These Revolutionary Times
I am not prone to tirades or radical behavior. I have never participated in a public protest and refuse to sign most petitions. In the classroom I offer both sides of an issue. I have a stable job and hope to someday spend the money collecting in my retirement account. In British America in 1775 I would have been a loyalist.
But as an applied philosopher -- I know that sounds like an oxymoron -- poking around modern civilization's foundation and plumbing for two decades, I see cracks and leaks growing, and ever faster. I see that the past half-century's wonderful ride, an amazing and blazing run on the carbon bank of coal, oil and natural gas, is sputtering out. But not before we clog our carbon sinks, particularly the atmosphere, triggering global climatic disruption that is already under way.
We want to see our current problems as part of the usual ups and downs of the business and climate cycles. But in the past three years oil production has remained steady while the price has doubled. Oil supplies will soon fail to keep up with ballooning world demand. Then the other fossil fuels will flare out too. But not before adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide already a third higher than pre-industrial levels and strongly tied to a long, abnormal rise in global temperatures.
I have come to this perspective reluctantly, but am now convinced: We are living in revolutionary times! We must change to a way of life as inconceivable to us as the invention of the modern factory or heart transplant would have seemed to a peasant or professor in medieval Europe.
The good news, if I can call it that, is that only by accepting this challenge in revolutionary terms will our odds of succeeding in this change go from "fuggedaboutit!" to "long shot."
"Well, change, yes," you might say, "but revolution? What about technological progress and efficiency? The environmental and sustainability movements? Isn't all that enough?"
In "Common Sense" Thomas Paine recognized this reluctance: "Until independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done ... and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity."
Efficiency tweaks won't save us. Ever since England in the 1800s grew efficient with coal, only to use ever more of it, efficiency has led to higher consumption and more atmospheric carbon. Even if every car in the world were a hybrid, and every light bulb a compact fluorescent, growing demand would dwarf savings.
And though Toyota, General Electric and Wal-Mart tout their green efforts, their need to profit by increased consumption of their products is not questioned. This system can't fix the problems it has created or fit our emerging realization that Earth has limits, any more than King George could have encouraged independence-minded Colonials, or medieval scriptural authority could have embraced 17th century scientific discoveries.
Our challenge is to make a new Enlightenment, rejecting belief that we can master Earth and treat it as our unlimited supermarket, playground, laboratory and dumpster. Every human enterprise and standard needs reorientation to recognize the boundaries of our sun-powered planet.
We don't have to be violent about it. But we must be as single-minded and insistent as someone yelling "Fire!" when there is, in fact, a fire. That's not radical, that's prudent and morally required.
It's so much easier to hope for a miracle. But our best hope lies in embracing revolution -- to, in John Adams' words, "start some new thinking that will surprise the world."
Here's a short "to-do" list:
- Reduce the industrialized world's carbon footprint 80 percent by 2050.
- Prevent the projected 3 billion increase in human population over the next 30 years and actually reduce population by 2110 without famine, disease or war while preserving human dignity.
- Revise the scientific method so that it better balances the goal of discovery with moral considerations and precaution.
- Switch our economy to sustainable energy: solar, wind, hydro.
- Make that economy one in which happiness and success do not require increased consumption.
It's time to accept the creative limits and boundaries that gave us sun-powered Earth in the first place. It's time to change our minds and our lives.
Bill Vitek teaches philosophy at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and edited "The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability and the Limits of Knowledge." He wrote this comment for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.