This column will appear in the Kent-Ravenna Record Courier on Sunday June 19, 2005
This year there are real, physical issues for the humans on Planet Earth. We hear hints of them when our mainstream media can tear itself away from runaway brides and the gong-show in Rome, where old men in red dresses and lacy rochets fiddle around with edicts about sex and sin while AIDS smolders, populations explode, and fossil fuels burn steadily worldwide.
This decade has brought a new reality of terror, torture, and high-tech war, all obscured by secrecy, forgeries, lies, distorting frames and red-herrings that serve the purposes of Power and Money. The Newsweek/ Koran-flushing story was a massive conflagration that effectively bedazzled everyone into disregarding fundamental questions of torture. (Even this paragraph is more about the abuses of communication than about the abuses of real flesh-and-blood human beings.)
This new millennium, hailed as the dawn of a golden future, is suddenly facing the sunset of the oil that sustains Western economies and lifestyles. And while fossil fuel supplies dwindle, human population and per capita consumption of hydrocarbon fuels are growing rapidly, spawning vast carbon dioxide emissions that are warming our planet by disrupting the atmospheric and oceanic systems that regulate our planet’s climate.
This week global warming is again in headlines. A White House aide resigned after charges that he changed federal science reports to downplay the effects of greenhouse gasses to global warming. The US contribution of CO2 was updated: each US citizen’s share of the national total CO2 releases is about 6 tons/year. For comparison, each citizen of India accounts for about 0.3 ton/year.
Dire forecasts are being made. In "The Long Emergency "James Howard Kunstler predicts that both American society and the global consumer economy will crash as cheap energy disappears, and that it is already too late to mend our ways: "It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life – ... central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense -- you name it." (read http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0413-28.htm )
Jared Diamond, in "Collapse", postulates four reasons why societies or civilizations collapse: environmental destruction, climate change, increase in hostilities, and decrease in friendly relations. And he adds a fifth, overarching reason: failing to address any of the first four.
Meanwhile President Bush fancies that "clean nukes" and soy biodiesel fuel will solve all our problems, and the punditocracy dismisses environmentalists and anti-globalizationists as "people with the right moral fervor and ethical viewpoint" but "a knee-jerk antipathy to capitalism" (Jeffrey Sachs)
We have a big problem: civilization is being physically crunched between not enough energy and too much CO2. The more we burn hydrocarbon fuels, the worse it is for life on earth. This energy-carbon crunch won’t be well addressed by throwing money at it – neither taxpayers’ money nor private capital. In fact, any money thrown at it will come out of public pockets either as rate-payers for fuel and power, or as taxpayers, – or it will come from Social Security to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy.
Nuclear power is no panacea for the energy-carbon crunch – it’s neither clean nor cheap, and has uncertain long-term consequences. It could help tide us over until we can cut consumption, increase efficiency, develop alternatives, and reduce transmission & transportation costs. It could buy us time to tune human fertility, human politics & economics, and personal lifestyles & habits to more renewable, sustainable, equitable and humane energy systems.
But right now we need to recognize that we can’t fuel our life-styles or cool the planet with faith-based science, marketing ideologies, or the coercion of war, terror and torture. The crunch between scarce energy and excessive CO2 will finally have to be dealt with by the crunched – us.
We need a new revolution – not an armed, adversarial revolution, but a peaceable revolution in what we buy, how we use energy, how we distribute and assess information, and in how we allow ourselves to be governed.
The most successful revolution of all time was one in which individuals saw the menace of rule from above and the opportunity for ruling themselves, and took matters into their own hands. In a rather broad sense, George Washington didn’t so much raise an army to fight the British as take command of an army that had already arisen to meet a public need.
Carbon dioxide/global warming. War, terror and torture. Oil depletion. Hunger, poverty, water scarcity, pollution. Environmental destruction and climate change are already here; hostilities have increased , and friendly relations – treaties, the Geneva conventions – have deteriorated. We have trouble even finding out about them, let alone addressing them.
These are serious challenges to humankind that we are unlikely to address until we tune out the farcical sit-coms produced by middle-aged men with good hair and tasteful neckties in Washington playing word-games, staging tantrums, pastposting their bets on Iraq, nuclear weapons, and free markets, and claiming Divine Privilege for their conceits and superstitions.
Recent articles in major newspapers suggest that the "American Dream" is largely dead for most Americans. Only powerful large corporations can dream, and their dreams are mostly: "All those lovely consumers, how can we make them buy what we sell?" And even more tellingly, "How can we make profits selling things people crucially need – like water, electricity, medical care, education, transportation?"
We environmentalists may well be deluded by notions of preserving the commons, beguiled by the romance of fuel cells, solar panels or windmills, or infatuated with biodiesel fuel or hybrid cars. We are probably naive about a few amateurs changing the world. But the environmentalist vision of renewable, sustainable, equitable and humane energy systems – in the hands of the people who use them – is certainly preferable to Cheney’s calculated imperial algorithms of power, or the faith-based, strategic ignorance of our President.
Caroline Arnold served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn and is now active with the Portage Democratic Coalition and Kent Environmental Council.