December 22, 2016: The Times They Are A’changing

Finally! Almost 50 years after my college roommates and I would put a stack of Bob Dylan records on the phonograph and listen to them for hours as we pulled all-nighters to study for an exam or finish typing out a term paper, Mr. Zimmerman (yes, that is his name from birth) gets his Nobel Prize. I had a feeling back in the 60’s that this guy might get famous some day!

The reason I’m bringing back these old memories is that the lyrics to some of his songs have been popping into my head as I think about the state of the world.

“Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is …”

“… do you, Mr. Jones?” (from Ballad of a Thin Man). No, not you Peter Jones (see postscript below), but it seems so for many of the Mr. and Ms. Joneses out there. Yes, they’ve heard of climate change, and yes, they believe it is real, and yes, they know it is a problem, BUT … how many of them/us know just how serious a problem this is. How many get that this is an issue of massive catastrophe in the lifetime of our children. This is an issue of the continued existence of human civilization as we currently know it.

“The times they are a’changing”

Our exploding human population, combined with our exploding levels of consumption and our exploding use of stored carbon in the form of fossil fuels to power our appetites, has resulted in a drastic warming of Earth that is already destabilizing the relatively stable climate that human civilization has depended on for the past 12,00 years since the end of the las Ice Age.

We have all heard the litany of impacts: rising temperatures, floods and droughts from rising or falling levels of precipitation, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, accelerating rates of extinctions, expanding ranges of pest and pathogen species, and more. Scientists are now telling us that these changes are happening more quickly than was predicted even a few years ago. Author Bill McKibben has proposed renaming our planet Eaarth, to reflect that we are living under conditions that will be different than humankind has ever experienced.

What is even scarier is that these changes will probably not be linear, or predictable. The impacts of today’s emissions will be felt for centuries, even millennia, to come. And feedback loops, such as warming temperatures causing a thawing of the great expanses of northern forests and tundra leading to massive release of methane gas (a very powerful greenhouse gas), could lead to runaway warming that would end in massive extinctions of much of life on Earth.

“The answer is blowing in the wind…”

And maybe shining from the sun, or perhaps ebbing with the tides. Certainly, a rapid shift from oil, coal, and gas (and their newer cousins such as tar sands) to renewable alternatives is a necessary step. Employing the best conservation and energy efficiency strategies is also crucial: we must rethink how we do everything from our buildings to our transportation systems to how we produce food to how we plan our cities and villages.

BUT … while all these technical and material change are all critically necessary, they are still not sufficient. These strategies must be accompanied by a fundamental change in how humans view their place in the overall scheme of things. We need to shift from a paradigm of controlling and conquering Nature to a humbler realization that we are a part of Nature and dependent on it for our sustainable existence.

“… it’s all over now …”

I’m not a religious man and hardly ever pray, but I offer up this prayer, not to a divine being or spirit but rather to my fellow human beings, that we awaken to what we have done and what we need to do for the sake of our children and their children, and for the sake of the rest of the living world.

I pray that my daughter, as she lives to a ripe old age, will not have to sing this Dylan line to the Earth – “The sky, too, is folding under you, And it’s all over now baby blue.”


Postscript: In response to my recent series on consumption “Frenzy”, Peter sent me an article from the David Suzuki Foundation about the Technosphere, the total accumulation of human created stuff on Earth (analogous to the Atmosphere or the Biosphere). Scientists have calculated it at 30 Trillion tons – this is seven and a half times greater than the mass of all living things on Earth! Even more startling is that our stuff has a mass 100,000 times greater than the 7.5 billion people now inhabiting Earth.