Don’t knock the warm.
Contrary to all the pontificating going on these days I have to say that climate change is likely to become one of the best things that ever happened to the Earth. When the streets of New York look like those of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina even the most powerful individuals opposing the changes we need to make in human society will lose a lot of their clout.
I say this because several studies have pointed out that solving the climate change crisis involves a lot more than watching the carbon budget. Climate change is the canary in the Earth’s total environment – only one of a suite of degradations that humans are making progressively worse. What are the others? Let me start from the smallest and work up.
The automobile has proved to be the worst invention ever made against the well-being of the Earth and human society. Just drive down any thoroughfare, in any country in the world, during rush hour and you will very soon be an avowed enemy of every lunatic trying to weave in and out in front of you, or pass on one side while another does the same on the opposite. Separating ourselves in our own mobile cocoons whenever we leave the home has done as much harm to human solidarity as did the building of castles in the Middle Ages. “Alles menschen werden bruder”, all humans become brothers, says Schiller’s poem Beethoven used in his Ode to Joy. Not on the highway – there’s no joy there.
The pollution automobiles spit out is the least of their noxious effects. Were we to have solid government resolve to ban the use of any vehicle not fueled by hydrogen we would still only be halfway to remedying the ill caused by the private automobile. I need hardly point out that the situation world wide is only going to be worse when the billions of China and India join the traffic jams. Cities as real communities, nourishing our humanity, will fade out of existence, and that social glue, the camaraderie of ordinary people doing ordinary things together, will decline even further. One of my fondest memories of Greece is of a journey in an overcrowded bus across the island of Syros, where at every stop along the road half the passengers had to alight, joking and complaining, so that others could leave or join the bus. We became brothers and sisters on that journey – even the English couple behind me fretting about safety standards – as we grew more connected through the minor adversity.
The effects of the auto on our geography are as bad as any rise in sea level. The thousands of acres of farmland buried under the highways, linking the thousands of acres buried under sprawling ticky-tacky box suburbs, to the thousands of acres of sprawling malls and shopping centres are a terrible loss to our global commons. The degradation of wilderness caused by the ‘recreation’ of thousands of city dwellers who are loving our scenic sites to death is a direct result of the automobile. The pristine rainforests bulldozed aside to make rubber plantations for the tires, and the huge dumps of worn out tires that can only add to the carbon loading of the atmosphere when they’re burned or recycled are only one example of what we’ve lost in order to have two cars on the driveway.
One of the biggest indicators that nothing effective will ever happen to head off global warming is the fact that nobody wants to link it with our world’s crippling overpopulation. As a human society, we cause too much planetary degradation and climate change because there are just too many of us. We all want that upper middle class lifestyle and all the excessive consumption that goes with it, but the Earth cannot support such largess. A global population of a billion or less could live very well indeed, with much less effect on the Earth. The numbers we are headed for must expect to live with inadequate food, sub-standard housing, minimal health care, and token education in a world becoming less capable of providing the wealth enjoyed by a minority of societies since 1950.
Which brings me to the next shibboleth that must fall if we are to adapt our societies to an ever smaller share of an overstretched Earth. The idea of growth must be discarded. When the space available is already full, growth in population, growth in production, growth in consumption, growth in profits must end. Only in the childish reckoning of GDP, does growth of wealth appear to occur today, because at least half the spending considered in the reckoning is either dispensed to rectify the decay of capital infrastructure already built or is expended upon activities too trivial to contribute to real human well-being. The Chicago school of economics has done no more than equip humanity with the powerful tool that has created the inequities and consequent criminal behaviour, the pollution, the waste, the global climate change, the destruction of the environment, and the intractable social problems that threaten to make future lives less safe and less productive than those of Dickensian workhouse denizens. If we are to bring climate change, and all the other problems, to heel we must guide our economies with a great deal more care than we have since WWII.
The so-called economic miracles of free trade and trickle down economics have only been accomplished by robbing the Global Commons. Everyone has been indoctrinated with these supposed laws of economics, that are purely a result of decisions and procedures cast in stone in the temples of wealth. Economic laws are not immutable, since they are no more than the expression of the way we order our societies. What we have created we can surely uncreate. Much volatility of stock markets and commodity markets is caused by too easy credit – speculation on other people’s money. The margin rules that allow this are man made, market rules, that can be changed. Many oil analysts hold that oil prices are being inflated by the futures market for oil – surely everyone believes society would be better off with oil at $50 or $60 a barrel instead of $100.
These are just a summary of the obstacles that make attempts to stave off environmental disasters with feeble agreements like Kyoto, less than laughable. At work here are forces that can never be overthrown until Bangladesh and Holland vanish beneath the sea, until New York streets are populated by gondolas, like a restoration of Venice – itself to vanish beneath the Adriatic. In all of human experience, nothing has ever begun to get better until it has become totally intolerable. Two thousand five hundred years ago, Lao Tse said, “What is to be shrunken must first be stretched out”. Human hubris has been stretched to the limit, and it is only the workings of our inexorable saviour, climate change, that will oblige us to undertake remedial action that can set us back onto the path of real human progress.