Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Changing Climates, Deep Doo Doo, and Pickles

This will be a long post, but I've got a lot to get off my chest, and it's my 100th for the Farm, so I'm indulging myself. And because of the impending ice storm, I've got the afternoon off--which may seem ironic, given the subject at hand, but at the moment the weather's behaving appropriately for the season.

The news about the future of our planet, despite the generally upbeat tone of political news at the moment, seems to be getting grimmer and grimmer. Bill McKibben's latest piece for Foreign Policy "Think Again: Climate Change" (reprinted in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, the 25th, as "Past the Boiling Point") reminds us that it's already too late for some remedies, and is rapidly getting to be too late for many others.

What we generally see in response to what seems to be a growing body of agreement is either band-aid approaches (Ten Ways You Can Help Save The Earth) that include recycling all of the unnecessary packaging on the stuff we buy that we don't really need, or abject denial (as I read in local blogger Denise McNamara's recent post "Dallas Morning News: Burn After Reading"): "there are multitudes of scientists who disagree, and as earth prepares to enter a period of solar maximum, the consensus is that man does not cause climate change; the sun does. Oh, and right now the earth is experiencing global cooling" she claims, despite evidence to the contrary. See, for example, the consensus list posted on LogicalScience, or the article in Science (Dec. 2004), or Joseph Romm's critique of the opposition, "The Cold Truth About Climate Change" in Salon.com from a year ago. Just today, Jim Giles writes in New Scientist that "Human emissions could bring 'irreversible' climate chaos."

As anyone who's studied geology can tell you, climates do in fact fluctuate like crazy (although change usually takes place over millennia). Yes, we do experience periods of heating and cooling and interglaciation. And other factors, like earth's wobbly axis, can cause things to change more quickly, as they did back in the Mesolithic to generate the dessication of the Sahara region. But even somebody who's never taken a geology, biology, or physics class in his or her life should be able to see that something's going on, and we are in fact blowing all manner of particulate matter into the atmosphere at an unprecedented (at least before the Industrial Revolution) rate. There's a simple equation in play here: more people + more stuff = more emissions. The upshot is crappy air that can't be taken care of by bio-absorption because more people and more stuff are in part the result of cutting down our own built-in bio-filters: forests all over the world. And, of course, the few glaciers left are melting apace.

The exact consequences and even the exact mechanisms aren't perfectly understood because there are simply so many factors involved that the computer models can't keep up with them, and we sure as hell don't have the experience to help us figure out processes occurring too quickly to test or predict with any real facility.

So what's a conscientious, non-denier to do? I mean, if you're already doing all ten of the "simple" things you can do to save the earth, what's next? Or if you've been a tree-hugger since your hippie days, what else can you embrace? Especially when you throw in the current economic crisis, lost jobs, and the prospect of worsening economic conditions before they get better (we hope--remember?). Every new thing we don't buy, every workman we don't hire, every meal we eat in, every television show we don't watch impacts the economy. The old one, that is.

If we're going to do anything about climate change, it seems to be intricately connected (as all systems are) with consequences somewhere else along the line. In the end, I think this calls for some radical rethinking of the economy we've been living in for the past fifty years, and perhaps looking backward for some ideas about living well with less.

Of course I'm talking about William Morris. And I'm trying not to be a Luddite. But the man was right; we need to examine philosophically how it is we might live, and take steps to create that world for our children. It means examining the way we live now very critically, especially in terms of quantity versus quality. We get too much information. We drive too fast. We use too much of everything and pay too little for it to sustain the people who make it for us. We know too little about the world, but use too much of it, disregarding the consequences of every liter of gasoline, every kilowatt hour of electricity, every gallon of water we consume.

We also need to re-imagine the concept of work. In addition to considering Morris's distinction between "useful work and useless toil," it would be helpful to examine what "work" has come to mean in the twenty-first century. Howard Gardner's article from 2007, "An Embarrassment of Riches" points out that "The accumulation and cross-generational transmission of wealth in the United States has gone way too far. When a young hedge-fund manager can take home a sum reminiscent of the gross national product of a small country, something is askew. When a self-made entrepreneur can accumulate enough money to, in effect, purchase that country, something is totally out of whack. It’s impossible to deny that market fundamentalism has gone too far." He goes on to suggest limits to personal wealth, which would, of course, cause volcanic eruptions on the right (and probably on the wealthy left as well). But the real impact of his critique lies in the nature of that wealth: the kind of "work" involved in acquiring it.

Why is it that those who do the worst work--the people who pick up after us all, for example (garbage collectors and sorters, maids, busboys, dishwashers, building maintenance people), who do the dirtiest jobs, receive the smallest wages? Why do people who do really important work (like taking care of our children while we're off "working," elementary and secondary educators, caretakers in homes for the elderly) "earn" so much less than guys who sit in plush leather chairs and spend other peoples' money? Why can't a farmer earn a decent living and maintain the family farm without mortgaging him or herself silly in order to stay afloat? I know I've ranted about this before, but it seems all the more relevant now that people who could count on their jobs at places like Home Depot--a company you'd think would be doing fine because people are beginning to opt to do it themselves rather than hire someone to paint their houses and such--are now being laid off.

There does seem to be some hope embedded not only in the new administration, but also in the growing realization of parents in this country that if something doesn't give, those precious little kiddies they've been hovering over are going be stuck in deep shit. And since these kids don't even know much about poop or where it goes or how it's processed (somebody else cleans it up, after all), they're also going to be in a pickle. And they don't know where those come from, either.

When I was writing More News From Nowhere, I wondered about what people would leave out of their new world if they had a chance to start afresh. One of the first things to go, as it turned out, was electricity. The people in the story carefully examined all of the consequences they could think of engendered by the use of a fairly simple technology: everything from sleeping patterns to how much they used their bodies to accomplish tasks.

Now, I doubt seriously that anybody's going to give up their light bulbs any time soon (and what use would there then be for my pretty switchplates?). But thinking and learning about systems and how they interconnect, and how they impact the way we live on the earth is a step toward imagining a different economy.

Why don't we make by hand more of what we truly need? Why do only relatively wealthy people get to afford good, locally-grown produce? Why do we have to use a car to go everywhere? Why do we think we need to be able to stay up all night to work or study or play games? What ever happened to sitting around eating, talking, enjoying the company of friends without going to a noisy bar and watching a big screen TV all at the same time?

Signs of change like the Slow Food movement and Community Supported Agriculture are laudable and offer some reason for optimism. Efforts on the part of the government to retrain workers and keep jobs at home may help, too, but the jobs have to be thoughtfully conceived rather than simply be re-hashed ideas that involve manufacturing more unnecessary commodities.

But I also think that there needs to be a national conversation about what kind of world we should make, as opposed to what kind of world we've become accustomed to. It might begin with thinking about what we would save if we could (or had to) start all over again, and what we can do without. We don't have the option to really throw it all out and begin again, but a thought experiment like this might help us realize something about the value of the world itself, and what our continuing presence here might mean to those who come after us--of all nationalities, ethnicities, and species, not just our own.

One thing that comes to mind, on a practical and individual level, is to look at what we already have in terms of what we think we need. For example, I live in a drafty house that I've done about as much to insulate as I can, and so I keep the thermostat down at 60 degrees and use lap-rugs to stay warm while working or reading or watching the telly. I need another one, because the coziest throw we have isn't really big enough for two of us. I could go out and buy one of those nice fleecy things I saw on a browse through Tuesday Morning not long ago (the second time in recent memory that I'd been in there and not bought a blessed thing). They're cheap (probably cheaper than they should be) at about $20. But they're made out of synthetic fibers (the manufacture of which spewed who knows how many pounds of carbon and other gunk into the air), and it would be, after all, One More Damned Thing.

So today, since I'm pretty much caught up with the week's lectures, I'm going to gather up all the old bits of wool I've had squirreled away in the Museum of Unfinished Projects, and start knitting up a new blankie: hand crafted, possibly pretty (I've got some granny squares already finished and they actually look rather nice; I'll join them up with some strips of knit-one-purl-two and see what happens), and it won't cost me anything I haven't already spent.

I've already started a "finishing up what's in the freezer/larder" project that involves making peasant soups at least once a month using odd bits of veg, rice, pasta, and tinned foods, and an occasional chunk of meat. So far they've been wonderful, and I'm now making room for stocking up on home-made bread and other staples that I can make in batches and then freeze. Come summer, when I should have recovered enough of my stamina to garden energetically, I'll have room on the shelves for jams and chutneys and pickles galore.

Maybe I'll invite some children to help me, so they'll see how it's done.

Images: The charts are from Global Warming Art. Hundreds of high-quality diagrams and charts are available, created by really smart, creative people. The picture of Morris at 53 is from Wikimedia Commons.


Geoff said...

A terrific blog entry.

Of course you were talking about Morris and of course I don't think of the agent every time I hear/read his name.

I really have to stop doing that. ;)

Anywho... I don't see this solution being alleviated without technology. It's in our genes.

Recycling is a good example of changing our world by changing our behaviour but not exclusively. So I'm a little hesitant to completely agree with the premise. Part of the problem with that is it replaced what was the most essential and beneficial solution (to re-use and reduce) with the money making, technological 'third choice' recycling.

Now we mostly pat ourselves on the back and convince ourselves that all that recycling isn't creating more C02 and other air and water pollution. I have replaced the old light bulbs with higher efficiency fluorescent except the Mercury they contain which then creates tremendous ground water pollution.

It's like that line in the Woody Allen movie where Billy Crystal tells Woody that they have air conditioning in hell so it screws up the ozone layer.

I take it you've read realclimate.org's take on the 'irreversible/unstoppable' conundrum, which I also recommend.

I don't think we're hard wired to think ourselves as part of a system either. I keep thinking back to all the talking heads that said 1 degree change isn't much not realizing that was the entire planet earth.

We're pretty much strangled by the Alberta Oil sands here. It's pretty much seen as a single handed driver of the economy. The provinces that receive government payouts are now the ones not producing oil.

NAFTA isn't going to be re-negotiated any time soon. All we have to do is mention the word 'oil' and US protectionism backs off. It's the only political high card we can use against powerful Washington lobbyists since the oil sands project went into high gear.

Sheesh, this is way more fun than RW. I should do this more often. It will save me from leaving my computer on waiting for someone there to say something smart.



- Geoff

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for the link to the RealClimate blog; I had somehow missed it in my climatological peregrinations (but now I want to be an "ozone hole luminary" when I grow up). You're also spot on about the recycling thing. What we really need to do is to just stop buying stuff, but the economic consequences are pretty dire--so we kind of have to learn how to re-use whatever we do buy, and/or make it into something else.

Technology may indeed be our only hope, Obi-wan. Seed's latest issue [http://seedmagazine.com/magazine/] is subtitled "Science Can Fix This" and contains some fairly compelling arguments for the vital role science and technology will take in helping rescue us from our own quagmire of stupidity and lack of foresight.

Part of me, though, just wants to turn off the lights and sit around a fire--as long as we can still distill a good single malt (or, in your case, a good beer) to drink whilst we're enjoying one another's company.