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Whiter Our Exist?

By Jeff Berg

04 March, 2010

In Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit - a play I once directed - one of the character opines "Hell is other people." Alan Farago's article - The Potemkin Village Economy - is a good example of why this statement is so often true. http://tinyurl.com/yljcf63 It is also a superb illustration of the forces impeding our ability to limit our ecological footprint. Think Kunstler meets Kafka. Kunstler being James Howard Kunstler. A new urbanist, author of 'The Long Emergency', and star of the documentary 'Escape from Suburbia'. Kafka needs no introduction. Suffice to say both men meditate usefully on how hard it is to escape 'The system'.

Those terrified by climate change often think that there is no better single argument for changing human behaviour. The nuclear abolitionists have long believed the very same thing. I.e. That the threat of "ultimate doom" can be leveraged to create systemic change. In the latter case at least, sixty five years and multi-trillions of $ on bombs later, we are still waiting.

Social justice advocates and the religiously inclined on the other hand tend towards the project of developing a more spiritually enlightened human being. And while it's true that slavery has been, mostly, abolished it did take thousands of years. Ditto the emancipation of women, a project far from complete in any case.

Meanwhile the free market theorists insist that the problem is we haven't gone far enough in their direction. Like unrepentant Marxists they insist utopia is right around the corner if we but submit ourselves wholly to the guidance of their invisible hand. I at least remain unconvinced. To say I've more company than usual on this score after the recent derivatives induced financial disaster is an understatement Twain would appreciate.

To my mind the environmental scientists may be closest to the right track. They did for example manage to spark the movement, policy mechanisms, legislation and enforcement required to stop acid rain - at least until the tarsands started up. (sigh) They also managed to save the ozone. No small thing. In fact it was an extremely large thing.

It is very telling how underplayed this narrow escape was/is by the media and our politicos. Especially when you compare and contrast the exposure they give to the comparatively miniscule threat represented by Iran and Iraq's putative WMD. To quote scientist and Aussie 'Man of the Year' Tim Flannery: "If we had failed to agree, as a species, on banning those chemicals in 1987, we know what the trajectory of chemical production was and we can work out what the burden of the CFCs would have been by 2007. … For every one percent decline in ozone or one percent increase in radiation, we get a one percent increase in failure for seeds to germinate. The same thing happens at the surface of the ocean, among tiny creatures that are the basis of the food chain. So if we hadn’t agreed in ‘87 to ban those chemicals, today we would be facing a full-blown crisis of life on Earth."

These victories over acid rain and ozone depletion were both timely and staggeringly important - obviously. However they are akin to what we now need in the same way that an acorn is akin to an oak. Such is the enormity of the demands we have placed on ourselves in our enthusiasm for progress, modernity, and the latest plastic gewgaw. Like a sorcerer's apprentice dabbling in forces beyond our control we have concocted a 'triple-threat' rather more outsized than the talent of last year's Oscar emcee Hugh Jackman. I.e. Environmental degradation, climate change and resource depletion.

The sad truth it would seem is that we are trapped in a labyrinth of our own devising and there are minotaurs around every corner. As Robert Newman put it in 'The History of Oil' - his exceptional and extraordinarily funny one man show - "There is no way out." http://tinyurl.com/yczdt7t

Given the timelines we are being presented by science and circumstances what is now necessary it seems to me, as unlikely as this will undoubtedly sound, even to me as I say it, is a global epiphany. I.e. A universal moment that allows an overwhelming majority of us to simultaneously see the same thing. A shared experience of our zeitgeist if you will that acts as did Copernicus's. Einstein's or Newton's insights. We have made this level of leap before. I.e. A collective, well on nigh universal, shared experience based on a deeper understanding of the nature of physical reality. An experience that changes nothing materially and everything conceptually. I stress this last statement for I am most decidedly not suggesting a "cataclysmic and catalyzing" moment. Far from it.

The moment I am talking about would in and of itself change nothing but our perceptions. And yet by the alchemy of this transformative conceptual inversion most of what we previously thought we knew would be changed, and as a result so too would our behaviour. Absent this exceedingly unlikely 'awakening', escape from "The system" as represented by business as usual will not occur. At least not on the timelines represented by climate change, resource depletion and population. Instead market forces will prevail and demand will be the least of the destruction that we witness. Scale, scope, inertia, careerism, greed, deregulation, myopia, ignorance, intranational, intergenerational, and international mistrust, and the gospel of GDP growth - everywhere still espoused by governments and business - all vitiate the possibility or worse work in the opposite direction.

In short. Through inaction we have led ourselves to the unpretty pass of needing something on the order of a miracle. Rachel Carson wrote 'Silent Spring' in 1962. Six years earlier Dr. Hubbert established the scientific veracity of peak oil. 'The Limits to Growth' was published in 1972. The Brundtland Commission report in 1987. I.e. Around the same time that climate scientists around the world came to understand that this problem was existential in scope. To quote from the communique from the first international summit on climate change held in Toronto in 1988. "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequence could be second only to global nuclear war." When our scientists, the most sober and conservative of all human communicators, start talking like crazy people it is time for the rest of us to take notice.

I bring these moments up to highlight the fact that we could have started earlier, and that there were was no shortage of scientists and science based commentary advising us to do so. Instead the last thirty years have been led by those who denied the available evidence and derided as "unrealistic" those who advocated conservation and green energy. It is a bleak irony indeed that our businessmen, politicians and lawyers were able to get away with lecturing our physical scientists on the nature of "reality". That our media unwaveringly backed this p.o.v. and marginalized the science and its messengers is proof positive of the inherent bias and limits of advertisement based information. This last problem alone defies any obvious solution that could actually be implemented, and in this case at least the only obstacle is ourselves.

If we had started serious conservation and green energy measures after Jimmy Carter's 1977 speech to the nation on conservation http://tinyurl.com/y8p4awt we may well have led the OECD, Russia, China and India on to a different developmental path. At the very least we could have restrained our corporations and capital from adding so much fuel to the new Asian fires. Instead we got the Carter Doctrine which readied the Middle East for invasion, and Reagan's first symbolic act was to tear the solar panels off of the White House roof. The following twelve years were focused on policies, tax breaks and subsidies designed to maximize throughputs and emissions. Thanks to Thatcher, Howard and Mulroney the same was true throughout the Anglosphere. Our example emulated pretty much everywhere thanks to the economic and political dominance that once was ours. The Clinton years changed little if anything and the Bush jr. years speak for themselves. As does Obama's multi-trillion dollar defense of business as usual first year in office.

That things are still very little different than they were thirty years ago was clearly illustrated by the media treatment that the Liberal Party of Canada and its leader Stephane Dion were given when they campaigned for a carbon tax two short years ago. The result was the election of oil man and tarsands backer Stephen Harper and his ironically named Conservative Party. As a Canadian it has been surpassingly strange to watch my country devolve from a first world industrial economy to a petro-state in the new millennium. So much for 2000 being the advent of the 'Great turning'. 2012 is all the rage these days, perhaps then. Numerology is easy to mock but given the paucity of alternatives being offered by the bipartisan consensus its popularity is equally understandable.

Today we hear from our scientists on the perils of topsoil depletion, ocean acidification, overfishing, fresh water shortages, and peak grain, and this just for starters. And if our scientists have got the right end of the stick, and they do, we are going to need this miracle soon. Unfortunately, to quote Miracle Max from the Princess Bride, "You rush a miracle man - you get a rotten miracle." A chance we are going to have to take, but one of the many costs to foreclosed options. The inevitable consequence of delay.

At this late date in my life I am beginning to gain a better appreciation for the practice of prayer. For while it is true that Elvis has left the building Godot has yet to enter it. Though there is no shortage of pretenders to that throne in the Middle East and elsewhere. Glen Beck or Sarah Palin for President anyone? Which brings us full circle: Whither our exit? A question we will all find ourselves increasingly occupied with over the next few decades. And while Dostoyevsky was certainly right about the capacity of imminence to focus the human mind its efficacy in the face of these challenges is at the very least an open question.

N.B. None of this is to suggest that we abandon ourselves to fate. Luck goes to the prepared, and the more prepared you are the luckier you get. And in this case at least too much of a good thing just ain't possible. Better late than never is another felicitous phrase that springs to mind like hope eternal.

ton confrere

Jeff Berg
Post Carbon Toronto

Jeff Berg is a founding member of Post Carbon Toronto. He is an activist and freelance writer focusing on energy & emissions and their micro and macro implications ecologically, economically and socially. He can be reached at jeffberg@rogers.com