In recent years, as the ice pack of the Arctic has progressively retreated, leaving the North-West Passage free for ships to pass through, more and more observations have been made of methane bubbling up from the warming waters below. Methane is a greenhouse gas twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide, and the fact that these observations have become more frequent ought to be alarming. If this phenomenon continues to develop we could be in for some interesting times: it’s possible that a vast outpouring of methane and other GHGs in the Kilda Basin was responsible for turning the ‘Snowball Earth’ into a torrid, hot planet 55 million years ago:
It is not impossible that we are pushing the planet into a state that might see a repeat of the Kilda Basin incident, and in pretty short order. At the very least the ‘problem’ deserves some attention. You might expect the conceivable destruction of human civilisation and the concomitant obliteration of goodness knows how many other species to be of some interest to people. In fact, there has been minimal media coverage of it.
The ultimate cause of the global warming that is melting the Arctic is, of course, economic growth. Economic growth is only possible if we have continuously increasing amounts of affordable energy supplies. Thus we have the frantic worldwide search for more fossil fuels – oil companies want to drill in the Arctic and the depths of the oceans; tar is being gouged out of the Canadian landscape to be converted to oil; concessions to rip down rainforests are being sought in the countries of the Amazon; gas fracking is contaminating water supplies in the US for the sake of small amounts of gas; mountain tops are being sliced off in the search for extra supplies of coal. All of these are signs of desperation. The low-hanging fruit, as they say, has all been picked, and we’re now scrabbling to get what’s left on the out-of-reach branches. It presents a rather unsavoury view of human stupidity.
We are clearly bumping up against the limits of growth for the simple reason that we’re reaching the limits of availability of the resources which fuel economic growth. Nevertheless, you only have to look in the newspapers in the wake of the French and Greek elections to see that the solution being pushed for the Eurozone is no longer austerity, but good old economic growth. Throw money at the problem in order to create jobs and stimulate growth – just as they have done with so much success in the US – and thereby perpetuate the destruction of the planet.
We desperately need to stop economic growth in all of the rich countries, first of all. We need to recognise that we have, not just enough stuff, but too much. Our pursuit of economic growth has led to more and more time spent at work, or connected to work via our computers and fancy communication systems; we spend less time with our families; we are disconnected from our communities; we have lost touch with nature; and it’s normal to be utterly dissatisfied. On top of it all we’re trashing the planet and wiping out thousands of species without a second thought. So, what’s the point of it all?
If I think of the kind of world that may well exist in 20 years’ time, when my own children are themselves parents of youngsters, it is difficult not to despair. They will probably be engaged in a fight for survival. It could be a world where authoritarian regimes control scarce resources such as oil, for use by the military, which in turn would be used to control the populace. Widespread famines will be interspersed with devastating floods, while uncontrollable wildfires and monumental storms will probably be common. There will be major food crises in rich and poor countries. Huge numbers of environmental refugees will create havoc as they move from country to country looking for safety and meeting hostility. There will be few fish left in the seas, the forests will be gone, the ice will be retreating at a frightening pace, potable water will be scarce and global warming will be completely out of control. It will literally be hell on Earth. We know for sure that this will happen if we carry on with business as usual, which is what we are doing. Despair indeed seems an appropriate response.
However, I can’t help feeling that both hope and despair make very little sense. They both focus on what is beyond the here and now, one of them fatefully expecting nothing good to happen, the other expecting something or other to crop up, but both of them putting their faith in external forces. Neither seems very helpful. A long, cold, hard look at the real situation we are in is the essential first step to take. Hardly anyone is doing this. Then we need to assess what needs to be done to create a sustainable livelihood for all of the species on the planet, not just humans. Then we need to work out what we as individuals, as members of a community, as global citizens, and as an integral part of the natural world must do to justify our existence on the planet. In a nutshell, that means localizing every aspect of our lives as much as we possibly can, and thereby drastically reducing the negative impacts we are having on the planet, and we need to do this at each of the levels just mentioned. It needs to be done, not out of a sense of despair, or in the hope that we might save the planet, but simply because, all things considered, this is what is morally imperative. Everything we do is done because it is the right way of repairing the damage we have collectively inflicted on the planet, on humanity, on our communities, our families and ourselves, and on the whole buzzing, booming ecosphere of which we are a part. We do it because it is simply the right thing to do, here and now. Our reward comes in the doing of what is right. We do it with no expectations – no hope, and no despair.