Thursday, June 9, 2011

We Don't Like It

People who first started to get concerned about the climate made a fundamental mistake by calling this concern "global warming". It sounds so benign, to those of us who have cold winters. Warmer climates, less harsh winters, growing tomatoes in Canada, what's not to like? Maybe the Sahara would get even drier, if possible, but we're far away.

Next the term "climate change" became popular. Well, the climate changes some all the time, so it becomes ambiguous. The Earth has undergone numerous ice ages and hot, humid times. It begs the do-nothing response that says the climate changes by itself--nothing to do with me. Or, as seen recently in our local paper, Almighty God is in charge of the climate and it doesn't matter a hoot how many billion gallons of petroleum we burn.

From an on-the-ground, local perspective, events like cold winters, ice storms, floods, heat waves, droughts, and tornadoes are ambiguous if you are looking either for evidence of warming, or evidence that we're not warming. Ambiguity coupled with expense or change equals no action. As humans we don't do well with ambiguity, or with predicaments that require a perspective of decades or more, and we particularly do not do well with sudden change. We don't like it.

Average temperatures are rising in the oceans, and in the high latitudes (northern and southern) in particular. This is a scientific fact. Note that it does NOT mean that every little corner of the world is a degree or two hotter all the time. What it does mean is that there is more energy in the atmosphere (due to the increased heat), which causes more severe and unpredictable weather. So, more blizzards, more ice storms, more floods, more tornadoes, more hurricanes, more droughts. China is presently suffering from a severe drought AND severe flooding at the same time. After a decade-long drought in Australia, one large area was inundated with rains and flooding. We can give this process a name: Climate Instability. Instability--now that's something we don't like.

We've had about 10,000 years of friendly and stable climatic conditions, following the last ice age. It's been a really pleasant interglacial, one of the most climatically-stable periods in the last million years. It happened to coincide with the growth in human populations from maybe 100,000 to our present 7 billion.

Long-term climate changes are driven by numerous interlocking natural cycles. Some of these are known to science, and certainly some are not. We know that the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat in the atmosphere. This is not "rocket science", as the saying goes. Without the natural carbon dioxide and methane produced by volcanism, the Earth would be uninhabitably cold. We don't know how much of our present-day climate instability is due to the emissions of our industrial age, and how much is due to natural cycles. But this is our planet, and our life, and the lives of our children that we're talking about. Wouldn't it be prudent to take some steps for their future, even if it means some sacrifices on our part. Maybe some delayed gratification, maybe some frugality. Oh, we don't like that.

Climate instability is only one of the factors that are extremely unsettling in today's world. The continued availability of cheap energy is very much in question. As Peak Oil has moved from the fringes into center stage, we're starting to ask questions. How will I get around if the price of gasoline continues to rise? Just how many of the material objects in our daily lives are based on petroleum? (And you'd be shocked at how many there are.) How can we continue to feed the human race without the petrochemical-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and the tractors and the diesel to power them, and the factories, and the semitrailer trucks, and the supermarket? And how will I put bread on the table without the supermarket?

The supermarket model is in big trouble in the not-too-distant future. Tremendously long supply lines, bringing food from every corner of the world, some of it shipped by air, and all of it eventually by truck. Just-in-time distribution means that the stores have only a few days supply of food. Warehouse space and management is expensive, and profit margins are small. But this entire amazing complicated business depends on stability: weather stability, fuel availability at reasonable and predictable prices, consistent prices of raw materials and processed foods, ready availability of irrigation water to grow the food. And that's just what we won't have in our near future: stability.

It's stressful dealing with instability; much easier to a) blow it off, b) blame it on whichever political party we don't belong to, c) blame it on the corporations, or the liberals, or the illegal immigrants, or the rich, or the poor, d) tell ourselves sweet bedtime tales of how technology will save us, e) hope for the end of the world before it gets too bad. Instability: WDLI

We happen to be on the Earth at just the time that everything is happening: resources running short, water running short, population ever-rising, with ever-rising expectations. Technology changing faster and faster. Bubble after financial bubble (chances are the next one will involve food). Persistent and intractable unemployment. Debt in the form of financial derivatives worth thirty times the entire annual productive output of the Earth. This is not going to be pretty.

We're at the teetery top end of the "perpetual-growth" economy. We'll have to find a new way to live. We'll have to find ways to reduce complexity in our governments, in our economy, and in our daily lives. We'll have to find methods of farming and manufacture that use less petrochemical energy and more human energy (powered by food; food powered by the sun). We'll have to stop fooling ourselves that a magician in a laboratory, in a factory, in a bank, or in the White House, will be able to pull rabbits out of a hat and let us live on in the dream world.

Somehow we'll have to get our feet on the ground, stop wishful thinking, start planning. Somehow we'll have to prepare for sudden changes, unpredictable weather, kinds of work that we're not accustomed to. We'll have to gain some practical daily skills. Somehow we need to insulate ourselves as best we can from the madness of the present-day economy (hint: start by paying off your OWN debt). While everything is still working (more or less), we need to get a robust local food system. Wherever you live, you should start working on this.

You can learn a lot by just paying attention, and not fooling yourself. The signs are all around us. Now if we could just get our elected officials to stop fooling themselves and us....