Tag Archives: climate

Mars is the Planet We Want

The atmosphere on Mars is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, with an average temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Only 16 of the 39 total Mars missions have been successful.  Mars is about as far from habitable as we can imagine any environment.  Pretty inhospitable, right?  So what is it about Mars that captures the imagination of the public?

As our own planet degrades, are we simply casting around for any alternative, no matter how challenging or unlikely? Afloat on a sinking lifeboat, are we (and by ‘we’ I mean the world’s 2% who have any hope of escaping) planning on being castaways for generations into the future?   I think not.  I think Mars has appeal for other reasons, and these date back to the era of colonialism in the late 19th century.

Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.

From the 1870s to the 1890s European powers fought, pillaged, destroyed, and exploited the peoples and territories variously under their control around the world.  Africa in particular was an object of focus, a field of colonial competition and experimentation.  Although the forces at work driving colonialism were at least partially strategic, they were also cultural, gaining importance due to broad social trends that gave meaning and legitimacy to an otherwise obviously violent project.  At least part of the drive to dominate was an awareness of the losses at home, the shortage of resources and the decline of life quality that had accompanied industrialism.  Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.

The natural world played an important part in this project.  Colonialism was celebrated in the drawing rooms and smoking rooms of English nobility, adorned with the heads of hunting trophies, some beautiful, some made fearsome to elevate the social status of the hunter.   The larger and more dangerous the prey, the more remote and unforgiving the location, the more revered was the hunter who made the shot.  Check this piece by Maximilian Werner to see how this biosocial dynamic, including its gender dimension, still holds sway. The exercise of domination over nature embedded a narrative of triumph over adversity, struggle and reward, similar to the social Darwinist theories of racial superiority which were also gaining traction as more remote peoples and lands came under colonial control.

As England degraded physically and the environment became more and more polluted by coal smoke, with forests long since cut down and cities overrun with poor migrating for work in the industrial centres, a movement arose to preserve and protect the countryside and the rural way of life.  Romantics painted a rosy picture of the village, with quaint gardens and carefully tended homes, and mourned the loss of Hobbiton (OK, that came later, but you catch my drift).

20181109_130452For the colonial mindset, nature could be only two things:  it was either a garden, or a wilderness.  The garden metaphor viewed the colonies as representative of the quiet English countryside, well tended and cared for, planted and grown with care using the knowledge of scientific methods to regulate the relationships between species.  Ecological science, and particularly amateur collectors, made a strong impression by carefully gathering, cataloguing and classifying every new species and specimen ‘discovered’ in the remotest outposts of empire.  The endless frontiers would provide valuable information from which to garner wisdom about what had gone wrong in England, and the urge to recreate the Garden of Eden (to somehow earn a ‘do-over’) was strong.

The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness.  Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.

On the other hand, the wilderness represented those areas yet to be tamed.  Large areas of Africa were virtually uninhabitable due to disease,  climatic hardships, wild animals, and dangerous and resentful local populations.   The causes of these hardships were unknown, but not unknowable.  Setbacks were common, and did incur some measure of humility and respect for the mystery of nature and the depth of the challenge of controlling what were essentially uncontrollable forces.  In the Western part of North America, wilderness was much less threatening, and its imminent loss inspired a sense of strong protection, even reverence, for the ‘natural cathedral’.  In Africa, the drive to protect wilderness took the form of hunting reserves where wild animals were protected and cultivated.  In North America, it took the form of the creation of national parks with mountain vistas which would be destinations for leisure and health as well as hunting.

peasants-in-herb-gardenSo how does the present-day vision of Mars come into this?  The colonial imagination of the garden or the wilderness is still present in Western, now in many senses, global culture.   Mars is the new canvas for the population to project its longings and dreams, and accuracy is still no part of the picture at all, just as it was with Africa.  The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness.  Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.

In an Anthropocene epoch, when nothing on Earth is outside of human influence or touch, our own planet disappoints.  As the quintessential mysterious unknown, great status and wealth is to be gained by the race to conquer Mars, regardless of whether it turns out well.  Just as the drive to dominate ultimately undermined colonialism itself, so may the urge to colonize Mars destroy not only Mars, but also end up undermining efforts to protect what is left of the only home we’ve ever known.  One can argue this point, and perhaps I might be too pessimistic.  Might Mars end up being a wellspring of information that might be leveraged to save ourselves and our own planet?  Can we learn the real lessons of the wilderness and the garden?  I fear instead that we are not departing from the past but recreating it, not because poor Mars might end up being another junkyard (although it’s on the way already) but because we have yet to demonstrate the moral fortitude to be able to see ourselves in Mars.

Is the World Getting Better or Worse?

This presentation takes a practical look at recent trends in the world and analyze whether the world is getting better or worse. We will look at trends in democracy, human rights and freedoms, economic growth and inequality, environmental degradation and climate change, human health, population, and governance, among others.

Climate Change: Deconstructing Conservative Fatalism

Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change.  Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.

Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change.  This strategy has had some success.  Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”

In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction.  By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing.  The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints.  These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views.  The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.

Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.

Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.

However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated.  Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.  Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.

Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests.  But international relations is different.  In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak.  The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible.  Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.

For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is:  first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change.  It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit.  It is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

78806802Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change.   Defection means cheating.  Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.

Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies.  Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.

Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions.  No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price.  To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.

To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence.  Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change.  Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.

 

The Place of Intrinsic Value in Environmental Politics

The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic.  The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident.  A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one.  Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.

But what of arguments not based on self-interest?  What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture?  In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the Does nature have its own intrinsic value?movement by Arne Naess and many others.  The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas.  Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be  influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance.  Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.

Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate.  One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation.  Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value.  Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.

Searching for intrinsic value.But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?

In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself.  Aristotle used the example of eyesight.  We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones).   The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away?  We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.

This is a basis for building political action because of its universality.   Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss.  Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.

Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value.  It is already all around us in political discourse.  Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible.  For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.

A Leaner, Meaner Politics in the US: What About Canada?

In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil.  It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself.   It’s also not just a fight over ideas:  it is a battle for survival.  The supporters of the right, to pearth_tighten_belt_800_clr_7668araphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state.  In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations.  The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie.  No more.  Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct.  Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’.  On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year.  The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.

These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-soil_money_canada_pc_800_clr_2385eated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them.  What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly?  Could Canada go down a similar route?  Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities.  With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources.   The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits.  This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee.  On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts.  On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource.  As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher.  If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of shattered_dollar_coin_800_clr_8730the state as a (re)distributor of resources.  With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible.  On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing.  I want to end on a positive note here.  Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever.  I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US.  If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.

The Future is Now: Rio+20

History’s largest international conference is taking place this month to commemorate a series of milestones and assess progress on key environmental issues.  After thinking and writing about these issues for so many years, I hope readers will forgive the tone of this post, it’s admittedly ‘glass half empty’—on another day I might be more optimistic.

It’s been 40 years since the world’s first international Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972.  Since then, anniversaries of these milestones have been held at various intervals, with the key turning point being the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio which established the notion of sustainable development and set the global agenda for the 21st century.

Sustainable development is development that…

In the past 40 years, entire generations of people have emerged from poverty, gained education, raised children, fallen into war, lost their homes, tackled disasters, and accumulated debt.  Countries have been formed, economies bankrupted, and entire societies have risen, fallen and stagnated.  The unrelenting trends of environmental destruction have been unshaken by these human earthquakes.  Virtually every curve follows the same pattern: from carbon emissions to depletion of the ocean fisheries to accumulation of plastics, the trends are unchanged.   The human acceleration of the carbon cycle, depletion and degradation of energy, growth in global population, and accumulation of wastes has proceeded at an unrelenting pace.

organic_growth_graph_400_clr_5097In 1992, Agenda 21 listed a series of aspirational goals: international cooperation, peace, and participatory sustainability were among them.  It was optimistic and mediocre.  It was the best we could do at the time, and in hindsight, probably the best we’ve ever done.  Looking back now, we can see the forces that were brewing to both advance and hobble the emergent global consensus.  Businesses got on board for the first time: tired of being labeled the enemies, and realizing the need to forestall government actions, they either went wholesale for a radical re-hauling of their practices or threw money and marketing at the problem to change perceptions.  All these years later, it’s hard to say which tactic had the greater impact.

As the environmental damage of some business activities became harder to avoid, reduce or hide, businesses changed tactics.   They labeled their environmental critics as ideological nutcases or foreign enemies.  Scientists were a tougher community to silence, but not impossible.  Funding think tanks to stir up doubt about global warming and buying politicians bought some industries some time to become too big to fail and so lock governments into subsidizing them when the inevitable crisis hit.

stick_figure_insert_key_earth_hole_pc_400_clr_1318For their part, the environmentalists were caught off guard by the ferocity of the counter-attack.  Hostage to the business cycle, their pessimistic message found solid ground in those populations whose stakes were lower and who had the most to gain from changes: the lower middle and upper middle (both countries and classes) had sufficient resources to spend with some discretion and when given a choice that make economic sense, they were willing and able to make changes.  They created new green enterprises, touted urban farming and wind and solar energy, and focused on changing the local level, leaving the large businesses the global field upon which to play.

In taking this hunker-down survivalist approach, however, many forgot that their local environments were dependent on the global in inseparable ways.  Their urban and suburban lifestyle was oil-fuelled and globally-adapted and vulnerable at its very core.

Governments essentially vacated in the face of irresolvable differences: they were derailed by issues of  fairness in compensation for losses, human rights claims, global inequities in resource distribution, and the unwillingness to give up any sovereign claims whatsoever.  While talking a good game, they utilized any and every opportunity to shift costs onto others and spare their own any discomfort.  The ‘others’ included future generations, other countries’ territories, and other species.  To be fair, there is no room for heroes in environmental negotiations, since the fault is increasingly everyone’s, and so, essentially, no one’s.123088183(2)

There are real problems to be solved here: air, land and water pollution can be reduced, species can still be saved, warming can be either accelerated or slowed.  Imagine what might be done in the next 40 years.  The earth cares not about how these things are accomplished, just whether they are.

#RioPlus20; #EndFossilFuelSubsidies

For more analysis and some governance solutions, see the excellent Earth System Governance Project: http://www.ieg.earthsystemgovernance.org/

A New Grammar of Disaster

With the House Republicans once again blocking a bill to fund federal disaster relief measures in the US Congress, I was struck by the contradictions in the way in which disasters are being framed in public life.   These contradictions, I would argue, are not unique to the US, but represent a kind of existential paradox that is affecting publics throughout the wealthy industrialized world. The paradox is this: disasters represent exceptional circumstances where government must act positively to protect security and property; on the other hand, governments must not be allowed to  establish new institutional authority to prevent future disasters, mitigate their potential effects, or recover over long periods of time.  Disaster capabilities are needed, it seems, but these must be temporary, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and limited in space and time.

2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive years for disasters ever, with the frequency of disasters reaching an unprecedented level.  Extreme drought, heat, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes have cost the US an estimated $35 billion, according to the American Red Cross.   The costs of disasters are not limited by government budgets, and so the commitment to recovery cannot be arbitrarily limited.  This feature of disasters means that considering them ‘exceptional’ is misplaced.  Disasters, especially in an era of extreme weather caused by climate change, are not exceptional, but  transformational.  They cause permanent changes to human settlement patterns, economic growth patterns, infrastructure, social and cultural trends, and natural resources.  The idea that governments must not also change to address them means that governments will be increasingly marginalized in society’s responses to disasters.  This is not a welcome development, since it is only governments that have the collective will, concentration of resources, and legitimacy to marshal social efforts to solve large-scale problems.

Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine in 2007 that disasters provide opportunities for rollbacks of public institutions and privatization of the economy according to free-market forces. However, the idea that disasters provide opportunities just waiting for private companies to exploit just doesn’t seem to fit the experience since the economic collapse of 2008.  As the costs of disasters rack up, companies are either too strapped for cash to invest, or spooked by the possibility of further uninsured losses.  Where are the millions for New Orleans after Katrina?

Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in his book The Upside of Down in 2006 that disasters (if they are not too severe) provide opportunities for renewal and regrowth, and can be leveraged toward deeper forms of social change, at least partly through the formation of new institutions of readiness and new societal efforts focused on adaptation.  However, it seems as well that disasters must be framed in ways that make them significant instances for governmental action, not as exceptional and limited circumstances that can be overcome with ad-hoc efforts.

Just as disasters are becoming significant social movers, governments have vacated the field.  Putting aside the irony of the right’s effort to offset disaster relief spending with cuts to renewable energy programs that might mitigate future disaster costs, the broader question of how to frame disasters has been sidestepped.   Putting disasters in brackets, and assuming that they are temporary and exceptional circumstances that will go away in due course, guarantees that their cost, both human and economic, will continue to escalate.