24 September 2009

The End of the Long Summer

So last night the environmental author Dianne Dumanoski gave a talk at the college. If you missed it, and I bet you did, then you missed quite a discussion. You can read all about her book, The End of the Long Summer, over at her website, www.diannedumanoski.com.

Dumanoski started by pointing out a fundamental flaw of the environmental movement, and one I’ve pointed out several times on this blog. We aren’t particularly honest with ourselves when we discuss our goals, if we discuss them at all. We talk about saving the planet, but this is an act of pure hubris- the planet will get on just fine if there’s climate change. There has been climate change many times in the past, and species have died back and rebounded in new and astounding ways.

What we’re really doing is saving the planet so we can still live on it. We can talk about saving whales and trees and rare species of butterfly, but let’s face it, we’re really talking about saving ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing immoral about wanting to preserve your own species so your potential grandchildren can keep on trucking. Well, metaphorically- trucks may be extinct by then. But you get the idea.

In her book, and in her talk, she attempts to look beyond the symptoms of “planetary distress” to the actual cause. It was a refreshing talk in that she didn’t just ramble on about climate change- a frequent topic, among lecturers, and one she certainly brought up- but addressed the likelihood that we are in fact actually past the point of no return. Climate change, according to most research, is now inevitable. There’s no going back. We can mitigate the effects of climate change, certainly, and so there’s no reason to throw our hands up in despair and stop pursuing cleaner energy sources and things of that nature. But we also have to think beyond those mitigating efforts. If climate change is indeed upon (and it seems that it is- it is only the when and where and to what extent that are up for debate), our planning should be for how we handle the changes that will occur.

This isn’t a momentous idea. Most people, with only a cursory knowledge of human history, will agree that things change. Things aren’t the same now as they were 100 years ago. And yet we tend to act as if things are never going to change. Our economy is based on this notion of exponential growth, without taking into account that at some point there will be no more possibility of growth- we live in a limited environment (presuming we don’t expand into space, and the very thought makes me roll my eyes). Our food system is based on fossil fuels. Our communications (and most of our economy) are all based on a very fragile system that could fall apart with a few well placed keystrokes. And our heating and cooling is all based on electricity, as is our access to water. If these things are taken away- if something were to happen to disrupt public water systems, for example- would any of us know what to do?

These things are rarely taken into account. Dumanoski argues that we’re asking the wrong questions. We’re trying to “green the status quo”, a phrase that I love, because it so accurately describes efforts to find a technological fix for everything. On one of the green blogs I subscribe to, I am daily barraged with tips on “greening” everything from hair dryers to toothpicks to vacations to gym memberships. But there the question of whether we should continue to pursue all these avenues is never, not a once, brought into light.

The common law among environmentalists is that we can never, EVER, mention the dirty words “maybe we should just give that up.” No, we cannot question consumption. We can never, god forbid, question the mandate of constant economic growth, or the desire of people to own private jets. People will never subscribe to environmentalism if we’re so negative.

But Dumanoski’s call to action is not for us all to go around crying that the sky is falling. Rather, she simply suggests we be honest with ourselves, that we in fact must be honest with ourselves, if we hope to survive as a species. If we don’t prepare for climate change, how can we possibly face it? Wouldn’t the worst catastrophe be if climate change occurred, and very abruptly as scientists are predicting, and we all just stood there with a big “oh [insert four letter word here]” sketched on our faces?

She pointed out that the answers are in fact just in front of our faces. The planet organizes things in such a way as to be resilient to catastrophe. There are multiple species doing the same job, or similar, so that if one is killed off there are others to take their place. The college does this as an emergency planning measure- if one person is out, we are all required to have a second and third person trained to do our jobs so things don’t come to a grinding halt. Ecosystems are also modular- connected, somewhat, but not to the point where if one collapsed there would necessarily be a chain reaction wiping out all the others. But we in our global society are all very specialized- and all very connected- so that if oil reserves run out, for example, pretty much all of us are screwed. But that’s a topic I intend to write more about later.

During the Q&A the topic of hope came up- what is there to give us hope that we can face the momentous task of preparing for climate change, when we neither know when it’s going to occur or what form it’s going to take? Dumanoski responded that we can’t have hope unless it’s honest- unless we are willing to face the facts about what lies ahead, and realize that the “long summer” we’ve enjoyed will not and cannot last forever. She suggests large scale social reorganization as one of the only ways of becoming more adaptable to change- which is of course one of the things our society is most resistant to. She also pointed out that we’re currently educating for a future that doesn’t exist, and this is key. Even here at the college we’re still educating under the assumption that things will be more or less the same down the line when our students are facing the real world.

I think she’s partially right about the honesty- we absolutely have to be honest about what’s ahead. There is far too much unfounded optimism running around where “saving the environment” is concerned- and far too much despair. But I think we have something to be optimistic about. From what I’ve seen, when faced with the honest truth, most humans are able to step up to the challenge. When given a problem and asked to solve it, we have the creative capacity to find solutions- if only we are taught that we do have that capacity within ourselves, if only we are educated to approach problems with enthusiasm and an eye for the experimental, the untried path, the unconventional- and that it doesn’t take experts to save the planet for people, but people with the passion and dedication to be entirely honest with themselves and each other, and jump off that ledge into an unknown future armed with just their wits and one another.