Sunday, December 18, 2016

What Happens in the Arctic, Doesn't Stay in the Arctic

There are more and more signs of climate change about to pull a number on us, but we still won't listen. We've got ammonia in our atmosphere and a spike in methane concentrations:
"CO2 is still the dominant target for mitigation, for good reason. But we run the risk if we lose sight of methane offsetting the gains we might make in bringing down levels of carbon dioxide.... Methane has many sources, but the culprit behind the steep rise is probably agriculture.... [Methane] is about 30 times better than CO2, over a century timescale, at trapping heat in the atmosphere.... If we want to stay below two degrees temperature increase, we should not follow this track and need to make a rapid turn-around."
And the Arctic is taking the brunt of these changes. It's a flashing warning light for the whole world:
The average air temperatures were “unprecedented”—the highest on observational record.... Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger, or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year.... Average annual air temperature over land areas was the highest in the observational record, representing a 6.3 degree Fahrenheit (3.5 degree Celsius) increase since 1900.... 
Scientists who produced the annual Arctic Report Card warned the situation was changing so quickly it was “outpacing our ability to understand and explain” what they were witnessing.... This is a frightening moment. We have seen how the reins of the federal government are being handed over to the fossil-fuel industry.

Unfortunately people are still generally in favour of doing what improves their current life rather than focusing collectively and long-term. Politicians are not kicking corporations out of their beds or their investment portfolios. Parents who would do anything for their kids won't change their own behaviour to help their children's habitat remain viable.

We're nearing the end of our chances, and we're carrying on, business as usual.

Charles Taylor thinks it's because we're limited by our culture. We need a shift in our social imaginaries - the moral values embedded in our culture - the cultural attitudes and understanding we learn and perpetuate. We're currently so far afield in individualism, it's hard to see our way back to a more collective and compassionate mindset.

We accept judgment over behaviours around trivial things - choice in fashion, entertainment, political ideology (same thing?), etc. But it's unacceptable to judge people over their actual character - openly valuing the generous and other-centred. It's mean to suggest people are being unkind or self-serving. And this is internalized to the point that I wonder if most people ever take a moment to evaluate their own character, their own moral actions. Is shame a thing people experience anymore? Being self-serving is to be accepted as a viable choice in our current landscape, and we've got Ayn Rand and the like to give us arguments to maintain our course. The goal is no longer to develop character in our children or students, but to sweep clear the path ahead of them so their gains can surpass our own. The importance of doing the right thing isn't an axiom of our times.

One of my father's lessons to me was a warning that I should live in such a way that when I lay on my deathbed looking back I can rest assured that I was a good person, with few regrets over my wrong-doings, times I harmed others or took more than my share. That's how he thought of basic priorities faced in the final moments of life. Recently a few students told me their goal is to lay on their deathbed relishing all the enjoyment they had, all the pleasure they got from validating careers and access to various material status symbols of the era. It's not enough to have a job that pays the rent; it should be a joy to go to work each day.

This mindset is a concern not just because it sets them up for profound disappointment, but because we've lost sight of acknowledging our own character development. People who are against Nestle taking local groundwater for profit, will tell you so with bottled water in their hand. There's a profound disconnect between how we life and what we believe.

And we cannot change the structures allowing the continuation of behaviours that exasperate climate change with a individualist hedonistic mindset. It just won't work.

Taylor suggests that for people to work collectively to shift social structures we must have enough people who understand the model to be used. We can only walk down paths that are familiar to our culture delivered through our parenting, education, and media. Personal restraint and abhorring wastefulness and excess are not tools we can suggest. They're too far removed from our understanding of the good life.

However, a few months ago, Bill McKibben offered a means of understanding the road we have to take using a metaphor familiar to most of us.
It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis. But it’s a world war aimed at us all. And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict--except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planetwide occupation that follows....Even if every nation in the world complies with the Paris Agreement, the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.... 
Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale. Defeating the Nazis required more than brave soldiers. It required building big factories, and building them really, really fast.
We're really good at war. In this war, we have to fight against our own self-absorbed consumption. But if we win, then we all come out alive, albeit some of us a significantly poorer. But we can only survive if we actually start fighting!


  1. I can't help but wonder, Marie, that had we politicians working for the common good rather than for their own power, if it could play a constructive role in breaking the bonds of narcissism that ensnare us. For example (and I know this is hopelessly idealistic), if they hammered home the role that methane is playing in our changing climate and suggested that people eat one less dinner of beef per week, would people listen? I know the scenario I described would never happen lest, heaven forbid, they should offend the cattle industry in Alberta.

    Or maybe such a government intervention would achieve nothing. I remember the time when we were essentially trying to have a withdrawal of extracurricular activities during the Harris administration, and OSSTF, while they couldn't say it (it would have been counselling a strike action, something they couldn't do), wanted its members to boycott those activities. Our staff rep very skillfully made a presentation that, unless one were profoundly stupid, conveyed that message without actually saying it. I will always remember some of the staff at the meeting hiding behind the fiction that they would withdraw those services IF the Federation actually told them to. Such willful ignorance served as a shield for them to continue undermining our actions, but thy knew what was really being said.

    Perhaps that is the way the larger public would behave about cutting back on beef, eh?

  2. I think telling people about the GHG - methane - beef connection won't do anything because of the lived belief that it's not our problem and we should be free to enjoy every moment of our lives without being made to feel guilty. I imagine it's further along than willful ignorance - it's vehement insistence that you don't dare suggest we have a part to play in the damage. It's angry and defensive and belligerent in its insistence on the right to do whatever make us feel good today.

    I think to get people to eat less beef, we have to convince them it will make them fat. That will affect their immediate status, so they might be willing to eat less. But only for their own sake.


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