Friday, 1 November 2013

Do We Need Catastrophe?

Not long ago, the media (in Denmark, where I am) was all: "TOO BUSY TO HAVE BABIES", "WE NEED TO HAVE MORE BABIES", "HOW DO WE GET PEOPLE TO GET MORE BABIES?". We were told that people (selfishly, I presume) were prioritizing careers, and making themselves too busy before they ever got a chance to get busy. The comments section was filled with "it's too messy/expensive/difficult" to have kids, only one commenter pointed out the glaringly obvious problem with overpopulation, which is not unlike my own reason for not having more - duh, we're breeding an entire generation that will most likely not have full, happy lives as our own parents' simply because we're ruining the planet for them. Anyway, it got me thinking about this whole "busy" business. We ARE busy. We praise busy-ness, it's high on the agenda for governments and families everywhere. We've made it synonymous with something positive, something to strive for, something that fulfills us. I'm not so sure myself, but more on that later...
I'm sitting outside at a restaurant in Madrid. Our good friend's husband owns the restaurant with his family, and he works there himself, every day, practically all day, even sleeping there. He manages to find the time to sit down with the rest of us and enjoy a glass of sangria. The conversation turns to climate change, as it always does when we're travelling, since we don't fly, to reduce our emissions. North or South, we travel by train and boat, which is ever the conversation starter. Our friend expressed scepticism regarding how much damage humans are capable of, an argument I've heard many times before. "But super volcanoes!", he exclaimed! Humans were too small and puny to have any real effect, but super volcanoes would finish us off! And so he started talking about how they were all connected, and when one went off, the others would follow. I've watched Discovery Channel late at night, so I've seen documentaries about this. I know it's a real phenomenon. But I'm not quite sure the devastation will be quite the apocalypse I'm hearing about over tapas. And since the guy has a beloved wife and two children, I was closely studying his face for signs of fear or distress. None. He was telling me about the End of Days with the same enthusiasm as Richard Quest reports om IMF meetings. But then came the kicker: "I work so much, you know...I guess I need a catastrophe". 
I'm fairly confident that those who have survived a true catastrophe didn't think they needed it, but still I think it's incredibly telling. Is our society so set in its ways, that are so difficult to break free of, that the only way out is a total breakdown? When my Spanish friend works so much, so hard, that he ends up wanting something huge to come from out of nowhere and put a stop to it all...and when society is seemingly content to play the sitting duck (busily, of course) in the face of true disaster...isn't that something we need to address? So - what exactly are we playing at? What has life become? What are we so busy with, that we don't have time to have kids for? Not that kids are for everyone, but that questions still puts a spotlight on our culture, on our self given purpose here. 
Maybe, somewhere in there, behind our own cognitive dissonance, we are screaming for a catastrophe. Because it's the easy way out, in that all we have to do is, well, to keep doing whatever we're doing. The alternative would take too much energy. Maybe we don't even know what we need, and how to get it, and that's what the catastrophe could teach us. The thing about that though, is that the catastrophe will ruin us, leaving nothing behind to start anew with. If we are to have but a chance, maybe we will have to make do with smaller, subjective, and wholly personal catastrophes. But they need to come, fast. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

400 ppm

We climate worriers worry daily. Each new day brings climate news that's worse than yesterday's. There's either new research that shows how the ice is melting even faster, the biodiversity is dissapearing faster, or there are new allowances made, letting people pollute more, you know, for "growth". Or new records are being set. Like the other day, when the latest atmospheric CO2 saturation finally hit 400 ppm (part per million).

Numbers can be pretty abstract, so for those who aren't in the know:
- our pre-industrial ppm was 280
- last time the ppm was 400, the sea level was 60-80 meters higher
- we need to stay under 350 ppm to ensure a safe and livable climate, no more than the 'magical' 2 degrees warmer.

So - 400 is just a number for a lot of people - people who can't see, smell, or taste the higher saturation of carbon in the air they breathe. But for us climate worriers, the number gives cause for a lot of feelings, like sorrow, anger, panic, anxiety, wanting to give up.

You wonder how we got this far. Global warming has been a widely known fact since the 80s. The gravity of climate change starting permeating the mainstream in the 90s, but hey, it was still years away. Or so we thought. In 2005, Hurrican Katrina hit it home - it's already happening. Anthropogenic climate change was already causing bigger storms, people were losing their homes and livelihoods, whole cities lay in ruins. 

You'd think politicians would do more than just overseeing the flooded areas, laying a comforting arm on one of the victims. But no.

You'd think the citizens of the world would get out on the streets and demand action from the aforementioned, comatose, politicians. And they did. 
But did it help? No. At least not yet. 
And I'm afraid it's almost too late, despite our efforts. If not already too late. 

In the wake of our latest 'record', I feel the need to delve into some subjects:
1) WHY aren't politicians taking the necessary action to ensure a stable climate for life as we know it?
2) WHAT is actually necessary - to pressure politicians into adequate action, and to keep our climate livable.
3) NEW NARRATIVES we need to create about our world now, and in the future, and the way we live in it. 

I'll be investigating these subjects in coming posts, but please feel free to add your voice to this conversation in the comments!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Carbon Reality and Flying

*I recently started blogging at Verdens Skove (World Forests), the Danish equivalent of Rainforest Action Network. Although rainforests have never been my particular area of expertise, my goal is to tie them into the mélange of nature, humans, and climate change, which is the great crossroads of our time. I shall blog there in Danish, but will be translating my posts and re-posting them here if the subject matter is relevant for English speakers. My first post, from a few weeks ago, was written specifically for a Danish audience My post from yesterday however, was relevant for a climate worrier of any language. I hope you'll come back and check the "Verdens Skove" tag on this blog and follow my progress there. Also, I truly hope this will help me update this blog more often as well!*
We are well on our way toward a new era where we will have to re-think a whole lot of things. It's really quite odd to be here, right on the crossroads of actually having the theoretical and practical know-how to tackle our environmental problems, yet at the same time, doing nothing, and being literally on the verge of planetary collapse. Quite a number of harmful processes created by anthropogenic global warming have already started - the ecological descent has begun. And we act as though nothing's amiss. We continue, under the cloak of "business as usual". 
At some point, we will have to refrain from some of the things we take for granted. We cannot eat industrially produced meat, every day. We will have to cut back on material consumption. Things we consider everyday items will have to become a little special, rare, maybe even luxurious. At least until we implement A Better Way of Doing Things. 
One of the things I've done myself, for which there is no sustainable alternative, is to stop flying. It's not an easy decision, considering my American background (living in Denmark). And it's neither easy nor cheap to get around, while travelling. It is nonetheless the fastest way to halve (or more!) one's annual emissions. And it's also part of sending an important signal, that what we usually take for granted needs to be the exception to the rule, if not an act of ecocide. 
350 is an important number. 350 ppm (parts per million) is the saturation of carbon in our atmosphere that is safe, compatible with life on this planet as we know it. It's also a number we've already passed (pre-industrial ppm number was 280). And not long ago, we passed 397 ppm.
We've already acculmulated a dangerous amount of carbon in the atmosphere, too much to keep the planetary balance that keeps us, and everything else, alive. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere right now, and the number keeps getting higher btw, means that the average temperature on the planet will rise, and eventually undermine all life on it. 
If we do not turn this around, if our emissions do not peak before 2020, in just 7 years, our world will become 2 degrees warmer. Science tells us that this must be avoided at all costs. If we do not peak before 2030, it will become 4 degrees warmer. To put it bluntly - a 4 degree temperature rise means we can't live here anymore. It's not just a question of the seas rising, it's a question of complete systemic collapse. 
The Carbon Bill of Flying
Our lifestyle already costs too much for our carbon budget. Even everyday things - warm baths, laundry, cooking, electricity for our time's most important mode of communication (the one I'm typing on right now)... it all adds to the atmospheric carbon soup which is no longer being absorbed by the seas and dwindling natural world at the same rate - they've already reached saturation.  
Air travel is, unfortunately, one of the giants of individual carbon consupmtion. Flights can't be calculated as carbon emissions on land, as with cars, busses, trains (though that's often how it is calculated nonetheless, and don't think it helps to buy offsets). The plane's actual fossil fuel usage is made even worse by the physical trail of condensation released into the troposphere, which creates contrails that end up containing yet more heat in the atmosphere.  
A roundtrip flight actually doubles annual carbon emissions. There are several calculations floating out there, but even the most conservative estimate puts one plane trip as the equivalent of 10 whole months of annual emissions, including all the daily emissions we take for granted. One of the larger calculations puts the same plane trip at a whopping 3 and a half years (smaller, propeller driven planes flying at lower altitudes are exempt from these calculations)! And take note - these are calculated per person. Get a calculator and have at it.
So - even if you stick to the most optimistic formula, air travel is an irresponsibly large consumption of an individual's annual emissions, and something most people use frivolously at that. There is no good excuse for doubling, or possibly trippling, emissions - for a vacation. 
Misguided Charity
Now, I don't want people to believe that I think we should stop having any fun, and go back to living under Middle Age standards. We have a right to be here. We have a right to food, clean water, hygiene, freedom of movement. But it is imperative that we do it as gently as possible. Air travel is not gentle. Far from it. We must remember what is more important. The opportunity to live well, love our friends and family, eat well and varied, have a well-functioning daily life. Or one vacation (alone) on another continent? Unfortunately, from a carbon budget's perspective, it's either or - not both. 
Air travel has done wonderful things for humanity, let's not forget that. But our cultural view of flying as something that is solely for good must be tweaked. The reality being that flying is more harmful for our climate that so many other things. Being privy to that information makes it positively irresponsible to continue flying. Misanthropic even. 
Not long ago, Verdens Skove posted a picture on their facebook page, citing that large areas of rainforest are cleared to grow bio-fuel crops (link: We need fuel for just about everything - for the agriculture that grows crops for our food, the transportation of those crops, electricity to prepare meals, keeping us warm, or cool. Is it then reasonable that we keep creating a demand for decidedly unnecessary things? 
On Verdens Skove's website, just above the links to bloggers' posts is a disclaimer: "Verdens Skove does not necessarily agree with our bloggers' posts, and we do not necessarily agree with their opinions". Well - the feeling's mutual. Verdens Skove does a lot of great work toward conserving something the planet desperately needs to stay healthy. The rainforests are the planet's lungs (the oceans are as well, but I get how trees are better poster boys for the climate than, say, plankton), and must be saved, no matter what. 
The current contest on Verdens Skove's web-site (if you've ever bought a rainforest certificate, you're in the running for a trip to Costa Rica) is part and parcel of the very contradiction I started this post with - knowing the physical carbon reality of our planet, and not heeding it, despite that. Advertising for a charity is fine, by all means, the message needs to be put out there. But actually creating the demand for more fuel that will spur more deforestation to produce the same? Well.
I am privileged to be blogging for Verdens Skove, and I think this is one of the better NGOs out there, up there with Greenpeace and Amnesty. But no amount of goodwill or charity can ever outweigh air travel. And that is why I am not participating in the current contest, despite the fact that I've bought several acres worth of certificates through the years, and despite that I'd love to see the rainforest with my own eyes one day. I hope that other climate worriers join me in publicly denouncing the concept. New times with a new carbon reality requires new thinking. Think, don't fly.
- The current ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere 
- In depth article by George Monbiot on flying - recommended!:
Revisiting the Climate Academic on a Plane Argument. Blog post by climate scientist Kevin Anderson:
Kicking the Habit: Air Travel in a Time of Climate Change
- If You Fly by Jet You Kill? Tough post about air travel by social scientist and environmental acitivst:
Can We Afford to Fly? The Impact of Air Travel
Toward Sustainable Travel – Breaking the Flying Addiction. Blog post on Yale's climate site, recommended!:
Should Fear of Climate Change Make Us Stop Flying?:

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Hiatus - OVER! Now: What's This Really All About

I hadn't expected to let this blog go to seed for over a year - sorry about that! A thesis got in the way. My thesis. Which I wrote all through last Spring and Summer, finally turning it in in September. The Danish title of my thesis is Et mærkbart klima - Affekt og politik i klimakultur. Roughly - A Climate of Emotion - Affect and Politics in Climate Culture, dealing with examples of emotions and feelings in culture relating to climate change. It was an interesting ride, and might actually have helped me quite a bit in gaining some of that elusive distance to climate change. The distance I didn't have before, the lack of which kept the threat and fear of climate change on my sleeve as it were.

Anyway, I'm back, I've written more posts than I can remember, up in my head of course, goodness knows where they are now. Something that I do keep thinking about, and answering in my head, is a question that a friend asked me over a year ago. I imagine I was on one of my many Twitter rants about the climate, having just read some dire report, eyes freshly salted, sad and angry. He asked - "what is this really all about"? And I was kind of stumped to be honest. Who couldn't see what this was about?

I'm guessing what my friend was asking, in essence, was "Why are you so afraid of death?". Isn't that, after all, the inner core driving humanity? We do everything we can to survive as far as immediate, primary needs go (food, sleep, shelter). And we create secondary needs to hide the fact that fear is what drives the primary needs. But still - it's much bigger than death, isn't it?

It's the largest collective human existential crisis since the Cold War, except for the fact that the button has been pushed, is still being pushed (long before the Cold War actually), and we seem to be crying in one voice: "Push harder! Push harder!", even though we know what that means. Well....

Not to mention, this is about more than humanity, since we're taking more than ourselves down with us. Prognoses have given the impression that we'll be pretty much wiping Earth's slate clean, leaving it to need more than just a few million years to reboot life that resembles anything we know. Not exactly fair of us, I'd say.

But on the human side of things, it bothers me that we're wiping out human potential. We're a mixed bag as far as species go, I know that. Good, bad, ugly, and all that. But damn, the good things have been really really good. Art alone can be enough to make me cry with joy, such a shame to see it go to waste. Not a soul in the universe to appreciate it after we're gone (as far as we know of course). Have we even neared the height of what we can do? Is there time to prove it? I suppose it's all these unknowns that bug me. For - even if one human dies, it's in the cards that someone else will pick up the slack, carry on where s/he left off, add to it even, make it better, bring humanity forth...We take solace in that when we leave this place individually.

Climate change is a serious threat to that, the ultimate effect being....absolutely nothing.