Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Real News

Where do you go for the real news, the significant news, the news you need to heed? Well, you can get the latest on Britney's tour cancellation, the Lacy Peterson trial or Madonna’s name change, plus the furor over whether the voting is really fair for American Idol, in most any newspaper, TV network news, MSNBC, CNN and Fox. But for the real news, you might try the Weather Channel.

There you will see, day after day, a summer full of violent storms from the east coast through the Middle Atlantic States---particularly the Ohio Valley---and into the Midwest. Torrential rains, frequent and damaging thunderstorms. In much of the Midwest, this stormy weather has been accompanied by tornadoes---up to 100 in a day this spring, which NOAA has announced was the 3rd warmest spring on record. Storms in the mountain states, too. And in the West, the worst drought in 500 years. Get that? Since the continent was invaded, since it saw its first metal plow.

Nobody really knows how bad the global climate crisis will get, but it’s clearly underway. Not clearly enough for most people yet, it seems. Americans are incredibly literal---the only time they “got” global warming was the very hot summers at the end of the 1980s in the eastern U.S.---including the media capitals of New York and Washington. Hot summer equal global warming, get it? So the first flood of books and films made their way into the marketplace in 1990. But now there's just storms and floods in some places, drought in others, too scattered and slow for the pattern to look as real as a still photo, a special effects sequence.

Probably it will take a combination of extreme events and a new president to point out what the problem is. Or it might be the next international climate change report, due this year, though with a Bush-approved change in its leadership, probably not till after the election.

What really will matter is what the U.S. does or doesn’t do about climate change. Later it will also matter what China and other growing industrial economies do or don’t do. Much of Europe is getting itself into better position to both cope and begin slowing down the runaway train. But the consequences are likely to go on, and probably continue getting worse, for a hundred years or so. In twenty to fifty years, our children and their children will probably have a pretty good idea just how bad it will be---whether it’s going to be manageable, survivable or apocalyptic.

If it’s apocalypse in store, the half-full folks can cheer themselves by remembering that our species achieved its humanity, that we became pretty much what we still are, except with a closer relationship with nature and the realities of the universe now hidden to us, during the last period of major climate disruption---the most recent big Ice Age.

The kind of consequences outlined in the deadpan predictions of the last international report suggest there will be some big losers (in the Third World mostly) and a few offsetting winners (some in the U.S.), so this will be something we’ll just muddle through. I don’t really think so. For one thing, our current government is not only unprepared for any serious set of problems, but is bleeding away the financial resources the U.S. will need, even if incrementally over a very long time, to cope. The goodwill of the world to offer help that might offset what the U.S. can’t afford, is an even more precious resource being bled away. We could wind up with no recourse but to threaten people with our hydrogen bombs and other WMDs.

Or the whole nation-state vs. global corporation situation could come to a head, what with gigantic companies buying up fresh water and doing their best to destabilize governments that might stop them (I’ve even seen this charge applied to attempting to destabilize Canada, the biggest reserve of fresh water in the world.)

It’s all way beyond my meager knowledge, but my intuition does tell me that (and I suppose this is another half-fool move) a lot of the things people are terribly worried about in our technological future---wholesale genetic engineering, human cloning to order, etc.--—aren’t going to turn out to be problems, because society won’t be able to afford them (financially, in terms of energy or social stability), and technology is going to have to take quite a different turn.

There’s just no doubt that climate is going to shape how humans live in the future that is now beginning, for climate always has. And apparently we’ve usually been blind to that fact.

For the last half century or more, and certainly since the 1980s when coincidentally the “greenhouse effect” began to attract notice (although Arthur Miller notes in his autobiography that some scientist he met mentioned the possibility in the 40s) there’s been the drumbeat of the end of western civilization, one that has been growing so insistent that it seems a foregone conclusion. But we might have figured that, absent blowing ourselves up, this might turn out to be overly dramatic. Still, the end of a “civilization” is a bit abstract---a lot of people who wouldn’t agree with each other on what constitutes western civilization, believe it has already ended.

It’s “civilization” or “society” in the broader sense that’s now at issue---humanity that doesn’t shrink way down, that doesn’t go back to the caves and the deserts. Absent being overcome by barbarians---not an idle thought anymore, thanks to…well, let’s not get into that—we’re looking at biological threats. We might be poisoning ourselves fatally---I’ve always expected that my generation would be the litmus test of that, since most of this crap started when we were babies. Overcrowding breeding disease and spreading around the world in a flash, or even the coincidence of a few badly placed disasters that might have gone unnoticed in a less intensely interconnected and interdependent, smugly vulnerable time as ours---earthquake in LA, big volcano eruption somewhere else---or just another brazen meteor—there are lots of scenarios for the possibility of Armaggedon. I’ve even had the nasty thought that a fairly large human die-back is the only way this planet will survive without tossing out the last few million years of evolution: the Gaian enterprise. Still, it wasn’t until this climate thing that it truly seemed that major painful change became all but inevitable.

If it’s the end of the world as we know it, I can’t say I feel fine about it. I’d like to believe we’ve learned enough to make a conscious transition, to do what plenty of us know has to be done (and plenty of people smarter than me know how to do). We could even eventually go back for what we mistakenly jettisoned and see if we can’t recover what we lost in the process of developing certain other aspects of ourselves. At the edge of science and other thought, we seem primed for that.

Oh well.

I’ll keep plugging at this for as long as I’ve got the resources and the wits to do so, because I believe that the future is what we do and what we dream right now, so living in the future and living in the present are really the same thing, as far as our mortal lives go. There are a lot of people working that future more diligently, more knowledgeably and more effectively than me. But facing the climate challenge will take the whole society, and sooner or later it will change the whole society, maybe all societies and cultures on the planet. The longer we do nothing, the worse and the longer-lasting the crisis will be. The sooner people start taking in the real news, the better chance we’ll have to make the major changes that might keep this enterprise going with the least possible amount of pain and destruction.

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