Thursday, July 03, 2014

It Takes Imagination


When it comes to climate change, Murray Dobbin writes, knowledge isn't the problem. We have plenty of it. And it's growing everyday:

We have seen especially alarming predictions in the past few months. Two studies released almost simultaneously claim with a high degree of certainty that the glaciers in the western Antarctic are irreversibly melting. The first, by NASA and the University of California-Irvine, examined a group of large glaciers that collectively contain the equivalent of four feet of sea level rise. They are in "continuous and rapid retreat and there is "no [major] obstacle that would prevent the glaciers from further retreat." They have "have passed the point of no return."

Another study by the University of Washington came to the same conclusion and suggested the melting of the Thwaites Glacier could undermine the rest of the Antarctic ice shield holding 10 to 13 feet of sea level rise. None of this will happen soon and the maximum rise could take centuries, yet Greenland expert and glaciologist Jason Box concludes we have already set in motion 69 feet of sea level rise.

Our problem is our lack of imagination. We are stuck in an old way of thinking, and we can't imagine a new paradigm. But there is such a paradigm. It arises when we rethink the fossil fuel industry -- in the same way we re-imagined the tobacco industry:

The mega-corporations that peddle fossil fuels and effectively sponsor climate change and the melting of the ice caps are not an "industry." They are a plague. And indeed their impact is already tantamount to a plague -- the fastest rate of species extinction since the end of the dinosaurs -- and will over the next hundred years kill exponentially more people than all the plagues in world history combined. Speaking of dinosaurs, if we mobilized to confront the criminal negligence of the fossil fuel empire in the same way we would mobilize to divert a collision-course comet, perhaps we might achieve a realistic sense of the scale of the coming catastrophe and what needs to be done to avoid it.

 One of the major political factors preventing serious consideration of major and rapid policy changes is the sheer power of the fossil fuel industry. Unimaginable wealth translates into unimaginable power worldwide. To imagine bringing the industry to heel in a serious effort to slow climate change, we have to imagine treating the industry like we eventually treated the tobacco industry: as an existential threat to human health. For decades the tobacco giants exerted so much political influence they were virtually untouchable. To the extent that this changed (it is obviously still a health scourge especially in the developing world), it changed because the notion of corporate "rights" was successfully challenged.

We live in a world which is controlled by the oil barons. They have worked very hard to thwart the collective imagination. And they buy governments. Until they are seen as a threat to life on the planet, things will not change.


Steve said...

Owen its very clear. If Canada had adopted the NEP we would be the leading power in the world with our finance tank.

Owen Gray said...

Thanks for the link to your blog, Steve. If we had followed the Norwegian model, we'd be in much better shape today.

But the rise of Ralph Klein and his stepson, Stephen Harper, set us on a different path.

Lorne said...

I guess the other aspect of our lack of imagination, Owen, is our apparent inability to contemplate our own end as a species. While that may sound hyperbolically apocalyptic, that does seem to be the direction in which we are headed due to our heedlessness.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, Dobbin is quite right. He's even more naive than right.

Our fossil fuel addiction is a symptom of a far greater, more deadly malaise that results from how mankind today is organized socially, economically and politically. Our orthodoxy still embraces perpetual, exponential growth even as our very finite planet's resources are strained to the bursting point. We have created our very own Maelstrom from 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geo-politics.

Here's an example. A paper written by top Chinese scholars posited a growth in their country's average per capita GDP from $1800 in 2010 to $16,000 in 2030. Think about that. Think about the energy that much new economic activity would require, the resources (especially fresh water), the levels of production and consumption, the waste including pollution and GHG emissions.

The Chinese are targeting goals that are impossible. Globally, our species already consumes natural resources at 1.5 times their replenishment rate. China's ambitions, and those of other emerging economies, can only increase pressure to deplete our resource reserves ever faster.

I suspect what really lies behind China's push for renewable energy isn't so much climate change as the pursuit of almost unimaginable growth that could be even more deadly than China's carbon emissions.

Owen Gray said...

As the graphic suggests, Mound, the fossil fuel industry has its tentacles into all kinds of places.

Like the banks that are too big to fail, they are betting that they are too important to be reined in.

Owen Gray said...

Like teenagers encountering the world, Lorne, we like to think we're invincible.

We live in the fantasy world of adolescents.

Toby said...

Owen said, "Our problem is our lack of imagination."

Sorry but I'm not convinced about that. I've been reading, hearing and watching alternatives for a very many years. We are entrenched because those with the power to make changes, those with vested interests in the status quo, have dug in their heels.

Where we do lack imagination, and I'm as guilty as the rest, is to how we get get rid of Harper and take Canada back from the excessively greedy. How do we do this peaceably? I don't believe it will happen without a lot of violence. Harper and crew have caused too much damage; those who don't vote have waited too long to effect change. Of course, like all dictators, Harper will cheat.

Question: are we being dragged kicking and screaming into a completely new socioeconomic world that will provide for all? Is there something the digital generation instinctively understands, and accepts, that we who grew up with print just don't grasp? Is there a possibility that the neo-Laissez-faire nightmare will be dumped? Or are we looking WWIII in the mouth? Is the world headed for another massive blood letting?

Owen Gray said...

You're right, Toby. We lack the imagination to get rid of -- or at least change -- the entrenched power structure.

However, history suggests that the longer that structure refuses to change, the nastier the change will be when it arrives.

Toby said...


Historians may look back and decide that the most distinctive fact of the 20th Century is that the population of the world tripled. Whatever is coming will put terrible stress on all social, political and economic systems. Global warming will put populations on the move in numbers we never dreamt of. Today's powerful don't stand a chance unless they build their bunkers very strong. Is that what they are doing?

Owen Gray said...

I'd suggest that's exactly what they're doing, Toby. But when the mob marches on their bunkers, they won't be able to keep them out.

Hugh said...

BC Hydro has 11,000 megawatts of renewable, clean hydro power available. What can we do with that? New electrified rail and highway systems would eliminate a lot of fossil fuel burning.

Owen Gray said...

Other sources are available, Hugh. But the oil barons will work hard to make sure that they are still in the driver's seat.

Anonymous said...

You are getting better and better Owen just like a fine wine improves with age:)


Owen Gray said...

I'm just and old English teacher, Mogs, doing something that I like to do.