"Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Dr. Samuel Johnson
Richard Heinberg's gift for making hammer meet nail is evident again today in his analysis of the implications of Carbon Equity's recent report "The Big Melt" (discussed here at length last month) in light of the problem of depletion. I strongly recommend that all my readers consider his analysis.
Heinberg aptly describes the predicament we're in - the solutions to climate change and peak oil for the world as a whole involve the richest nations and their populations making enormous, voluntary transformations of their way of life, and quite rapidly. It means the overturning of our entire economy, the end of everything we have taken to be religious doctrine about the value of growth capitalism, a new commitment in a selfish society to creating justice for the poor, and an absolute sea change in everything from the way we get around to the way we do our laundry. There is no evidence whatsoever at this point than any world government can be reconciled to that change, or that the people of any nation would accept it if their leaders proposed it.
The other option is some variation on collapse - waiting until fossil fuel shortages, economic crisis and increasing environmental disasters reduce our energy consumption dramatically, and drive us, as Heinberg describes, to a society with much less inequity, but without the good parts of less inequity - that is, we'll see our collective wealth destroyed by disaster after disaster, flushed down the toilet rather than shared with anyone else.
I doubt that there are many people who read this blog who believe that we're better off waiting for things to fall apart (more). That is, we a huge amount of work to do - personally, as a nation, as world. But how do we get past the big, big, big bump of convincing leaders by convincing people that we would choose the rough but more equitable path, either because it is the right thing to do, or because it is better for us (both are true here)?
To imagine us having any success at addressing climate change and peak oil, we must imagine a society willing to make presently unimaginable sacrifices. We have seen that up to a point, people are willing and able to make sacrifices, particularly when they are scared to death. Thus, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most people were willing to give in to Roosevelt's calls for sacrifice, while before he faced considerable political opposition. And thus, since 2001, most Americans have been willing to more or less silently acquiesce to the stripping of the Constitution, torture and war crimes, because, we're told, it is keeping Akron safe from the terrorists salivating to blow up its gas stations.
I'm occasionally accused of fear mongering, of not being "positive" enough. And while I think there are positive things about the post-peak future, mostly I think that peak oil and climate change are very bad things for our society, and that it would be the most errant nonsense to tell everyone that their lives are going to get warmer and fuzzier during the transition. I think we do need to talk about the good things about this - the social pleasures, the better food, the physical benefits, the quality of life issues. Those are real and sincere positives. But they are not sufficient to offset the fact that even if we did this right, it would be enormously difficult and painful for most of us. Yes, walking more and biking more will improve our health - but not having a car will also mean less time with distant family, longer transit times, more blisters, staying home, less travel, less exposure to knew ideas and the world. I don't think we serve anyone by lying on that score, and pretending that the benefits exist in isolation. It would be lovely if we were still at the point where we had the option of addressing this within our comfort level. We don't. And we all need to get over that quite rapidly.
The simple fact is this - we have ample evidence that fear moves mountains. If we are to avoid collapse, it must rapdily become politically feasible to make enormous and painful changes very quickly. History suggests one of two things. You can make up strawmen to fear (Jews, Terrorists, whatever...) or you can direct people's attentions to the real problems, with real and penetrating explanations of what they are and what you must do to prevent them. But telling people about the health benefits or the fact that they'd be happier if they did this can only get people so far - we've been telling people about the benefits of a healthy diet for decades, and yet, we eat worse every year. We have millions of avid sportspeople to tell the benefits of exercise, and yet more millions are happier sitting around on their asses. The positives have not moved us the way negatives have.
I have strong personal reasons as a Jew to loathe and fear the idea that we would direct our terror towards a person, or group of persons. Every Jew knows how that goes, and it usually means getting on a boat again. So my own personal preference would be to direct it towards an event - that is, my suspicion is that we are now presently waiting for the next great disaster. It will come, probably in the next few years. And the hope for peak oil and climate change is to take control from the beginning of the meaning of this event - to do what we failed to do with Hurricane Katrina, what we failed to do with 9/11, and explain to the world, "We must make this sacrifice, or have it happen again and again and again to you and your family..." I get told all the time that I'm too scary, but let's be honest - I'm a piker. Bin Laden in your laundry room, that's scary. Nazis around the corner, that's scary. Now we just have to figure out how to make Climate Change coming for your grandkids just as scary. The only good part is that we get to tell the truth.