Mother Earth Strikes Back

“Mother Earth Strikes Back” – April 22, 2012

By guest speaker Martin Tweedale
professor emeritus of philosophy, University of Alberta

Michel de Montaigne once said: “I speak the truth not so much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little more as I grow older.”

Well, I’m getting pretty old so I think I should start trying to tell it like it is.

The last glacial period started coming to an end 20,000 years ago and by 10,000 years ago we had entered what is called an interglacial warm period, named the Holocene. That period has been marked by unusual climate stability compared to other interglacial periods in earth’s history. This benevolent climatic interlude enabled the human race to leave its previous hunting and foraging existence and engage in settled life based on agriculture. This in turn led to a rise of civilizations in the strict sense, first in Mesopotamia and Egypt and later in India, China and eventually in the Americas. As much as some may complain about the ills that have attended these developments, it is now the case that the overwhelming majority of humanity depends on civilization as its way of life. Any threat to it is a threat to human survival.

Well, the threat, I’m afraid, has arrived. Mother Earth has tired of our profligate ways and has started to strike back. Her blows will become ever more frequent, ever more intense, and ever more long-lasting in their impact. Our destruction of the great forests, our pollution and waste of fresh water, our rape of the ocean’s fantastic life forms, our destruction of fertile soil with chemical fertilizers and toxins to kill weeds and insects – all these have been going on for centuries particularly where the Western form of civilization has been dominant. And as population increased the deleterious effects on the environment due to such developments they gathered in speed and intensity. But about two centuries ago another development began: the massive exploitation of the enormous carboniferous deposits built up tens of millions of years ago which in effect stored the energy from the sun in immense quantities. We now know the result of this: a steady build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with a consequent impairment of Mother Earth’s ability to radiate heat out of space.

We have known for quite some time that this will be the end result. Climate change deniers continue to get a hearing, mostly because the giant energy corporations give financial support to scientists who will cloud the debate, while Jim Hansen, the NASA climatologist who has been warning the world for decades now, gets harassed and precious little attention from the mass media. As for ordinary lay people, H.L. Mencken’s remark that “the truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe” probably explains a lot. What has recently become clearer through paleoclimate studies like Hansen’s is that changes such as this to earth’s ability to cool itself set off positive feedback loops that greatly magnify the effect before a new equilibrium is achieved. The ice sheets melt, which decreases albedo, which impairs cooling even more. The permafrost thaws and releases methane, a green house gas even more potent than CO2. But I’m sure you all know this story. And you all knkow this means acidification of the oceans, dramatic rises in the level of the sea, chaotic climate, etc. etc.

What does all this sum up to? It amounts to the end of the Holocene eco-system. And this is Mother Earth’s revenge: to kick out from under us the very natural infrastructure that human civilization requires. You will perhaps say that there is still time for us to repent; we can replace fossil fuel use with renewable; we can all start building energy efficient homes and use LED lights. Maybe we can even replace most air travel with energy efficient trains, our present monster cars with little smart cars and public transit. This is probably a technical possibility, but it is not, I repeat NOT, a political, economic and cultural possibility for the two or three decades we have left before the feedback loops set in earnest and no remedy is even technically feasible. Only Western Europe has made significant progress on this front, and even there the gains are not that impressive. North American culture with its faith in individualism and markets is incapable of making the leap to the centrally planned economy and technology that would be required. China and India are not about to do anything that would impair their current mode of economic growth and so throw millions back into abject poverty, and in fact are rapidly expanding their use of fossil fuels. In the meantime population continues its seemingly inexorable climb to 9 billion or more.

It’s time to look the future we have prepared for humanity full in the face. As that modern day Jeremiah, Christopher Hedges, says: “…the longer we live in illusion, the worse realilty will be when it finally shatters our fantasies.” By the second half of this century we will be facing catastrophes that rival the great world wars of the 20th century, and that will be only the beginning. The globalized economy of the last half century will collapse both from ecological crisis and from shortages of fuel and minerals needed for these technological marvels.

To my mind, the loss which will be the hardest for people around the globe to come to grips with will be the end of our faith in progress. Instead of striving for improvement, we will begin a long struggle just to keep our heads above water. Human beings are amazingly resilient animals so I expect they will survive, albeit in greatly reduced numbers. But civilization will not. Access to the things which we have most associated with the “good life” will shrink with each passing decade, and efforts to resuscitate the old order will meet with no more success than the medieval efforts to bring back the Roman Empire.

We should be thinking now about how to prepare our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren for this sort of world, although that is difficult, since few of us have ever known anything but this hyper-affluent consumer society that provides the demand for the very things that bring on Mother Earth’s ire. I am as much, if not more, a product of that society as any of you, so I offer advice here only tentatively and with the hope that discussion in the future will come up with much better ideas.

First, teach how unimportant to a fulfilling life are material possessions beyond what is necessary, and that what is necessary today may not be so tomorrow. Today here in Edmonton a car is virtually a necessity for people with young families, but 70 years ago it was not, and perhaps 50 years from now it will not be.

Second, teach how important it is for people to unite and collaborate, rather than compete, in the face of crises. Teach how it is possible to live much more cooperatively where the individual’s private sphere is much more limited so that the basic tasks of life can be carried out in the most efficient way possible.

Third, teach how organization can be responsive to the needs of all while respecting leadership from those who combine a knack for working with people, a dedication to the common good, and keen practical sense. There will certainly be a tendency for the bullies to move in and subjugate the rest into the service of a privileged minority. Future generations are going to need to know how to combat them.

Fourth, teach the young low-tech skills like gardening sewing, weaving, carpentry (without power tools), bicycle repair, etc. These are likely to be very useful in the second half of this century.

Fifth, we need ways, through stories perhaps, of teaching the old-fashioned virtues of courage, fairness, honesty and frugality. Those virtues tend to fall into disuse in an affluent society, but when the economy will be producing only a fraction of what it used to, then those virtues will be needed to keep society from collapsing into the Hobbesian state of nature where there is a war of all against all.

Finally, maybe we need to reinvent the medieval concept of poverty as a superior lifestyle. By ‘poverty’ I don’t mean destitution, but just getting along with a bit more than the minimum of material necessities. We could think of poverty as going through life with a very small footprint. When you do that, then satisfactions come more from the life of the mind and the simple pleasures of communal life. Some people used to think this was the best way to live, period. I won’t go that far, but I bet the persons who most cultivate that idea will be the best prepared psychologically to withstand the blows when Mother Earth strikes back.

I see there are young people present, so let me address my advice, for what it’s worth, to them, since it is they who will have to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is the need to be resilient, ie. how to be able to bounce back from disaster. The keys here are alternatives, experimentation, and reserves.

Alternatives: Don’t allow your society to become very dependent on one or a few industries. Always keep other ways of producing and doing things going, even if they do not quite make ‘economic sense’. (By the way, don’t listen much to economists of the free-market school, which dominates the profession. They have no idea how to handle economic collapse.)

You will need to have alternatives to industries dependent on a globalized economy ready for development when that economy breaks down.

Experimentation: Always be open to new ways of doing things, and foster experiments in how to live in alternative ways. Some of these experiments may well prove the seeds of developments that will save you all. In particular, encourage experiments which do not require the highly sophisticated technologies which we are likely to lose in the not-so-distant future.

Reserves: As far as the basic necessities of life go, have plans B, C and D in place and the wherewithal to make them work. You won’t know just what is going to fail first. Will it be the electricity grid? The fossil fuel distribution system? Our agricultural supplies? There need to be means at hand to handle these without complete chaos.

To help with all these efforts, take any opportunity you may get to see how the parts of the world which are already facing dire effects of climate instability are coping. Bangladesh comes to mind, with its rising sea level and increasingly violent cyclones. Many of these places, like Bangladesh, are very poor but they often exhibit an amazing ability to adapt and keep life going. There is a lot to learn from them and their amazing people, not least that people can go on living without many of the things we have come to take for granted – airplanes, cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, even electric lights. Most of all, the spirit with which they cope with their changing environment will be an inspiration to you all.

And, of course, good luck. You’ll need it as Mother Earth strikes back.