Thursday, April 22, 2010

Eaarth Day

Besides the deafening silence today versus the two million shouting voices forty years ago, this Earth Day has some significant differences from the first. For example, there is 40% less sea ice in the world, and much of what remains is melting. There are 8.5 million square miles more that must deal with a tropical climate; half of Australia and much of the American Southwest are in permanent drought. River water has shrunk by a volume equivalent to the Mississippi. Glaciers worldwide are shrinking, and some are virtually gone.

There are tens of thousands--probably hundreds of thousands--fewer species of life. There are fewer edible fish in the sea, and life there is dying out fast. There is less water in many places on land, and partly as a consequence the world produces 40 million fewer tons of wheat, corn and barley per year. There are more storms, more heat waves, more diseases in more lifeforms, more forest fires and other destruction, not only in the U.S. but in the Amazon. "We're seeing the end of some forests as we know them," says a U.S. forester.

At the foot of a melting glacier in northern Tibet, a young man from a small village there was asked to explain the reason for the change. His answer was neither ethereal nor complicated. "Global warming," he said. "Too many factories." A simple and much more than an inconvenient truth. The Climate Crisis is not some vision of the future--it's been with us these forty years, it's gotten worse, and now it's having effects that only the self-blinded and deluded can deny. But still...we can stop it, right? We may be able to prevent the very worst-- runaway climate change in the far future, although what governments around the world are so far willing to do won't be enough. In any case, for the foreseeable future, it's only going to get worse. And then at the very least it is going to stay that way, for thousands of years.

That was the message of David Orr's book, Down to the Wire, last year. This year it is no longer a new message-- not among climate scientists and those who follow their work. It is the starting point for Bill McKibben's new book (all the facts above are from it.) We no longer live on the same planet as existed on the first Earth Day. He gives the planet we will be living on from now on a new name: Eaarth. So in a sense, this is the first Eaarth Day.

McKibben's book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books) uses only about a quarter of its 200+ pages to describe the current situation and trend lines, but is no less devastating for that. "The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle. The great rain forests of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth's crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization."

He counters the assertion of some on Earth Day that it isn't the earth but humanity that's threatened. It's an understandable attempt to create urgency through self-interest, but it's deceptive and ultimately counterproductive. Yes, McKibben says, the planet will survive, "but it won't be anything like the planet we've known. We're hard at work transforming it--hard at work sabotaging its biology, draining its diversity, affecting every other kind of life that we were born onto this planet with. We're running Genesis backward, de-creating."

The rise in heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere is leading to a rise in global temperature unprecedented in millions of years. McKibben devotes another quarter of his book to explaining the inadequacy of the proposed responses to the Climate Crisis, and the extreme unlikelihood that large-scale changes in policy, energy generation etc. can be made in time to head off very major changes in how human life on this planet is to be lived. "And if our societies start to tank, we'll be in worse shape than those who came before. For one thing, our crisis is global, so there's no place to flee. For another, most of us don't know how to do very much--in your standard collapse scenario, it's nice to know how to grow wheat."

McKibben comes right up against the logical conclusions, the doomsday scenarios of nuclear wars over oil and water, mass migrations from islands going underwater, the world's coastal cities and increasing areas of unlivable heat; eventually a dieback of half or 3/4 or more of humanity, leading to the day-to-day life for the survivors imagined for us in a host of grim movies, from Mad Max to The Road. Instead he backs off, partly because (I imagine) it's as David Orr wrote--if this is indeed the future, there's not much point in writing a book about it. Instead, he writes: "The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility--that we might choose instead to try to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline." [Emphasis is his.]

So the second half of the book is about how to do that. It emphasizes local and small-scale solutions--living "lightly, carefully, gracefully." Locally generated clean power, focus on maintenance instead of growth, no more consumer culture or the world it represents. Except for the Internet. Because local utopias are likely to get stifling without contact. "Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I'd keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else."

McKibben makes his case for all this being well within the possible, sometimes persuasively ( although I'm dubious about the Internet surviving.) He notes that part of the problem is that "We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale." He offers his "candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future." They are: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust.

Good words, and useful for the kind of society he foresees. McKibben made a choice in both the language and content of this book: not much philosophy or generalizing, a lot of practical specifics and common sense. But I doubt that this vocabulary is going to be enough. For one thing, there are some slightly higher-order words that will be very important, like courage, compassion, attention, dedication, fairness. But even beyond that, people need a larger vision, to guide and inspire them. And if it's going to really work, it has to be the right vision.

There were good words and visions at the first Earth Day, that helped inspire the effort leading to most of the environmental progress that was institutionalized in the first decade of the environmental movement, and has continued on that momentum. But mostly, environmentalists have been terrible at vision, and especially at "good words." With the switch from the soft-sounding and not even accurate "greenhouse effect" to the vaguely pleasant sounding "global warming" and "climate change," the response to global heating has especially suffered. As for the titanic struggle ahead between those who want to use resources to stop the cause of global heating to those who insist we can only afford to fix the effects, what environmentalists offer us is the mind-numbing choice of mitigation versus adaptation. Which more or less guarantees that a sensible discussion of these issues won't occur in enough time to have clear policies before the panic and politics combine to drive the situation out of control.

But in the past thirty years there is one word, one concept and one vision that has the proven power to move human souls: Gaia. The sense of our planet as a living organism, prefigured in myth and science, proposed as a hypothesis by James Lovelock and refined by him and others into a real scientific theory, it has also proven to be an inspiration and a possible focus.

The breadth and depth of what Gaia can mean for the future is brilliantly suggested in the new compendium of essays, Gaia in Turmoil ( the MIT Press), edited by Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinkler (with an introduction, by the way, by Bill McKibben.) This volume includes various views of the science (including its relationship to systems theory and cybernetics), the historical resonance of the ideas, the applications to policy and how people relate to their planet in their moment to moment lives. There are trenchant essays on Gaia and evolution, forest systems, water, biodiversity, and on its relationship to ethics, education and governance. Particularly striking are the essays by Martin Ogle on Gaia as model and metaphor, and David Abram on Gaia and the transformation of personal experience of the everyday world. I don't think I am exaggerating when I suggest that an entire curriculum could be built around this book, producing a very valuable education for the future.

I place this book at the top of my indispensable Eaarth Day books, along with
McKibben and Orr, and one other: A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking). Solnit's book explores responses to recent disasters to pose the key questions "Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life-and-death questions." This is another component of how we realistically face this tougher future. I'll probably be writing more here and elsewhere about these last two books.

The Quiet Crisis

Between last Earth Day and today--in fact, in March, during the final healthcare votes--Stewart Udall died. He was appointed by President Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Interior in 1961, and stayed under President Johnson until 1969, just before the first Earth Day. He was an environmental pioneer, part of the transition from conservation to environmental activism. The first environmental laws were passed, or were proposed (and passed soon after the first Earth Day, in the Nixon administration) on his watch.

Udall also wrote one of the pioneer books on the environment, though The Quiet Crisis is not much remembered. It followed by a year the first environmental classic and best-seller, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Udall's book took a more historical view, chronicling American conservation efforts. But crucially it also took a wider view, beyond chemical pollution to the total environmental effects of the growth-at-any-cost economy: "In a great surge toward 'progress,' our congestion increasingly has befouled water and air and growth has created new problems on every hand. Schools, housing, and roads are inadequate and ill-planned; noise and confusion have mounted with the rising tempo of technology; and as our cities have sprawled outward, new forms of abundance and new forms of blight have oftentimes marched hand in hand."

Although it preserves signs of hasty writing, The Quiet Crisis remains remarkable in the appropriate breadth of its content. He dealt not only with facts but the underlying and overarching philosophy. He elevated the work of Aldo Leopold and his "land ethic", now acknowledged as a central figure in even contemporary environmentalism, into public policy discussion. He went after examples of air, water and soil pollution--and assembled the first official endangered species list--but he also looked to the historical and spiritual sources that support and sustain attention to the natural world. He could be eloquent on this topic. "To pursue his vision more intently, Emerson steeped himself in Plato, Goethe, and fresh air. The easiest way to develop Olympian insights was to turn the mind into an aeolian harp and attune it to the winds and sounds and rhythms of nature."

In this book, he also dealt with urban environments as well as wilderness, with needed legislation and individual action. That the book has an introduction by President Kennedy shows that the environment was on the agenda almost a decade before Earth Day.

Stewart Udall was also one of the voices heard throughout this year's American Experience documentary, Earth Days. He was part of the mass movement before and just after Earth Day in 1970 that led to the laws that saved the United States--from erasing more wilderness, from poisoning more water, earth and air and therefore poisoning itself. But as this documentary notes, expanding effective environmental change to the world, and applying it to the most deadly threat human civilization has ever faced, climate change (which, the documentary documents, was talked about in a national news broadcast on the first Earth Day) has failed.

Udall called it the Quiet Crisis in 1963. It became pretty noisy on Earth Day 1970, when 2 million Americans participated, and soon after, when the fledgling movement targeted and defeated anti-environment legislators. But on its 40th anniversary, it has gone quiet again. Seemingly because it is so accepted, but let's face it, there's an awful lot of denial involved. Earth Day was utterly invisible in the media today. We'll see if there's real coverage of the Sunday demo in Washington, and the climate bill scheduled to be introduced next week, but I wouldn't count on it. I get emails from several different enviro organization, and nobody is talking about the Sunday demo. There still is no collective, focused action by environmentalists. Too much separate noise can also add up to a quiet crisis.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is
that one lives alone in a world of wounds."
Aldo Leopold
A Sand County Almanac

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature. And I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery not of nature, but of ourselves."

Rachel Carson
quoted in Earth Days

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dunkirk II?

Update: From Tuesday morning's NY Times:"European transport ministers announced a plan to begin easing the six-day ban on aviation traffic around the Continent, but a new ash cloud spreading south from the erupting volcano in Iceland on Tuesday raised fresh concerns about arrangements to restore anything resembling normal schedules."

The UK government, said the Guardian, has "launched an unprecedented plan to bring home an estimated 200,000 people stranded abroad by the volcanic ash cloud – including possible deployment of the Royal Navy – as European airlines staged a series of successful test flights and urged governments to reassess flying restrictions."

Though airlines were pressuring governments to lift restrictions, they are expected to remain in force through midweek. Ryanair, Europe's largest short-haul carrier, cancelled all flights in northern Europe until Wednesday afternoon with BA and BMI scrapping schedules for tomorrow after Nats, the national air traffic controller, maintained a no-fly zone until at least 7pm [Monday]evening.

There are airlines that fear bankruptcy because of this, and the Prime Minister warned ground transportation and ferry companies not to profiteer. But with thousands of UK citizens stranded in Europe, including school children on holiday, the government is considering using Navy vessels to bring them home. If they do, it could be this generation's version of Dunkirk--the flotilla of boats that rescued what was left of British forces in France against the advancing German army early in World War II. But this time, it's not a mighty military force, but the atmosphere, and tiny particles in the air from a volcano in distant Iceland.

Meanwhile, the ripple effect continues--and it ripples out to the farm fields of Kenya.