We face a moment of change that puts to shame, in sheer scale, all the other changes of our 10,000 year civil history. By the best available models, in three years time from now our burning of carbon-based greenhouse gas (at least in already industrialized countries) will have needed to peak out, and start on a dramatic downswing (4% per year reduction in use of fuels like gasoline, 9% per year reduction in carbon-based electrical energy generation). If we could do that, there is a chance that we could limit the eventual total concentration of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million. (What that means, basically, is that, out of every one million molecules of air, oxygen, nitrogen, methane, ozone etc., 450 of those would be carbon-dioxide).
If we wait until, say, 2020, to make those changes, the eventual concentration will rise to 550-650 ppm, or more. Let it be known, though, that the carbon cuts described above are so severe, given the ultra-short time-frame, that no government is seriously considering making them, at this point. These kind of reductions are far removed from the tepid negotiations being eked out at the international climate summits in the past few years. Effectively, the human species has made no advancement in reining ourselves in, so that we may meet this austere carbon budget.
However, the result of even 450 ppm concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is not mild. It will yield a global average temperature change somewhere in the range of 3-4º centigrade, which leads to big sea-level changes, the creation of massive deserts, and the probable extinction of 50% or more of species of life on Earth. Climatologists have now revised the “climate disaster” scale, if you will, so that a 3-4º rise is firmly in the realm of “beyond dangerous” global warming. An eventual concentration of 550ppm would likely lead to a 6º change in global temperature, and 660pm – that much more so.
So, folks: by some of the newest studies (2008, 2011), we've got three to five years left to put our oar in, steer the global industrial juggernaut in the opposite direction from which it is currently headed, which is the exponential increase in the release of CO2 as a by-product of its labors. It also means that we've got a mere handful of years to radically alter our lives.
On the political plane, it is clear that we need to signal our willingness, as the citizens-at-large, to support the governmental decisions that will bring about abrupt changes to our way of life, no matter how austere the circumstances become...if we want a future. The most powerful way to signal this willingness, other than through electoral politics, is by bringing our own lifestyle choices to bear, en masse, on the commercial-corporate world that has engineered our wants, the products that amplify those wants, and, indeed, encroached on our definitions of life-worth-living.
When I was about nine years old, my parents and I watched the sci-fi camp-horror movie, “The Stuff.” It is a dry commentary on our mindless consumption: deep underground, in a mine, a delicious substance is discovered. It is quickly made into a commercial dessert product, and, soon, millions of Americans are hooked on it. Problem is, it turns out that “The Stuff” is a parasitic goo, which corrodes the inside of its would-be consumers, and leaves their bodies as hollow shells.
The scene that stands out particularly in my mind is one where a young boy, who learns that the Stuff is a threat to everyone who consumes it, is standing in a supermarket, at the head of an aisle whose shelves are lined with the product. After taking a deep breath, he pulls out a stick, and charges down the aisle, knocking every bottle of the Stuff to the floor. Of course, the managers of the store, not to mention the customers, are outraged, and attempt to apprehend the boy so that he may face justice.
People who call attention to the knife's edge condition of our climate are subjected to a similar degree of consternation as well, even though the thanklessness of what they are doing should be evidence enough that their motivations are altruistic, that they are acting for the good of all. Like those addicted to the Stuff, we partake of our pleasures even though we know that we have no right to them, so long as we can pretend that the consequences are invisible. In this way, extreme consumption is normalized, and we are all fooling ourselves. In France, there is reportedly a delicacy which consists of a rare songbird, eaten whole; it is customary for the gourmand to hide beneath his napkin while he devours this creature, to hide his sin from God. In the case of our carbon pollution, we are all hiding under the napkin together.
If the consequences of driving a car for frivolous reasons – say, to go down the block to the convenience store – were obvious, we would have the moral compunction not to do it. If a nuclear bomb exploded somewhere in the world every time we turned the ignition key, a lot of cars would sit silent. But, the truth is that we are inviting a future every bit as dire as the feared “nuclear winter” that went along with Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War, and that future is coming as a promised guest. We are, every day, mutually assuring each other of our destruction, of widespread hunger, exile, death, but we pretend that this is normal.
Until recently, cigarette smoking was also normal, it was accepted as a right to smoke socially, and smoking was cool, while being concerned about it was decidedly not. That has now changed. We need a similar change about our obsession with new things, with comfort, with convenience, about the easy way we justify all of our personal decisions, no matter how outlandish the cost to others. We need to stop living in isolation, not knowing our neighbors, not having real conversations with each other, because isolation leads to the twin false perceptions, a) that I really am alone (so how can my contribution impact anything?), and b) that I am the center of my own universe, and what I think is important is important.
We don't have the time-frame that we had to change public opinion about smoking. We don't have enough people charging down the aisles, shattering our illusions of normality when we're dancing on the brink.