Friday, September 23, 2011

Fire or Ice or Ecominic Turmoil?

One thing we environmentalists often get criticized for is our proclamations of a doom and gloom filled future.  We recognize some problems in the way humans do things and often conclude that we can't keep doing them without consequences, and we want to understand what those consequences are and if it's important to avoid them even and especially if avoiding them has negative consequences for us now.  If future consequences will be worse, we think it is really quite rational to take action now to lessen them.

The problem is, although models can be pretty predictive, while cause and effect rationality combined with observational data can make for good scientific papers, still, nobody has the entire biosphere and global economy worked out to the level of solvable equations--and nobody has a crystal ball, either.  And most folks just get fed up with too many downer predictions about the future:  it's far away, hard to get emotional about, and why does everybody have to be so pessimistic anyway?

Hating to hear bad news; however, doesn't in any way invalidate that bad news, not all on it's own. Facts and ideas don't give much of a damn what we feel about them, but how we analyze their likelihood and what we choose to do about them does matter.

So, settling squarely on the theme of environmentalists and their precious doom and gloom, a handful of links:

First, this article from a Vermonter who lived through Irene's floods, who highlights the challenges in being prepared for a warmer world with a higher frequency of natural disasters:

How can cities afford to put resources into studies, planning, and infrastructure upgrades when they're already having trouble paying for basic services? On the other hand, how can they afford not to?

"One of my favorite songs is an old Appalachian folk ditty called "Arkansas Traveler." It encapsulates some of the deepest wisdom about human nature I've heard. My favorite incarnation of the song is a straight man/funny man routine performed by Michelle Shocked...the traveler asks, "Hey, farmer. When you gonna fix that leakin' roof?" The farmer answers, "When it's rainin' it's too wet to fix it, and when it's dry it's just as good as any man's house."

We all fall into this trap. While a crisis is happening, all our energy and money go into just getting by: bailing the basement, fighting the next fire, rebuilding bridges and roads. After we're done with that, well, it's as good as any man's house again!

Also linkable from that article is this online tool about climate change and YOU, with US-wide and state-level maps of areas vulnerable to various extreme weather events.  While I find it quite interesting, I note that the maps don't point out the change in any of these risks between this decade and previous ones.  If the point is that these areas of vulnerabilities have grown to encompass most everybody in the US in some fashion, seeing how they've grown would be enlightening.

Next, this article, from an environmentalist and fellow green building professional who's not a climate change denier, exactly, but does seem to be a climate change so-what-er.  What's got him more worried than climate change is peak oil:  the economic consequences of depending our economies and lifestyles so heavily on a resource whose reserves on this planet are finite.

Many of his articles on peak oil are short but worthwhile, but this one sums up the crux of our treatment of "oh my god doom and gloom awaits!" scenarios:

Whereas Paul Roberts in The End of Oil makes the topic an interesting read, Kunstler [in the book The Long Emergency] makes it terrifyingly realistic. Are his predictions guaranteed to come true? Certainly not. Is there more than a miniscule chance that our future will look something like the one he's painted for us? Sure. Understanding the range of possible futures is part of educating yourself about this issue.

Finally, on from whether or not to entertain the idea that the future could turn out badly based on what we do today, and on toward how to change what we to do today to avoid it, we have this article, that delves expertly into the competing philosophical aspects of acting or not to improve the future.  Should we even act to stop climate change?  And if so, how?

I won't deny that there's a good chance it's windmills, all windmills, and I'm not talking about the renewable-power producing kind. For my own part I've never been convinced that the kind of thinking you get from tilting at windmills can't lead you to something that's actually practical.

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