Chris Searles is a friend of a friend, and is best known as the drummer for Alejandro Escovedo. It turns out he has been thinking quite a lot about the climate crisis, and has written a very thoughtful piece about it. He called it “The 5 most interesting things about the world’s biggest problem” and while I didn’t care for his original title much, the points he makes are refreshingly different from the ones that usually echo around our circles.
Our 10 week tour is ending on a grand note. We ate a 12 course Italian meal last night (think fancy American wedding) and played a lovely little concert in the reconditioned attic of a mid 1700s rural Italian palazzo (think Thomas Jefferson). We lived like kings of yore, but the conversation keeps turning to climate change.
Everywhere we’ve been the weather is out of whack. Across the UK it was the rainiest summer anyone had ever seen. Spain, Italy — it was either too wet, too hot, or too cold depending on the day (but never just right). Locals in western Canada told us of a 69F day last January (normally temps hover between -30 and 0 that time of the year). In late June a “non-tornado” ripped down trees and power lines from Chicago to Roanoke (across the USA). Our friends in D.C. were without power for four days. The eco press is publishing outlandish things like, “3,800 temperature records broken in the first week of July alone. Destructive wildfires in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nebraska. Over 50% of the country experiencing serious drought.” And more. As the band’s environmentalist i notice these things (we’ve also got a Vegan long distance runner, and a Buddhist mystic, not to mention a legendary rock songwriter) — and when our conversations turn eco i try to keep my mouth shut. But on the subject of global warming Rolling Stone ran a groundbreaking article this week … and Bingo, i’ve got a platform.
“Chris! Did you see it? There’s a big feature on global warming in Rolling Stone. It’s lighting up Facebook! Things are really, really bad,” says our guitarist as we pull onto the cobble stone road in front of our five star Italian hotel.
“I know, that’s what I was trying to tell you … yesterday,” i reply.
“Yeah, but for Rolling Stone to write about this — it’s, it’s really big.”
The conversation gets going once again. We spend 45 minutes comparing notes. I keep trying to explain that the thing about global warming is it’s going to make weather erratic. Weather. All weather. Erratic. Huh? What does that mean? Expect total disruption of our seasons, I say.
What? Expect spikes in hot and cold and wet and dry weather to be so extreme and irregular that we don’t know what season it is anymore. And it’ll be hotter, in general. That’s the forecast for the coming decades. I think it’s coming a lot sooner than most environmentalists are willing to admit. Understand this has all already started and that what’s happening today is in line (over and over and over again) with the projections of numerous scientific climate models. We’re already living in our worst case scenario, climate-stability-future-wise, and the train is not gonna stop, i say. But what? But why? How do we stop it? What’s the up side? Those are questions for a follow up blog. I’m still concerned with the fact that none of the big picture stuff seems to make a lasting impression (when i say it). So i’m inspired to get my thoughts better organized. This blog quickly lays out what i think are the five most interesting things about global warming:
#1st Most Interesting Thing — Weather Disruption.
Inconsistent weather = unreliable seasons. Imagine living outdoors, i.e. being a plant, animal or otherwise and living year round under conditions that include extreme, irregular, and/or sustained spikes in any/all of the following: 1) hot and cold weather, 2) wet and dry spells (floods and droughts), and 3) powerful storm surges (hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes)… Sounds tough, right? In Texas where i live, across America, and around the world we’ve started seeing a lot of this in the last couple of years. (Right on schedule.) “Just google it.” Climate scientists’s computer models consistently tell us disruptive weather trends will increase in the coming years as the planet rapidly warms thanks to a proliferation of greenhouse gasses. Those of us who live indoors can expect higher costs of living, more flight delays and more inconveniences over the next 10 years. After that…? Biologists tell us our planet’s bio-diversity itself is suddenly on a steep decline and that this decline will intensify dramatically in the coming decades (think: your lifetime). Common sense tells us as life ends so does life as we know it, prices will go up, stuff will get scarce, some believe it’ll become too hot to go outside, and so on (1), but anyway, that’s global warming in a nutshell — freakish whatever whenever weather, year round.
#2nd Most Interesting Thing — Too Late To Stop It.
The second most interesting thing about Global Warming is the fact that it’s too late to stop it. As you’ll read from the Rolling Stone article we’re already over the limit emissions-wise, on track to a 11 degrees F increase in global average temps by 2100. And honestly what’s so interesting about the Rolling Stone article to me is, it’s the first admission by THE leader of the stop global warming movement, “we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly.” Other smart folks are saying the same. But to me, most of these assessments are far too conservative.
#3 Most Interesting Thing — Economic Lock In.
The third most interesting thing about Global Warming is the fact that the only way out of this mess is to change our entire, global, economic system. This is why politicians, corporations, the news media, and some of us “suck” in a nutshell. To divorce fossil fuels from our daily electrified lives, our need for fast/long-range transportation and our reliance on the construction sector would mean destroying today’s economy. (2) Nobody rich or in power is organizing for that. Global Warming, being driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is tied to the root of every aspect of modern life and wealth. “We must destroy the system to save the system. Or we can wait till the system is destroyed by natural causes.” As my friend Bobby D (bass player with Alejandro) says, “either take it all down willingly (our economic system) or wait for nature to do it.” Sadly i think he’s right. But let’s say we were going to try. We would need to: A) stop using all fossil fuels — making electricity, transportation, food, and construction reliant on something other than fossil fuels, worldwide, yesterday; and B) replant / reforest / restore / stop plundering our planet’s natural resources and biology as rapidly as possible, full tilt, no stop, faster and more comprehensively than Allied efforts in the Great War. We need a globally coordinated Apollo mission. Good luck with these noble goals in a world driven by private enterprise and self-interest. We are a people living under the values of profit, property, comfort, and constant economic growth. From my perspective, as long as profit continues to be the dominant force guiding our macroeconomics and we remain unable to manage our emissions, climate change will intensify. (3) It’s a paradox. What’s worse, even if we were to pull together and pull this off we’re too late (as stated above) and unfortunately, building a global Eden does not look to be in our human nature. Sorry fellow Gen Xers, your retirement is likely to be more about survival than relaxation.
#4 Most Interesting Thing — People.
A fourth piece of the current irreconcilable puzzle is us. Stubborn, busy, anti-social, afraid… and confused. Fear kills progress. What do we have to be afraid of: not looking young? Calling a spade a spade? We’re collectively afraid of honesty, clarity, saying we’re sorry, saying we’re smart, taking the blame, taking a position, admitting we messed up, changing our position, changing habits, and so much more. Them’s us. So who has time for the hard work of Democracy?(read: consensus building) We’re all just trying to get home after a hard day at work. Can’t blame us for not having the capacity to deal with global warming! Who’s job is it to deal with the fact that BIOLOGICALLY things are getting worse, and fast, on a global scale? Add to that void our collective confusion at the internet-based list of cataclysms facing our times. (Bobby says, “Every era has its end of the world is near.” Our parents had nukes, before that communism, before that War, disease, famine, demons…) Today there are so many “ends” out there people are confused and global warming doesn’t look all that convincing. On Dec 21 2012 the Mayan calendar will stop, the poles will invert, a meteor will strike the Earth. There’s chemtrails, flouride, detention centers, aliens, nuclear meltdown, economic meltdown, technological meltdown, illegal immigrants, airborne contagions. As a species facing global challenges we seem to be: socially afraid, civically inactive, intellectually limited, personally distracted, politically and spiritually divided. (4)
But for environmentalists who base their views in gathering multiple scientific data sets and adding 1 + 1 + 1, such as Lester Brown, Bill McKibben or Gary Hirschberg (or for environmentalists like me who read these guys) there is a list of disasters brewin’ that have concrete measurements and warning signs. I tried to explain to Billy (our guitarist), there are probably 10 or more large scale environmental problems that given enough time could decimate what we currently call civilization. Stuff like: depleting soils, depleting aquifers, toxifying water, toxifying air, plastics in our oceans, the GMO-ification of our crops, and the toxicification of body care products. (Don’t get me started.) But, if we put all these things on a list according to urgency, Global Warming wins by a mile. Global Warming / Climate Change represents the end of biology at global scale in our lifetimes. Bumm-er. Who wants to learn more about: rapid aquatic and atmospheric warming, rapid acidification of our oceans, rapid desertification of our croplands, towns and cities, and the dissolution of seasonal regularity.
#5 Most Interesting Thing — Shoot and a Miss.
This one relates directly to The Rolling Stone article and some of what was said above. Bill McKibben, author, hero, and as mentioned above rightfully revered leader of the stop global warming movement, mis-assesses the core of what’s prevented meaningful change, i think, in the third paragraph of his (highly recommended) article. Mr. McKibben,
“Since I wrote one of the first books about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly — losing it because most of all, we remain in denial about the peril human civilization is in.”
Retreading here but how can ANYONE deny something they don’t understand? We environmentalists are relying on a populist movement to change our politics and economics, but we’re missing the point: our population doesn’t understand the problem. I think we environmentalists tend to see everyone outside our movement (or “worldview” if you will) in a religious-y sort of way. “Are you a believer?” “Are you a follower?” “Well come get saved/enlightened/etc.”
It’s almost “you’re either with us or against us.” But what if they don’t know enough to care — or just don’t care? Then where’s our strategy? Of course there are dozens of fine points as to why normal, non-environmentalist people aren’t motivated or are against change, but the underlying problem in combatting global warming is the fact that people don’t understand “the perils,” don’t believe them, and/or don’t know what to do about them. Enviros, myself included, have failed in fully understanding the challenges we face in stopping global warming AND the people outside of our world view. Specifically, we’ve failed to educate and inform those whose interests and priorities differ from our own.
What may be the greatest achivement of Gore’s poorly-followed-up-on Inconvenient Truth is the fact that the movie gave people a sense of the perils. Not all people, but quite a few. (And it left so much out.) Perhaps broad scale education should have been our greatest environmentalist priority. Perhaps it still should be. Perhaps we enviros should throw our focus into better understanding the problem ourselves, its solutions, the people we’re talking to, and starting our own coordinated media networks and large scale, ongoing media events. How else do you reach out to those “in denial,” or at least unaware, and create demand for the right solutions?
What You Can Do
Now listen — it’s just too easy for me to criticize. And believe me, I’ve just spent 10 weeks in a van with the same 3 guys so I’m real clear on the value of criticism! It’s what we do and i guess it’s most of what i’m doing in this blog. (In a perfect world, wouldn’t we all love to get paid for criticizing our imperfect world?) But here’s my underlying point: i’ve tried faith in humanity, i’ve tried the belief that little changes will solve big problems, i’ve tried the idea that making green sexy will get green in place fast enough to mend the world, I’ve tried lobbying at City Hall, collaborating with local environmentalists, and speaking at churches — and yet i’m not accredited, i’m just guy who’s passionate about what he was taught in church as a kid. (5) It’s all led to this for me: simply trying to UNDERSTAND what’s preventing us from embracing these complexities at scale, and sharing my hope that others will take these ideas, get involved, and develop solutions.
Now that it’s “too late” what do we do? That part’s up to you. A few quick recommendations: 1)Get Smart. I recommend reading the cats listed above: Lester Brown, Bill McKibben, and Gary Hirshberg for some un-honey-coated expertise on the state of world ecology. Spend 15 minutes. 2)Talk More. Honestly, the world’s biggest problems seem to generally be solvable with better communication and a little flexibility. Talk, listen, more. You are our best hope. 3) Participate More. If you’re trying to live in a world where everybody sees things the way you do then tattoo “I give up” on your forehead. (It ain’t gonna happen.) We have problems BECAUSE of our differences; we have solutions because of our differences. It’s worth embracing diversity simply to solve big problems, in my book. Working thru uncomfortable situations, chosing to vote, trying to change your government, or your environment, or the way you shop/eat/bathe/clean/party/work/celebrate/travel/earn/learn/etc. is all we got.
(1) This means, unbelievably – and as stated above, that likely about half of the world’s biology will cease to exist during the next 90 years. That’ll make eating on a daily basis much more difficult. (Not to mention vacationing or furnishing your bedroom or decorating your office.) It’s hard to imagine. Look around your surroundings and imagine all of it gone. The current scientific consensus is that dinosaurs went extinct 65.5 million years because an ice age destroyed 13% of the world’s biology and thus their food chain disintegrated. What’ll happen to us? As the dinosaurs of today (us, if you will) it’s hard to imagine human centric civilizations continuing to thrive without growing and harvesting everything indoors: food, water, medicine, building materials. . . which could work. . . hey, there’s a solution. . . could be “great for the economy” … (Newt? Newt?).
(2) According to my review of the Financial Times historical “most profitable companies” lists, the five most profitable industries in the world over the last 50 years are: Banking, Oil, Technology, Chemicals, and Construction. Tech’s a close 6th. Shipping’s in there too. How would each of these industries completely eliminate their fossil fuel use? How many people would need new jobs overnight if they did so? How would the world financial sector re-value the economy and make retooling and repowering profitable? How would governments be involved? … Not to mention our human-driven economy is built on “spending” (consumption) not saving.
(3) Environmentalists believe the solution to this is to make social equality and biological values as meaningful as profit. (Aren’t they already?) In such an imagined world companies that make soil healthier, for example, would be more profitable than so many of today whose business it is to deplete our soils. In short, it would appear we would need an eco-centric economy to a) survive this century and to b) eventually thrive again. I’ll call such an economic vision “the Eden Solution,” and again ask the practical question, how many jobs would have to repurposed for you to travel in a cleanly fueled vehicle that possibly returns significantly less profit to the Saudi crown or Exxon or Petro China? Or to charge your phone / listen to music / watch TV / enjoy a little ice cream and air conditioning / drink clean water / recycle all your garbage / browse the web from a 100% cleanly fueled electric grid?
(4) In our recent travels across most of Italy, Spain, France, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, the US, and Canada we stayed in everything from high-end five star hotels to Travelodges; hung out with everyone from super freaks and high paid professionals’ drove over mountains, past coasts, across cities and thru countrysides — and i can tell you… While Germany, Italy and Spain are doing lots to integrate solar and wind into their electric grids rapidly, general concern and understanding about ecological problems and what to do to improve the situation is LOW everywhere; too low to make a big difference. Yes, Europeans in these countries tend to do more with less, and at all levels of life — but, these places are still not recycling, not composting, not going non-toxic, not looking critically at the scale and detail of changes needed (much less engaging in the activities truly needed) to avert catastrophic global climate change. What environmentalists in Europe appear to be doing WELL is implementing cleaner grid technology pretty fast and having recycling stations more commonly, but Europeans are still living in a wholly unsustainable paradigm just like we the Americans.
(5) Since 2005 I’ve run a small eco business, produced large eco festivals, given educational presentations to churches, public schools, women’s groups, rapt audiences & more, helped start and maintain Austin’s Interfaith Environmental Network, fought for cleaner energy and advocated at City Hall and at the local power utility, blogged extensively, considered politics, collaborated with Austin’s environmental sector on some large scale projects, attended numerous eco conferences, independently run large local eco action groups and petitions, and more.
Image: Chris Searles lurking behind Alejandro Escovedo in Pavia, Italy.