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Sustainability: Choosing the Right Crisis

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It's old news by now. The global climate change conference in Cancun in December 2010, like the one in Copenhagen in December 2009, made no progress whatsoever towards an international climate treated. In contrast to Copenhagen, Cancun rated hardly any mention in the mainstream media. As if failure was a foregone conclusion..

The governments that attended Cancun all know, by now, that to prevent catastrophic climate change (around 2050) developed countries must cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2030 - while developing countries limit emissions growth to comparable targets. Achieving these targets will require ending all auto and plane transport, closing all coal-fired power plants and insulating all homes and businesses.

US Responsibility for the Disaster at Cancun

The climate treaty the world hoped for didn't happen, largely owing to the refusal of the Obama administration to buy into the major cuts he must know are needed. Partly because the US, like all developed and developing countries, is largely controlled by multinational corporations that make immense profits off car and plane travel - and war - one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions. But also because American voters are deeply attached to cars, plane travel, and energy guzzling home and electronic appliances that create demand for coal fired power plants.

Unfortunately, owing to the absence of affordable, reliable public transport alternatives, many Americans who need cars for work or to access basic services can't give them up. More importantly, one million individuals giving up their cars isn't going to prevent catastrophic climate change - given that auto emissions constitute only 1/3 of greenhouse gasses. There has to be a simultaneous agreement to eliminate air travel and coal fired plants, as well as ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US nuclear program and closing 1,000 foreign bases. If the Pentagon were a country, it would rate as the second largest producer of carbon emissions (see http://www.iacenter.org/o/world/climatesummit_pentagon121809/).

Such large scale changes require buy-in from the federal government. And despite all his campaign rhetoric, the best Obama can commit to is a 20% cut by 2020.

Are We Focused on the Wrong Crisis?

Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Towns movement) and others believe we should be less worried about climate change than about resource scarcity (oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, water, top soil) - that this will cause a major food crisis long before catastrophic climate change does. Because our modern system of industrial agriculture is only possible with plentiful, cheap oil (for farm machinery, transportation and shipping) and cheap natural gas (used to manufacture synthetic fertilizers), the end of cheap fossils fuels translates into a big increase into the cost of food production and a reduction in the amount of food produced. This is already starting to play out with the UN and relief agencies describing December 2010 as the worst month on record for global food insecurity (a record number of people unable to afford food).

Eventually, Heinberg predicts, fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers will become so expensive that world food production will decline to pre-industrial levels, which can only support a world population of 2 billion people. With a current global population of 7 billion, this implies a potential die-off (from famine, war and/or disease) of 5 billion people.

I think it makes a lot of sense for sustainability activists to focus on resource scarcity, rather than climate change. It's just too damned hard to persuade large numbers of people to undertake major lifestyle changes around something they are incapable of experiencing. Except for extreme weather events, it's virtually impossible for lay people to observe the effects of global warming. The whole notion of CO2, which is invisible, causing a greenhouse effect that paradoxically produces more rain and colder winters, requires an enormous leap of faith (and confidence in the integrity of scientific experts). Especially given 50-100 year time line required before we see the benefit of our energy saving sacrifices.

In fact, given the profound distrust of science, technology and educated liberals embedded in working class culture, it's no surprise that a new conspiracy theory has arisen (with a lot of help from Big Coal according to Climate Wars author Gwynne Dyer) about Climategate being a hoax that George Soros, the New World Order and a bunch of liberal yuppies are using to impose new limits on individual freedom.

Engaging the Working Class

Resource scarcity, on the other hand, is a daily reality - especially for low income workers and the unemployed - as the cost of gasoline, home heating, and food goes through the roof. Moreover fossil fuel depletion will continue to hit the working class harder than the rest of society, given the staggering income inequality found in all industrialized countries.

People already have experience preparing for resource scarcity, with the disaster kits they keep in their garage or basement. There's already a whole (mainly blue collar) survivalist industry dedicated to the concept. Community and neighborhood focused survival has already had a dry run, through the Voluntary Simplicity Movement started by Vicki Robins' book, Your Money or Your Life. The Voluntary Simplicity movement subsequently morphed into the Y2K movement, which arose around the concern that our computer-based infrastructure would collapse in the year 2000 because computers would read "00" as "1900."

The Breakdown in Civic Engagement

As a brief member of the Phinney Ridge Y2K group in Seattle, I distinctly recall the ah-ha moment when we all recognized the extent to which technology (thanks to cheap fossil fuels) had replaced mutual relationships with neighbors and the national environment. It was hard not to be dismayed at the wholesale disintegration of social ties that occurred around the time I entered adulthood - with people systematically disengaging from extended family and friends, as well as neighbors and community and civic groups (unions, granges, churches, and neighborhood and community centers and groups) that were central to American life prior to the 1970s. At the time we blamed the problem on our long work hour, which we blamed on the failure of wages and salary to keep up with inflation.

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http://www.stuartbramhall.com

I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
 

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I have always found widespread apathy and alienati... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Wednesday, Jan 26, 2011 at 9:43:39 PM
population reduction, to something like 350 millio... by Daniel Geery on Thursday, Jan 27, 2011 at 9:11:11 PM
Actually I think this target is easier to reach th... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Friday, Jan 28, 2011 at 3:23:39 PM