The Alberta Bitumen Sludge Mines (“tar sands”) – one of the world’s greatest eco-holocausts and a massive and soaring contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Canadian governments are working furiously to persuade Barack Obama to commit to investing in and buying the oil that, at such immense cost, comes from this grotesque industry.
When I first read John Gray’s Straw Dogs I was immensely relieved. Once I realized that our civilization is in its last century, and that nothing we can do will change that, I was freed from the daunting task of trying to ‘save the world’ to focus instead on making the world a slightly better place for those I love, and those in my communities, physical and virtual. No more hoping against hope for that impossible solution to the myriad of complex and interrelated problems bearing down on us, mostly of our own making. Do what you can, and what you must, and be happy. After us, the dragons.
That’s easier said than done, however. When virtually everyone you talk with thinks we will solve these problems, or doesn’t believe these problems are even real, remaining utterly convinced that the first truly global civilization, the most powerful civilization in our planet’s history, will collapse in our grandchildrens’ lifetime seems, well, a little crazy, untenable.
Until, that is, someone shows you the score of the game with an unmistakable number, and then reminds you that nature always bats last. That endgame number is minus 8% per year, every year, for fifty years. The number comes (via George Monbiot) from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is how much we absolutely must reduce greenhouse gases to avert runaway climate change. Their work suggests that the most aggressive targets proposed by any government in the world to date will still raise climate by 4-5 degrees Celsius in this century and bring about “the likely collapse of human civilization”. What is needed, they show, are targets, aggressively and relentlessly pursued in every country across the globe that are four times greater than anything proposed to date.
In his book Heat, Monbiot proposed a radical but doable series of economic and social makeovers (starting with a virtual ban on airplane travel) that, his data suggested, would help us achieve a target that this new data shows was not nearly radical enough. Since his book came out, no government has dared to suggest that we should follow his advice. Each subsequent essay by Monbiot is more and more subdued and resigned: “Is it too late? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year’s Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that – almost a century ahead of schedule – the critical climate [change] processes might have [already] begun”.
To suggest that we can get anywhere close to -8% is like saying, as you approach within fifty feet of a concrete wall at a hundred miles an hour, that all it takes is sufficient will and effort to achieve sufficient deceleration to come to a quick and safe stop — and by the way let’s talk about it some more to see if it’s really necessary to slow down yet. It’s magical thinking. It’s pure folly.
Monbiot is quietly daring to say what Gray said: It is too late.
Our emissions continue to rise, rapidly. The hope that a severe and lingering global recession might buy us some time is a false one — in recessions, we use cheaper, dirtier fuels and we suspend research on clean alternatives, making the situation worse, not better. The climate scientists I have spoken with personally are terrified — their worst fears are being realized, much more quickly than they had thought, and every new study shows the crisis accelerating, the task ahead becoming much harder — more impossible.
What does this mean? What does it mean to give up on your whole planet, on the well-being and even survival of all-life-on-Earth? What does it mean to admit to your grandchildren that you are bequeathing them a planet so ruined that life will be an ever-worsening hell, until they die, cursing us for our greed, our rapacity, our stupidity?
To say so is to make it true. What if we do that? What if we admit it’s true, that it started when we started burning more and more wood and then coal and then oil and gas, to produce more and more stuff for more and more people in an economy that now depends on us continuing to do so, forever? That we made a mistake, with mostly good intentions?
What it means is the end of politics, a giving up on massive, centralized institutions, political and corporate, that never did anything for us, but only for themselves. What it means is an end to bringing more children into the world. What it means is a moratorium on all “development”, to at least make the descent for our descendents less hellish. Monbiot refers to my fellow blogger Sharon Astyk’s anti-technophoria assertion that it means a 50% reduction in consumption within five years. Even though that will precipitate an economic depression of unprecedented proportions, and require us to stop spending taxpayer money we don’t have (another disgraceful legacy we are leaving for our grandchildren to fix up) to bail out companies that are causing and financing climate change.
What it means, mostly, is an admission of utter failure, a confession to our descendants and our ancestors and all-life-on-Earth that we have desolated and destroyed this planet and undone in two short centuries what it took the Earth billions of years to create. A period of protracted grieving and reconciliation with those other generations and cultures and creatures we have caused and are causing and will continue inexorably to cause, suffering. Saying we are sorry. Doing what we can, and what we must.
This is, now, the only thing we still have enough time for.
It would be a kind of global truth and reconciliation project, one that involves us all. It would let us admit, at last, that this culture has made us ill, fearful, stressed, violent. That we don’t know what we’re doing or how to undo the damage and start to make the world a better place. That our disconnection from the truth — what we daren’t watch or admit is going on in prisons, refugee camps, abusive households, despots’ and corporatists’ boardrooms, toxic waste dumps, torture centres, child labour camps, factory farms, back alleys, strip mines, locked cages and cells, and millions of other places of misery and pain and despair — has made us mad, hateful, ruinous. That our disconnection from each other and from all-life-on-Earth has cost us our souls. That we are all prisoners of this well-intentioned madhouse we have constructed.
And then, with such truth and admission and collective grieving, we can, at least, be free.
Will we do that? I think we will. But not yet. We are not yet ready to admit defeat, or what we have done. Those of us who are too far ahead can start now, to recognize and acknowledge this truth and this sorrow and this failure and this grief.
And when the rest of the world is ready, we can help them.
Category: How to Save the World