An Inconvenient Failure

Al Gore changed my life. It was his slide show, “An Inconvenient Truth (AIT),” that stopped me dead in my career track to reverse course and devote the rest of my life to environmental causes. But, now, I have to admit that AIT has failed to sway America. Just when the world badly needed Americans to heed AIT’s message.

The term, “climate change” does not invoke a sense of urgency in the American public. The opposition has cleverly co-opted this phrase by pointing out that the climate is always changing. So, what’s the problem? The rise in temperature does not bother Americans so much. Their A/Cs may have to work a little harder if the temperature gets too hot. But, as long as the utility companies continue to supply electricity into the homes, what’s the problem?

The sea level rise that Al Gore showed in AIT seemed speculative, too far out and too gradual to get people to act now. Americans can always pick up and move if the ocean starts lapping at their door step. Or, if they live in a city, they can always build a retaining wall. Isn’t the Netherlands already way below sea level? So, what’s the problem?

It all seems like so much scare mongering. More intense hurricanes, more heavy downpours, more floods, more droughts, all more of the same natural forces that people have lived with for ever. Even the Arctic melting may not be so dire for the polar bears after all, as they seem to be resourceful enough to adapt their food habits. Besides, the Arctic melting opens a Northern route for shipping and allows the erection of oil drilling platforms in the Arctic to meet the rising energy demands of the world.

So, what’s the problem? At the opening of a recent shale-gas conference, Karl Rove, the keynote speaker said, “Climate is gone!” He assured the attendees that they won’t need to worry that the new Congress will consider any legislation on the environmentally destructive practice of “fracking” to extract natural gas from formations such as the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. There were cheers all around.

On the policy front, the new US Congress seems to want the country to rapidly backpedal on all its environmental obligations. Therefore, AIT has really been an AIF, “An Inconvenient Failure,” at its intended purpose. In hindsight, the failure occurred because of three factors: 1) AIT focused on the wrong problem, 2) it mis-diagnosed the root cause and 3) it glossed over the deep cultural changes required to address it.

The Problem:

The late humanitarian and scientist, Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University was addressing a roomful of skeptics on climate change in Australia last year. He was asked the inevitable question, “Since CO2 is good for plant growth, what’s the problem with humans emitting CO2 as part of our industrial activities?” Dr. Schneider patiently explained that yes, some plants grow faster with higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2, but other plants don’t. Then, the faster growing plants crowd out the slower growing ones and kill them off, thereby upsetting the balance in the ecosystem and possibly triggering a collapse.

The true reason that climate change is a problem is that it is happening so fast that ecosystems are having a hard time adapting to the environmental changes around them and are dying off. It is hard for trees to pick up their roots and move because New Jersey suddenly has the climate of Virginia. Vast swathes of forests in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado contain dead pine trees due to bark beetle infestation. British Columbia in Canada is projected to lose almost all of its forests over the next five years for the same reason. Nevertheless, climate change is not yet the major reason for the loss of Life that is ongoing on the planet. Human consumption tops the list. Complex Life as we know it, is dying off on the planet, mainly because we’re literally eating it up, directly and indirectly. Humans are perhaps resourceful enough to adapt to climate change, but we cannot possibly adapt to the extinction of Life, the very source of the food we eat.

AIT missed it. One member of Mr. Gore’s non-profit educational organization, “The Climate Project,” wrote me to the effect, “You are trying to save ‘climate through species’, while we are trying to save ‘species through climate’. In the long run, our approach is better because people don’t really care enough about biodiversity.”

Maybe so, but, I disagreed that the facts should be repackaged for marketing considerations.

When it comes to energy and materials, humans have barely scratched the surface of the Earth. I believe that humans are perfectly capable of developing more powerful technologies to access the “inaccessible” sources of these necessary ingredients for industrial civilization, if need be. But, there is no hidden reservoir of keystone species to revive the ecosystems we destroy. And, it is hard to rebuild ecosystems when you don’t know 95% of the species that were in the ecosystem in the first place.

Climate change is a symptom while the extinction of Life is the true underlying disease that needs treatment.

AIT focused on the wrong problem.

The Root Cause:

Since climate change or global warming was identified as the core problem facing humanity in AIT, the root cause was shown to be the fossil fuels that we burn to drive our industrial civilization. But, if the core problem is truly the extinction of Life, then the root cause is also much more fundamental than the usage of fossil fuels.

Indeed, it is our neglect, abuse and insatiable consumption of Life that is the root cause of the extinction of Life. And, the pollution from our fossil fuel burning is still a small part of the reason for the carnage around us, though a growing one. If we truly viewed life on Earth as precious, to be preserved for our own enlightened self-interest since no other planet in our galactic neighborhood has good life-support systems even if we managed to get there en masse, we wouldn’t be so mistreating Life as we do now.

Instead, we view other life-forms to be inferior to us and to be dominated over. The biologist Richard Dawkins once wrote, “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command.” In that one sentence, he captured the fundamental axiom of the culture of industrial civilization, that of separation from and domination over Nature.

Domination over Nature is a fundamental axiom in the culture of industrial civilization that drives the separation from Nature as it is not possible to dominate something without becoming alienated from it. And, our “Domination” over Nature is absurd, considering how powerless we are in the face of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other calamities. However, with our superior tools and technologies, we certainly have the prowess to dominate over other life-forms, to capture, imprison and kill them at will, to be the bully in the school yard.

But, actions have consequences.

The Way Forward:

AIT mainly focused on the conversion of the energy infrastructure of the world to clean, renewable sources as the panacea for Climate Change. It left the impression that there is little to no change required from the public at large.

However, once we acknowledge that our violence towards Nature is the fundamental root cause of the climactic consequences we face, then the public at large becomes the central actor in determining the course of the planet. All the catastrophic projections in AIT assume that human beings continue to act as they have been doing regardless of the consequences. Therefore, the battle is really over the hearts and minds of human beings. It is the Kurukshetra from the Mahabaratha of our times.

On the one side are the Dominating Earth-is-my-Bitch Types (DEBT), the ones who consider Nature to be just a vast resource pool for their exploitation. Large multi-national corporations such as ExxonMobil, BP, Koch, Rio-Tinto, Peabody, Massey Energy, McDonalds, Coke, Pepsi, Monsanto and Cargill lead the DEBT group. They depend on a compliant, unthinking, unfeeling public to work their butts off, collect wealth and funnel it back to them so that they can amass it.

On the other side are the Nurturing Earth-is-our-Mother Types (NEMT), the ones who consider Nature to be worth healing from the wounds that we have inflicted from our past exploitations. Grassroots activists such as Ingrid Newkirk, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Dr. Vandana Shiva and Pres. Evo Morales of Bolivia lead the NEMT group. They depend on an awakened, thinking, feeling public to reject the products of violence and destruction that is being marketed by the DEBT group and vote with their wallets accordingly.

While the DEBT group has control over the television airwaves, the US government and the halls of power in most countries, the NEMT group has much better organizing capabilities in the internet world. Therefore, I, for one, am absolutely unwilling to concede the battle to the DEBT group and project them the winners for the foreseeable future.

Let’s support a NonViolent Direct Action against Violence and let’s see what happens. Do these too-big-to-fail multinational corporations, who have turned capitalism into a perverted form of “Bailout” capitalism, really have such a lock on the outcome?

We shall see. Like it or not, we do live in interesting times!

Update on COP-17 from Durban, South Africa
The Ethical Economist
Sailesh Rao
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