Sunday, June 25, 2006

For Want of a Nail a World was Lost

"Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years."

That's a quote from an essay on global warming in the New York Review of Books by Jim Hansen. What occurred to me as I read it is what a strange, small thing our world -- no, let's not exaggerate: the world will survive. Life upon it will too. For that matter, human beings probably will as well. Our global civilization is another matter -- to say nothing of millions upon millions of human beings -- precisely who is, of course, not yet clear -- who will be harmed if global warming proceeds apace: if (in Hansen's phrase) "human beings follow a business-as-usual course." So: what occurred to me is what a strange, small set of things the fate of millions of lives -- and a civilization -- hangs upon.

Let me explain.

What will determine their fate? Our fate, I might well say, since the life of every person on this planet will be altered in the business-as-usual scenario: What will determine our fate?

Well -- provincial as it may seem -- I would say that, first of all, our fate depends on the actions of the United States.

This isn't entirely true, of course. China and India, as is frequently noted, are racing to catch up with us in pollutants. Europe does its share. And so forth. But it is true to a terrifying extent. True, because we currently emit 25% of all global warming agents. But that's really not the rub: its true largely because of the influence we wield (for better or -- far too often -- for worse) in the world. Kyoto stumbled in its central goal -- to establish momentum -- because the U.S., the most powerful nation, the only superpower, the biggest polluter -- did not join. And now, if we pushed, many others would fall in line. If it were a real priority, we could negotiate with China and India. (They already use, in some contexts, less-polluting technology than we.) We could support the best instincts of Europe -- already stronger than ours. The U.S. could make it a global priority, change the global focus and the global language, as only the sole superpower can. As we did with the "war on terror" on September 11.

So: will we or won't we?

At the moment, it doesn't look very hopeful.

There are two possibilities, and I honestly don't know which is correct. (Some mix of the two, doubtlessly: this is a simplification, natch. Go along with me here for a second.) One is that the political system in the U.S. is too controlled by those opposed to dealing with the looming catastrophe -- current business interests and their ideological allies -- to change course at this juncture. In that case, we are simply helpless.

So, to the extent that there is any hope at all, the hope lies in the second possibility: that a political coalition in favor of the significant action that is required can be assembled. Can it?

It is an open question. Consciousness may be changing on this issue. There are hopeful signs -- the rising effort by some in the religious right to make this a priority; the success of Al Gore's movie. But I fear they are very little, this late.

We will need all the allies that we can get. Moderate Republicans (who often list the environment as one of the issues they are supposedly moderate on); Republicans who might be pushed by a rising consciousness among their own base; and any Republicans who are tied enough to the reality-based community to admit to the weight of the evidence, and tied enough to moral principles to put aside electoral consequences. All will help; all might well be -- in the end -- decisive.

I fear, however, that it will ultimately come down to the question of whether Democrats can regain power or not. (As a small stone in the mosaic of evidence for this, Tristero -- to whom I am indebted for the original link to Hansen's essay -- reminds us of Hansen's history with the Bush administration.)

But what controls that? What has controlled it?

A million things: causality is rarely simple. Yet in so close a political divide, that means many little things could have changed it.

If we had organized better. If the venality of the ideologies on the right had not blocked concern with false balance and bought-and-paid for doubts. Ideological battles of all sorts are crucial here: through the odd linking of American politics, the pro-life movement may have doomed far more lives than it claims have been lost.

But then there are things that have nothing to do with ideological battles at all. The odd balance of the Senate, which gives the Republicans a 55-45 majority despite the fact that more votes have gone to Democrats than Republicans in Senate races in recent years (due to the overwhelming power of small, rural states in the Senate, and the tendency of those to swing right). And how much of it comes down to far smaller things! A butterfly ballot in Miami might -- maybe, maybe, maybe -- have held the world in its ill-designed structure.

All is not yet lost. But when I look at the battle that would be needed to better matters, all I can see is the power of the right -- largely science-denying, largely willing to sell out generations untold for the wealth of a few -- buttressed by so many small things -- so many things which have nothing to do with this issue, this most crucial of issues. And I think how strange it is, that so much depends upon the strange, contingent politics of this country.

And I remember the old poem.

Robert Sobel, a historian, used it to title his work of alternate history, For Want of a Nail, which gave me half of my title for this post. The work of Peter Laslett, another historian, gave me the other half: The World We Have Lost, as evocative a phrase for the vanishing wake of history as ever I have heard.

Will that be how it unfolds? Will the triumph of forces bent largely on other goals, victorious for other reasons, really block progress on this?

And I imagine historians of the future. How could they recapture it? How they will blame us, for letting it occur. How they will struggle to impart to their students the power of other forces that swept -- or, moving back to now, are sweeping -- us off the cliff. How could they make them see?

I wish I knew. For if they can see, then so can we, now: and perhaps it might not be too late, after all.

Update: Today in the Los Angeles Times (via) there is a report on how the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than predicted; it's an interesting explanation of the science, and why forces are destabilizing it in ways not expected even very recently. It notes that "should all of the ice sheet ever thaw, the meltwater could raise sea level 21 feet and swamp the world's coastal cities, home to a billion people."

No comments: