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Is it Too Late to Save the Planet?

Talking Points

A NationofChange Exclusive Column


Is it Too Late to Save the Planet?

| Op-Ed
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Entropy:

  1. Physics – a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.
  1. lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.

Having fun in the sun last summer was no sweat for people living on the East Coast – literally. As the rest of the country sweltered, Easterners were experiencing cooler-than-normal temperatures last summer. It was a gift to any climate-denying member of Congress who happened to be living in Northern Virginia, for example. “Proof” that global warming is a hoax.

Westerners weren’t so fortunate.  The weirdly cool weather on the East Coast was matched by weirdly warm and dry weather on the West Coast.  Specifically in South California.  Each is an example of what climate scientists call an anomaly. Like a Republican or Democrat in Congress who cares more about serving the people than getting re-elected – anomalies happen in all times and places.

Hence the question Amy Davidson posed in a recent article in the New Yorker (“Our Hottest Year, Our Cold Indifference”):  Will indifference to climate science one day be an anomaly?

We know that the planet’s ecosystem is under duress. We know that everything from biodiversity to ocean chemistry is being degraded, that entropy due to global population growth and human activity is a major cause.  We know that climate change is not some sci-fi fantasy anymore. It is happening, the signs are abundant, and, as Davidson rightly points out, too many of our leaders – and I dare say, too many voters – are indifferent. “The planet is changing, and we are close to the time when trying to check climate change will be like trying to redirect El Niño with canoe paddles.”

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She’s right, of course.  But two things often missing in cautionary tales about our beleaguered planet are 1) a policy prescription for the government and 2) an action  program for the rest of us. Specifically, there’s rarely any mention of conservation as a kind of categorical public-policy imperative.

It isn’t enough to decry lower oil prices as a disincentive to dependence on fossil fuel. Global population stands at a staggering 7.3 billion and will continue to rise for the next few decades if not longer. Nobody wants to talk about population in part because most everything that can be done about that issue has already been or is being done. Yet the numbers are still rising, will continue to rise, and cannot be reversed without some catastrophic event — a pandemic, major asteroid impact, or nuclear holocaust. No one wants that, it probably won’t happen, and no one wants to hear, read, or think about it.

So there’s nothing we can do, right?  Wrong.

The science is clear – human activity and human behavior are changing the planet, and not in a good way.  Astrophysicist Adam Frank put this point into sharper focus: “The defining feature of a technological civilization is the capacity to intensively ‘harvest’ energy. But the basic physics of energy, heat and work known as thermodynamics tell us that waste, or what we physicists call entropy, must be generated and dumped back into the environment in the process.” Globally, we generate around 100 billion megawatt hours of energy every year and dump 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere and oceans, not to mention rivers, coal slurry impoundments (“sludge ponds”), aquifers, and underground “sequestration”, all of which goes a very long way to explaining the  overheating planet and acidifying oceans.

We’re in control and reckless which is why the planet is out of control and threatened.  As a species, we will either modify our behavior or perish, but not before we drive many other species into distinction (a process well underway).

Still, we’re not doomed.  Not yet, anyway. Maybe we can change.  Maybe out indifference will give way to our instinct for survival in time.  Maybe we will come to understand that we have to conserve in order to survive, reorganize our cities and societies, depend less on long-distance transport and travel, and do more on a local level. We have to drive fewer cars fewer miles, build mass transit systems, and subsidize riders for being good citizens. We have to consume less and conserve more of everything — from water and fossil fuel to wildlife and rain forests. We have to do a much better job of protecting the atmosphere, oceans, topsoil.

Our species has caused this problem and there will be a lot more of us either contributing to the problem or becoming the solution in the future. We have to learn to do more with less. A lot less. It probably won’t happen any time soon on the scale that’s needed, but it will happen sooner or later because it has to.  Let’s hope it won’t be too late.




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Thomas Magstadt
Tom Magstadt has published five books including Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues, 10th ed., (Wadsworth, 2013) and Nations and Governments: Comparative Politics in Regional Perspective, 6th ed. (Wadsworth, 2011), and An Empire If You Can Keep It: Power and Principle in American Foreign Policy (CQ Press, 2004). He holds a doctorate from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. His website is at www.worldviewwest.com and he blogs at opensalon.com. Readers are invited to follow Tom at https://www.facebook.com/thomas.magstadt

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