March 17, 2009
First published in Common Ground Magazine
What is happening to our civilization? Report after report is warning us that climate change, driven by our use of fossil fuels, is pushing us towards the cliff.
Ever since the 1970s, the framing of environmental problems has often been “Good Earth, bad humans”. Humans are sometimes said to be like a cancer, exhausting Earth’s resources and polluting Nature’s body until it’s all over. Some suggest that it might be better if humans did kill themselves off, leaving Nature to recover without us.
I am appalled by this way of thinking. I believe deeply in the beauty of the human spirit. We have the ability to achieve incredible things – as well as to be totally stupid. I love the fact that we are 100% part of Nature, that the same genes which create flippers in fish create fingers and toes in us.
I like to view our existence through the lens of time, stretching millions of years into both the past and the future. Like all species, we learn as we go along, starting from a place of total ignorance about the Universe.
We have been asking serious questions for at least 10,000 years. With the development of written language we were able to formalize our thoughts, enabling new generations to build on the intellectual capital of their ancestors.
Hindu and Babylonian thinkers created organized philosophies 5,000 years ago. When the Greek and Roman civilizations collapsed, the torch of enquiry was carried forward in the Muslim world, and rediscovered in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.
The spirit of enquiry has often sought to break free from the blanket of tradition that was passed from one generation to the next. It is the same impulse that causes a young salmon to try a new river, a wolf to seek new territory. It is by this spirit that we learnt how to make fire by burning wood, how to make steam by burning coal.
From 1500 to 1800 AD developments in Europe enabled the spirit of enquiry to break free, leading us to establish the organized systems of science, democracy and human rights.
Hand-in-hand with the spirit of inquiry we released the spirit of freedom that wanted desperately to escape from poverty and serfdom, kings and aristocrats. When Prince Albert organized The Great Exhibition in London in 1851, six million people came to marvel at the promise of a new world. Using the concentrated power of ancient fossil fuels, we developed the technologies our world is based on today.
Looking back, are we to say all this was wrong? Was it the spirit of inquiry itself that was wrong? I hardly think so.
So let us think our way through this crisis. We are burning fossil fuels that were laid down over 200 million years. Every year, we burn a million years of stored ancient sunlight. We are certainly using this one-time gift from the past to indulge our whims – but we are also using it to build intellectual capital.
We could not have developed a solar cell, LED light bulb, or plug-in hybrid electric car in 1750. We needed this one-time burst of ancient energy to lift us to a position where we could power our world with renewable energy without further need for fossil fuels.
Seen this way, the age of fossil fuels is the ramp of intellectual capital that enables us to take off into a permanent post-carbon world. Thanks to coal, oil and gas, we have been able to build the scientific and engineering skills we need to do without them.
The climate crisis is extremely urgent. The scientists are warning that if we are to avoid 450 ppm of CO2, bringing a 2 Cº temperature rise, the melt-down of Greenland and a 6 metre rise in sea level, we must cease our global yearly increase in emissions within ten years and then move to a carbon neutral world as rapidly as possible. The sooner we achieve lift-off, the less will be the chance of collapse and foul landing.
This is not a time for hand-wringing and despair. This is a time for courage, passion and excitement about the next great energy revolution.
This is a time for determination, when we work together as families, schools, businesses, colleges, cities, governments and the whole world to embrace and adopt the solutions. This is the moment of lift-off, which can lead us to a healthy, ecologically sustainable world, and a host of future promises.