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Seeing the Future from High Above Greenland
Alex Steffen, 23 May 07
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Last week, I flew over the coast of Greenland at 800 kph.

As the northern sun glinted off the aluminum of the wing, I watched the ice floes -- at first rare white specks on the Prussian blue sea -- grow gradually more numerous until they ran in great streaks of broken ice where the waves were pushing them together. Gradually they grew closer together still, and more studded with icebergs, until in the distance I could see enormous sheets of ice, glowing white and blending on the horizon into clouds and fog. And then, rising steeply up, the mountains of Greenland, masses of ice and snow and dark brown rock. It was like watching a documentary on global warming in reverse.

Except it wasn't. That footage won't run backwards. I have no idea if massive expanses of broken ice at that location are the norm or unusual at this time of year. But we do know that climate change is driving us towards an ice-free world, more quickly than we expected, and by flying home from Portugal, I was helping fuel that great planetary melting.

As symbols, it doesn't get much better than that: rocketing across the sky in an aluminum tube, nibbling on a "seasonal salad" and casually admiring the way the melting floes below resemble the drifts of apple blossoms covering the sidewalk near my house earlier this spring, while going over my notes from the two conferences I spoken at over the last week on climate change, the sustainability crisis, and how big business can respond.

We are all chained to a paradox: in order to change these things, we must to transform our economy into one capable of thriving within a one planet footprint; we have to continue to use more and more of the very tools which are eroding our planet's atmosphere, ocean and living systems in the first place. No one's hands are clean here.

To pretend otherwise is silly. We absolutely all should do what we can to shrink our own footprints. But much of the damage we do is done by others in our names, and is intricately connected to being able to work in an effective way. I've made clear my ambiguous feelings about flying before (feelings which grow less ambiguous the more I fly, regardless of how many offsets I buy), but the reality is that I am certain that my personal share of the CO2 left floating in the contrails behind me is a good investment when weighed against the opportunity to share worldchanging ideas with audiences capable of creating real change. It's not ideal, but we can't afford the self-deception of false purity.

I increasingly suspect that if we in fact make this great transition, the work is going to be messy, imperfect. There'll be winners and losers -- undeserving people who get filthy rich, good people who find themselves among the billion whose crops are ruined, whose homes are engulfed by rising waters, who lives are destroyed by crazy weather. We need to strive for justice (in part because, as I've said many times, poverty and oppression retard our efforts) but we can't afford to wait for perfection. We need practical, innovative and massive responses cobbled together across the whole world, and such efforts are always flawed. I'm partial to the saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good; now I am coming to believe that the perfect is the enemy of the future.

We cannot accept the tyranny of small steps -- the idea that little actions are enough, and that calling for the big systemic changes we need is somehow too radical. We see this thinking everywhere these days, as in this recent NRDC article on living in a less climate-catastrophic way, which goes so far as to say:

[P]ersonal emissions -- the ones from home energy use and driving that you're directly responsible for -- account for just 40 percent of your total. The larger part comes from everything else you buy and do. Your clothes, for instance. The songs on your iPod. The food you eat. For all of these things are made, grown, or transported with the help of fossil fuels. So is the bike with which you may idealistically pedal to work. So are the solar panels. But let's get real. If you're like most people, these indirect emissions are beside the point.

Unfortunately, if you're a member of the reality-based community, that other 60% of our climate impact is very much to the point.

So, too, are the indirect impacts of our lives, what's been termed our "public ecological footprint": the environmental and social impacts of all those things we almost never make direct personal decisions about, but which make possible our current ways of life, from the military, to the highway system, to the health care system. All of those deeply flawed systems are part of the backstories of our lives (though rarely counted in footprint calculations), and all need serious reengineering. Enormous damage is being caused by our attempts to prop up bad systems with minor incremental changes instead of working wholesale towards their improvement.

We don't have much time. With every new scientific report, our situation looks more dire, and the deadline for action closer. Just today, WWF released a major report finding that the window for serious action to stave off the worst effects of climate change was about five years, but that "Scientific warnings continue to mount, yet the debate continues and what passes for vision seems to have great difficulty seeing past the next filling station..."

In private, some of the best informed people I know -- who are by virtue of their positions some of the best informed people in the world on these issues, period -- confide, with increasing and disturbing regularity, that they believe we need to be planning 90% cuts in resource and energy use, alongside profoundly improved environmental performance in all manner of fields, by 2030, in part because we need to not only change our own behaviors, but do so in time for the innovations we pioneer to diffuse across the rest of the world. It is one of the great paradoxes of our day, it seems to me, that the more we learn about the large, slow-moving problems we face, the more manifestly urgent the need for action becomes.

This presents some challenges, not least of which is that people are disinclined to change dramatically until forced to do so by events, and climate change, environmental collapse and worsening poverty and conflict are unlikely to fully manifest the kind of events that get our attention in the daily lives of the people of the Global North until it's too late to do much about them. (And, indeed, our tolerance for disturbing news sometimes seems to be increasing much faster than our will to act -- two weeks ago, the first F5 tornado ever on the Enhanced Fujita Scale devastated Greensburg, Kansas, and provided what several experts said might be a taste of the future on the Great Plains; and already the story has all but disappeared from the American media.) We have, as I've heard it called, a profound perception-reality gap.

But bridging that gap, it seems to me, is something those of us who are passionate about and committed to building a bright green future have the capacity to do. We know more and more about the kinds of changes we need to make to bring our impacts within a sustainable range. We have better and better tools for imagining the future and helping people envision those futures and explore their possibilities (what we call future-making tools around here). And we certainly have no shortage of bold and innovative new ideas for how those futures might work better, as the constant stream of such ideas on this site should prove -- indeed, if anything, it seems to me that the frontier of innovation in sustainability is accelerating, moving away from the status quo at a faster and faster rate.

What we need, more than anything, it seemed to me as I shot across the Arctic sky last week, may be nothing less than a willingness to engage in a struggle for control over humanity's conception of its future.

We need, through a thousand efforts (interconnected, leapfrogging one another's best ideas), to help people see into the future we're still unfortunately creating, and help them understand that the ideas of the future we inherited from our parents are bankrupt. They won't work. We will never have them, and pursuing them will lead to disasters which are not only predictable, but predicted. If we continue chasing them, we will suffer a catastrophic collision with reality.

Then we need to do something even bolder: we need to show them futures that could work, explain the ideas and innovations that drive them, and show how life in those bright green futures is not only possible, but could quite likely be better for most of us than the lives we're living now. We need to excite the passions and commitments of millions more people, encourage their creative involvement, elicit their best ideas for what their futures could be. We need to transform ourselves from a movement which uses vague but dramatic threats to prod people into comparatively meaningless actions, into a movement that tells them the truth and invites them to exceed the expectations they have for themselves.

Encouraging that metamorphosis is, as the geeks say, a non-trivial task. Indeed, we're still just figuring out how to do it. But if we can pull it off, we won't need to hold out to people merely some simple steps or ecological absolution, because we'll have something better to offer: realistic hope, and a cause worth fighting for.

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Thanks for posting this. You did a great job articulating a lot of feelings that I share as well at the snail-pace we're setting on meeting the looming "dead-line" to get our acts together. We can't even start acting because we're still arguing over whether global warming exists. It's very frustrating for me as a young adult that the discourse about human-impacted climate change started in the 60's and 70's and yet progress has fallen pitifully short.

People seem very content to do one or two things to "do their part," like recycle or use the car less, but I agree, these baby-steps are not enough. We *do* need radical, system-wide change, we need a peaceful revolution. We also need to stop agreeing with each other and patting each other on the backs about how wise we are to see our doom, and get out into our communities, wherever they may be, whether our town, our country, the internet, our schools, our colleges, or our jobs and start bringing about the change we envision. This is in no way a condemnation of spreading-the-word action such as blogging and organizations like World Changing; education and networking are incredibly important. I just see far to much self-congratulation among "people who care" and not enough action, as if recognition that the world is truly in jeopardy is nothing but a stylish fad.

If governments aren't moving fast enough for us, we need to move faster. Our strength is in the grassroots, in informal global networking and communication to share and *implement* innovative solutions. Any regulations in our way can be worked around, and frankly, in many countries, ignored. I don't want to incite anybody to illegal action (which I am), but the reality is that out in the boonies of developing countries, and even in many of the cities, human need for life-saving innovation outweighs legal ramifications that may or may not be enforced. If need be, the governments can catch up with us when the reality of what we've said and done is already working before our eyes.

Governments are, however, powerful institutions, and I think very few people in the developed world are exercising their duties and powers as citizens to direct governmental force. I think we need to do both, to go out and create and implement solutions whether or not our governments are with us, and to constantly put pressure on those governments to do what is right for the planet and humanity.

Posted by: Lale on 23 May 07

"Governments are, however, powerful institutions, and I think very few people in the developed world are exercising their duties and powers as citizens to direct governmental force."

Governments are the problem, Lale. It is not in the interests of the powerful, career-politicians to let citizens even know that they may direct government action - citizens are supposed to be working!. We are dissuaded from action by the bureaucracy and delays, one level after another needs to authorize whatever plan is to be made. The purpose of such a structure is not to be agile, responsive or innovative but staid and stationary. Government is like a blue chip company, not interested in taking risks that could lose it market share. Even in my country (South Africa) with a relatively new democracy, more people that can vote choose not to than turn up to vote - ie, the majority (for whatever reasons) don't believe that their vote will make a difference. I agree with them.

You are correct, Direct Action, that is, Direct Democracy is our hope. Communities need to become independent. It's time for justice. It's a thought that plagues me constantly, 'what if everyone is so busy buying in (and selling out) to capitalism, that we are missing our window of opportunity right now - what if, while worrying about arms, oil, bottled water we're losing the war against the planet'.

One thing I have noticed about this blog (which I absolutely adore!) is that it very rarely raises the question about wage-slavery, and I understand why. But what if, as Bucky Fuller suggested, that it is more ecologically prudent to pay everyone to stay at home than to force them into wage-slavery (and all the requisite expenses of having a job - driving to work, dulling your mind (or body) by having to do one specialized pursuit for 40-60 hours a week.

Personally I would rather have a thriving, lush, wild, mother earth than a thriving, power-hungry, war-loving, competitive economy.

If we want to cut 90% of emissions (as George Monbiot says, which I agree with) I don't think it is possible if we are still continuing with business as usual(my central fear).

Posted by: Robin Ronne on 24 May 07

Why not use high technology to hold video conferences? Stop this puerile rationalisation of your addiction to flying and push for spreading the word purely REMOTELY.
One video projector bought with your plane ticket money could be linked to the web and you could preach to the masses from your home if you like. the grassroots organisation of such events is what brings folk together more than individual 'green ambassadors' buzzing around the globe.
Perhaps the 'self deception of false purity' is simply an autosuggestive affirmation to remove guilt rather than deal with it.

Posted by: Fred on 24 May 07

Fred: The real action only begins in the presentations. It happens at the lunch table, in the halls, in the shared notes and whispered ideas in the audience. The presentations are merely information sharing and an excuse for getting people together.

To find some middle ground though, and maybe this is even what you meant: mabye Alex's presentation could have been by video conference to an audience of local decision makers. The audience would still be able to fully connect with each other, the speaker would be essentially no more remote than a speaker on a stage, and decisions would still involve all the nuances of body language, voice pitch/timbre, etc.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 24 May 07

The issues with 'pressing the palm' in the foyers highlights the problem with e-commuting. While I can imagine that an environment like 'Second Life' would permit it, the bandwidth and the user friendly interfaces just aren't there yet (if ever)!


Japan eyes 50% greenhouse gas cut

Which is over halfway there. It's certainly better than the standard 'capping greenhouse emissions would be bad for the economy' mantra of Australian PM John Howard. (He doesn't mention the effect that not curbing emissions would have!)

Fortunately, the locals are routing round him more and more. A recent TV debate on climate change was a singularly bland affair... because panellists, audience, everyone *agreed* that action was required!

I had a daft thought about all this air travel: if it's considered economical for a load of scampy to get shipped for processing from Scotland to Thailand and back, then why not opt for being put to sleep (perhaps in dessicated form, like a pilgrim plant), and get shipped to your destination a month or so beforehand? You'd save on the seasonal salad, too!
Aah! Slow living!

Posted by: Tony on 24 May 07

I must say that I've noticed in this article as well as some others on the site that there's an overemphasis on individual ecological footprints or what we as single individuals can do to reduce our energy consumption. I agree with such measures and the need to spread this message of eco-awareness amongst many more millions. But I believe that there are billions out there who don't have access to water, healthy food or education - and haven't even begun to fathom the impact their collective living habits can have on the planet's sustainability (perhaps, on virtue of their being illiterate and below poverty lines, they cannot be expected to). But it is those in positions of power to shape the destinies of these billions with whom the big responsibility for making a huge difference lies. Will they continue to ignore dire warnings for personal and political gains? Will some of such powerful individuals wake up early enough and take big corrective measures prodded by sites such as worldchanging to prevent worst-case scenarios? How answers to questions such as these are found will tell us where we stand on sustainability.

Posted by: sanjay gupta on 25 May 07

When I unexpectly come to view of the ice floes in the Kamchatka region during a trans-pacific flight it was an unforgetable experience. I've caught a few cellphone pictures here:

Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 11 Jun 07



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