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Weekly Commentary — Global Environmental Strain — The Way Forward

2009 August 10
by rahul

Is there hope for humanity? Can we avoid the precipice at our feet or must we inevitably fall into the yawning environmental chasm before us?

Everybody is asking themselves this question, whether they realize it or not, but it is the wrong question. And, as is so often the case, when you ask the wrong question, the answer doesn’t matter very much; the mere asking of the question is at the core of the curious passivity that much of the left and the global public are showing about the major issue of our time.

The heart of the mistake is the seemingly all-too-natural tendency we have to take a continuum and force it into a binary opposition, in this case catastrophe or nothing.

Actually, both poles of this binary opposition are unreachable or nearly so. There will never be a point where human society has lost hope and is irreparably doomed. And there has already been much damage done; there is no pristine earth that we can rescue if only we act now now now and likely little to no prospect of completely undoing the damage that has already been done.

The invocation of these poles drives the mistaken formulations I wrote about earlier. Those who want to believe that we can buy carbon offsets and weatherstrip our houses and help the economy by promoting green jobs without paying a price in the total reorganization of industrial society are implicitly working with a model in which little damage has been done and in which every problem has a technical fix.

Then there are those who are driven into passivity by certainty that the planet is doomed. What that might mean is often left unexamined, of course.

In the middle, there are those who think – again, implicitly – that we have essentially a pristine earth but we are right on the cusp of suddenly wrecking it. The next five years are crucial; if we don’t get emissions under control, or eliminate them, or do something that is patently politically impossible and frankly incompatible with what we know of human society, then we are doomed.

This dualism also manifests its ugly head in other ways. One argument often made by good radicals who want to stress the need for human beings to change completely their consumption patterns is that we must get rid of our faith in technical fixes; every technical fix generates more problems and leads us further down the road to perdition.

Even more important, people who attempt to address global environmental strain in a serious way often fall into the trap of thinking of this as an existential issue rather than a political one. Again, there is no neat dichotomization; no issue can be freed from politics.

In truth, I think the most sensible and useful perspective is not a difficult one. Every day we make things worse. It’s not necessarily a gradual process; there may be small precipices we slide down. But there is no “point of no return” we’re just about to cross.

Instead, the task for us is to figure out a way to stabilize the environment and our interaction with it in such a way as to provide as soft a landing as we can. In this task, we will need technical fixes and changes in patterns of consumption. Most important, we will also need political and social transformation. And not by suddenly going over to a localized subsistence economy; this isn’t going to happen.

We need to wreak a political transformation in our societies that makes it more possible for us to take serious measures to deal with the crisis we’re living through; we need to wreak a social transformation that minimizes the effects of the environmental changes that are inevitable.

For example, over the next 50 years, we need to start moving people away from low-lying coastal areas. We need to start mitigating the extreme inequalities in the global economic structure. When more people start dying of effects of global warming, we need to make fewer die of tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS; we also need to make sure smaller numbers are vulnerable through extreme poverty or through dependence on crops whose productivity will go down as tropical areas warm.

We need a grand new campaign with multiple prongs, technical, political, and social, all working together. We need to talk more about the hard work that has to be done over a long period of time and less about the imminent catastrophe that will occur unless we do various impossible things immediately. We can do it; yes we can.

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