Changing Our World, One Community at a Time

December 1st, 2007

It seems a strange thing to say, but we no longer live in “normal” times. By “normal” I do not of course mean “idyllic”; anyone who has any understanding of history knows that humans have been at war with each other, and with a large number of other species, pretty much since we emerged on the earth. But it is only around the middle of the last century that we discovered how to annihilate ourselves, and along with such annihilation destroy much of the rest of life on the planet. Remarkably, given our history, we have so far not chosen to do so; and most of us still regard it as a miracle that we did not blow ourselves up during the era of MAD (“mutual assured destruction”).

Of course, it could still happen. There are still enough nuclear weapons scattered around the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, not to mention China, India, Pakistan, Europe, Israel, North Korea, and perhaps a few other countries to destroy the planet a dozen times over, and it would only take a rather trivial accident (like a plane crash, or a major oil spill, perhaps) to trigger a completely unanticipated and uncontrollable launching of these aging weapons of mass destruction. But at least we understand the threat, and have learned to cope with it, and have put in place some hopefully effective fail-safe mechanisms to prevent it. It requires eternal vigilance, but not by all of us, and as long as no one makes a mistake or goes haywire we can get on with the business of life, having babies, quarreling with our neighbors, making a living.

The challenge we now face on earth is every bit as devastating as the bleak prospect of “nuclear winter,” but is in some ways at the opposite end of the scale. It will occur not by deliberate or unintentional action, but rather if we do nothing at all, and just keep on living. Rather than plunging us into a frigid night, it threatens to expose us to a boiling cauldron of gases or the blazing heat of the noonday sun in Death Valley. Exposed to this, the plants and animals around us will just shrivel up and die; along the coasts, the seas will rise and engulf us; vast numbers of us will be displaced, and if not fought off will overrun the remaining temperate zones, descending like locusts and leaving nothing but barren wastelands. It will not occur all at once, but the collapse of species can be remarkably swift, in some cases leaving barely a handful of survivors and often none at all. This is the prospect of global warming, or at least of the sort of global warming that scientists now believe will almost inevitably occur if we do not, over the course of the next seven years, drastically change direction. Without any deliberate action on anyone’s part, or even any certifiable craziness (though arguably the behavior of some of our present leaders would qualify as psychotic), we will simply end up like the vanished civilizations Professor Jared Diamond describes in Collapse, such as the Mayas or the Easter Islanders.

This is no longer an academic observation. The big picture that is emerging at recent conferences is an increasingly scary one, and it is important that we acknowledge this. Author Bill McKibben says he can now hear panic in the voices of the scientists investigating the impacts of climate change. Ed Mazria, of Architecture 2030, has a series of images of the Atlantic seabord as impacted by one-, two-, and three-meter sea rises, and points out that these may become a reality much sooner than we think. The most recent IPCC report – and remember this is a committee document, which by its nature must be cautious and consensus-driven – states that we have seven years to level off our greenhouse gas emissions, and then must begin to lower them if we are going to prevent a catastrophic rise in temperature on the planet.

How catastrophic is still largely unrecognized by the majority of the population, but when people find out about it they are moved to take action. The average temperature of the earth has risen about 1° in the last 100 years, and if we do not change course it may rise by 5° this century. This may not seem like much, but the impact is dramatic. The difference between a temperate period and an ice age is only about 3°. If the earth’s average temperature continues to rise on top of our already temperate era, we will induce a climate hotter than that under which primate life has ever existed on the planet, exponentially extending the already damaging effects we are already having on the environment. And some problems cannot be solved technologically. The extinction of species, now occurring at the unimaginable rate of 200 per day, threatens the web of life itself, in a way that is completely irreversible.

If we are to survive, a great many changes will be necessary. The recent “Green Meets Green” conference and expo at Ramapo College in northern New Jersey – where both McKibben and Mazria spoke – dealt with changes in communities, in jobs, in businesses, and in government policies and legislation. And these are fundamental changes: for example, we need to measure corporate performance on more than “profit” (and indeed profit may have to take a back seat to people and planet for a while), because you can’t have a healthy company in a disintegrating ecosystem. We need to live in “zero net energy” homes, drive electric cars that are interconnected with the grid, and put a moratorium on the development of coal-burning power plants (and begin to phase them out as quickly as we can). These are changes that require fundamental shifts in our political life, our economy, and our culture.

For McKibben, this shift is toward a greater focus on community life, on farmers’ markets, on self-sufficiency, on friends, and on political activism. The two nonprofits I am currently involved in assisting are both expressions of this. Community Green is a local, grassroots, environmental action organization that focuses on education, involvement in community affairs, and practical lifestyle changes. CALL – Cooling America thru Local Leadership – aims to create a local carbon offset exchange, where the proceeds go back into the communities to foster carbon-reduction initiatives.

For Mazria, as well stopping the use of coal, it involves completely rewriting our building codes, changing our land-use patterns, and following green principles whenever we renovate – so that in 30 years from now nearly 75% of our building stock has become self-sufficient and carbon-neutral. For Jeanne Fox, head of New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities, it involves greater conservation, shifting our energy production to renewables, and smarter technologies. For many local mayors, it involves carbon inventories, citizen engagement, and eliminating solid waste. All of these are likely to be necessary – along with citizens changing their light-bulbs, ditching their SUVs, and driving 55 instead of 75 on the highways.

Essential to all this is a profound psychological shift, from our alienation from nature to our reintegration with it; from our focus on consumption, to a focus on fulfilling what are for the most part non-material desires; from a tribal or xenophobic perspective to a global and interdependent one. This shift is what interests me most these days. There is no lack of urgent things to do, from light bulbs to be changed to whole cities to be rebuilt; but no individual or even group can do all of them. What we need is a sea-change in human consciousness, so that the vast majority of activities become restorative rather than indifferent or corrosive. We must somehow turn the ship around and point it in a different direction. Only then can we return to the more mundane activities of getting and spending, having babies and tending our gardens, going out for a walk and taking pictures of sunsets.

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