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Living and Writing in the Natural World

400 ppm and counting / "They endured" (Faulkner)

What mainly struck us as drove up the switchbacks climbing Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island in 1983 was how cold it was. Heather and Holly were attired for the beach when we started, but were jumping around to keep warm as their dad made them see the dull, scientific buildings at the 13,679 foot summit. In the distance to the north, Mauna Kea’s more famous telescopes and observatories glinted in the sun. But even then, I knew these buildings on Mauna Loa were more important. They were where the planet’s CO2 readings had been charted the most meticulously and for the longest. Last week Mauna Loa’s readings were in the headlines, and it was chilling, but in a different way.

When I began teaching in 1976, the average concentration of CO2 in earth’s atmosphere was 329 parts per million (ppm), significantly higher than the 280 a hundred fifty years previous. On that day in 1983, the reading was 343 ppm. Last week, we hit 400 ppm as an average (we had reached that number before, on the winter peaks of the yearly cycle, but now it was the average reading for the planet).

Of course, 400 ppm has no particularly magic to it. But it’s a stark indicator that, for all the hoopla about climate changes that are already under way (hotter average temperatures, glaciers melting, warm-climate species extending their ranges to the north, more frequent extreme weather events), about the certain-to-increase water shortages, sea-level rises, deterioration of low-rainfall pasture and crop lands, famine and starvation—despite all these “inconvenient truths” that are universally acknowledged by scientists studying the actual data, we have completely failed on the national level to respond with measures that would stop the steady rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, the most important and potentially “controllable” driver of all those consequences. So now we are at 400 ppm.

Of course, even though the U.S. contributes the highest share of greenhouse gases per capita, we are not alone in this failure. Worldwide, entrenched economic interests have responded as have those in the U.S.—refusal to risk a possible decrease in profits merely in order to mitigate an impending disaster. The only exception, at a national level, has been Germany, which is switching to green, sustainable energy sources at an impressive clip. At the sub-national level, states such as California are mandating similar changes. But national-level action is required, particularly in the largest offender, and the U.S. has failed.

Back in the spring of 2008 I was invited to give at talk at Albion College. In “Making Sustainability Sustainable” I asked what it would take to persuade the U.S. to contribute its fair share in stopping that rise in CO2 levels detected atop Mauna Loa. Two revolutions in the way we think, I suggested, comparable in scope to the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther in the 16th century. We needed a Second Reformation, one that dethroned the universal conviction that humans were the apex of creation, uniquely created in the image of God and commanded by Him to “have dominion over every living thing” (in the words of Genesis). And we also needed a Third Reformation, one that dethroned the universal conviction of the capitalist economic system that growth and profits were the non-negotiable bottom line for a nation’s economy.

As my chagrinned audience of students and faculty squirmed, I judged that neither of these Reformations was likely to happen, certainly not both of them, and we’d all better get used to the difficult times that are coming. It was a spectacularly inappropriate talk for the audience I was addressing, mainly young students waiting to be inspired to rally and do good work for a noble cause. My bad. The analysis and the content of the talk, alas, were right on, as last week’s data from Mauna Loa indicate.

Our worldwide inability to stem the human contributions toward climate change will have serious consequences. Although islands, Africa, the Middle East, and south Asia will be the hardest hit, even middle-latitude countries like China and the United States will experience severe consequences, particularly the relentless migration of hordes of starving people from famine-struck areas along the equator. We will already have our hands full trying to balance diminishing funds with decisions as to how much coastline of what cities to save from salt-water inundation of rising sea levels. And those funds will be strained by having to import wheat and corn from the new bread-baskets of the world—no longer Iowa and Kansas but now Canada and Russia.

Well. The next two centuries will be extraordinarily challenging for humans, even those of us favored to reside in currently-rich nations such as America. Without glossing over those coming challenges, the perspective of deep-environmentalism and Taoism remind us to remember the long view and the short view.

The long view is that this is not the first catastrophe to hit the planet. Long before humans appeared a mere quarter-million years ago, the planet went through catastrophes and life emerged on the other side, regrouped, and kept on going. In the Permian-Triassic event 250 million years ago, known as The Great Dying, about 90% of living things on the planet went extinct. In the end-of-Cretaceous rain of asteroids upon the planet 65 million years ago, all the dominant dinosaur life-forms went extinct, but afterwards the dinosaur-oppressed mammals emerged and began to radiate into new forms to fill all those empty niches.

University of Chicago researchers Jack Sepkoski and David Raup have charted extinction rates beyond the normal background rates, and see distinct extinction events every 26 million years on average. We’re clearly in the midst of another such event, this one anthropogenic in origin. Life on the planet has emerged after each of these; it will after this one, also.

The short view is that the fundamental human experiences of birth, growth, raising a family, and struggling with the hand you've been dealt, won’t change. Yes, it will be considerably more challenging to live for the next several centuries of humanity. But we’ll still see the sun rise to a new day each morning, we’ll still be swimming in creeks and oceans, sunshine will filter through tree leaves, and the stars will continue to shine above us in the night sky. We’ll figure out how we fit into things as we grow into adulthood. We’ll mate and watch our own children grow, with all the ancient joys and sorrows associated with that. We’ll grow old ourselves, try to maintain our perspective and our grace as our own strength wanes and our sight diminishes. And we’ll go into the final darkness with what dignity and joy we can muster. As always. As William Faulkner said of Dilsey’s family in The Sound and the Fury: “They endured.”
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