Limit Carbon, People, Business

Posted: November 21, 2012

Address climate change. (Photo by Associated Press)
Here at the beginning of the 21st century the world seems to be awash in problems. How can this be, when the Cold War is history, the major countries are getting along better than ever, and technology is advancing at an accelerated pace?

As a small child, I was fascinated that while the hands of a clock were continuously changing, one could not see them move. Indeed, most important trends cannot be directly observed. It is those invisible changes that catch us by surprise, even if they have been predicted.

At this juncture the world is being gripped by a number of slow-moving trends. These include climate change, globalization of the economy, emergence of heretofore underdeveloped economies, the dominance of multinational corporations, population explosion, competition for energy and other natural resources, and devastation of the natural environment.

The most fundamental driver of all of this has been the availability of cheap energy for the 175 years, mainly coal, oil and gas (which provides 85 percent of all energy used). Energy to an intelligent species, man, is like a food supply to plants and animals. The last century of exploding progress can properly be called the “Petroleum Era.” It propelled the West to a modern, technology-supported high standard of living. Now, the rest of the world seeks to match that standard of living, with the result that the earth’s systems are under tremendous stress.

It follows that the solutions to our problems lie in these trends. To accommodate the Westernization of China et al, we must limit and reduce world population. To avoid the catastrophe of climate change, we must transition to renewable energy. To control our governments, we must limit the power of global corporations. To preserve the foundation of our economy, the environment, we must live sustainably.

A continuously expanding population and consumption of resources, and the continued destruction of the climate, will spell doom. We must shake loose any assumption that things will work out. We caused these problems and we have to take action to solve them.

Our best thinkers have for a long time understood these issues, and, encouragingly, many of the solutions. But, at the very time that we should be addressing these problems, there have been a number of irrational and often angry reactions against any call to action. Religious fundamentalists call for larger, not smaller, families. Guidelines for sustainable living, such as the United Nations Agenda 21, are attacked by groups on the right as socialist plots. The need to address climate change comes second to the interests of the fossil energy industry, and even to individual citizens who would prefer a few more years of cheap gasoline. Science is often pushed aside, as if we were living before the Enlightenment. Even our Supreme Court contributes to the darkness that seems to be taking over, by deciding that, in our democracy, corporations are people and money is speech.

We face these challenges because we are at a unique point in history, the point where our species has expanded to fill its ecological niche. All our actions here forward must take this into consideration. In the past, growth was usually only a good thing. Now, we have to test a given area of economic activity to see if it is sustainable.
Not dealing with these challenges will have long-term, dire consequences, but it is legitimate to ask what the short-term, economic impact will be. Since we already have a flagging economy and significant unemployment, an aggressive implementation of energy efficiencies, renewable energy, and the accompanying R&D, should have a positive impact on jobs and the economy. The explicit recognition of, and working to solve, these problems will buoy the spirit of the country.

So, our policy guide to the future is: Address climate change, limit and reduce population, have a sustainable relationship with the natural world, and take back our democracy from large corporations.