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GEORGE: Why unpleasant topics are important

October 23, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


"The path of increase is slow, but the road to ruin is rapid." - Seneca

Kodak
Enron
Nortel
The U.S.S.R.

These are all excellent examples of Seneca's point from our times. Everything was fabulous for these companies and things actually went pretty well for the Soviet Union for many decades. Then all of a sudden it all went south.

Were there signs of trouble for these organizations? Sure. In hindsight at least. It isn't clear whether anyone was paying attention to the signs of trouble before the trouble overwhelmed the organizations. There certainly were signposts that someone could have noted and at least tried to convey to the rest of the people involved. But really, no one wants to be a Gloomy Gus or a Debbie Downer. So I imagine those with a clue probably kept their mouths shut and just kept cashing the cheques.

Kind of like us.

There currently are signposts everywhere that are telling us we have some pretty serious problems. Are we paying attention? Are we taking steps to address the signs of impending disaster? Are we listening to those voices from the wilderness who are pointing out the speed zones and the approaching curves? Or are we focusing on our hard-earned spot in the society that is driving us towards the wall? Kids, jobs, housework; who has time to pay attention to unpleasant topics that we couldn't really do much about ourselves anyway?

We can certainly see for ourselves that "the path of increase is slow". This, after all, is part of the human experience. We work hard and watch as our personal and societal wealth increases. It happens on a timescale we can appreciate. More importantly, it is a timescale we can comprehend. The signposts, on the other hand, are mainly far removed from our day to day life and mark events that have mainly happened in the past over thousands of years. The biosphere is actually pretty stable when the "bio" part is allowed to thrive, so natural change happens slowly. So we tend to not be very good at paying attention when that stability "suddenly" starts going sideways.

As a signpost watcher, I must contend that it is likely past time to start paying attention.

The media has been doing a so-so job of keeping people informed about climate change or as has been more likely recently, why it is almost entirely pointless to worry about it as we have frittered away our chance to do anything about it. Even the optimists are getting depressed about our paralysis in the face of the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. If ever there was a time to not be the "deer in the headlights" it was us over the past thirty or forty years.

Climate scientist John Skea, who worked on the report, summed it up: “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes."

The real news this week came from the biosciences though. First up were the mammals. Or at least those that have managed to survive the onslaught so far. Given our track record on conservation, I am not going to hold my breath looking for us to suddenly start doing a better job.

An Aarhus-led research team calculated that if current conservation efforts are not improved, so many mammal species will become extinct during the next five decades that nature will need 3-5 million years to recover.

The ongoing insect apocalypse has got to be one of the stupidest things we have ever done and that is saying a lot. The combination of habitat destruction, insecticides, and climate disruption have combined to diminish one of the most resilient control mechanisms that our biosphere has relied on for millions of years. Insects are a critical part of the terrestrial food chain. The collapse in songbirds is directly related to the severely diminished populations of insects worldwide.

Each technique revealed the biomass (the dry weight of all the captured invertebrates) had significantly decreased from 1976 to the present day. The sweep sample biomass decreased to a fourth or an eighth of what it had been. Between January 1977 and January 2013, the catch rate in the sticky ground traps fell 60-fold.

And finally, the big signpost planted squarely in the middle of the road. The ultimate positive feedback that may hold out some small hope for the biosphere itself.

Over the following decades, Bendell sees climate disruption working longer-term injuries to governments, economies, social institutions, agriculture, industries — to civilization, you could say — on a continuum running from “inevitable collapse” to “probable catastrophe” to “possible extinction.”

I am not going to think that paying attention now is going to do much good for society or our global economic system. But it may be smart for us as individuals and communities to start thinking a little less about what we need to do to finance that new car and start spending a little more time thinking about how our communities are going to weather Seneca's rapid road to ruin that is lurking just around the corner.

— 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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