Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Climate Code Red? Use the Recession

George Bush appeared to have won his re-election in 2004 on the back of American’s fear of terrorist attacks, reinforced by periodic security alerts from the Whitehouse: Code Orange! Code Red!

Pre-November 2008 elections, I often wished that Democrats (or even Republicans) could manufacture similar pseudo events to evoke that same primal fear but in service of climate change. What would make Americans take the threat seriously? Make them act with the urgency and commitment the situation requires? Wouldn’t it be great if a big chunk of the Antarctic ice shelf snapped off unexpectedly? Giving everyone a good scare but not threatening any lives?

Basically, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think up anything that matched a “Code Red” – evoking fear and delivering action but without any long-term consequences.

But the current r(d)ec(pr)ession just might do the trick.
Yes, there will be (there already is) some real collateral suffering. But it just might be that this real short-term suffering gives us a chance to avert long-term irreversible planetary changes that results in long-term human suffering.

This recession has a three-fold potential:

• Reduced economic activity means reduced energy consumption and reduced emissions. It just might be that worldwide CO2 emissions don’t increase this year. [If deforestation pressures in developing countries aren’t accelerated by the lack of alternative sources of income.]

• Government (and business) economic restructuring and reinvestment presents us with the opportunity to create more sustainable systems with each new investment and new rule set.

• People’s values and behaviors are likely to profoundly change on the back of these very difficult economic times.

After the Great Depression (does that get capitalized?), American’s attitudes changed in fundamental ways that lasted for at least a generation. People who felt the painful reality of those years, or maybe just watched others feel the pain, had a deeply seeded attitude change about life. They tended to use things up, store things that might have a useful life some time in the future, expect rainy days and save for them, keep jobs they didn’t like just in case, and value community and friendship over consumption status symbols.

My mother was one of those people (and not my father, so this idea isn’t universal). And the house I live in now -- that sheltered one family between 1902 and 1987 when we bought it – definitely held people with those sensibilities. Bags of old men’s shirts, useful one day as rags, but with the buttons removed and stored elsewhere, filled one corner of the basement. “Perfectly good” wallpaper rolls, from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, were stashed under a work bench. Tin cans with nails, screws, bits of rope, old copper mesh (we’ve made good use of that!) were shelved between the studs.

So, this crisis provides us with an unexpected opportunity to move to a more sustainable and low GHG world economy. Will we make good use of it?

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