Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Committee on The Future - July 2012


A Committee on The

July 2012

            I came back to my real life this morning from the relative isolation of a day on the farm in Maine to discover that the world had changed  quite suddenly and drastically. The front pages of the papers looked pretty much the same except that the Mayor of New York, Mr. Bloomberg,  was asking our two candidates for president just what they proposed to do about the widespread availability of guns like the automatic weapon used recently to kill and maim Coloradans at a movie. And both the candidates were bumbling about what a bad thing it was to treat Coloradans that way but without a single suggestion that anything might be done to stop such outrages.  And on the web Bill Moyers was pointing out that it was costing the nation billions, perhaps 75 billion, to kill tens of thousands of citizens with guns annually. And the gun lobby was saying the shooting might have been stopped if there had only been more guns around to stop him by, presumably, have a gun battle in the movie house.  All of this seems a bit beyond the edge of civilization.

            But then I turned to the OpEd page of the NYT where a major full column article asserted that the banks are too big to be regulated, a new thought. They have made a terrible mess internationally and have lied about their activities. Then they lobby the Congress and protect their rights to cheat the public and make large profits for their officers. The article, by Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, says the banks should be nationalized because “With high-paid lobbyists contesting every proposed regulation …big banks can never be controlled as private businesses.”  That explains a lot.  And I thought we had financial matters well worked out at his stage in the progressive development of civilization.

            Then daughter Caroline called my attention to Bill McKibben’s latest outburst on the climatic disruption in which he says all the things we scientists predicted thirty years ago and wrote about and delivered in testimony to the Congress as threats are now facts of our world and the sure cause of chaos yet to come unless we get quickly about the obvious solutions. But those who would cure demented murderers with more guns would cure environmental destruction and misery with more heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. McKibben proposes appropriately that a tax on fossil fuels would help.  If only we could extract such sense from political leaders who are heavily influenced by the wealth of the corporate lobbyists who have different objectives. McKibben suggests that  a systematic effort be made by universities and retirement funds to divest themselves of  investments in those rogue corporations. They are rogues because they are still promoting and profiting from oil and coal and gas and clearly wrecking the earth not only in mining but also by dumping their wastes into the atmosphere without corporate cost or consequence. The efforts at dis-investment  worked in changing the politics of South Africa and it might work now here. 

            Bill is  right on almost all points. But a careful scientist might say “He is probably wrong”  on the assertion that there is still room for more releases of carbon into the atmosphere. The present burden is already triggering significant further releases of carbon dioxide and, worse, methane,  from soils globally but especially from the extensive peat of Arctic and boreal forest soils. That statement is fact. Even the careful scientist would agree that release is likely to grow large enough to snatch the cure out of human hands and….. assure the collapse of this civilization. The probability of that event is great enough and the horror of it is sufficiently real that a shrill warming from science is appropriate. Bill needs to refreeze the Arctic!  Now. that objective has nothing to do with the dream that a 2 degree C rise might be tolerable. There is no safety in the 0.8 degree we have now.  We seem again to be allowing our corporate institutions and our governmental control to slip well out of the normal context of modern civilization.

            Then I stumbled into the discussion between Bill Moyers and Chris Hedges about Hedges new book. Hedges picks up in that discussion on the same theme: the corporate wrecking of the earth driven by greed and profits. The wreckage includes the gross and irreparable impoverishment of land and people.  He is rich with examples: the Southern Appalachians,  destroyed completely as a viable landscape by coal mining; Camden, New Jersey, once a thriving commercial manufacturing center, now a waste land with wasted people; the Athabasca Tar Sands, another landscape destroyed for energy.   He marches on:to the whole earth,  climates destroyed undermining all life, by greedy corporate interests allowed to mine and sell their products without any responsibility for their wastes that poison the atmosphere of the entire earth.

            The cure he says is a renewal of faith. Faith in people and their interest in treating others as they wish themselves to be treated.  The responsibility must apply as well to corporations whose systems must be closed to prevent poisoning or otherwise corrupting the interests of others.

            The list goes on: the future is at risk and there is no clear course. It is time for an earnest reappraisal of just where we are going. What will work in keeping a civilization, not on the edge of collapse, but clearly developing onto an earth capable of supporting organized life indefinitely. It is a scientific challenge as well as a political and economic conundrum. But the biophysical requirements seem seriously in question. It is time to organize a high level scientific Committee on the Future. Right now.