Thursday, April 22, 2010

earth day paradigm shift

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

Different about this year’s Earth Day is that a new paradigm has emerged. It concerns meaning and purpose of environmental protection. It used to be about “saving the planet” (not that the planet cared; it was there before us and will be there after us), or, perhaps better, about saving the integrity of the biosphere. Problem was that in such rescue efforts environmentalists suffered from overstretch. The list of things that needed fixing was endless, and when you put out the fires in front of you, the ones behind your back were blazing all the merrier. Should we save the rainforests or curb overpopulation? Should we deal with recycling or save the whales? Should we do something about plastics, peak oil, and consumerism, or should we rather be concerned with acid rain, global warming, and coral bleaching? Should we worry about frankenfoods, supercrops, biofuels, or about animal rights, meat-eating, & factory farming? Everything cried out for care, and ‘everything’ was all over the place.

Now things are simpler. The list is a system. The cloud of cares is falling into the gravity well of twin suns: climate and sustainability. The chaotic motions are organizing into orbits revolving around a center. The old issues haven’t gone away, but they’re now integrated in an orderly framework. Strictly speaking, the new paradigm hasn't so much replaced the old one as integrated it.

Before the paradigm shift, anthropogenic climate change, known since the 1950s, was just another item on the list, similar to sustainable development, which first appeared on the policy radar screen in the 1970s. Now climate and sustainability are at the core, subordinating everything else. Climate change is what’s happening to the planet. Sustainability is what will better happen to us fast if we still wish to slow down, reign in, and reverse the runaway changes towards a blue-yellow orb, towards dry lands and sour seas.

This makes things a whole lot easier. Before the shift, protection was about, well, the environment. It was about ‘them’—the lions, tigers, and bears (or the pandas, and orchids, and spotted owls). Now it’s about us, our future, our well-being and that of our kids. Before the shift we cared for a variety of reasons, all of which seemed somewhat ethereal, spiritual, or geeky to outsiders. We valued ecological integrity, natural beauty, and endangered species. We valued the genetic, medical, and yes, the aesthetic information stored in the biological diversity of climax communities. We liked, for ethical, ecological, or purely formal reasons, the complexity of some unkempt wild spot more than the consumerist monotony of the well-groomed suburban subdivisions that ate it up and took its place.

After the paradigm shift--now--environmental protection is about us. They (whoever ‘they’ are) and we are sitting in the same boat. And the boat is sinking. We need to adapt. So we better start bailing out the water and patching up the leaks. We need to smoothen the waves left in its wake, mitigate the consequences of our conduct. And more: we need to change the design of the boat now. The way we’ve used to do things, with the planet as all-you-can-eat buffet for global capitalists and US Republicans, won’t work anymore. We need to evolve. And we shall do so because the alternative is collapse. Thus the old range of reasons for caring squeezes now into a terse formula: adaptation plus mitigation plus evolution equals survival.

Remove any one part from this sum, say, civil evolution, and the outcome of the remainder will likely fall short. 'Survival' refers to the continuity of civilization, without incurring a dieback of our species next to all the others that are crashing now. And this, come to think of it, is the best news for environmentalists after Earth Day 2010. The annual celebration doesn't signal anymore a luxurious indulgence of romantics with their heads stuck in the clouds, if it ever did. Instead and henceforth it signals a level-headed, tough-minded realism of pragmatic optimists who are enlightened and want to go on. We are mainstream now, and while our foes remain formidable, they are marginalized and, in the worst sense of the word, history.

Eighty months left.

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