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Summer Reads

By Albert Bates

10 August, 2010
The Great Change

"You can't get elected by promising people less."
— Bill Clinton

Looking at the news, most current stories have a common thread. Wars over oil; oil spill; catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and record cold waves in the Southern Hemisphere; wheat prices up on drought in Russia; forest and peat fires from the heat; economies cratering from higher energy costs and banking bubbles; states, provinces, and municipalities teetering on bankruptcy; unemployment skyrocketing; right-wing militant groups finding traction; civil rights trampled as authoritarianism hardens; and billions still being spent to keep people in the dark on peak oil and climate change.

If you turn on the TV news, pick up a newspaper, or talk to a taxi driver, chances are good that this thread will be all there is. It may not sound dire, just confused, and it may even have some unvarnished anger or wellspring of eternal hope embedded, but these are the themes.

Russian fires. Until recently, many reports said global warming would be good for Russia, because the warmer climate would improve their agriculture. In 2010 the fields of burnt wheat disproved that theory.

Who knew it would come down this way? That collapse would envelop us and we would still be, collectively speaking, as generally unaware of our peril as sheep being herded into the slaughter pen?

The advice we hear from the bobblehead pundits is rote: we need more military bases and prisons to gain security from the terrorists; that the environment will self-heal over time; that adaptation is the best solution for heat and high water; and that the recession is nearly over, and jobs and booming growth will soon return.

We are reminded of something Confucious said, "When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honors are things to be ashamed of." In an election year, it is not difficult to tell which kind of country we live in. People seem to want more riches and honors and don’t give a damn for the poverty and mean conditions of their lesser brothers and sisters. As Bill Clinton said when he was President, “You can't get elected by promising people less.” So everybody is being promised a fat bribe or a free ride, and there is no shame in taking either.

Last month, Richard Heinberg wrote in his Museletter:

...Limits to Growth foresaw this inflection point nearly forty years ago. But the world failed to heed the warning; as a result, adaptation now will be much more difficult than would have been the case if growth had been proactively curtailed decades ago. Global leaders now face the need to accomplish four enormous tasks simultaneously:

1. Rapidly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We must do this to avert worse climate impacts, but also because the fuels themselves will be more scarce and expensive. Ending our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas proactively with minimal social disruption will require a rapid redesign of transportation, agriculture, and power-generation systems.

2. Adapt to the end of economic growth. This means reworking, even reinventing, our existing economic system, which functions only in a condition of continuous expansion. Banking, finance, and the process of money creation will all need to be put on a new and different footing.

3. Design and provide a sustainable way of life for 7 billion people. We must stabilize and gradually reduce human population over time, using humane strategies such as providing higher levels of education for women in poor countries.

4. Deal with the environmental consequences of the past 100 years of fossil-fueled growth. Even if we cease all environmentally destructive practices tomorrow, we still face the momentum of processes already set in motion throughout decades of deforestation, overfishing, topsoil erosion, and fossil-fuel combustion. First and foremost of these processes is, of course, global climate change, which will almost certainly have serious impacts on world agriculture even if future carbon emissions decline sharply and soon.

Overshoot, from The Biochar Solution (in press)

What we sacrificed with all the bobblehead blindness, political procrastination, and Clinton’s Axiom was surge capacity. We gave up 40 years of surge capacity and left ourselves with neither time nor resources with which to buffer the coming waves of shocks.

All we can do is shake our head and pick up a good summer read, like The Witch of Hebron, Hold Your Applause!, or Sacred Demise. We could go to a baseball game, preferably Little League. That’s the great thing about summer, after all, you can just tune out the world for a while.

Somewhere, people are actually doing what needs to be done. Soon enough, the world will turn its attention their way.