Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Seven ideas lost on America"

A succinct list from Environmental Science and Technology Online by Jerald L. Schnoor offers some trenchant thoughts about U.S. attitudes toward the environment, particularly toward climate change. A pithy summary: Americans aren't stupid. I have come to the conclusion that we are either in a state of perpetual denial or in a fog of permanent confusion. Whatever the case, we are overlooking some pretty important ideas that contribute to the current environmental crisis.

1. Our unsustainability is immense. Americans don't realize how far out of whack we are with respect to any measure of sustainability....

2. Tipping points are irreversible. Americans can't grasp that we are on the path to an ice-free planet and that it would take centuries, or even millennia, to reverse the process leading us to this point. ... People don't really believe that a severe storm or fire will destroy their homes, yet they invest in insurance against that possibility—why can't we do the same when it comes to climate change?

3. Time lags bite. Americans like to believe that the cavalry will always come to the rescue—that it is just over the horizon. But what if the cavalry needed to arrive long ago? ... Just to stabilize the atmosphere at 450 ppm CO2 and to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system will require an 80% cutback in emissions by 2050, and it must begin soon.

4. Species matter. Many Americans believe that the loss of species is an inevitable consequence of economic growth. Species have always gone extinct and will continue to do so. ...When crops are no longer pollinated by bees, when coral reefs collapse to only a few species, and when disease vectors are no longer kept under control naturally, we may begin to understand the consequences.

5. Free markets aren't free. [O]ur markets aren't free—we fail to pay for the destruction of land, water, and air. When populations were small and territory was immense, natural capital didn't matter so much. But now it does. The environment itself is a commodity and must be valued as a scarce resource. If one fills the atmosphere with CO2, one should pay for it. Capitalism will fail if we can't comprehend this idea.

6. Inaction can be more expensive than action. Americans are looking at the prospect of reducing emissions in the wrong way. Instead of seeing it as something onerous that will ruin the economy, people should realize that steps to reduce emissions would create high-quality jobs in the future. It will cost far more not to act. How many Hurricane Katrinas, droughts in Atlanta, and fires in the coastal desert can society withstand?

7. Technology alone can't do it. Americans believe that technology will always pull us through. From the Manhattan Project to the green revolution to putting a man on the moon, technology has always been the savior. And technology will certainly play a role in our transition from the fossil fuel age. But the human dimension of how to organize ourselves to save the planet is the most daunting challenge of all. The U.S. must provide leadership, compassion, and inspiration to reverse this problem. It will require a change of heart, not simply a change of mind.

Many Americans seem to believe that if we blow things here on earth, we'll just move to a space colony like the one pictured above and start over. NASA Ames Research Center space colony image from the NASA Ames Research Center, Wikimedia Commons

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