The Chasm between Environmental Theory and Human Imagination

Reading [and writing] about climate disruption and social change is disturbing enough. But the unabated climate-disrupting and society-disrupting economy of extractive wealth concentration, keeps me wondering whether we have much chance at all. Lately, I have a growing sense that something very fundamental is missing in the discussions of most environmentalists. Well, maybe more than ‘something’ – some things.

For one thing, too many environmentalists are too tuned to simplistic solutions, most of which are tied to some profitable enterprise. Another thing, most of the solutions that dominate the public discussion are about competing methods of energy production. Little is said about reducing energy use – something the Europeans are far better at than we are. A third missing element is that discussions of climate change almost entirely exclude consideration of emerging social chaos.

Chaos Ignored

Various forms of chaos related to climate disruption and social breakdown seem to be rapidly accelerating. Most analyses of the situation continue down a multi-lane road of refining conceptual understandings and defending tightly held misunderstandings. But the discussions, however insightful, provide little “on the ground” development of lines of action that reflect the urgency of the human condition.

Having a better understanding of the collision course of the extractive-growth economy with the earth systems it disrupts is more and more important. But movement toward viable science-based and practical counter measures is not merely imperative, it is urgent. Every imaginable countermeasure would likely involve such major social change that avoiding chaos seems unlikely.

Discussions of climate action tend to be global in scope and vague on specifics. Yes, it’s a global problem, but actions must be taken in concrete ways in particular places – both geographic and institutional places. That can only happen when urgency aligns specific carbon emissions suppressing actions with practicality to yield optimum effects.

Some emissions-reducing actions are theoretically great, until all the “overlooked” energy inputs and risk factors are considered. But such strategies are often far too lengthy in implementation. Even if adding nuclear power plants were a viable option, it would simply take too long to accomplish. With nuclear power, the theory has worn very thin and honest total-cost and ongoing risks vs. benefit calculations yield very negative results. But time makes it irrelevant anyway. Climate chaos will already have caused economic and social chaos.

Imaginative Practicality

The time it would take to implement an action and the magnitude of its relative impact are critical variables in any attempt to determine priorities. For the most part, actions that can be taken quickly will also require less energy inputs to accomplish. That is a good thing. For example, a comprehensive program to retro-fit insulation and weather stripping in homes, office buildings, and factories could significantly reduce carbon emissions. The “built environment” consumes 40% of all energy produced in the U.S. A program to reduce that could be implemented quickly.

Production of insulation materials would of course need to be ramped up. Needed materials will have to be produced in much greater volume in existing factories and begun in new or previously abandoned factories. Training of new employees could be accomplished fairly quickly. Much of the work is not all that complex. Energy-efficiency evaluators could be fully trained in a few months. Unemployment, of course, would plummet if such a program were nationally implemented.

Here – and in many other examples of potentially quick and feasible carbon emissions suppression programs – is where human imagination seems to falter. I hate to use the term, “political will,” but there it is. The political-economic forces that dominate our society, polity, and media, do not have the imagination to recognize the potential of the most important strategies for carbon-emissions suppression. A program of massive reduction in emissions from the “built environment” alone presents huge business opportunities.

Dangerous Distractions vs. The Real Deal

Total social mobilization is required for many of the less sexy but more effective actions to suppress carbon emissions to very low levels. Whatever the net benefits of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, their levels of reduced carbon emissions are far too insufficient in the short run. “Winning too slowly is the same as losing…” as Bill McKibben put it.

The production of ethanol as an “alternative fuel,” for example, is driven almost entirely by dominant political and economic forces – special interests – not by any motivation to reduce carbon emissions. It is not a viable climate stabilization strategy; it is a good strategy for agri-business to make a lot of money. Ethanol production will never contribute to carbon emissions suppression, but it will suppress food production. It is a dangerous distraction, the exact opposite of an evidence based rational priority.

If we expect to get anywhere in the attempt to restraint global warming and the catastrophic consequences of planetary thermal overload, somehow a societal cost-benefit based comprehensive strategy must be implemented. Good grief! That would require large-scale science driven setting of carbon-emissions suppression priorities and their implementation at scale.

The current political climate leaves little room for wide-eyed hope. Necessity demands collective creativity. It seems that only a broad and committed social movement demanding the most effective actions can actually force a comprehensive carbon emissions reduction strategy to be undertaken.

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