Environmentalism and ‘breathing underwater’


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment, The outdoors, Travel, Writing

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The Walrus recently published an article entitled: “The Age of Breathing Underwater.” Written by Chris Turner, it relates to a number of previous discussions here, such as the recent one about being unimpressed with humanity, when it comes to behaving sensibly about climate change.

It begins with a lengthy discussion about some of the life in coral reefs: one of the ecosystems most profoundly and immediately threatened by climate change. Indeed, even with some pretty aggressive mitigation, most will probably perish during the lifetimes of those reading this, as the result of both rising temperatures and increasing ocean acidity. The article quotes scientist J. E. N. Veron saying that by 2050 “the only corals left alive will be those in refuges on deep outer slopes of reefs. The rest will be unrecognisable — a bacterial slime, devoid of life.”

The article also discusses environmental activism, science fiction, the prospect of geoengineering, the concept of ‘resilience’ in a threatened world, and what it means to be alive in the Anthropocene – the era in human history characterized by the impacts of human beings on physical and biological systems. It makes the strong point that we can somewhat reduce the eventual impact of climate change by working to diminish other stresses; reefs threatened by warm and acidic water don’t need dynamite fishing and oil drilling to help drive them to extinction. The same is surely true of terrestrial ecosystems. Resilience is also something that can be built into human systems – the ability to stretch and change without breaking. From my perspective, that is one huge limitation of the ‘survivalist’ approach to surviving climate change. Your little armed colony might be able to sustain itself under present conditions, but it isn’t necessarily very flexible, when it comes to adapting to whatever the future will bring.

The ‘underwater’ metaphor is an interesting one. The author points out that the human capacity to remain underwater for extended periods depends fundamentally on the whole enterprise of modern industry. The author points out that we’re not really trying to save reefs anymore: we’re trying to save the ability of human beings to do things like SCUBA dive. That ability can only be maintained if we maintain an industrial society, while transforming its energy basis. The article’s conclusion addresses this, but is somewhat underwhelming. While renewable forms of energy are surely a huge part of the solution, putting solar panels on top of buildings won’t be anywhere near adequate. We need comprehensive plans of the sort David MacKay has cooked up. Making the transition from surviving underwater using a set amount of compressed air (akin to fossil fuels) in a tank to living in a self-sustaining colony (akin to renewables) requires appreciation of scale and logistics. A few houseplants are not going to do it.

In any event, the whole article is worth reading and responding to. My thanks to my friend Ann, for pointing it out to me.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

ann September 24, 2009 at 10:42 am

I think this article is fascinating but it also maddens me. Those who will be able to be “resilient” and flourish while “breathing underwater” will also need to be rich enough to afford the required gear. Its an unavoidable consequence that this article is silent on. And it would nudge some readers past the cooperation tipping point (other article of Milan’s) into getting as rich as possible to survive the new regime. Not my idea of fun.

Anyone want to donate ‘scuba gear’ to thousands of Bangladeshi?

. September 24, 2009 at 10:51 am
Milan September 24, 2009 at 11:06 am

There is a prisoner’s dilemma here, or would be if enough people became seriously concerned about climate change. In most cases, the kind of actions you can take to improve your personal odds of surviving in difficult future conditions are the kind of actions that, if taken by everybody, will help to bring those conditions about. Getting rich requires economic growth, at least if lots of people want to do it, and nobody has successfully decoupled such growth from GHG emissions yet.

There are far too many of us to go back to a pre-Industrial agrarian society. We either need to find a way to remain capable of running the essential elements of the global society without fossil fuels, or begin planning for collapse. The maddening thing is that the former option wouldn’t even be all that difficult. By devoting a modest portion of our current means to building huge solar and wind farms, as well as biomass facilities, (probably) nuclear plants, and other low-carbon sources of energy, we could shift the energy basis of our society to a sustainable footing, probably in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. The odds are just, unfortunately, stacked against that happening.

Milan September 24, 2009 at 11:07 am
Tristan September 24, 2009 at 2:31 pm

The Icelandic Norse probably could have started eating fish. But, it was against their values. In a certain sense, mitigating climate change is against our values.

Milan September 24, 2009 at 4:23 pm

As for Bangladesh, it seems fair to say that the powerful nations of the world have already written them off, along with small island states, coral reefs, and polar bears.

We aren’t taking actions consistent with preventing dangerous climate change in places that have a lot of resilience, such as much of Canada or New Zealand. If we wanted to prevent such change in especially fragile environments, we would need to be doing a whole lot more.

. September 24, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Scientists identify “safe operating space for humanity” in seminal Nature study

Now scientists have taken a first step toward creating just such a manual. In the latest issue of Nature is a groundbreaking new paper called “Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” In it, a team of 28 scientists has identified 10 separate biophysical systems crucial to humanity’s flourishing; for each system they have identified a “safe operating boundary” within which humanity must remain if it wishes to maintain the basic environmental conditions in which it evolved.

oleh September 25, 2009 at 1:50 am

Co-incidentally I read the article last night in the Walrus before reading your blog. I found the progression of one of the leading figures interesting. He proceeded from being a recreational scuba diver to the world’s leading authority on the Great Barrier Reef to a militant environmentalist.

I also found the article interesting in the places that are covered including the Alberta oil patch.

I can also recommend the article, although I found the writing style verbose.

I can also recommend the Walrus , a monthly Canadian periodical, which is a buffet of various social, political, cultural and environmental issues. I generally read in cover to cover.

Milan September 25, 2009 at 8:56 am

I don’t think participating in a Greenpeace photo op makes you a ‘militant’ environmentalist.

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