Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 – What you don’t know, can hurt you

I have just finished reading George Monbiot’s (@georgemonbiot) final post for 2012 – Annus Horribilis (here) – a fine, but deeply depressing piece. It details such astounding disregard for the biosphere by governments and corporates (and little sign of wide-spread popular protest from the rest of us) that one can only assume that they (we) have no understanding of humanity’s reliance on the biosphere or the speed with which things could change.

The substantial steps towards the loss of some of our remaining mega-fauna species (rhinos and blue-fin tuna among others); continued degradation of critical habitats (forests and coral reefs in particular); and the record-breaking ice melts, droughts, hurricanes and (maximum) temperatures of last year are just some of the screams of a biosphere under supreme stress. And in the face of these, policy shifts in precisely the wrong direction - the abject failures of Rio and Doha, oil-drilling in the arctic, record-breaking carbon emissions and always the primary focus on the trivial wrangling of wholly preventable, largely inconsequential, short term economic issues (like the current “fiscal cliff” fiasco).

All this must surely indicate a profound lack of appreciation of complex systems and not just an uncaring or selfish attitude (which is, however, undeniable). Marching forward, guessing, but not really understanding the peril – not really, deeply grappling with what life might be like on a changed planet.

And one of the characteristics of complex, resilient systems (like the biosphere) is that a great deal of disturbance can be absorbed by the system with little outward sign of stress. While this may sound like a good thing, it also means that by the time you start to see things going wrong, the system is probably quite close to rapid decline or collapse. So these evident signs of distress are even more disturbing given our biosphere’s resilience, not less so.

It is so easy to be blasé about the fall-out of a stressed planet when supermarkets stock everything we need, and the latest piece of iStuff is our only care or aspiration. So easy to cast our vote on taxes, jobs and prejudice that perhaps it is understandable that we don’t really engage with the difficult, poorly understood, sometimes imprecise and occasionally contested world of science and the environment.

But 2012 was also a year when many of the world’s wealthiest countries realised on quite a wide scale that perhaps life under a changing climate and stressed biosphere might be a little tougher than anticipated. Hurricane Sandy and the severe drought in the mid-west of the USA were perhaps a wake-up call to the wealthy, but perhaps not enough to push people to change? The 350.org disinvestment campaign is the one beacon of light in an otherwise bleak year, and it points us in the right direction.

Unfortunately, in many cases (and here I number soil degradation and biodiversity loss before climate change), we are already in for a bumpy ride globally. And if we have truly given up on limiting climate change to 2° rise this century, then that unholy trifecta is going to cause a lot of misery, the like of which residents of the Jersey Shore have had but a taste.

And so for me, 2013 may be the year that quite a substantial number of people learn that disengaging from the debate is no insulation to its effects; that what you don’t know can, in fact hurt you. And I only hope that this learning leads to the sort of mass action called for in George's review of 2012: Annus Horribilis.

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