No matter our country, class or inclinations, we’re all equally dependent on Earth’s life support systems. These are everywhere being damaged and run down. Wood explores how the latest science news challenges conventional thinking about human security and our economy, and the opportunities for informed individuals and communities to respond.
Chris Wood’s columns are available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to all work on Facts and Opinions. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers via a paywall. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes.
Canada’s heavy-handed ‘security’ strategy is a sham. But the current government is not Canada’s first to go AWOL in protecting natural security. Indeed, as a colonial, second-generation industrial power, Canada was built largely by converting natural capital to private fur and timber, later pulp and fossil fuel, fortunes.
If you can read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction without your heart breaking, you do not have one. If you can do so without feeling shame as a human being, your conscience must be dormant. But if you can read the New Yorker science writer’s latest book without a shiver of fear, your intelligence is wanting.
It’s hard to know what to make of the news that Pope Francis is planning an encyclical on climate change. On one hand, any intervention that pushes us to save the climate our species grew up with is a good thing. On the other, he stands on so much baggage it’s hard to keep a straight face. But let’s not stumble over centuries of graft, complicity in genocides, doctrinal misogyny and overlooked pedophilia. Let’s not even dwell on the fact that one of Francis’ predecessors persecuted Galileo for suggesting the sun didn’t orbit the earth. Instead, let’s think of the coming encyclical as a 21st century version of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses — in reverse.
‘Human Rights’ are, in general, bunk. But a Dutch group is at least putting the idea of them to good use. They are taking their government to court for idling while the Earth burns. Specifically, these low country plaintiffs are asking a Dutch court to oblige their government to act to accomplish a reduction in the Netherlands’ greenhouse gas emissions consistent with keeping global average warming above pre-industrial levels within 2o Celsius. To understand why their case matters, we need to recall two things about the political and legal norms that have made the so-called ‘free’ ‘democratic’ and ‘developed’ countries of the world at least approximate those aspirations.
Feeling low about the climate future? Wondering, as punk rocker-turned-energy-reporter Geoff Dembicki asked in a recent series of stories, “Are we screwed? No, we’re not (necessarily). But if you live in the Anglosphere — and if you’re reading this, that’s pretty likely — you are being deprived of much of the good news about our future prospects. In Britain, Canada, the United States and Australia, leaders in power constantly warn us that if we do anything to move away from fossil fuels we can kiss our economy — that is, stuff like jobs and paycheques — goodbye. Now we learn that the media in the English-speaking world has been persistently ignoring the far more hopeful truth.
Where I’ve been recently in Vancouver, Canada, the cherry blossom petals are already flocking on the ground, the daffodils wilting and the camellias almost over. The interior of the province of British Columbia posted heat records last weekend. But when a callous westerner posted these facts to Facebook, a Maritime easterner sourly noted that they were still surrounded by the evidence of record winter snow. Both are symptoms of a common cause: a climate system suffering increasingly acute bipolar disorder. And as anyone who has lived even briefly with a sufferer of that disorder can attest, the experience is likely to prove disorienting, exhausting and highly corrosive to their quality of life.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Canada’s Stephen Harper have more than a capacity for a mirthless blue-eyed stare in common. Both northern countries’ economies rely disproportionately on foreign earnings from oil, gas and mineral sales. In both cases, that dependence is made all the greater by their leaders’ monocular economic vision, which has left both nations’ manufacturing and service sectors to wither. Both Harper and Putin, from different motives but with equal ruthlessness, are putting at risk the planet’s bioclimatic stability to pursue hubristic personal ambitions. And both are ready to wield every power of their respective offices to eliminate opposition.
Infrastructure is an ugly word, but a big part of what governments do — especially those we live closest to, our town or city government. ‘Infrastructure’ is also the service backbone of everything else we do in our active lives — the bridges we drive over to work and the internet connections we jump on when we get there, the pipes that bring water to the tap and the others that carry away the toilet flush. It’s a mostly unglamorous subject. But it’s about to revolutionize, in ways that will also revolutionize how we deal with environmental issues.
The one percent are meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week — or at least, that fraction of the one percent that retains either a trace of social conscience or an instinct for personal survival that entails more than a private army and a fortified island somewhere. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is the one annual event at which the rich and powerful gather to consider the prospects for further expanding and entrenching the free market, neo-liberal economy that has made them the masters of their universe and ours. And as in other years, they will consider the threats that haunt their agenda. The conversation-starter for that discussion is a single, colourful graphic locating nearly 30 “risks” to the globalized economy along axes of likelihood and impact. And Of 25 risks the WEF ranks as highly likely, and/or high impact, more than half stem from failures of natural security.
Will 2015 be the end of our capitalist consumer cornucopia world? That world cannot go on. And as some bright person once said (the words are variously attributed to Henry Ford and economist Herb Stein): “What cannot go on, will stop.” The ultimate foundation of that world, just as it was for the worlds of the Greeks, the Ming and the Maya, is our natural security: the supply of ecoservices like food, water and air — to name only the crudest — which constitute our biological habitat, which keep us alive, and which thus underwrite everything else in the human experience more complicated than bare survival. And, thousands of observational data sets show that our natural security is crumbling.
The charge of hypocrisy, let’s be clear about it, is deeply hypocritical. The argument turns up regularly. To paraphrase this week’s example: the people who released all those greenhouse gasses to get together in Peru for the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, have no right to lecture the rest of the world about carbon. The same argument was trotted out here in Canada recently, to scold activists for driving to a demonstration against a bitumen-tar pipeline. This is one of those many supple and seductive but wrong aphorisms that emerge regularly, cunningly honed, from the political right’s constellation of propaganda-research institutes.
‘Glocal’ is an ugly word for an often ugly process. It was coined to capture the way that global dynamics and networks touch down in the intimate spaces of neighbourhoods and family lives, as well as how the citizens of those places respond — adopting, adapting or resisting the global tide. Currently, events taking place at two points on the Pacific rim of the Americas have been resonating for me in the realm of the glocal. One has been, and the other shortly will take place in coastal cities, squeezed between the mountain rock and the deep blue sea. As participants in both events might agree, the settings aptly capture humanity’s situation.
Once upon a time an amalgam of rigorous, inquisitive candor about the physical world, and a deep delusion about superior racial entitlement, delivered control of two of the four continents that were up for colonial grabs in the 18th century to Britain. Britain’s legal and political philosophy, its English language, and to a large extent genetic descendants of its families, dominate North America and Australia to this day. Europeans, Latin Americans, and others outside this socio-political clan have resented their exclusion and berated the ‘anglo’ model of cut-throat corporate permissiveness — what used to be called laissez-faire and is now re-branded for global distribution as neo-liberalism. That fewer descendants of Empire persist in their delusions of racial superiority is a welcome development. But it’s worrying to see the Anglosphere also abandoning its realism about the physical world. … log in to read more (paywall*)
Canadians have been aware for some time that their Prime Minister subscribes to an arcane fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Being the polite and generally go-along types we are, we have quite properly left his faith between the man and his God. However, it is now evident that Canada’s P.M. is a credulous disciple of another not-so-fringe and much more dangerous faith, about which we have every right to be deeply concerned. That cultic faith is Old Testament economics. … log in to read more (paywall*)
Systems approaching the brink display some common features, and sometimes thresholds give advance warning. They recover more slowly from disruption; “in-state fluctuations” become wilder and less predictable; conditions “flicker” rapidly from one state to another. By opening our eyes to these and other signs, we may be able to determine where some of the riskiest thresholds lie — and how to push them, and ourselves, back from the brink of “eco-geddon.” … log in to read more (paywall*)
Ever had a clam roll? I know, sounds like a straight line. But in the Canadian Maritimes a clam role is a load of breaded, deep-fried clams in a hot-dog bun, usually with shredded lettuce and mayonnaise. Enjoy one, if you get the chance, because the lowly clam is the latest canary to show signs of expiring in our climate mine. There is hope though, for the clams and for us: if we use the clear levers available to be pulled.
It’s one of those authorless pieces of universal wisdom: When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. If we try to save every pond and copse that was there when we were kids, we’ll lose them. Either all of them or enough that it won’t matter. No net loss, is something we might actually be able to do. The alternative is to keep digging.
I shared breakfast recently with a bunch of other guys over 60. With the disinterest of age they surveyed the state of the planet and to a man expressed relief that they were no longer 20. The proverbial yearning of the old for a second crack at youth evaporates pretty fast when the future looks thoroughly screwed. But in fact we do have a tool to deal with circumstances just like these. We’ve had it for 200 years.
More than on most days, the handcart in which we are all riding toward a very unpleasant destination feels like we’re maybe in sight of the station. Even for a hardened student of the headlines, the human tragedies in the Ukraine and Palestine are sorrowful to contemplate. And yet necessary, too. They confront us not only with the human reality of the moment but also, stripped of their context and backstories, the end that awaits millions more of us across much of the world.
A common line of attack for the propagandists, and the misled who imagine we are not altering Earth’s climate, is that climate projections rely on models. Models! But it turns out there are models, and models. And now economists Simon Dietz and Nicholas Stern have published some startling findings about the DICEy current models used to estimate the social price of carbon.
Millennia of not-always-wise irrigation, a century of water seizures for national ends, and decades of conflict including that now in Iraq, have not been kind to the once-lush basin of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. “Recovery” might yet be possible, in the unlikely event that environmentalists, who are without a name let alone an army, unify the Levant under a Green banner. But the point we all need to grasp is that the former Mesopotamia is merely a little ahead of the rest of us, on the road to bankrupting our natural security.
If you have ever spent a night under the canopy of stars undimmed by city lights, in a place where the only sounds are those unmade by man that have whispered and lapped and knocked and called out through the dark hours in that place since the last big ice released its grip on the Earth, you may share the view of many who have been so blessed that the essence of our planet’s nature and worth cannot possibly be reduced to the grasping calculi of dollars or pounds or Euros. You would be only partly right. An American economist has done just that, sort of.
If there were before some footing left for doubt, narrow and slippery though it might have been, there is none left now. The world as it has been for the entirety of human history is on its way to the exits. What makes this certain is a pair of studies of the behaviour of a glacier most of us have never given much thought to. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is a vast ice-scape at the bottom of the world, nearly half again larger than Canada. And it is breaking up. Indeed, the scientific teams that gathered the evidence of the ice-sheet’s retreat say its collapse is now “irreversible.”
Acidifying oceans. Desertifying fields. Liquifying glaciers and icecaps. Toxifying lakes and rivers. Our species has a nature problem. Or to put it another way: nature has a human economy problem. Before this century is over — more likely before it’s half over — that problem will be resolved, one way or another. Either we’ll be bright and change the way our economy works, or — and also more likely — we’ll carry on until either our economy or nature or both break beneath our weight. What we need here is a little insurance. Seriously.
Where I live, in the most Catholic part of old Mexico, the entire week and weekend to come are turned over to a passionate mix of Christian and not-so-Christian rituals: an overnight pilgrimage of the faithful in their hundreds bearing a life-size effigy of a suffering Christ, an entire afternoon devoted to the satisfaction of blowing up life-size paper Judases (although some bear a suspiciously strong likeness to certain political figures. It is Easter. Which turns out to have nothing to do with Ishtar, a Canaanite goddess of war, fertility and something called “sacred prostitution.” What it does have to do with is the hope that comes with spring time, with the return of life after the little death of winter, that is celebrated by different names in different ways everywhere we are on the planet. I am not a Christian, but we need that hope just now.
The 1,000-gun salute in the realm of natural security these past weeks has been for the Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report. So let me talk (mostly) about something else instead. The IPCC’s latest synthesis of science mainly confirms widely known trends and risks and warns, yet again, that our business-as-usual is leading us to the extreme end of the range of climate forecasts by the end of this century. So instead of dwelling on that, let me take you to one specific place where the climate hasn’t waited for the end of the century, the Mackenzie River delta on the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea.
Rube Goldberg is long dead, but the figurative machine to which he gave his name lives on. It’s that whimsical confection where a rolling marble tips a lever that sends a toy plane whizzing down a wire to bump into a scissors that cuts a string that drops a water balloon on a sleeping victim … Earth’s climate is a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine: a vast assembly of invisibly connected parts, pushing and pulling each other around the spherical planet to achieve, for the last 12,000 years at least, a lot of movement of heat and wind and water, but very little change in the overall state of affairs.
She’s looking for love, not to get fracked. These eight simple rules — borrowed from an American sit-com — are addressed to any person (corporate or otherwise) who asks to take my planet out for a date at the mines, the oil well, or the multi-acre Walmart parking lot. By all means, have fun, kids. Come home with a tattoo and a stray dog you found in the street, if you like. Just follow these eight simple rules…
Ronald Reagan, in a lucid moment, famously characterized his approach to nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union as: “Trust — and verify.” Much the same, it turns out, might be said for the green boasts of business. If we’re honest about it, most of what threatens our natural security is the result of our own appetites. Boreal forests are turned into tar pits to push our comfort pods from driveway to the mall. Mountains are crushed to expose the copper and rarer metals that ignite the digital fire in our smartphones. Rivers are emptied to grow our out-of-season salad. But what if we could have our smart-phones and February salads and cars without any of that destruction?
For the first time in its 54-year history, the California agency in charge of the aqueducts that made the desert state into America’s orchard and keep the swimming pools sparkling in the Hollywood Hills has cut off its customers—all of them. The State Water Agency has effectively run dry. Officials warned that 17 communities might run out of water completely before the end of May, in what has been described as the worst drought in the U.S. west in at least 500 years. If water isn’t the absolute essence of natural security, it is certainly essential to it. The news lately has not been good. The knee-jerk response of far too many political progressives is, if anything, worse.
Follies to the right, follies to the left: Empiricism is demanded of both sides
A plurality of American Republicans believe people have existed in exactly their present form since being created from mud one day 6,000 years ago. They share with Canada’s Conservatives and Australia’s Liberals the view that science, which got lasers and flight and iPhones right, have it wrong about the climate. Canada’s Conservatives are so disdainful of empirical evidence they’ve been purging the country’s science libraries. So far, so familiar, and so stupid. But here’s the thing: many shibboleths of the supposedly progressive left are no more defensible in the light of actual evidence and informed judgements. If evidence is to be our guide, the left needs to be rethink its gag reflex over …
On the Fiction of Averages and Meaning of Marbles: It’s extremes that kill
North America’s recent wintry blast, and one unfortunate crew of ice-detained eco-cruisers in the south polar sea, have stirred the blood of the science deniers. According to well-paid propagandists working for media outlets, small-time municipal councillors, and a certain spotlight-seeking New York City property magnate and game-show host, the occurrence of cold and — OMG! — snow, is sufficient to overlook millions of other data points meticulously collected around the globe over the last 40 years, and conclude, ever hopefully, that this whole climatey, changey, thing is a hoax. If only it were so.
We’re All In This Together: ecosystems as life-support systems.
We’re all in this together. That is not a moral sentiment. Nor is it the wooly-headed utopiate of some bleeding-heart liberal. In fact, it is a statement about biology. Nonetheless, this clearly unoriginal insight has implications for everything from agriculture to medicine to business. It should resonate across our social, inter-personal and economic realms as well. Here’s the deal: That splendid, solitary, neurotically cultivated and over-examined individual of pop cultural celebrity, of too many moody novels, of philosophy, and more recently of Darwinian economic ideology, turns out to be just another of those enterprises’ many fantasies. In reality, we are not individuals, we are collectives.
The Shakedown of the Century? Will trade deals let energy companies shake us down for $55 trillion?
Oil and gas companies plan to spend $700 billion searching for fossil energy next year—even when four-fifths of the reserves they already own may end up ‘stranded’ to stabilize the climate. Why? Because international trade and investment rules will allow fossil fuel companies to demand trillions of dollars in compensation for abandoning locked-in carbon assets. Every additional barrel in reserve is another potential claim. The total bill could rival the size of the world economy.
Say Hooyah for Natural Defence: U.S. military identifies climate change as security threat
Say what you will about the United States military, no organization on earth is more focused on maintaining its capabilities no matter what. As a result, its upper echelons spend a fair amount of time considering what that ‘what’ might actually look like. Recently at a conference in Halifax, Canada, the top figure in that military, United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, described what he and his top-brass colleagues see when they look around the globe for the biggest looming threats to America’s security. Significantly, it wasn’t men with guns.
Needed: Better Natural Defences: The Philippines’ devastation is a wake-up call
I’ve spent a good deal of the last few days glued to the computer screen, sifting theinternet for news from the Philippines. Not from any motive of disaster voyeurism (the armchair version of a new industry, ‘disaster tourism’), but searching specifically for any word from a place called Romblon. Romblon is a tear-drop-shaped island about 16 km from top to bottom, located between larger islands roughly in the centre of the Philippine archipelago. The central ‘eye’ of Typhoon Yolanda (also called Haiyan) a monster 600 km from edge to edge, passed about 80 km south of Romblon’s only town, on the island’s northern tip.
Goldilocks and Nine Billion Bears: Five countries prevent global starvation
United Nations demographers forecast that by mid-century — in 37 years — there will be more than nine billion humans on the planet, about two billion more than the roughly seven billion of us now. This, as we say in Canada, is dreaming in technicolor. It very nearly cannot, and almost certainly will not, actually happen. Instead, the realistic forecast is for widespread famine, plummeting birth and infant-survival rates, and stalling, then falling, human populations.
Boys will be girls: “zombie” chemicals are pervasive
In Alberta rivers downstream from certain Intensive Livestock Operations – better-known as feedlots, where hundreds and even thousands of cattle are crowded together in foetid paddocks of manure and urine the more economically to supply North America’s steak and burger-loving consumers – almost all the males have disappeared from key minnow populations.The suspected cause: the buildup in the water of chemicals that mimic hormones, the molecules that signal most life forms how to develop and function. The water-borne mimics originate in steroids and other drugs that agribusinesses pump into feedlot cattle to speed weight gain, and counter the spread of disease among animals close-packed in compounds paved with excrement.
Give Disaster a Chance: Brute force will make us change our ways
Where I live, in Mexico, screens have been filled with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ingrid and tropical storm Manuel along the country’s coasts. Mexico is in no doubt about the reality of climate change, and is instituting a national strategy to respond to it. Meanwhile those relative few in the Canadian and US media who pay attention to such things have jumped on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to comfort skeptics with the idea that global warming has slowed down or perhaps even paused over the last 15 years. A pause! Why, it’s the next thing to global cooling and a complete collapse of that whole, human-caused climate-change hoax conspiracy!
Australia follows Canada to elect a hard-core fossil fuel pusher
The Majuro Declaration. Ever heard of it? I thought not. The two-page document was released Sept. 5 by a group of 15 small Pacific island nations, and two somewhat larger Pacific island nations — New Zealand and Australia. It was promptly hailed by the few climate cogniscenti who were aware of it as a breakthrough in candor, if nothing else, about the gravest crisis facing the world. No, not Syria. The crisis that is on a trajectory to exterminating most of Earth’s life forms and sharply reduce humanity’s numbers. That crisis.
Natural Security is the central question of our age
With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. We are surrounded by miracles and wonders that would have dazzled the most indulged monarch of any earlier era. And we are preparing for ourselves a tribulation commensurately greater than any in our species’ record. A time of disruption which may, indeed, bring that record to an end (really, this time). What to do? What to do? These are the defining facts and central question of our age.
*Chris Wood’s columns are available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to all work on Facts and Opinions. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers via a paywall. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes.