As I write this, Mount Olympus, the ancient birthplace of the Olympic Games, is burning. It's an apt symbol.
The modern Olympics began there, with the aim of seeing the world united in sports rather than at war. Now, the Olympics are increasingly becoming a symbol that facing our global sustainability crisis is going to demand a transformation far larger in scope than most any of us are prepared to admit.
China will host the summer games next year. The goal, it's clear, is to showcase a China leaving poverty behind and embracing greatness, but the Chinese government's complete inability to control that nation's catastrophic air pollution -- which, the New York Times reports, already kills about 700,000 Chinese by conservative estimates -- threatens to turn the event into a different sort of symbol altogether: of environmental collapse raging out of control while leaders congratulates themselves with fireworks, halftime shows and gleaming new venues.
Already, Olympics officials are preparing the press for the idea that some events may have to be postponed or held elsewhere because of dangerously polluted air.
There's no quick fix available to event organizers. Already the government has shut down numerous factories and even banned many private automobiles during practice events, and still air quality in Beijing has been on average three times worse than in Los Angeles.
But the rest of us ought not to get too smug. London's 2012 Olympics -- billed as the world's first one-planet games -- may prove truly disappointing, according to folks I know in the UK, as fuzzy commitments and budgetary overruns appear to doom most of the truly ambitious ideas in the Games' sustainability plans.
Which, if it proves to be true, is really too bad, because the symbolism could be powerful: from a Katrina-like moment of recognition in Beijing, to a revelation of possibility in London. Instead, the Games may become a more accurate reflection of who we really are: willfully ignorant of the crisis that surrounds us, or plodding along with bold principles and timid practices.
What we need, above all else, is the threat posed by a good example. Existence is the ultimate proof of possibility, and we need to prove that bright green living is possible. We need an implemented model city, a utopia through which we can walk. We need an assertion of the achievable.
Image: flickr/Silent Boulevard
Events are overtaking us, Alex.
The irony of England not being able to afford a sustainable Olympics may be that some of the money went to covering flood recovery, rebuilding and mitigation.
China believed a year ago that it could tamp down its pollution before the Games. Yeah, right.
We continue to underestimate the depth of the shit we're in. Is that called looking on the sunny side of the street?