Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Future isn't What it Used to Be

Quote of the Day: "For every species other than humans, the biggest environmental issue on Earth is Humanity." This is from Rex Weyler of Greenpeace, who recently wrote a column called "Nature: A System of Systems" where he argues for a systems approach to nature because our present piecemeal approach isn't working. We now have more environmental groups but fewer forests, more national parks but fewer species. The once promised bountiful future has been usurped by glimpses of environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, we have the same attitude to nature -- that it's unlimited and inexhaustible -- as those who hunted the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and Great Auk to death. Nature is less a resource and more a treasure that is slipping through our fingers. As Camilo Mora and Peter Sale point out in their recent article on global biodiversity loss, we're not going to "save nature" with more protected areas; instead, we need broad systems-based thinking that addresses poverty, overpopulation, overconsumption, unfair taxation, and ruinous subsidies. We need to get green groups together to synergize their message and help raise awareness that carbon dioxide emissions aren't our only problem. 

To that end, one wonders if we should be putting a price on nature, as Richard Conniff argues in Yale360. This has been a popular idea in economic circles for some time. Perhaps if we understood the enormous value we get from ecosystem services we would start to pay attention to what we are losing. But perhaps this will make nature subject to negotiation, that if we only save half the wetland, we can still have our tax cut, or if we only protect part of the forest, we can still enjoy certain subsidies. Conniff points out that we're asking the wrong questions. It's not
“Why do species matter?” but “Is food important to you?” or “Do you want your children to have effective medicines when they get sick?” or even “Do you like to breathe?” None of these questions overstates the importance of species.
It's this sort of straight talk that we need to see what kind of future we can have versus the sort of future we're going to get with business as usual. What after all, is the value of a walk in the woods?

Meanwhile, Robert Jensen at Truth-Out, in his article, "From Start to Finish: Why we won and how we are losing" puts it in plain terms that business as usual is causing global depletion. This is the subject of Michael T. Klare's book "The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources (New York: Metropolitan, 2012), which is reviewed by Jensen along with two other books. The cheap, easily accessible oil has been vaporized by our cars and planes and now we're onto the dirtier tar sands oil, and the inaccessible oil off the continental shelves and in the Arctic. Next to go are the rare minerals, mined out of rainforests and natural landscapes to feed our industrial juggernaut. Jensen makes the point that we're not going to invent our way out of the crisis. Indeed, some of our previous standbys, like "Necessity is the mother of invention" are going to have to be jettisoned if the transition to this new, environmentally impoverished world is going to be, well, manageable, if not catastrophic. It's not about changing our tools, but about changing our values. Valuing the future requires us to look beyond short-term gratification of consumption and see the beauty of the natural world and the species we share the planet with. We're good at taking care of ourselves and our needs. Now we have to start taking care of the planet -- and our future.

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