New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

A Sustainable Future

August 30, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Ecology, Economy, Peter G. Cohen

Visions of a Post-Carbon World

by Peter G. Cohen

Surely one of the reasons that it is so difficult to achieve meaningful environmental legislation is that we don’t have a vision of a sustainable future. That’s understandable. For the last 250 years we’ve used coal and oil for energy rather than human and animal labor with great success. We’ve become dependent on carbon fuels. Coal and oil companies have spent millions to make sure that it stays that way. 

Coal has become the main source of electricity, which is so wonderfully clean and convenient that people can’t wait to get the latest electrical gadgets. Oil developed with the gasoline engine in cars, ships and planes. Now it is also essential for plastics and hundreds of chemicals. Gas was at first a lighting fuel and now can be used to heat homes and dinners, to power cars, electrical generators and factories.

These fossil fuels have been an enormous benefactor of mankind. We resist learning that by burning them we are destroying the climate that makes life possible. Furthermore, the big enemy, atmospheric CO2, is invisible. We can see smoke and soot, but not carbon dioxide or methane. They are invisible assailants. We must trust our scientists to read the signs of degrading earth and changing weather.  Everything that science has predicted about climate change is coming true, only at a faster rate than anticipated.

The National Climatic Data Center tracks weather events in the U.S. that exceed a billion dollars in damage. In the last dozen years (2001-2012) extreme weather has killed 3,952 people and caused $462 billion in losses. As these weather attacks increase in frequency and intensity, the toll will become even higher through the century.

We can expect climate change to continue its violent storms and floods, its droughts and fires, its heat waves and other unexpected disruptions. More homes and businesses will be destroyed by tornadoes, floods and fires. Insurance companies will be unable to keep up with the challenge and some will fail. As people try to rebuild from multiple events building materials will become scarce and expensive. The effect of these losses will put a premium on the remaining houses, stores and warehouses. 

As more people are killed and businesses destroyed, people will need help from their government to replace homes and jobs. But tax revenues will decline, making government help less certain. Sea levels will continue to rise, flooding parts of seaport towns. These underwater areas of cities and towns will be abandoned. Forest fires and tornadoes will continue to destroy homes and businesses. Architects will design buildings that are capable of surviving these attacks, but they will be expensive. Single homes will be out of reach for most people.

Agriculture will become much less productive. Storms, floods and droughts will continue to reduce the production of the basic food grains worldwide, and food prices will rise. This will be particularly hard on the poorest people in developing countries. Many will be unable to buy food and will starve. It is important for all nations to be as self reliant in food production as possible. The World Bank encouragement of developing nations to focus on cash crops rather than food must be reversed.

As unpredictable weather events will increasingly threaten our lives and livelihoods for decades, we will come to respect nature as farmers do, knowing that in the end our agricultural success, our very survival, depends as much on fortunate weather as on our own preparations and work. That awareness of human vulnerabilities is a practical warning against the devastating dangers of human hubris, the pursuit of endless growth, and unnecessary wars for limited resources.

With so many disasters happening on a regular basis, medical aid and drugs will be in short supply. People will be forced to depend more on family, neighbors and friends for healthcare.

Long distance travel will become excessively expensive for both people and goods. The international corporations that now cross national boundaries to exploit cheap labor and  materials will find their products expensive to ship or to distribute. Increasingly people will have to depend on their communities for the necessities of life. Wind farms and rooftop collectors will supply energy. Small farms will produce food for local consumption; small groups will manufacture clothing and other necessities. In general, big operations, once so profitable, will become less so.

Large, complex items like cars and appliances, which are hard to make locally may be recycled and rebuilt by their manufacturers. Junk yards will be the main source of parts. Energy costs will stimulate the production of new, smaller and more efficient vehicles. Some manufactured items such as television sets will be returned to the manufacturer for recycling and repairing.

As more of the old electrical transmission lines are destroyed by weather events, they will be replaced with new, hardened transmission systems that will bring  alternative energy from the plains and deserts to the homes and factories that need more energy than they can produce.

The Benefits of Less Energy

As we change from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other energy sources, it will take decades for the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to be absorbed. The violent weather will gradually diminish over the centuries. Unless it is carefully managed, the transition to sustainable energy will create dislocations in many industries. The sooner we create a Livable Climate Agency, similar to the War Production Board of WWII, to guide a smooth transition from one energy source to another, the less painful it will be.

As we put out the fires in fossil fueled generators and industrial centers, the air and water will become cleaner and lung conditions such as asthma and others due to coal toxins will be greatly reduced. The trees now dying from acid rain in the Northeast will gradually regain their vigor. Coal mining will stop destroying mountaintops and polluting the streams  around them. The process of healing the Earth will begin.

It will take some time to build alternative energy systems to equal the abundant energy we have today. Even with planning, some shortages will occur. This more modest energy consumption will change out lives. We will gradually return to a community-centered way of life closer to pre-WWII than to the dependence on large industrial centers we have today. As a result, local communities will become more self-reliant and democratic, with less influence from the giant corporations that now dominate our lives and manipulate our democracy.

More modest styles of living and involvement with community will reduce the emphasis on money and  the accumulation of things. The communications systems we have today will probably continue to inform these smaller communities about the world around them, but with reduced energy demands.

As unpredictable weather events will increasingly threaten our lives and livelihoods for centuries, we will come to respect nature as farmers do, knowing that our agricultural success, our very survival, depends as much on fortunate weather as on our own preparations and work. That awareness of human vulnerabilities is a practical warning against the devastating dangers of human hubris, the pursuit of endless growth, and fighting  unnecessary wars for limited resources. 

The Philosophy of Survival 

The great, unifying concept of the 21st Century will be the Partnership with Nature. It will no longer be seen as the background for our activities or an area of life to be exploited on a grand scale. As thousands of species die from human overreach, and it is increasingly difficult to find air worth breathing or water worth drinking, humans will eventually realize that without basic change their own species will follow the path to extinction. As we are now the world-dominant species, we must take responsibility for the future of Life on Earth. One aspect of that responsibility will be smaller families and smaller populations, which will be seen as the key to survival in a healthy, sustainable environment.

Throughout human history partnership with nature has provided the greatest rewards. The domestication of animals is one aspect of this model. The domestication of plant foods to become food grains, fruits and vegetables is another. Humans and other animals cannot inhabit a world without plants as the oxygen would soon be gone. The greater areas of plants we maintain, the healthier our lives will be. Having come close to destroying that balance, with near fatal results, those who survive will regard the plant world as friend and partner in Life on Earth. Our beliefs will come to more closely resemble those of the native Americans, who regard all living things as having spirits to be respected. 

For many people,  the nature-loving, community lifestyle, dictated by the disasters of climate change and the knowledge that there are limits to this beautiful Earth, will be a profound relief from the high-speed, money-making demands of modern life. For others the demands and rewards of corporate life will be missed. But the postmodern, climate-adjusted life will have plenty of challenges for those seeking adventure; we just can’t see them from here.

Peter G. Cohen, artist-writer, has been an active environmentalist for decades. He is the author of and other internet writings. 

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