By Tom Engelhardt
July 29, 2007
It’s true that no single incident or development — no matter how out of the ordinary or startling — can straightforwardly be attributed to climate change. Nonetheless, it seems strange that the massive flooding in England, of a sort last seen more than 60 years ago, led the TV news and made front pages here with hardly a mention of global warming. You certainly won’t see a headline like this one from the British Telegraph: “Floods show global warming is here.”
And yet this has been “the wettest May to July period for England and Wales since records began in 1766.” The recent “Great Flood of July” in southern England followed a somewhat similar June event in the north. As parts of the country are still submerged in the wake of torrential, tropical-style deluges (a month’s worth of rain fell in a few hours), while record extremes of heat “roast” central and southern Europe, the subject of climate change is certainly on European minds — and a group of scientists are evidently going to release a study in the journal Nature this week that claims “more intense rainstorms across parts of the northern hemisphere are being generated by man-made global warming.”
No American media figure, for instance, has wondered publicly whether, someday, England could become, in Gore-like “inconvenient truth” terms, the partially sunken Florida of Europe (along undoubtedly with Holland and other low-lying areas of the continent). It’s no less true that a season of startlingly widespread and fierce wildfires, based on long-term drought in the West, Southwest, and Southeast has been a news leader for months — the TV news just adores the imagery of storms and fires — again, most of the time, with little linkage to larger possible changes underway. We are, it seems, a resistant species when it comes to thinking about the need to truly reorganize ourselves on this fragile, but resilient, planet of ours.
And yet, even when no good TV images are produced and the changes are far more subtle, climate chaos is already pushing stressed ecosystems in new and unpredictable directions. It seems indisputable that, if we are going to weather (literally) the punches Mother Nature throws our way, we will need to do more than improve evacuation routes when storms hit or put more firefighters on the line when parched lands ignite. We will also have to reconsider how we deal with the natural world — at present, largely as a collection of commodities to be endlessly manipulated for profit and convenience or as a set of touring destinations.
So think of Chip Ward’s essay that follows as a challenge to just such thinking. It might as easily have been entitled, “Why the Organizing Principle of Industrial Civilization Is Just a Big Misunderstanding.” Taking up a recent, startling development in the commercial world of nature — the collapse of bee colonies across the U.S. — it explores ways in which our cult-like devotion to the notion of making all things efficient has become dysfunctional, even dangerous.
Ward, whose most recent Tomdispatch essay on the homeless world of the public library created a modest sensation — he was then just retiring as a library administrator — is well-known in his area as a grassroots activist working on toxic and radioactive waste issues. His early writing, especially his book Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West, focused on how to make polluters accountable. Recently, he moved to the remote wilds of southern Utah where he has had to cope with some of nature’s inevitable disturbances — wildfires and flashfloods — that have made him think about how recovery from such disturbance happens and how we might help recovery along (and so help ourselves as well). Tom
Diesel-Driven Bee Slums and Impotent Turkeys
The Case for Resilience
By Chip Ward
Resilience. You may not have heard much about it, but brace yourself. You’re going to hear that word a lot in the future. It is what we have too little of as our world slips into unpredictable climate chaos. “Resilience thinking,” the cutting edge of environmental science, may someday replace “efficiency” as the organizing principle of our economy.
Our current economic system is designed to maximize outputs and minimize costs. (That’s what we call efficiency.) Efficiency eliminates redundancy, which is abundant in nature, in favor of finding the one “best” way of doing something — usually “best” means most profitable over the short run — and then doing it that way and that way only. And we aim for control, too, because it is more efficient to command than just let things happen the way they will. Most of our knowledge about how natural systems work is focused on how to get what we want out of them as quickly and cheaply as possible — things like timber, minerals, water, grain, fish, and so on. We’re skilled at breaking systems apart and manipulating the pieces for short-term gain.
Think of resiliency, on the other hand, as the ability of a system to recover from a disturbance. Recovery requires options to that one “best” way of doing things in case that way is blocked or disturbed. A resilient system is adaptable and diverse. It has some redundancy built in. A resilient perspective acknowledges that change is constant and prediction difficult in a world that is complex and dynamic. It understands that when you manipulate the individual pieces of a system, you change that system in unintended ways. Resilience thinking is a new lens for looking at the natural world we are embedded in and the manmade world we have imposed upon it.
In the world today, efficiency rules. The history of our industrial civilization has essentially been the story of gaining control over nature. Water-spilling rivers were dammed and levied; timber-wasting forest fires were suppressed; cattle-eating predators were eliminated; and pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics were liberally applied to deal with those pesky insects, weeds, and microbes that seemed so intent on wasting what we wanted to use efficiently. Today we are even engineering the genetic codes of plants and animals to make them more efficient.
Too often we understand the natural systems we manipulate incompletely. We treat living systems as if they were simple, static, linear, and predictable when, in reality they are complex, dynamic, and unpredictable. When building our manmade world on top of those natural systems, we regularly fail to account for inevitable natural disturbances and changes. So when the “unexpected inevitable” occurs, we are shocked. Worse, we often find that we have “all our eggs in one basket,” and that the redundancy we eliminated in the name of efficiency limits our options for recovery. This applies to manmade systems, too.
Our efficient energy and food systems are perfect examples of how monolithic and brittle our infrastructure can become. Political turmoil in the Middle East, storms ravaging offshore oil wells, refinery fires, terrorism, and any number of other easily imaginable, even inevitable disruptions send gas prices soaring and suddenly our oil-dependent economy is pitched into a crisis. Because there is no readily available alternative to how we fuel our way of life — no resilience — our dependence on fossil fuels leaves us especially vulnerable to crisis. Our food system is likewise vulnerable, since it is so dependent on oil-based fertilizers and pesticides and relies on cheap and consistent supplies of gas for farm machinery and shipping.
Redundancy — alternative energy sources, for example -– would have left us options to fall back on in a time of such crisis. We did not develop those options, however, because they weren’t considered “competitive.” That is, if one energy source is cheaper to produce than others — ignoring, of course, all the associated and unacknowledged environmental and health costs — then that is the predominant energy source we will use to the exclusion of all others. Decades ago, oil and coal were cheap and so we constructed an entire energy infrastructure around those resources alone. (Nuclear squeaked through the door only because it was so heavily subsidized by government.) Solar and wind couldn’t compete according to the rigid market criteria we applied, so those sources hardly exist today. We are still told that we will get them only when they become more competitive.