Tuesday, October 26, 2010


For the Children: Abrupt Climate Change, Cultural Autism, and the Thread of Hope

To My Children, Fearing for Them

Terrors are to come. The earth
is poisoned with narrow lives.
I think of you. What you will

live through, or perish by, eats
at my heart. What have I done? I
need better answers than there are

to the pain of coming to see
what was done in blindness,
loving what I cannot save. Nor,

your eyes turning towards me,
can I wish your lives unmade
though the pain of them is on me.

Wendell Berry published this poem in 1968. I know the children he speaks of through the poignant National Geographic photoessay focused on a Siberian farm family he imaginatively linked with his own, farming tobacco with horses in Kentucky. We had survived the McCarthy era, but Soviets were still demonized. And we had narrowly missed a nuclear exchange over the Cuban missile crisis. But here it was: the Siberian Woodsman (another poem) loved his children just as much as the poet loved his. Opposing nuclear arsenals arrayed against the demonized other, we were the same underneath.

Terrors are to come. The earth is poisoned with narrow lives. Forty years later, the theme remains. The earth is poisoned far beyond Berry's or anyone else's imagining, even as reactionaries chortle at Paul Ehrlich's failed projections of population doom. In 1986, two events signaled the coming terror, the Malthusian curse amplified by climate change. That was the year when we first exceeded the earth's annual biocapacity. In addition to rapidly burning the stores of ancient sunlight, our energy capital, we started eating into annual income. The other fact about that year was that it was the peak in grain production per capita (376 kilos), steadily declining ever since. Last year, one billion people were at risk of starvation. This year, we exceeded biocapacity on August 19, effectively employing 1.627 earths to maintain our current population of close to 7 billion.

Okay you say, but terror? Key Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in favor of the new START treaty negotiated by the Obama administration, and the midnight clock of nuclear armageddon is poised to be set back once again (if we can keep Pakistan and Iran's hawks, and a few others closer at hand at bay). The answer lies in the Defense Department study under the last Bush administration comparing the threat of terrorism (the word is now a systematic part of both our vocabulary and government, with over a hundred new agencies dedicated to countering it) to that of “rapid climate change.” The study concludes that the latter threat far outweighs political terror.

Dianne Dumanoski's The End of the Long Summer (Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth) is an intelligent book cooly surveying the Damoclean sword of abrupt climate change and what we must do to avoid it, at least partially, and survive it (partially). I have read several books on climate change, including Bill McKibbens' recently released Eaarth, and Dumanoski's is the most comprehensive. She combines the geological and historical perspective of Tim Flannery's Weathermakers with McKibben's recital of the earth's current crisis through the lens of climate science, adding the valuable perspective of human evolutionary history and cultural biology.

Recasting McKibben's touchstone, The End of Nature (1989), Dumanoski speaks of the Return of Nature. McKibben took the historical perspective of a romantic, proclaiming the end of nature as we knew and loved her, recognizing the awesome ability of our species to dominate natural systems as a planetary power. From Dumanoski's perspective twenty years later, nature's return is the return of the repressed. The entire earth system is rising up to restore balance, and climate change is the main vehicle via which we will be chastened to our pre-agricultural and pre-industrial size, or else removed entirely from the system.

But while she acknowledges the huge challenge of our planetary emergency, Dumanoski cautiously affirms the history of our species in surviving some pretty harrowing moments of past climate change, including abrupt ones where climatic patterns shifted rapidly within a brief decade. We have already survived 700,000 years of climate variability, having evolved both a brain and cultural extensions of biological adaptation that have equipped us with the flexibility to deal with such crises – up to now. Clearly we have had a pretty easy time of it during the mild holocene, the last 12,000 years, tempting the species to overexpand as it triumphed over rivals - especially Neanderthalis - by being so remarkably adaptable and flexible. Yet we are now like a bacterial bloom that has eaten up all the fuel in the petri dish, and have nowhere else to go.

Given our precarious situation, we have the choice of changing the global industrial order, encouraged by international treaty to live sustainably in a carbon-neutral world averaging zero net economic growth, or continuing our clever manipulation of nature, “playing Prospero” with huge geoengineering technofix projects. She outlines both choices, and cautions against the latter, arguing that in effect we would be postponing the harder path of reining in our industrial excesses, placing an intolerable burden on future generations. And of course, we don't really know if these huge manipulations (like seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to simulate the effect of volcanoes, partially blocking incoming solar radiation) will even work, much as the scientists observing the first detonation of an atomic bomb in the desert at Alamogordo did not really know if unleashing this powerful toy would destroy the atmosphere. (CONTINUED)

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