Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘hope’

In Dyer Straits

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

November 15, 2009

As a writer and analyst, Gwynne Dyer’s greatest strength — disregarding his formidable intelligence — is his ruthless realism, his relentlessness in pursuing a body of evidence or an argument to its inevitable conclusion, however disquieting that may be.

And his most recent book, Climate Wars (Random House, $34.99) is a disquieting volume indeed.

Most climate change books describe the impacts on the planet in geophysical terms — melting glaciers, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more hurricanes. But the planet is not just a ball of land and water. It’s also a quilt of societies and nations that will be individually affected, with unpredictable results. Perhaps Mexicans starve and Siberians thrive, while the sea covers Holland and Bangladesh.

Their people won’t go quietly. Dyer — who spoke last week at Dalhousie University’s new College of Sustainability — is an expert on war, and his departure point is his realization that the first major effect of climate change will be “an acute and permanent crisis of food supply.” Countries that can’t feed their people “are unlikely to be ‘reasonable’ about it.” Northern European countries, for instance, may have enough food for themselves, but nothing to share. If the starving countries of southern Europe and Africa have nuclear weapons, the outlook is grim.

Military planners everywhere are already reviewing such scenarios, says Dyer, having visited leading international scientists, soldiers, bureaucrats, scholars and politicians. The experience produced some sobering conclusions. First, only fools and rascals doubt that global heating is a reality — and it’s happening much faster than expected. If we don’t eliminate global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050, the last half of this century will be almost unimaginable chaos.

Will we meet that ambitious target for 2050? Not likely, Dyer says. To do it, we’d have to be cutting emissions by 4% annually right now, but in fact emissions are increasing by 3% a year. The only way to hold temperatures down while emissions rise (thus preventing “runaway warming” that’s entirely beyond human control) is through “geo-engineering” — seeding the sea with iron to encourage plankton growth, seeding the clouds with mist or the stratosphere with hydrogen sulphide, to make them more reflective.

But geo-engineering is fraught with “moral hazard,” the risk that people will believe that geo-engineering is an alternative to slashing emissions. It’s not. Geo-engineering, Dyer argues, is just an umbrella to shield us from sunburn while we enable the earth to re-build its natural defences. It merely buys us time.

And we need time, because the greatest risk is a major failure of politics. We have wasted twenty remarkable years of relative international tranquillity. With luck, we may have twenty more. After that, Dyer believes, huge climate disasters could produce failed states, mass migrations of starving people, and vicious wars, both civil and international.

The catastrophic casualty in those wars will be the very possibility of global co-operation which is the only way to bring down emissions and contain global heating. That possibility dies in a world where India and Pakistan nuke it out over the feeble trickles remaining in their shared rivers, where Britain and Japan hunch behind nuclear shields, where an automated killing wall along the US-Mexican border provokes an internal insurrection from Hispanic Americans.

In this nightmare world of blood, radiation, disease, starvation and chaos — ungovernable, seething with demagogues and fuhrers and apocalyptic prophets — human beings will never agree on anything, ever. Their failure potentially leads to runaway global warming and a world as toxic as Venus.

But Gwynne Dyer is not fundamentally a prophet of doom. He believes that the risks are huge and real, and that our odds of sneaking through the environmental mine-fields are not good. But he notes that human beings have made great social progress over the past two centuries — democracy, education, the welfare state. He has watched humanity get through its “mid-term exam,” avoiding the risk of destroying civilization through nuclear war. The final exam is about our ability to salvage our world by exercising the adult virtues of self-restraint and co-operation.

We have, he thinks, “at least some chance of passing it. And how interesting the long future that stretches out beyond it will be, if we do pass.”

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The Hope of the World

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

September 20, 2009

Despair is a useless emotion. And there is no such thing as false hope.

I learned these things years ago, when someone I loved lay dying. A medical moron — a celebrated specialist, with an entourage of students — came to her bedside and told her she would be dead in a few weeks and she’d better get used to the idea. When he left, I went scuttling after him, demanding to know just how the hell he thought he was helping.

“She has Stage 4 cancer, and she still thinks she’s going to make it,” he snapped. “She’s not. There’s no point in encouraging false hope.”

“That’s an absolutely useless opinion,” I retorted. I was seething. “She’ll tell you that she’s not dying of cancer, she’s living with cancer. She’ll be doing that till her last breath. What do you want her to do? Spend her days in despair, waiting for death? Hope gives meaning to her life. How dare you try to take it away from her?”

By its nature, hope occurs in conditions of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s fulfilled, sometimes not. It may be faint. But it’s never false.

I remembered all this when I read Chris Turner’s article “The Age of Breathing Underwater” in The Walrus magazine. Turner is the author of an admirable book called The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need. His obsession is the need to maintain hope and optimism in a world that human beings have sent spinning towards environmental catastrophe. Action depends on hope. You can’t rouse people to strenuous effort and sweeping change if they believe that their efforts will be pointless.

But only fools ignore the science. The particular new horrors that have seized Turner’s attention are the changes in the ocean’s temperature and chemistry, which almost certainly doom the ocean’s most fecund ecosystems, the coral reefs of the tropics. Corals feed on the algae zooxanthelae — but warm water turns the algae poisonous. In addition, the increasing load of carbon dioxide in the oceans creates carbonic acid, which is also fatal to corals. We have made the oceans more acidic than they have been for tens of millions of years.

Raise the pistol to your temple, say the prophets of doom. Humans don’t deserve to live.

Not so fast, says Turner. Yes, we’ve entered the Anthropocene Era, an epoch in which human activity is overpowering the natural world. This is what Bill McKibben means by “the end of nature.” And let’s be clear, too, that there’s no going back. The world you grew up in is gone forever. We are already feeling the impact of climate change, which has such momentum that if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the changes would continue for decades.

But, Turner says, that doesn’t justify surrender. The environmental battle needs to be intensified, possibly using startling new weapons like “geoengineering,” the deliberate alteration of the planet to counter-act the changes we’ve already set in motion. Or nanotechnology. Perhaps we need a philosophy of “social-ecological resilience,” accepting change as “the natural state of being on earth,” and targetting our conservation efforts on the life-forms with the best chance of survival. But this is a time for action, not for despair.

So I’ll participate in a “flash mob” at the Legislature tomorrow at noon, one of 1000-plus events in 88 countries organized by Avaaz.org to send a message on climate change to world leaders. Just in Halifax, other flash mobs will appear at the Chapter House on University Avenue, on the North Common, and at the Bedford United Church. Come and join us.

But tomorrow is also Zero Emissions Day (www.zeroemissionsday.org), when some of us are trying to eschew fossil fuels and minimize our use of electricity. Hmm… Will I spew emissions driving to a climate-change protest? I hear my MLA is going to walk. Maybe I’ll walk with her.

As Chris Turner declares, the arrival of the Anthropocene Era is not a license for despair. The world has forever been changing and evolving, and while the science-fiction environment we have created means loss and danger, it may also offer surprising prospects for beauty and adventure.

Remember this: despair is a useless emotion. And there is no such thing as false hope.

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