Welcome to the Anthropocene
What bothers me
is not so much that we
clever apes are driving ourselves to extinction.
There is at least some humor and
irony in that
and a lesson to be learned
by someone --
What really bothers me
is that we are taking
the rest of the living world with us
plants and animals of all kinds
life can never be the same --
is already changed
What drives me to distraction
is that we know better
that a very few of us
who know better
are destroying life on earth
for the most selfish shortsighted and venal
What bothers and puzzles me most
is why we let them.
I write this at a moment where a good portion of Norfolk, VA, the city where I live is flooded due to a relatively mild tropical storm. The flooding is thus far limited to the usual places. That there are usual places, a growing number of them, is symptomatic of a larger issue; the largest issue of our time. Aside from storm-driven tidal surges, our area has seen a significant increase in “sunny day” flooding over the last few decades. Norfolk and much of the east coast, due in part to geographical sinking resulting from subsidence, is especially vulnerable to rising seas resulting from global warming. That warming is not an abstraction happening in some future. It is now.
A gathering of climate scientists at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa a few weeks ago declared that, based on all evidence, the Anthropocene Epoch has officially begun. In fact, it began in the mid 1950's. This is a planetary shift to a new geological state of existence beyond what has been called the Holocene: some 12,000 years of climate stability, which emerged after the last ice age, which allowed human civilization to create itself. In the process, especially in the last two centuries, human activity has altered planet’s geological infrastructure. These noted experts announced, “Changes to the Earth system that characterize the Anthropocene Epoch include marked acceleration to rates of erosion and sedimentation; large-scale chemical perturbations to the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements; the inception of significant change to global climate and sea level; and biotic changes such as unprecedented levels of species invasions across the Earth. Many of these changes are geologically long-lasting, and some are effectively irreversible. These and related processes have left an array of signals in recent strata, including plastic, aluminum and concrete particles, artificial radionuclides, changes to carbon and nitrogen isotope patterns, fly ash particles, and a variety of fossilizable biological remains. Many of these signals will leave a permanent record in the Earth's strata.” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies stated, “In the last 30 years, we've really moved into exceptional territory. It's unprecedented in 1,000 years. There's no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination of temperatures."
What does all this mean for us? Much depends on how we react to the information science provides us. 2016 has been the hottest year on record globally since records have been kept. The changes we are already seeing, that are happening now and rapidly building on themselves, include: massive storms and droughts, increased methane release, climate and geologic instability, increasingly acidic rising seas with growing dead zones, melting arctic ice and glaciers, rising disease rates and mass migrations. A recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature involving the work of 80 scientists from a dozen countries has found the ocean warming faster than expected with dangerous consequences including threats to sea life, fisheries, and coastal areas as well as the grave possibility of more powerful hurricanes and greater methane release. We are also witnessing animal and plant die-offs which have lead to this era being referred to as the sixth mass extinction. These climate-based changes have causes, most of which are directly related to our industrial way of life over the last two centuries.
The burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause but only a part of it. Our cultural view of the world around us as an accumulation of useful commodities to be exploited without a larger understanding of the connections and implications is the larger issue. This view has dominated our thinking since the 17th century. It has lead to slavery and brutal conquest, to colonialism, massive deforestation and the geological degradations of mining, massive monoculture farming, and toxic industrial sacrifice zones. Our material way of living, our expectations, and our economies continue to depend on this model. It is a model of unending growth in a finite reality. It is a model that equates happiness with material accumulation. It is a model of destruction for the elusive fantasy of wealth very few of us will achieve.
Because wealth is tied to these destructive practices and because that wealth is so intimately woven with political power, it is difficult to address, much less change what we are doing to ourselves. Fracking is a good example of this. Hydraulic fracturing as a way of mining for natural gas makes people near the operations sick, even killing some. It poisons our water and deep aquifers, destabilizes the ground causing earthquakes as we've seen recently in Oklahoma, and it leaks massive amounts of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses, into the atmosphere. It is a prime driver of planetary warming with methane rich atmospheric areas over our continent visible from space. NASA reports observing a methane "hot spot" in the Four Corners region of the American southwest directly related to leaks from natural gas extraction, processing, and distribution. Yet, as many communities inundated with fracking wells have found, the billions spent by the fossil fuel industry have far more influence on policy than do citizen protests. State Regulatory Commissions have a monopoly on power when it comes to environmental issues and they are subservient to industry. This undue influence is also true of other climate-destructive industries like mining, agribusiness (Monsanto and Cargill), and the meat industry.
The corrupted politics of corporate and fossil fuel influence on both official parties is reflected in the election options we have from the state to the national level. Republicans deny the science and reality of the climate crisis and openly support fossil fuel use, drilling, mining, pipelines and fracking. They loudly condemn any efforts to address, much less mention the issue and even oppose the existence of the EPA. Democrats acknowledge the issue but like our Governor, generally support drilling, fracking, pipeline projects and fossil fuel use, though with some environmental protections. Clinton's history of promoting fracking and her choice of former Interior Secretary and supporter of fracking and piplines Ken Salazar for her transition team speaks volumes.
What is obvious is that we cannot entrust our health, our safety or the protection of our environment to politicians supported by fossil fuel interests. We as citizens must be actively involved in protecting ourselves and our future. There is still much that can be done to mitigate climate change and to adapt our infrastructure and way of living to the realities we cannot change. There are serious efforts happening to confront the corrupting influence of big money and to defend our rights as citizens as well as our health and local environment. One of the most important of these is the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund or CELDF. This organization focuses on communities facing direct harm from from polluting corporations, whether fracking, drilling, factory farms, mining or other toxic efforts. CELDF offers low cost, experienced legal assistance to empower communities in defending themselves. This includes passing ordinances recognizing the rights of nature to exist and evolve unharmed as similar to the rights of children to do so. These ordinances also challenge corporate personhood. Thus far, over 200 communities have adopted CELDF-drafted Community Bills of Rights laws that move from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over their communities.
Other citizen organizations active in addressing the climate issue are The Betty Kester Alliance for a Healthy Future, The Ohio Community Rights Network and Greenpeace.
Beyond the limitations of legal efforts in our corporate oligarchy, direct action is growing as well. As I write this the Standing Rock Sioux and dozens of other tribes from the U.S. and Canada are physically resisting the construction of a proposed four-state pipeline that, if completed, would transport about 500,000 barrels of crude per day across their lands, threatening their water supply. Pipeline construction crews have already destroyed indigenous burial and cultural sites on private land in North Dakota. The conflict is escalating as private security hired by the Dakota Access Pipeline Company attack Native Americans defending their lands with attack dogs and pepper spray.
Last month, in an ongoing effort, local climate activists in Bellingham, Washington blocked coal trains. An effort we, as the largest coal port on the east coast might learn from. That people around the country are engaged directly in both civic actions, protests and civil disobedience is something that gives me hope.
Citizen action is having positive effects on government policy. The U.S and China recently agreed to formally sign the Paris climate agreement, reducing carbon emissions. China is one of the most polluted places on earth as well as the largest and growing economy. Its leader, Xi Jinping vowed to to "unwaveringly pursue sustainable development" as part of China's climate plan. Greenpeace East Asia's senior climate policy adviser Li Shuo stated that the pressure was on for Xi to move from agreement to action. Due to growing earthquakes, Oklahoma, a state largely run by fossil fuel interests, ordered oil and gas operators to shut down three dozen wastewater disposal wells following a 5.6-magnitude earthquake tied directly to fracking. Last month, Australia's Premier Daniel Andrews announced that the state is set to introduce a permanent ban on all onshore gas exploration and fracking. In Brazil, 72 cities have approved bans on fracking since the launch of the No Fracking Brazil campaign by 350.org. There are indications that Alberta Canada will follow suit, curbing fracking due to earthquake activity and rising citizen activism.
Beyond reducing and stopping our use of fossil fuels, converting to sustainable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and other sources we need to reduce the carbon we have already emitted as well as the added water vapor our warmer atmosphere is holding which carries heat. This can be done by reforestation and by permaculture farming which returns carbon from the atmosphere to the soil.
Though we are seeing some progress, it isn't nearly enough. Time is not on our side. It is vital that we have leadership that puts public safety before corporate agendas and which has the ability to effectively protect us and to address the climate crisis. Politics and needed electoral reform aside, we must be that leadership. Citizen action is effective and crucial but it takes a lot of us to be heard. We must all be involved directly or in support of those who are.
What is most needed is a paradigm shift in our thinking, our cultural perspective and our way of living in this world, realizing that we are in fact the planet, you and I, the animals, plants and bacteria around us and within us -- inseparable and interdependent. That consciousness must be reflected in our moving away from thing-centric materialism, and species-centric thinking. It must shape how we act and what we eat. This change does not happen magically or in a vacuum. It happens by working with others for our common good. I see this conscious change happening, especially generationally. Beyond the construct of nation-states and tribal identities, the fate of our biosphere – of all living things that make up our small interdependent world depends on us.