Shuck and Jive
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Meaning of Life, Part 60
And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle: Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside. Because it’s looking that way. We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another. Even the architecture of our planet is collapsing under the weight of our efficient productivity. Our climate, our oceans, migratory paths, things we believed were independent of human affairs. Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that unlimited carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, we need to think about that. About ten years later, nations of the world wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. The US said, we still need to think about it. Now we can watch as glaciers disappear, the lights of biodiversity go out, the oceans reverse their ancient orders. A few degrees looked so small on the thermometer. We are so good at measuring things and declaring them under control. How could our weather turn murderous, pummel our coasts and push new diseases like denge fever onto our doorsteps? It’s an emergency on a scale we’ve never known. We’ve responded by following the rules we know: Efficiency, Isolation. We can’t slow down our productivity and consumption, that’s unthinkable. Can’t we just go home and put a really big lock on the door?
Not this time. Our paradigm has met its match. The world will save itself, don’t get me wrong. The term “fossil fuels” is not a metaphor or a simile. In the geological sense, it’s over. The internal combustion engine is so 20th Century. Now we can either shift away from a carbon-based economy, or find another place to live. Imagine it: we raised you on a lie. Everything you plug in, turn on or drive, the out-of-season foods you eat, the music in your ears. We gave you this world and promised you could keep it running on: a fossil substance. Dinosaur slime, and it’s running out. The geologists only disagree on how much is left, and the climate scientists are now saying they’re sorry but that’s not even the point. We won’t get time to use it all. To stabilize the floods and firestorms, we’ll have to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent, within a decade.
Heaven help us get our minds around that. We’re still stuck on a strategy of bait-and-switch: Okay, we’ll keep the cars but run them on ethanol made from corn! But… we use petroleum to grow the corn. Even if you like the idea of robbing the food bank to fill up the tank, there is a math problem: it takes nearly a gallon of fossil fuel to render an equivalent gallon of corn gas. By some accounts, it takes more....
....This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.
--Barbara Kingsolver, 2008 Commencement Address at Duke University, photo by Annie Griffiths.