May 12, 2008

Tomgram: Bill McKibben, The Defining Moment for Climate Change


Already climate change -- in the form of a changing pattern of global rainfall -- seems to be affecting the planet in significant ways. Take the massive, almost decade-long drought in Australia's wheat-growing heartland, which has been a significant factor in sending flour prices, and so bread prices, soaring globally, leading to desperation and food riots across the planet.

A report from the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia makes clear that, despite recent heavy rains in the eastern Australian breadbasket, years of above normal rainfall would be needed "to remove the very long-term [water] deficits" in the region. The report then adds this ominous note: "The combination of record heat and widespread drought during the past five to 10 years over large parts of southern and eastern Australia is without historical precedent and is, at least partly, a result of climate change."

Think a bit about that phrase -- "without historical precedent." Except when it comes to technological invention, it hasn't been much part of our lives these last many centuries. Without historical precedent. Brace yourselves, it's about to become a commonplace in our vocabulary. The southeastern United States, for instance, was, for the last couple of years, locked in a drought -- which is finally easing -- "without historical precedent." In other words, there was nothing (repeat, nothing) in the historical record that provided a guide to what might happen next.

Now, it's true that the industrial revolution, which led to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at historically unprecedented rates, was also, in a sense, "without historical precedent"; but most natural events -- unlike, say, the present staggering ice melt in the Arctic -- have been precedented (if I can manufacture such a word). They have been part of the historical record. That era -- the era of history -- is now, however, threatening to give way to a period capable of outrunning history itself, of outrunning us.

The planet in its long existence may have experienced the extremes to come, but we haven't. The planet, unlike much life on it, may not -- given millions or tens of millions of years to recover -- be in danger, but we are.

When you really think about it, history is humanity. It's common enough to talk about some historical figure or failed experiment being swept into the "dustbin of history," but what if all history and that dustbin, too, go… well, where? What are we, really, without our records? Once we pass beyond them, beyond all the experience we've collected, written down, and archived since those first scratches went on clay tablets in the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates -- now being stripped of their cultural patrimony -- at least two unanswerable questions arise. Once history has been left in the dust, where are we? -- and, who are we?

Let the indefatigable environmentalist Bill McKibben, who has a powerful urge to stop us just short of the cliff of the post-historical era, take it from here. Tom

The World at 350

A Last Chance for Civilization
By Bill McKibben

Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start -- even for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.

It's not just the economy. We've gone through swoons before. It's that gas at $4 a gallon means we're running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It's that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It's that.......

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