Friday, June 27, 2014

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 f*cked.
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.

Cross-posted in A Puff of Absurdity, June 30, 2013

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