Songs of the Doomed
There is a lot of talk on this blog and elsewhere about how best to get the economy going again, but it seems that the environment is missing in action from the debate. At best, climate change is a concern mentioned in passing, only to move on to the real action of boosting GDP growth rates and employment (will corporate tax cuts do the trick or increases in public spending?). I’ve been guilty of playing this game myself in the past, but these days I’m not particularly interested in blanket policies for “growth” that do not make any distinction about growth of which sectors and to whose benefit. In Canada, our efforts to improve competitiveness (whatever that means), increase exports and so forth have only contributed to a growing environmental disaster (I’m looking at you, tar sands).
Meanwhile, the latest salvos from scientists tell us we need to be freaking out and overthrowing this old order. Here is quote from the summary of a new paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows that looks at probabilities of global temperature increase of 2â—¦C, widely believed to be the point where runaway climate change takes the keys away from human decision-making on the issue:
Building on previous studies, this paper uses a cumulative emissions framing … to understand the implications of rapid emission growth in nations such as China and India, for mitigation rates elsewhere. The analysis suggests that despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2â—¦C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2â—¦C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2â—¦C now more appropriately represents the threshold between â€˜dangerousâ€™ and â€˜extremely dangerousâ€™ climate change.
In other words, we are in deep do-do. Bill McKibben calls it Eaarth, a fundamentally different planet than the one we have known throughout our history. McKibben does not spend much time reviewing models of what may come. Instead, he writes about what has already happened or is happening: disappearing glaciers leading to shriveling water supplies; shrinking arctic sea ice; extreme weather events, droughts and floods; increasing ocean acidity; methane emissions from melting permafrost; declining agricultural yields; and so forth. I recently saw a visually compelling documentary, called Home, that nicely complements McKibben’s prose, while making the connection to other unsustainable practices (depleting aquifers, destroying forests, extracting raw materials) that leave us in even worse shape looking forward.
And yet the chasm between the science and the politics seems to be growing. Just a few years ago there seemed to be a debate about whether we needed a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, or debate about the nuances of policy design. In 2011, Obama did not even mention climate change in his State of the Union address, trying to backdoor change through the energy security frame. In BC, both major parties are holding leadership conventions, but climate change is not even a minor issue (no one is saying no to more oil and gas extraction). Federally, there may be an election this spring but at this point no one seems to want to break the political silence on climate for fear of alienating voters.
So where to look for hope amidst the doom? My optimistic side says there are some very interesting developments on which a decent future could be built. These do not make the overarching crisis go away, but they speak to how we slow down the process enough that we have a shot â€“ should the political will arise, of course.
First, there is a growing movement around food: local food, sustainable agriculture, ending hunger, better nutrition. Will Allen, a former basketball player turned urban farmer came to Vancouver last week to talk about what his group, Growing Power, has done to grow food, create jobs and address hunger through urban agriculture projects. The room was packed with 600-700 people of all ages and backgrounds. There is a growing movement there, but one that provincial and federal politicians are not tapping (instead favouring an export-oriented strategy for agriculture) Local governments in Vancouver get it, but they often lack the financial might and jurisdiction to make the really big changes. (CCPA’s Climate Justice Project did a BC analysis of and vision for the food system here.)
Second, the potential of renewable energy is huge if we can overcome the political inertia of fossil fuel interests. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucci published a new paper assessing the world’s energy mix and how it can be shifted to wind, water and solar technologies over the next couple of decades. This builds on research that made it the cover story of Scientific American in Fall 2009.
There is some debate about what a renewable energy system should look like. The two Marks argue for renewable sources supplying the big electricity grid we already know and love, whereas McKibben argues this is like buying organic food at the supermarket â€“ an improvement but not a game-changer. McKibben argues for smaller-scale, distributed and community energy systems based on renewables. Overall, McKibben limits his solutions agenda to food and energy in a way that strikes me as nostalgic, rural and distinctly American in its distrust of government. Still, this is the kind of debate I’d rather be having.
Third, the field of urban planning is increasingly articulating a hopeful vision of more compact and complete communities, where people live much closer to jobs, public services, stores and amenities like parks. The Danish urban guru, Jan Gehl, came to town last week, and described his vision of “cities for people” where walking and biking comprise a large share of trips, supplemented by good transit systems, with the private automobile in last place. Add in a new generation of green buildings built to standards like passivhaus (see a great Tyee series here), and you have an agenda for jobs, sustainability and social inclusion in rebuilding our cities.
Still, what the science says is necessary and what the technology tells us is possible are still running up against the conventional wisdom of politics and economics. I long for the day when economic commentary puts the ecological at its core. Instead of calls for GDP growth, let’s improve life satisfaction by building stronger communities, more democratic participation, better heath, education and so forth. I want to see social movements emerge that get big enough to push politicians into more courageous territory that what passes for acceptable today. In other words, I want my cynicism to be replaced by hope that we can build robust communities that can not only weather the storms to come but provide a better quality of life for people.