Friday, January 30, 2009

Some More Thoughts on Sustainability

After my last post on Sustainability, NPR ran this story with Susan Solomon, a leading climate scientist whose recent study indicates that global warming is for all practical purposes irreversible. As it turns out, like a giant reservoir the oceans have been absorbing heat and carbon as atmospheric levels continue to rise. If we were to stabilize carbon emissions, this absorption would continue. And if we are to reverse them, thereby bringing down the carbon levels in the atmosphere, the carbon and heat in the oceans will start to come out, polluting the atmosphere for us. The time frame of reversal appears to her to be in terms of 1000 years, instead of just 100 or 200, as we have been thinking. Most troubling is this quote.
If we continue with business as usual for even a few more decades, she says, those emissions could be enough to create permanent dust-bowl conditions in the U.S. Southwest and around the Mediterranean.
Since the whole debate surrounding even the idea of environmental sustainability has yet to have a clear vision, it seems to me that the conversation must include the potential and even likelihood of significant local difficulty. In which case our vision of how to prepare for, prevent and perhaps just adapt socially and economically to the future that awaits must include this possibility.

Capitalist systems and all western governments are built on the assumption that we have a ready and mostly trouble-free supply of food and water to feed our constituents. Imagine if that is significantly disrupted or destroyed. Imagine New York City, a city that at any one moment has enough food to feed its inhabitants for three days, if a massive environmental event were to take place disrupting it's food supply for significantly longer. What kind of picture does that start to make?

I should note that I am not advocating a fear based approach here, just a realistic one. We cannot control for all possible outcomes, but we can be better prepared should they arise. It seems likely that climate change will exert significant to dominant pressure on our culture over the next decades, increasing as time goes forward. Should it happen, this will be a very new thing for Americans. We live on the verdant continent of the world.

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