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Where Are We Heading?

The events this summer make old warnings by the naturalist Lester Brown ring with meaning. The foreword of his 1996 State of the World report begins as follows:

“As we complete the 13th State of the World, it is a dark time for environmental policy in Washington, threatening the U.S. leadership role on environmental issues. Yet in many other countries, and among hundreds of corporations and nongovernmental organizations, environmental problems are being taken more seriously than ever.”

The first essay, "The Acceleration of History," starts this way:

“The pace of change in our world is speeding up, accelerating to the point where it threatens to overwhelm the management capacity of political leaders.”

Fifteen years later the trends forecast by Brown unfold as predicted. Living in Formosa with family for the summer put the foreword in a new light. Staying in Kaohsiung County let me take a sabbatical from driving, a freedom made possible by bike lanes, good buses, a spanking new subway, and efficient railroads, paid for by a tax system that charges the wealthy. Returning to Florida feels as if one stepped into a time machine set for the past, hurtling the traveler from a future of wind farms and bullet trains back into the quaint old fossil era.

The U.S. leadership role on environmental issues is no more. With the American Disenlightenment—the oil wars, the climate denial, the deregulation—the US has renounced this role. The president promised change but delivered continuity. A whole party is controlled by anti-environmentalists. The Republican hatred of nature is all the weirder as much of the regulation now under attack had been a Republican creation. Hatred of nature joins hands with contempt for knowledge. In May of this year, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced, “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change; nothing’s convinced me that there is.” In his book published last November, Texas Governor Rick Perry derided global warming as a “phony mess”. Just before last year’s elections, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez claimed “there is disagreement in the science community concerning the causes of global warming.” And on it goes. With the laudable and solitary exception of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, virtually all Republican governors are in cognitive denial.

Here in Florida, in the past few months alone, the Department of Community Affairs was eliminated; the Florida Forever land acquisition program was unfunded; all the appointments to the Environmental Regulation Commission and to the Florida Energy and Climate Commission had been withdrawn; the state's planned cap-and-trade program was scrapped, and the regulations protecting the Everglades, a body of laws that had been decades in the making, were rolled back. Seed money from Washington for high speed rail was rejected by the Florida governor—as if the Florida construction industry were not in need of jobs. Meanwhile the ocean around the Keys heated up to an astounding 30 C (90 F); the water is teeming with jellyfish, and the reefs look blotched and blighted. How can we possibly afford this—even from a business standpoint? Is the Florida tourism industry not in need of tourists?

The gap between information and policy is a symptom of what I describe elsewhere as the square of flawed cognition. Despite its predictability, it boggles the mind. The governor and legislature of a region extremely vulnerable to climate change decided to make it ... more vulnerable.

Then again, the rightist conduct is also heart-wrenching to watch: a doomed bourgeois attempt to turn back the clock, back to a time when environmental issues were a weekend luxury, when there was no climate change, and when cars were cool. U.S. politics today confirms Lester Brown's prediction, that the speed of environmental change would eventually overwhelm the management capacities of political leaders.

Life in Formosa, by contrast, made me feel safe. Typhoon Morakot, which dumped a year's rainfall within 72 hours on the island in 2009, had wrecked much of the roadways in the mountains. I spent a month roaming the mountains on a bike, with repeated forays up on the nanheng gonglu, the east-west traverse connecting Tainan to Taidong across the southern shoulder of the Yu Shan massif, with a pass at nearly 3000 m. The typhoon had made mountain sides come down, obliterated aboriginal villages in mudslides, and toppled the viaducts west of the pass. First I heard that the road would be abandoned, but when climbing up to the current road’s end I witnessed the giant climate-proofing construction project underway. Entire river valleys are being fortified now, so as to channel future floods more safely. The workers in the road crews along the nanheng must number in the thousands. At least somewhere on the planet citizens do act on the information, with politicians who are capable and who are not overwhelmed.

Climate change forces our hand, and perhaps this is how civil evolution works. Cultures stuck in nostalgic denial and cognitive dissonance will weaken. Others, acting on the information, will rise, and prevail, and rule.

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