Richard S. Stein
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Most of us learn about the ride of Paul Revere who alerted the American colonists in the 1700’s that “The British are coming!” This was a wake-up call that led to the events of the American Revolution. There is an urgent need to be woken up again. We are suffering from the apathy about what may be a more serious future happening that dwarfs most of our concerns in importance – the possible extinction of our civilization.
A recent “Letter” by the minister of a church in Haydenville, MA has called attention to a book published in 2008 by the very reputable National Geographic Society, “Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter Planet” by Mark Lynas. It contends that if we continue to live as we presently do, there is a high probability that our civilization may not survive this century – an alarming prospect worthy of Paul Revere’s efforts. It is disturbing that more attention has not been paid to this, and another book, “The Sixth Extinction” by the New Yorker magazine author, Elizabeth Kolbert, makes similar predictions. We are experiencing changes very similar to events occurring in past centuries leading to the extinction of must forms of life. Some survived since the changes occurred very slowly and there was time to adopt. This time, matters are very different, changes are occurring in decades that took thousands of years in the past, so there may not be enough time for adoption. If we hope to preserve our civilizations heritage accumulated over millions of years, very rapid action is necessary.
Some of the more pessimistic of us are sufficiently alarmed that they believe this catastrophe cannot be prevented. I am hopeful that it can be, since while changes are occurring rapidly, so is our development of technology. I believe that if it was earnestly applied, we might at least significantly delay, if not prevent this happening.
While technology might save us, the question is whether there exists the will to use it. The problems reside with today’s politics, the country’s economic structure, and the media. Measures to combat global warming cannot be taken easily. Many require investment and sacrifice of some of the pleasures being enjoyed today. We are, so to speak, ”living off our father’s bank account”. We are enjoying the benefits provided by our forbearers, some leading to the depletion of ever diminishing resources and resulting in pollution of our land, its waterways, and the atmosphere. Our principal energy sources, fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, are being consumed at a much greater rate than new sources become available. Population growth and third-world development creates ever-increasing demands. These fuels arose from biological sources subjected to geological processes taking millions of years and finite resources are becoming depleted. Burning them has resulted in unprecedented increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide to higher values than have occurred for thousands of years and which most believe leads to the “greenhouse effect” resulting in global warming. While critics dismiss predictions as being “just theory”, most reliable models under predict what is observed. Average world-wide temperature increases approach 2 C, and many believe that without corrective measures, they will reach 3 C in a decade or two or less. If they become that high, the prediction is that a “tipping point” may be reached, beyond which it becomes impossible to avoid further increases. A consequence of the increase, already seen, is the melting of glacial and Arctic and Antarctic ice, giving rise to sea level rise and flooding, some of which leads to the loss of habitat to many in the less-fortunate parts of the world. The water supply for drinking and agriculture becomes threatened at a time when its need for providing food for the growing world is increasing. Many believe that the warming oceans are leading to more water evaporation, giving rise to the probability of more frequent and intensive storms, some of which are already with us.
Leading environmentalists like Bill McKibben and James Hansen contend that it is essential that we cease burning fossil fuel. Their request is strongly opposed by industrialists, dependent upon its industry and on its use and who are enjoying profits as high as 10% per year on their investments. Renewable energy sources are not capable of meeting the demand that would occur if fossil fuels were abandoned, although investments for their development have been inadequate. There is reluctance to spend money now, but the present cost would be small as compared with the costs of the environmental damage if it is not done.
One might hope that public pressure would lead to changes, but little has happened, probably a result of much of the public being ill informed. Those profiting from our present lifestyles, the so-called 1%, are among the most wealthy and have used their resources to accumulate control of the media and of many of our politicians. Public support of the media has diminished and they are increasing dependent upon income from commercial advertising. Citizens United legislation has reduced limitations of contributions to their chosen politicians who are increasingly dependent upon them to finance their ever more expensive campaigns. The media has generally failed to inform the public about these very probable future threats to our civilization.
It has been said that public activism often awaits a disaster for motivation. I believe such a disaster is at our doorstep. We are witnessing more severe weather patterns and very probably will see appreciable price increases for food in view of deteriorating growing conditions. The hope is that the wake-up will occur soon enough before the tipping point is reached.
Paul Revere – please help sound the alarm!