Reasons to be hopeful

2010-10-05

in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Climate change is a daunting problem, about which humanity is doing far too little. While all the characteristics that make climate change a massively difficult thing to deal with are daunting, there are also numerous reasons to be hopeful about humanity’s future. Those who are alive now are likely to live to see the question of how much the climate changes decided, either in favour of unconstrained burning of fossil fuels accompanied by unconstrained warming, or shifted decisively toward zero-carbon forms of energy and a sustainable future.

That potential shift represents a major opportunity for humanity. For tens of thousands of years, human societies functioned using renewable forms of energy: primarily sunlight embedded in crops and biomass. Since about 1750, humanity has benefited from the massive burst of embedded energy accessible in fossil fuels. The evidence of that energy is everywhere: from highways to high rises. Now, we are obliged by pragmatism and ethics to swap out the unsustainable core of all our society’s undertakings and replace it with one that is compatible with the potentially unending string of human generations which could follow this one. If the generations alive now, and those that will be born soon, manage to achieve that transition, they will have effected one of the most importance changes in the history of humanity: a great shift from a global society built on the weak and threatening foundation of fossil fuels to one that can be relied upon indefinitely.

The rate of change in human societies is easy to underestimate, and yet the world has been transformed to an enormous extent in each of the past few centuries. Those transformations have largely been uncoordinated – arising from disparate actors making choices in response to the local incentives they face, as well as their worldviews and ideologies. Functional worldviews now must be exactly that: perspectives that are capable of taking seriously the bounded, finite, and interconnected nature of the world in which we live. If we are capable of driving the emergence of such worldviews, it seems as though the benefits could be numerous. Dealing with climate change requires that we act selflessly in anticipation of problems that science has uncovered, lurking out in future decades. If we can learn to respond intelligently to that threat – and press the emergence of a political and economic system that has that capability – it seems that humanity will be knit together in a newly intentional way. A way that includes the recognition of mutual interconnection and vulnerability, which appreciates how changes that unfold across long timescales can nonetheless require present and enthusiastic action, and which may be capable of addressing the many other problems which threaten humanity, albeit not as profoundly as climate change seems to.

In a way, the fossil fuel industry itself demonstrates the kind of human capabilities that are now required. Whereas extracting oil was once a comparatively simple matter, the global network of systems that extracts, processes, and uses fossil fuels is the product of a massive investment of resources and ingenuity across decades. Capabilities like deepwater drilling and the upgrading of heavy oils demonstrate what the combination of capital and human intellect can produce. Until now, most renewable forms of energy have been bit players from a societal perspective. As it becomes increasingly clear that the future of our energy system lies in the use of such technologies, it is fair to hope that some of those resources and intellectual capabilities will be turned to the project of their deployment and improvement.

The challenge facing us is an enormous one: one that requires a new level of global coordination across all continents and across the decades and centuries ahead. It is reasonable to see it as a test of humanity – whether we can behave collectively in an intelligent way, responding to a problem that is anticipated rather than immediately obvious, or whether we really are just a swarm which cannot be coordinated. While my reasons for hope may not be wholly rational, pressing ahead with the possibility of success in mind is surely preferable to despairing at the difficulty of the problem.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

. October 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm

China’s Growing Independence and the New World Order
By NOAM CHOMSKY

“Of all the “threats” to world order, the most consistent is democracy, unless it is under imperial control, and more generally, the assertion of independence. These fears have guided imperial power throughout history.

In South America, Washington’s traditional backyard, the subjects are increasingly disobedient. Their steps toward independence advanced further in February with the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which includes all states in the hemisphere apart from the U.S. and Canada.

For the first time since the Spanish and Portuguese conquests 500 years ago, South America is moving toward integration, a prerequisite to independence. It is also beginning to address the internal scandal of a continent that is endowed with rich resources but dominated by tiny islands of wealthy elites in a sea of misery.

Furthermore, South-South relations are developing, with China playing a leading role, both as a consumer of raw materials and as an investor. Its influence is growing rapidly and has surpassed the United States’ in some resource-rich countries.”

http://inthesetimes.com/article/6499/chinas_growing_independence_and_the_new_world_order/

Byron Smith October 5, 2010 at 8:11 pm

pressing ahead with the possibility of success in mind is surely preferable to despairing at the difficulty of the problem.
Do you think that there is a 3rd possibility? Namely, acknowledge the likelihood of significant failure, but not treat that as a reason to avoid doing what is right anyway (and which might keep the climate from the very worst case scenarios).

Milan October 5, 2010 at 9:58 pm

This Globe and Mail article is cause for a bit of hope, it itself.

. October 7, 2010 at 1:02 am

The Question Concerning Technlogy
Die Frage nach der Technik

Martin Heidegger

“But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.

Let us think carefully about these words of Holderlin. What does it mean to “save”? Usually we think that it means only to seize hold of a thing threatened by ruin in order to secure it in its former continuance. But the verb “to save” says more. “To save” is to fetch something home into its essence, in order to bring the essence for the first time into its proper appearing. If the essence of technology, enframing, is the extreme danger, if there is truth in Holderlin’s words, then the rule of enframing cannot exhaust itself solely in blocking all lighting-up of every revealing, all appearing of truth. Rather, precisely the essence of technology must harbor in itself the growth of the saving power. But in that case, might not an adequate look into what enframing is, as a destining of revealing, bring the upsurgence of the saving power into appearance?

In what respect does the saving power grow also there where the danger is? Where something grows, there it takes root, from thence it thrives. Both happen concealedly and quietly and in their own time. But according to the words of the poet we have no right whatsoever to expect that there where the danger is we should be able to lay hold of the saving power immediately and without preparation. Therefore we must consider now, in advance, in what respect the saving power does most profoundly take root and thence thrive even where the extreme danger lies—in the holding sway of enframing. In order to consider this it is necessary, as a last step upon our way, to look with yet clearer eyes into the danger. Accordingly, we must once more question concerning technology. For we have said that in technology’s essence roots and thrives the saving power.”

http://www.wright.edu/cola/Dept/PHL/Class/P.Internet/PITexts/QCT.html

. February 20, 2011 at 12:57 am

Stanford, UCD Researchers Say 100% Renewable Energy Possible By 2050

thecarchik writes with news of an analysis published in Energy Policy by researchers from Stanford University and the University of California-Davis. “There are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources, said author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor, saying it is only a question of ‘whether we have the societal and political will.’ During this decade, the two ‘fuels of the future’ will be electricity and gasoline. Beyond that, we can’t project.”

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