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GEORGE: Climate change has put our civilization at risk, not the planet

April 03, 2018 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


No, this is not another rant about climate change and the world's underwhelming response to our existential crisis.

It is pretty clear that the scientists have got a handle on the what and why of that and no amount of thumping the drum is going to turn that predicament into a solvable problem. If anything, climate change has provided great cover in the media for the host of other environmental catastrophes that promise to solve that predicament by sending our civilization packing, sooner rather than later.

The clear picture of land degradation presented in a recent study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is perhaps overdue, but it doesn't really tell us anything new. The interesting part of this study is that they put an actual price tag on the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services equaling about 10 per cent of world GDP. This sinks one of the major objections from the world of business that protecting the the integrity of the planetary ecosystem is simply too expensive to consider.

Less than 25 per cent of the planet's land base has escaped the impacts of human activity. Most worrisome is the fact that we have lost 87% of the planet's wetlands over the past 300 years, primarily to urbanization and agriculture. The authors tie together land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change and point out that we can't treat "...these three threats in isolation - they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together."

Given the ineffectual manner that the human race has responded to climate change, I won't be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

The release of this report seems to have catapulted some of the other predicaments we face into the spotlight. Stories on the plastic debacle, and the decline in farmland birds in France for example are getting column inches, at least in the Guardian. And this is a good thing. Awareness of our predicament is important, not because it has any chance of driving action, but because at least then people won't be terribly surprised when it all falls apart.

The authors identify the underlying causes of land degradation as "...the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies." These happen to be the same drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change, so I can see how linking the three together makes sense. At the end of the day, it is our economy that is driving the destruction.

And that is the real nature of our predicament. "Fixing" the planet would require changing our economic system. And given our history over the past four hundred years or so, I don't see attempts at making that happen today being any more successful than past attempts.

One story that is told by the proponents of infinite growth on a finite planet is the "technology will save us all" fairy tale. A transition to renewable sources of energy or electric cars etc. may buy a little time, but from the point of view of making the necessary changes to how we live on this planet, they are wastes of time. They are useful, of course, if you are a beneficiary of the current system. They keep the hope alive that we can make our current economic system work and put off the hard choices for at least another quarterly dividend.

There are other proposals on the table. E.O. Wilson ponders whether urbanizing and pulling people off the land could stave off collapse. The goal would be to leave 50 per cent of the planet to wildness while utilizing the other half to support an urban population living much more austere lives, at least from a material goods perspective. As rational and humanitarian as this "solution" might be, I don't give it much hope of ever seeing the light of day.

I need to be clear; we do not face solvable problems. We face a predicament, one that has no solution, just a host of bad choices. Given that it is past bad choices that have led us to this point, we shouldn't be too surprised. And I am not the only one who thinks so. There is even a course offered by the University of Minnesota to help students get a clear look at our predicament.

Climate change has raised awareness that humanity shares a planet. As we watch the borders come back up around us and a fresh round of sabre rattling on the world stage, we need to remember that. As serious as our predicament is, we needn't worry about nature or humanity. But we can kiss this civilization goodbye. I am afraid its legacy to the future could well be a thin, black, greasy, and slightly radioactive line in the rock strata of our beautiful planet.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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