April 6, 2007

Sociopathic Dichotomy?

At this writing date (April, 2007) there seems to be a jarring dichotomy between the 'developed world' and the 'developing world.'
The former is enjoying record high levels of economic activity and prosperity... while the latter (excepting China and India) is sliding backwards or sideways. It's almost a frenetic orgy of conspicuous consumption booming in the western world; a final party blast before the lights go out.

While the voice of concern over climate change grows more strident and urgent, the average consumer in the wealthy world hardly notices. After all, gasoline is still ridiculously cheap in realistic terms; sales of pick-up trucks and SUVs haven't dipped much despite eco-awareness; car manufacturers are producing vehicles with ever-bigger engines with ever-higher horsepower... it's a new golden age of the automobile! In real-estate, prices of homes in virtually every city and town keep rising faster than people's heaps of recycled Starbucks cups. The avalanche of garbage from the consumer paradise keeps clogging the overburdened 'land-fill' sites. Airlines ferry huge numbers of passengers-- for business and pleasure-- all over the globe. And so it goes.

Meanwhile, in the poorest countries-- even those with 'oil wealth'-- ordinary people lead desperate lives, counting themselves fortunate if they work for a multi-national company for pathetic wages, while the ex-pat managers and far-away CEOs earn exhorbitant salaries for pulling off this legally blessed rip-off. As the consumers of the northern hemisphere go about consuming feverishly, generating vast amounts of 'greenhouse gases,' in truly cruel irony, it's the peons in the southern hemisphere who, so often, bear the negative consequences of that prodigious economic activity. Places like Bangla Desh and Honduras, and large parts of Africa, suffer extremes of drought, then floods, and hurricanes-- disasters linked to climate change, and which they are hardly in any condition to deal with.

Back in the US of A (and its confreres) the populace is hearing about impending doom from the effects of their profligate consuming lifestyle; but more than that, they are feeling the effects directly! We all witnessed the devastation of New Orleans; homes lost to brush fires in California; tornadoes in the mid-west; lives have been lost. Yet, overall, there is remarkably little impact on the socio-economic euphoria. And why not? Sure, there may be some problems here and there, but we can still drive our Hummer to the local gas station and fill 'er up. And pop over to the supermarket and load up heaping carts of 'goods', including cartons of bottled water in throw-away plastic containers. And book our flights to Hawaii, London, Tokyo, or wherever. So, what's to worry?

Listen, I'm not just being annoyingly sarcastic. In historical terms it would be almost unprecedented for a society to turn its behavior around 180 degrees within a few years, even in the face of looming catastrophe. We humans need at least one, preferably two or three generations in which to make the kind of drastic adjustments demanded by a worldwide threat like climate change. Sadly, we don't have that kind of time cushion. In geological terms, climate change is supposed to take place on a time scale of centuries, not years. For reasons still unknown, our current rate of warming is accelerating at a gallop. For a while, in the earlier years of industrial pollution, we had the 'negative feedback' effect (beneficial) of 'global dimming' caused by hydrocarbon particles in the upper atmosphere that were actually shading the planet from solar radiation. Today, though, that effect has been swamped by positive feedback effects (harmful) such as widespread forest fires that deplete the main resource in cooling and purifying the atmosphere-- vegetation. Heat is causing arctic permafrost to thaw-- releasing trapped methane gases that exacerbate greenhouse gas effects. Desertification of already dry areas reduces vegetation still further. In sum, all the cycles are now vicious.

So, in case you haven't got it, the point is that while we currently party madly on, the stresses are building up for imminent and colossal disaster. Yes, of course, this is not a popular message for anyone to countenance. Denial feels so much better! But will denial help when the disasters hit your home? When widespread crop failures make food scarce... as well as expensive? Okay; you want to cling to the straw of optimism offered by the professional doubters, the skeptical scientists (employed by whom?). We can survive this one if we just buy smaller trucks, recycle more garbage, and switch to decaf... right? Well, you see, as the feedback mechanisms are now compounding the runaway heating, the climate, as a control system, is heading toward greater instability. Without damping factors, an unstable system eventually collapses into a new stable state... usually in a condition we'd call 'destroyed.'

That's the pertinent message of our times-- the end of the age. It's just a question of timing. Scientists thought that the present level of global warming would take about a century. It has taken more like three decades. We'd all like to think that surely we've got several more decades before things get 'really bad.' In reality, it could happen any time. We've known about climate change for at least 30 years. The first official studies on global warming appeared back in the late 1970s. After a little ripple of interest, the subject got shuffled to the back pages by 'more pressing' matters. Politicians and the public just weren't much interested in 'unproven scientific speculation.' Thirty years later, and things have changed. We can no longer shrug and ignore the perfidious and destructive weather aberrations. It's real... and still, anyone delivering this message is given all the respect of a guano disturber; a doomsayer, not to be invited to the party. Any day now, however, the same messenger could be proved a modern prophet. You prefer to believe in science than in prophecy? Fine; this time they essentially agree. The information is in your hands. It's time to sober up and face the world.

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