What disappearing Arctic ice, the Mayan prophecy, and balloons could be telling us
Our world is awash in news. Between the paper sources and electronic ones, there’s a great deal to digest. Sample international news in the past few weeks: “huge rallies in the streets of Spain and Greece against the austerity measures” and “iPhone 5 is released”. On the national front: “Justin Trudeau makes a bid for the Liberal leadership” and “Pauline Marois won’t hike student fees”. On the local scene: “Vancouver’s green bins will be taking even more food scraps”, “the new Port Mann Bridge will be unveiled soon”, “the endless sunshine continues”, and much, much more.
But for me the real shocker was not the headlines but what appears steadily in my inbox and on my news feed. There I read about the rate of Arctic ice melting and how this might affect our global weather systems. I’ve heard a lot about climate change over the years and it has scared me. But this latest news scared me the most. There are predictions that Arctic ice—which has been cooling the planet for a lot longer than humankind has existed—will completely break up in four years. In essence our fossil-fuel burning economies have been acting like a “blow torch” on these ice sheets. The old saying “You can’t do anything about the weather” is no longer true. Over the past few hundred years we have in fact done something about it—but inadvertently and not for the better.
The slow-motion scenario now unfolding is arguably worse than any horror movie. Experts predict that the methane that has been held in check underneath all that ice for millennia will gradually release and all this might push climate change forward 20 years. Forests on the planet originally did an adequate job of sequestering carbon. Now given all the logging humans have done and a warming, more erratic climate, the forests are not reproducing as quickly and are burning more often, producing even more greenhouse gases. The weather is responding to all these changes in extreme positive-feedback loops that climate scientists are just beginning to understand. And increased ocean acidification, shrinking fish sizes, and sunburnt corals are a few of the many negative spinoffs.
Every few days I hear another dire prediction from Bill McKibben at 350.org—a website that monitors how badly we are doing in the climate change department. 350 parts per million of CO2 is the highest concentration that our Earth’s atmosphere can stand before bad things start to happen and effective reversal becomes that much more difficult. At present we are at over 390 ppm and concentrations are steadily climbing. At the same time McKibben also reports that large groups of people are staging rallies to fight more fossil-fuel expansion projects—proposed oil exploration, extraction, pipelines, tanker ports, and hydraulic “fracking”.
Some sample articles:
• The Guardian: Arctic expert predicts final collapse of sea ice within four years
• Vancouver Observer: Arctic “death spiral” leaves climate scientists shocked and worried
• Common Dreams: Is Climate Change Hell Now inevitable?
• Reuters: 100 million will die by 2030 if the world fails to act on climate - report
This last article predicted that not only would masses of humans die but GDP would also fall. Since GDP is measured without factoring in ecosystem health, a halt to GDP growth might not, in itself, be that alarming. In fact a much-needed recovery in ecosystem resilience might require some decline in global GDP. But a planned tapering-off of GDP growth is far preferable to a sudden, unplanned, climate-change-induced drop. This prediction did at least get the business community, and those GDP-worshipping self-styled public policy “realists” noticing something might be amiss.
I think the Mayans were on to something. Their “prophecy” that the world will end on December 21, 2012, is not all that far off because it seems the world as we know it is already well on its way to ending. We have known, of course, that our planet is changing too rapidly for quite some time. At least people who chose to notice the destructive and invasive tendencies of homo sapiens and his continued war against our common home, the blue planet, have known. The rest perhaps didn’t care or looked out their windows from time to time and didn’t notice that much had changed. They couldn’t detect a clear catastrophe: there was still food on the shelves that was affordable, fish in the sea that didn’t cost the Earth to catch, cars on the streets that were moving, and money in the bank that bought things.
But the evidence of our end-of-the-world crisis does not appear when we look out the window. It does not show itself as threatening tanks or bombs. But looking at changes in the weather over time we can now begin to clearly see the outcome of our historical excesses. This is a creeping calamity that has been a few centuries in the making and its components take something more than a sound byte of effort to understand. The main thrust of this evolving tragedy is that too much of humankind is seriously addicted to the wrong sort of economic activity and an unhealthy way of gauging its health. They support the worldview that gobbles up the only thing on Earth of real value—natural capital—and spits out humanity’s creations. Even if these have an inherent value to some of us for a while, they ultimately have a short shelf life. There is also a crisis of the human spirit because we have allowed this activity to go on for too long unchecked. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient sages warned us of the arrogant habits of humans thousands of years ago and suggested ways to keep them in line. Somehow these tips got ignored and here we are thousands of years later watching—if we choose to notice—the unprecedented melting of the Arctic ice.
The reaction “on the street” to these dire predictions is interesting and perhaps points the way to understanding how to get out of this mess. Comments on these articles read: “I’m going to be dead when the serious catastrophe comes anyway so why should I care?”; “The crooks who run our country just want to make their money and run. There’s nothing we can do about it, besides it’s too late”; “I do my bit so I’m not the problem”; “That’s how humans are—they wait for things to get really bad and then maybe they do something”; “China and India are picking up our lifestyle so we’re already cooked anyway”; “If you drive a car or fly in a plane—you’re a hypocrite if you pretend to care—besides we can’t give those up overnight”; “I don’t have time to worry about the environment, I have a family and job to deal with”; “I am a member of a persecuted minority—don’t ask me to do any better”; and so on.
Here’s the prognosis: not only are we seriously addicted to this flawed economic model with its aspiration to endless growth. But too many of us suffer from a sense of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and inevitability. People with negative attitudes, though, undermine the morale and impede the progress of others who are working hard to change the status quo. Remember the adage that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”? Clearly we need more people who already recognize the problem to join in changing things—putting their hands on the wheel to shift the course of our misguided ship. In a concurrent positive ratchet-pattern we need a steady shift in the world-view that has kept so many of us addicted to these false dependencies. Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga First Nation describes it this way: we’re coming down the final stretch riding a pack of horses galloping towards the stone wall. And we’re not even pulling back the reigns. We’re accelerating.
Chief Lyons says: “If you don’t have a moral question in your governing process you don’t have a process that’s going to survive....You must have a moral society or you won’t have anything. That’s what we have to get back to.” I think he’s right—common ideas have to change. Yes, China and India may be growing into fossil-fuel-based consumer economies very quickly. But just because the party’s going to get that much wilder and noisier next door—does that mean we need to ramp up our activity as well? Or should we perhaps tone ours down and be a better example? As for our use of cars and planes—no one has said we have to give them all up tomorrow. Yes, we have gotten used to this way of life in the last three or four generations but this doesn’t mean it can—or should—always be this way. Are we that married to our vehicles—those great steel hunks—that we are prepared to forever pave paradise to put up parking lots with accompanying pipelines, tankers, and pollution for another century? Or can we imagine transitioning to a way of life that is a little more plant-, animal-, human-, and Arctic-ice-friendly? As for the idea that “there’s nothing we can do”, imagine what the world would look like today if the leaders and citizens of the Allied nations of World War II had said: “Gee, that Hitler’s a bully. But there’s not a lot we can do about it. So let’s get back to business.” It’s never too late to turn the ship around.
It seems to me that our youth should be storming parliaments and the boardrooms of big businesses and staging “an intervention”. They should be demanding that their parents and the ruling classes of contemporary society remain “locked down” until they can come up with an alternative agenda that does not continue to gamble so recklessly with humanity’s future. No more climate change, species and ecosystem loss, pollution, and excessive waste. Change will not be easy. Has anyone said it would be? Obviously our present-day political and industrial leaders have inherited a seductive agenda that is hard to abandon. But that agenda, in the long run, is highly impractical precisely because it is so unsustainable. And worst of all it threatens our future survival. The good news is that all of us can work, in some way, towards changing global outcomes for the better. And if anyone doesn’t have any idea on where to start doing this, they can follow some outstanding leaders already produced by the growing sustainability movement. There are millions of non-profit societies all over the world which have already started this urgent work.
Our children deserve better and so do the other species on the planet—which is where the balloons come in. Balloons are not in the news but they are, regrettably, very much part of our everyday lives. I have seen them at countless events this past summer and in my role as a staff person for a watershed group I have grown frustrated with balloons and everything they represent. These colourful, plastic balls are filled with air—or commonly helium—an inert gas that has a limited planetary supply. They are often attached to a piece of colourful string. Balloons are used to perk up a display or offered as prizes of instant, cheap magic at events and stores. They are usually given by adults to children. And yet eventually they all break, shrivel or fall apart into a heap of plastic disappointment. Worse still some escape into the air, to return to earth where they litter, pollute, or deface some natural environment somewhere (frequently water bodies) and far too often end up in the guts of unsuspecting animals. Does hating balloons make you a party pooper? Perhaps, but balloons are emblematic of the waste in our society that too often produces transient consumer items of minimal inherent value. These fill our world to serve as a substitute for real emotions and a real natural world.
Look around at what’s wrong on our planet today. Is this the best we can do? I don’t think so. Surely there are other ways for today’s adults to organize our human society so there is more real lasting value left for future generations? We owe our children, their progeny, and other species with whom we share the planet much more. They deserve a world like we inherited or maybe something better. Is it too late to change the status quo? Only if we say so!
Celia Brauer is cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society. She also campaigned against the Gateway project, which included the expansion of the Port Mann Bridge and the creation of the South Fraser Perimeter Road. This project has been dubbed the “Gateway to Global Warming”.