27 May 2012

We're Standing in the Intersection

That image of the huge juggernaut wending its way down the street in India, through throngs of people, some of whom, it is purported, are getting crushed beneath the chariot's giant wheels ... that image has stuck with me all week. 

And now I realize, we — humanity and all life on Earth — are trapped in an intersection with juggernauts rolling towards us from all four directions. There's (1) the Big Money profit-at-all-costs economy (and the governments riding along in their pockets); there are (2) the mammoth fossil fuel industries (who refuse to budge out of their number one money-making spot); there's (3) the colossus of EuroAmerican consumer culture turning every citizen of the world into a shopper; and then there's (4) the climate armageddon — increasingly catastrophic impacts of global climate disruption — bearing down on us. 

(Read this Scientific American article if you want to feel chilled this morning. "Climate Armageddon: How the World's Weather Could Quickly Run Amok," by Fred Guterl, is an excerpt from his book The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It. In it, Guterl lists dynamical systems theorist Tim Lenton's nine tipping points that could lead to abrupt climate flips — and catastrophic effects. Ironically, Lenton doesn't even mention the scariest one: the methane time bomb in the Arctic. See the Arctic Methane Emergency Group website and this Homo Sapiens, Save Your Earth blog post for information on this potential cataclysm.)

Where do the global warming/climate change denialists, skeptics, ignorers and delayers fit into this metaphor? Ah, they're the ones pushing innocent people under the wheels. Their delay tactics are bringing on a holocaust of unimaginable proportions, and yet they still get their feelings hurt when you call them deniers. Grrrr.

So, here we are. Trapped. Cornered. (Ha! Figuratively literally!) Will some survive by slipping under the enormous chariots? Or by pressing themselves against the walls of the surrounding buildings? Perhaps, but we don't know how many juggernauts are waiting for us behind the four we can see. So, what do we do?

Quite often, the question is "But what can one person do?" I think it's time we stopped posing this question. We have to start seeing the power and strength in our numbers. The solution is simple: stop the juggernauts. How we stop the juggernauts is the complex part.

1. Pull the rug out from under Big Money. Invest only in renewable (perpetual, non-burning) energy technologies and other ethical funds. Stop buying frivolous things. Buy organic and locally grown foods (and less of it = lose weight = more energy to fight this good fight). Vote with your money! 

And wake up when it comes to election time — and in between. Was it Marx who called religion the opiate of the masses? Well, democracy has become our soother, our pacifier. It has dumbed us down and convinced us that we have nothing to worry about. With democracies everywhere becoming police states (to protect fossil fuel production and profits), it's time to be worried, very worried!

2. Fossil fuels. Can't live with 'em (they're killing us!). Can't live without 'em (we're hooked because of our lifestyles). Getting ourselves off this addiction means convincing our governments to invest public funds in the right things, rather than fighter jets and wars on other countries. Our children and grandchildren will be happy to repay debts incurred to ensure them a future. It's those other debts they will find abhorrent. Individuals will not be able to change en masse until governments use everything they've got to make the necessary changes for us: legislation, incentives, disincentives, fines and penalties, education and publicity, tax money, intergovernmental relationships ....

3. The globalized EuroAmerican culture? See through it, folks. Don't buy in, don't feed it. Go for walks instead of watching violent movies. Take a bike trip instead of planning a vacation in Hawaii (unless you live in Hawaii). Our consumer culture drives the fossil-fuelled economy, which necessitates the military-industrial complex. Why don't we all just step out of the rat race for a while till we get the climate mess fixed. Then we can figure out if we want to build a renewable energy-powered rat race — or maybe not go back there.

4. Climate catastrophe? Everyone's talking about adaptation (and hey, I'm guilty: I'm teaching my students to grow food, because you can't learn that sort of thing overnight), but without mitigation (from the Latin verb mitigare, to alleviate: the action of reducing the severity, seriousness, or painfulness of something), we simply will not be able to adapt. Global warming, climate change, and ocean acidification will continue for a thousand years — and that's after we reach zero carbon emissions and stabilize carbon in the atmosphere. We must do something drastic NOW. I'm now a convert to the call for geoengineering in the north. If we don't cool and refreeze the Arctic, we are doomed. And for those who insist we shouldn't experiment with the climate system, I say Hellooooo! Wake up! We have been meddling with it (albeit unknowingly at first) since the start of the industrial revolution. There's no time left to be a purist. If we're going down already, why not try the one thing that could possibly stick a spoke in the wheels.

Which brings me back to what we should be doing as a threatened species facing our exterminators. We need to poke giant sticks in the wheels of the juggernauts. We need to place wheel chocks/wedges, giant bricks or blocks in front of the chariots' wheels. Together.

We have to stop these juggernauts at all costs — except our children's lives.

20 May 2012

"It's a Juggernaut"

That line, "It's a juggernaut," has been running through my head this week, I think perhaps in response to my own sense of futility and to assuage my activist friends who feel their efforts are amounting to sweet tweet (ie, nothing). The word just sounded right. Something about overwhelmingly big, right? So I looked it up. Little did I know how right it is!
juggernaut |ˈjəgərˌnôt|noun: a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institutiona juggernaut of secular and commercial culture; a massive inexorable force, campaign, movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path: an advertising juggernaut, a political juggernaut.ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: extension of Juggernaut.Juggernaut |ˈjəgərˌnôt| Hinduismthe form of Krishna worshiped in Puri, Orissa, where in the annual festival his image is dragged through the streets on a heavy chariot; devotees are said formerly to have thrown themselves under its wheels. Also called Jagannatha.ORIGIN via Hindi from Sanskrit Jagannātha "Lord of the world."
I had to laugh. First, because Puri, in the eastern state of Orissa, is one of the few places I've visited in India. So how's that for synchronicity? But also, how apt that the original term refers to Lord Krishna, an avatar of one of the main gods in the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu. Vishnu is considered the "preserver god," at least recently. When the balance of power is upset in favour of evil, Vishnu ascends to Earth in mortal form (his avatar) to save humankind.Now, I might be messing up a metaphor here, but isn't The Economy gone awry just like a juggernaut that runs over innocent people in the streets? I mean, the economy isn't a bad thing; indeed, as a tool, it's quite neutral. But once Big Money (aka a handful of mainly white, mainly male rich people) turns it into The Economy and greed takes over as the main guiding principle ("upsetting the balance of power in favour of evil"), then it becomes a juggernaut.Isn't it incredible to think that it's our (globalized EuroAmerican) economy that is destroying the life-giving and life-preserving abilities of Earth's biosphere? Professor Brendan Gleeson, speaking at National University of Ireland, said in April 2012 that through neoliberal market economics, the western world ... had been "handcuffed to a madman" and it was now time to abandon the "ship of fools" in favour of a "lifeboat mentality." Prof. Gleeson outlined what he calls "The Climate Emergency" this way:
"Of all the threats that have faced capitalist modernity in the past 400 years, none has possessed the lethal potency of climate change. In this most uncertain of worlds, a western civilisation deprived of the certainties of ideology, faith and human identity, there is one thing we can be sure of: our species is already in transit to what the scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock calls 'the next world.' It will be a world dominated by a global climate shift that we cannot yet describe fully, but which is inevitable and approaching fast. And it is not as unknowable as all that. The next world will be very much hotter and drier.... It will be much less conducive to human existence."
Our economic system is an unstoppable juggernaut. Or is it? We can still hope (or pray, as hoping is not an action verb) that the people will one day soon simply stop the unstoppable chariot, to prevent it from running over the children and their future.*******Read on, for more information (from Wikipedia) on the word "juggernaut":A juggernaut in colloquial English usage is a literal or metaphorical force regarded as mercilessly destructive and unstoppable. Originating ca. 1850, the term is a metaphorical reference to the Hindu Ratha Yatra temple car, which apocryphally was reputed to crush devotees under its wheels. The word is derived from the Sanskrit Jagannātha or "world-lord", one of the names of Krishna found in the Sanskrit epics.

The English loanword juggernaut in the sense of "a huge wagon bearing an image of a Hindu god" is from the 17th century, inspired by the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa, which has the Ratha Yatra ("chariot procession"), an annual procession of chariots carrying the murtis (statues) of Jagannâth (Krishna), Subhadra and Balabhadra (Krishna's elder brother).

The first European description of this festival is found in the 14th-century The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which apocryphally describes Hindus, as a religious sacrifice, casting themselves under the wheels of these huge chariots and being crushed to death. Others have suggested more prosaically that the deaths, if any, were accidental and caused by the press of the crowd and the general commotion.
The figurative sense of the English word, with the sense of "something that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice" was coined in the mid-19th century. For example, it was used to describe the out-of-control character Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The term is often applied to a large machine, or collectively to a team or group of people working together (such as a highly successful sports team or corporation), or even a growing political movement led by a charismatic leader—and it often bears an association with being crushingly destructive.

13 May 2012

Responding to Scientists Who Don't Like "Alarmism"

Sometimes I find myself commenting on websites and blogs (or responding to other commenters) and thinking that what I've written is rather profound or potentially transformative. So today I'd like to share a couple of those comments with you.

Here's the first:

"But what if you're completely wrong? What if it is NOT 'true that climate impacts will be ... not as bad as some climate hawks say'? What if agriculture is going to fail everywhere? What if billions of people are going to die? What if the planet is going to become uninhabitable (to all but jellyfish and cockroaches, if they're lucky)?

"When my first teaching job took me to a logging town, I quickly learned to say, 'Sure, not every tree is for saving, but nor is every tree for chopping down.' Loggers and kids of loggers could handle that 'moderate' stance. But we weren't talking about a (literally) potential end-of-the-world scenario, we were talking about local forests.

"Does it really make sense to continue sitting around, talking about our fire safety rules and discussing the wisdom of pulling the alarm while the blinkin' house is on fire? If you're going to do that, at least lead the children to safety first, damn it! Indeed, take all the time you want to figure out how best to communicate the emergency, just ensure the children — of all species — a viable future first."

That was my response to the blogger. Then I read some of the comments and bumped up against a scientist who seems to be placing "the scientific method" ahead of life. Guys, guys, when are you going to get it through your heads? If you're fighting for anything other than life, what you're fighting for is moot! It (money, profit, power, fame, the scientific method) will not even exist if we don't safeguard the future of life on this planet.

So here's my response to that scientist, in the form of five questions: 

"1. Given that the Global Humanitarian Forum "conceded" a significant margin of error and was reviewed by Hans Schellnhuber, Jeffrey Sachs and other experts, what is the real complaint about their Human Impact Report? (It strikes me that any human loss due to the climate change emergency should invoke a humanitarian response, but I guess if those who've died aren't our loved ones, well ....)

"2. Scientists think that the best way to think about the impacts of global heating and climate disruption is scientifically. But how have scientists proved this? What if the best way is to think with our hearts and our guts, with our compassion, spiritually, or with our parents' and grandparents' love and concern for the children we love? I'm just sayin'. That we should stay calm and think scientifically is still just a hypothesis, is it not?

"3. Isn't considering the worst case scenario an important aspect of risk management?

"4. Is it true that many (most? all?) computer climate models don't include the scariest, er, biggest Arctic carbon feedbacks (peatlands, permafrost, methane hydrates)?

"5. If that's true, then shouldn't we be far more concerned than we are now?"

Give me James Hansen any day. He's a scientist through and through (listen to him give any presentation other than his TED Talk), but he loves his grandchildren and he's willing to fight for their right to a viable and climate-safe future.

06 May 2012

Communicating Climate Change - Where's the (Com)Passion?

I have a folder in my email program called Communicating CC. I have this fantasy that one day I'll do my PhD on the best way to communicate the science and impacts of climate change to the public, and my research will save the world! (I thought my master's research on sustainable development learning was going to save the world, too, but alas, no one was interested in that topic either.)
Anyway, I save any message that is even remotely related to how to get people to understand climate change. And between one of those items and a conversation I had this week with someone who works in the fossil fuel industry, I think I've figured something out.
Greenpeace recently asked me (and a million others) to ask Shell not to drill for oil in the Arctic. It struck me that their rationale was orders of magnitude less urgent than the actual situation:
"Today, a Finnish icebreaker is heading to Alaska to help Shell drill for oil. Everyone has a limit - for me it's the Arctic. That's why I'm here in Helsinki to stop it before it gets there. And that's why I need your help. Take action now and stop Shell with me. The Arctic is one of the last untouched natural areas on the planet, home of polar bears, narwhals, and other unique wildlife. Due to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is melting at an accelerating rate, opening up the Arctic to companies in search of more oil. It is wrong in so many ways. What would happen when an oil spill happens, I’m afraid to even think of it."
What if this committed activist had said, "The Arctic is sitting on massive amounts of frozen methane, a greenhouse gas that is 100 times more potent that carbon dioxide. If we allow more drilling and burning of fossil fuels, the Arctic will warm even more, releasing the methane and causing catastrophic climate chaos — including agricultural disasters and loss of food security around the world — and we'll all be guilty of the worst crime ever against humanity and the rest of Nature for having allowed it to happen."
I don't know. Doesn't that come closer to telling the terrifying truth? And even if some people read that and throw the covers over their heads, many more will wake up and demand action ... "You mean it's not just about polar bears and a few little oil spills affecting narwhals up north?" At least, that's what I believe.
(By the way, the automated response I got from Greenpeace actually made me laugh: "You’re amazing. As Shell is trying to expand into the Arctic, you’ve let them know that’s unacceptable. It will make a difference for the polar bears, Arctic terns and other amazing animals that depend on the Arctic." Hey, Greenpeace! I'm doing this to save my own ass, okay? And my niece's and stepsons' asses, okay? If I save them, the Arctic terns will be saved too. Okay? Bless 'em, they're lovely birds. And it's really cool that theirs is the longest regular migration by any known animal. But I don't think that's why people are going to go up against Shell to fight Arctic drilling and global warming.)
Then I found myself talking with someone who works in Calgary, Canada's seat of the fossil fuel industry. He was all excited about efficiency standards in American cars, and how "Saudi America" will soon be energy independent because there's so much fuel here (in North America) that we haven't tapped yet. He was standing there with his wife and young daughter. How could I inform him (as if he doesn't know) that American fossil fuels are just as destructive to the climate system as those from the Middle East? How could I tell him that automotive fuel standards are too little, too late? How could I explain that fracking for "all sorts of natural gas" is going to be disastrous?
I came away both relieved that I hadn't started a fight, especially with his daughter standing there, and ashamed that I didn't have the guts to speak up.
It seems that the world will not be saved because too many of us (Greenpeace and I included) are too nice (aka, too wussie) to speak up and tell the truth in public to defend the children and their future from those who knowingly or unwittingly are putting profit before life.
Grandfather of biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson, recently told an interviewer:
"We have to do everything we possibly can. I like to tell this the way a former Southern Baptist would tell it, in the original accent. Then you’ll see what I’m trying to say when I say we have to use every weapon at our disposal, all the time, everything from science to activism to political influence, etc. So this is Billy Sunday, a pioneer in Southern evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the ’20s: 'I hate sin. I hate sin so much I’m going to fight it till my arms won’t move no more. When my arms don’t move no more, I’m gonna bite it. And when all my teeth are gone, I’m gonna gum it.' Now you get the picture. We all have to do that. When there’s nothing else at hand, gum it."
So let's not be afraid to wear down our climate activist teeth, my friends!!! If need be, we'll just gum the problem till we solve it! In the meantime, let's communicate the potential (and probable, if we don't change our track) impacts of the climate change emergency in ways that people will actually hear and take seriously. With all honour to the remarkable Arctic tern.