I, Monbiot

A dry spring, an early winter, too much rain, not enough rain, Hurricane Katrina: every possible climatic event of recent years has been reported as having some possible link to the monster-in-the-closet known as Global Warming.

heat jacketSkeptics often bluster at the prevalence by which this new climatic science colors this range of dispatches: heat waves, extinctions, melting glaciers, famine, war. It’s as if mankind had dialed back to a darker iconic age to intentionally retrieve an Enemy of metaspiritual significance to terrify use at every possible turn.

What is lost in the thousands of brief news blurbs clipped from the wire services and reformatted by talking heads and radio announcers is the larger explanation, a simple one, about climate. We forget that climate, by definition, affects everything we know. A disrupted one ever more dramatically so. Welcome to the Anthropocene Age, the first geologic age defined by homo sapiens sapiens as opposed to major geologic and extraterrestrial events.

Of the myriad of writings on this time and our common predicament, there have been many terrific assessments of the science. However, daring holistic prescriptives are still a rarity. So when Massachusetts-based, non-profit South End Press released “HEAT: How to Stop the Planet from Burning” it was perhaps too easy to cringe. A policy manual by a non-scientist adhering to the most challenging data being supplied by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contributers. Good luck, bub.

Thankfully, the mind behind the pen, Guardian columnist and author of “The Age of Consent,” George Monbiot, engages the reader with the enormity of his personal summit in writing the book: how to show a government (in this case the United Kingdom) that a 90 percent reduction in Greenhouse gases by 2030 is possible. And survivable. Anything less than the 90 percent mark, he states, and major ecosystems begin their collapse.

Skillfully dishing on our technological agreements of decidedly mixed blessings with an overlay of Goethe’s Faust narrative, Monbiot explores the roots of the Global Warming denial “industry” before picking apart the sectors in need of overhaul: international carbon rationing and home energy use; the potential of renewable energy technologies; transportation and power distribution. The complex discussion serves to express the challenge at our doorstep (no, not ahead… here. now.) and show that solutions are possible, if not easy or obvious.

Monbiot shares that the seeds of HEAT originate in the standing dispute between environmentalists, policy-makers, and the industrial captains: just how fast can our energy matrix be transformed and at what cost. What would the United States look like if we chopped our greenhouse emissions by 80 percent in 20 years? In 30? Monbiot was asked that question about his native England prior to launching into HEAT and, befuddled, was forced to defer to a colleague, who proudly offered: “A very poor third-world country.”

Monbiot suggests that is not our destination, not necessarily.

At the housing level, raising efficiency standards for existing homes is caught up by government’s continued “digging the ideological hole,” insisting that “tougher rules would be ‘an unwarranted intervention in the market,’ restricting people’s choice of how they live their lives.” While building in new efficiency standards into the housing market is fairly simply, the U.K. head of Housing and Planning has argued that raising the efficiency standards of existing homes would be akin to “unnecessary gold plating.” So improving the housing sector’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions must “be made by changing the sources of the energy our buildings use,” Monbiot writes.

For heavy industry’s sake, Monbiot is no fan of decentralization of the power structure. Neither does he favor the increasingly popular nuclear option: one that he estimates will take too long to design, build, and complete in time to make the sustainable switch.
That being, Monbiot endorses massive methane power plants for half of the grid-based electricity. The rest, he writes, must come from wind and wave.

Even these, must be instituted with the same “war footing” that drove the conversion of industry so often cited by sustainability advocates that occurred during the global storm of the Second World War.

However, his formulations are not likely to be adopted before (more?) serious economic woes descend on the world’s political motors and the allegorical birds, or in this case perhaps locust, coming home to roost.

He writes in conclusion that:

“I have sought to demonstrate that the necessary reductions in carbon emissions is — if difficult — technically and economically possible. I have not demonstrated that it is politically possible. There is a reason for this. It is not up to me to do so. It is up to you.”

red sky in the morning jacket Here in San Antonio, our mayor recently hosted a handful of his peers to announce war on the incandescent light bulb. By the end of 2008 this mayoral contingent hopes to inspire all state residents — all 24 million of us — to switch out their bulbs. I can’t help but notice the irony that Monbiot’s scientific adviser on HEAT began his own campaign to “ban the bulb” almost two years ago.

So bless ’em for trying, it is after all Step One of countless environmental NGO campaigns complete with the misguided notion ticklishly suggesting that planet-saving will only require the smallest of sacrifices. The light bulb argument, despite providing entree to the masses, is delusional and light years from the actions Monbiot and stadiums of climate scientists insist our world requires.

Ultimately, the greatest challenge is ourselves. Turning our consumer culture into a stewardship culture will be no easy feat. James Speth, dean of Yale University’s Forestry and Environmental Studies, considered just that challenge in his book, “Red Sky at Morning” back in 2004 (You know the seafarer’s adage: “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning”?) when he found the cultural shift to be of preeminent concern.

“The change that is needed can be best put as follows: in the twentieth century we are from Mars but in the twenty-first century we must be from Venus — caring, nurturing, and sustaining,” Speth wrote.

Recognizing the power of the evangelical churches in the United States, heroic biologist E.O. Wilson wrote to the heart of that community by adopting the fictional personae of a Southern preacher in “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.”
There is a slow green creep. But what will drive those millions upon millions of individual shifts in values? How do we metamorphize, as one Peak Oil pariah asked me years ago, the dross of thriftiness into the golden new chic?

It will likely take a more direct assault on our market and its myriad contributors. Which, in turn, calls for revitalization or recreation of that economy. It will take calls to not just buy new bulbs, but to not buy greedy appliances, oversized cars, to not move into distant subdivisions, to not live as large as our pocketbooks allow. Because the true price of our lifestyle is only now becoming apparent. It is being born by the Earth, and as the carbon sinks of our oceans and plants and soils are being used up, negative returns are forthcoming.

Monbiot and others have done the “easy” work of theory. Only politics remain.

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