“Everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” – Mark Twain
[This month’s speaker is environmental scientist W. Douglas Smith, who offers this introductory essay.]
In the past the climate kept our ancestors on the run. At times it nearly drove us to extinction with as few as 15,000 adults on the entire planet. At the end of the last ice age the climate mellowed and our species settled down to farming and settlement life. Today our exploding population and voracious appetite for resources makes us the most significant geophysical force on Earth. We remove mountains to obtain resources for our industry. Every major river is utilized for irrigation, power, or simple recreation. Twenty five percent of all major rivers don’t even reach the sea and none are potable without treatment. We are presently causing the sixth planetary extinction. Our numbers and increasing urbanization make pandemics more of a probability than a possibility. We will have to increase global food production 50% by 2050 yet we are actually losing arable land and forest. Brazilian forest is cleared to increase range land or for farming but doing this means we diminish nature’s carbon sink and interrupt the CO2/O2 cycle.
What does the future hold for us as a species and for the planet? One thing for sure, if we continue on our present track we will enter a climate of chaos incapable of supporting either our numbers or life-style.
Nonetheless, we are arguably on the cusp of the greatest intellectual, economic and cultural renaissance, ever. The fossil fuel paradigm is changing to a new sustainable matrix.
In May 2014 Germany received 80% of its power through sustainable energy sources. Consumers are getting much smarter and the business sector is realizing that their future demands longer term planning to make more product from fewer resources through more efficient processes. Families are buying homes that use less energy from materials that don’t endanger the environment. Neighborhoods are considering alternatives to a power grid that fails to provide dependable electricity. Some are considering dropping off the grid supported by photovoltaic cells or wind. Transportation is evolving exponentially. Fleet mileage will exceed 50 mpg by 2025 by U.S. law, but may exceed that through consumer demand and engineering breakthroughs. Some people are able to work at home and reduce the time and energy wasted in commuting. In Europe it is not uncommon to find city central open to pedestrian traffic only. Mass transit is increasing in every industrialized country, though less in the U.S. High speed rail is expanding in China, Japan and Europe. Even the classroom is evolving. The Perkins School in Seattle is the first totally self-contained science class building in the world. The Bullitt Center also here in Seattle is off the grid. On line classes are allowing people to study on their own schedule. Digital lectures mean the best professors can reach thousands at a time instead of a few dozen. Students can research and form study groups through Skype and other technologies. Special curricula are being developed for special needs children. Students can advance at their own pace and repeat lessons any number of times if necessary. Manufacturing is evolving through international competition and a global market.
But there are problems: The climate is changing rapidly and demands a faster transition from fossil fuels. Changing to sustainable energy and transitioning a global culture that has been dependent on cheap and easy coal, oil and gas isn’t easy. The governments of industrialized countries are also entrenched in a narrow and perhaps dangerous perception of what comprises a free market and that unregulated capitalism is self-regulating. Unregulated translates to undetected corruption. Corruption means the market is not free.
There is unequivocal evidence that powerful fossil fuel interests have a disproportionate influence on political systems in the U.S., Canada and the EU. This is achieved through campaign financing that favors large anonymous contributors. There has been a gradual erosion of the legal interpretation of “one person one vote” and what constitutes a “person” in democratic systems. Conservative and liberal ideologies have polarized so strongly that there is little confidence that the government can negotiate policy for a safe transition to a sustainable future.
The highly divergent interests of nearly 200 nations make binding agreements very difficult or even unlikely in time to prevent the collapse of the natural systems that support civilization.
There has been little discussion of alternative pathways but they do exist and there are many.
How can we take the changes already taking place and translate them into a solid pathway to a sustainable and prosperous future. We must step up, become informed, share ideas, join together and make ourselves heard.
[W. Douglas Smith publishes The Blue Marble Report. He is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer and educator. As a Senior Compliance Investigator in the U.S. EPA, he conducted inspections and investigations, developed protocols and training materials for EPA, the World Bank Institute, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). From 1962 through 1992 he was the owner/operator of an adventure travel company that began the concept of eco-trekking in the Himalayas and around the world.]