Panic and Carry On

We have been waiting for this moment since the 1st century AD, when the Book of Revelations hit the streets. The end-times battle is finally starting, not at Tel Megiddo in Israel as some have predicted but in Paradise, California.

Pardon the hyperbole. The ultimate struggle for survival that we call Armageddon actually has been under way for a while. We humans have been reshaping the fragile environmental niche that sustains us––the thin film of water, rock and atmosphere that coats our bio-friendly planet––for millennia. But we got serious about releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when we fired up the industrial revolution with large-scale coal burning in the mid 1700s. Our world has been getting progressively warmer since then and the pace has quickened. Now the climate change curve is so steep that we can see the effects increase from year to year. Last year it was Santa Rosa. Today it’s the Camp Fire. Next year’s calamities will be worse, and closer.

So here we are in an unprecedented situation. This time we are not fighting for independence or democracy. Human civilization is at stake––perhaps the human species. And the foe is not foreign. Truly, we are our own worst enemy.

Yes, we created our mess. To survive it we must change ourselves, radically and immediately. By “ourselves,” I mean our economies, our societies, our behaviors and our consciousness. This is not unprecedented. We started our journey as hunter-gatherers. But previous transformations have played out over millennia or centuries. This time we have decades.

How are we doing? To paraphrase John Paul Jones, “We have not yet begun to fight.” At the official level, particularly in the White House, we have not even acknowledged that we are at risk. In fact, the Clown In Chief is trying to drive us backward. Here on the Oregon front lines, as smoke from Paradise drifts north across the state line, we spend more time mesmerized by that clown that we do preparing for the long, catastrophic, inevitable fire seasons to come.

Are there signs of hope? Yes. A legislator of my acquaintance sat in a meeting with public utility executives this week and heard testimony to the effect that the era of natural gas is over. ‘Don’t bother to replace aging gas infrastructure,” the expert said (more or less).  ‘You don’t need it. Renewable energy is cheaper.’

Can we afford to build a sustainable energy economy and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide? Yes. Estimates of the capital cost required to replace all fossil fuel energy production worldwide range from $4 trillion to something like $80 trillion, so economists clearly disagree. But they agree that the cost of alternatives like solar cells is dropping quickly. And, obviously, once we build sustainable energy capacity, the fuel is free. World War II cost the 15 leading combatants about $17.7 trillion in today’s dollars. That was a lot of money but we paid the bill. Are we willing to invest similarly in survival?

What’s missing? Alarm, which Webster defines as “agitation in the presence or anticipation of danger.” My position: panic and carry on.