Sunday, October 18, 2009
crow battens down
Crow here. I've been wondering if the human species has too much natural ability to dominate (both one another and the environment) without the wisdom to use such abilities for the promotion of life. It was John Maynard Keynes who pointed out that for most of human history - essentially up until the 18th century and the invention of the steam engine - very little changed about the way people lived on the planet. Before that people had learned about fire, language, music, cattle, the wheel, the plow, the sail and pottery. There were banks, governments, mathematics and religion.
When humans began digging up coal to fuel steam engines and metal ships the modern age came about. After coal came oil, then natural gas and all of a sudden things started going much much faster than they ever had in human history. Things became more efficient and, yes, life became much more comfortable for those born in western industrial states but the big question now is - at what cost? After WWII economic growth in the United States in particular became exponential. Growth became America's mantra, and then the world's. There were all kinds of technological advances to come: plastics, cheap cars, television, air-conditioning that opened whole regions of the country to masses of people. This was the richest country in the world, the most powerful.
That simple, cheap, concentrated power lies at the heart of our modern economies. Every action of a modern life burns fossil fuel; viewed in one way, modern Western human beings are flesh-colored devices for combusting coal and gas and oil. "Before coal," writes Jeffrey Sachs, "economic production was limited by energy inputs, almost all of which depended on the production of biomass: food for humans and farm animals, and fuel wood for heating and certain industrial processes." That is, energy depended on how much you could grow. But fossil energy depended on how much had grown eons before, on all those millions of years of ancient biology squashed by the weight of time till they'd turned into strata and pools and seams of hydrocarbons, waiting for people to discover them.
The down side of all this growth is that nobody nowadays can argue that putting massive amounts of carbon waste into our atmosphere for the past 100 years or more has effectively changed the climate. The amount of carbon dioxide that scientists have determined is a safe level for our atmosphere and continuation of the planetary climate to be safe for human beings and all creatures is 350 parts per million. It's been just two years since leading climatologists observed rapid ice melt in the Arctic and other frightening signs of climate change, they issued a series of studies showing that the planet faced both human and natural disaster if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 remained above 350 parts per million. Unfortunately, the level now is 390ppm and it's still rising.
Only the United States refused to sign the original Kyoto Climate Protocol because it doesn't require any action from the developing world, including China. Now the agreement is likely to be allowed to expire in 2012 and meetings are scheduled in Copenhagen later this year to see if a new policy can be agreed to by all. The common belief has been that we have until 2050 before insurmountable difficulties with climate change will be apparent to all. Armada storms are a good name for what we could experience in a man made planetary climate. Last Thursday the UN's top climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, urged a key conference on global warming to set tough mid-term goals and warned carbon emissions had to peak by 2015 to meet a widely-shared vision. One thing he said was essential is that the United States cuts its carbon waste by 100% in ten years. Forgive this Crow for smiling at the idea.
October 24th is scheduled to be an international day of action to put pressure on governments to change their stance on continuing the massive use of fossil fuels. Copenhagen in December of this year may well be the pivotal moment that determines whether or not we get the planet out of the climate crisis. To learn more check out 350.org. In the meantime I'm going to see if I can find susan one of these handy little units designed by America's biggest corporations and advertised by my friends The Yes Men.