through the lens of ecological precaution and strive to live within the biocapacity of the planet. Mother Earth is, after all, our one and only home.

Once you have set your house in order, take the crusade into your neighbourhood. Major societal change invariably comes from below – it is seldom top down and it is seldom achieved without a protracted struggle. But the struggle for ecological balance, unlike any major change in history, has an overriding urgency.

Communities inspired by an overarching moral purpose and energized by collective action will coalesce into larger movements creating a grassroots groundswell that will drive changes throughout all levels of society. Many municipalities and cities, for example, are undertaking major environmental initiatives and provinces and states are stepping into the vacuum left by our national governments.

For inspiration, read about living simply and what other communities are doing.
By transforming your lifestyle and inspiring others, you will have left an imprint on your community and perhaps the wider world. It may not always be possible to measure the broader impact our personal efforts. Ultimately, at the end of life’s journey, however, it is our conscience that is our most trusty companion, especially when it is reinforced by the conviction that we have done our best.

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