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by David Roberts

Last week’s news about the tipping-point study in Nature ought to prompt some serious thinking. It is becoming increasingly clear that the decisions made by people alive today will determine the fate of life on Earth for centuries to come.

When stated plainly, that sounds almost absurd, like a science fiction premise: “They held the power to control the wooorld!” But it’s true nonetheless. After a multi-century explosion in number, power, and impact, homo sapiens is now the dominant force on the planet, reshaping its biophysical systems through land-use changes, resource depletion, and climate change. We live in the Anthropocene, a geologic era shaped by humans.

We have not yet begun to grapple with that realization. In time, I believe it will rank alongside evolution by natural selection among ideas that have fundamentally transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world. Like Darwin’s dangerous idea, it will ripple its way through the physical and social sciences. Hell, some day even economists might get it! (I kid. Kind of.)

Stewart Brand was famously blase about the dawning revelation at the beginning of the legendary 1968 Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Nonetheless, like evolution, the dominance of human beings on Spaceship Earth is a profound and terrifying threat to all sorts of traditional worldviews. If Darwin showed us that God is not our author, the Anthropocene shows that He is not our caretaker. There’s no parent to supply us with endless resources and endless room to dispose of our waste. There’s no one to protect us or prevent us from screwing it all up.

It’s no surprise that a great many people recoil at the notion. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) scoffed, “is to me outrageous.” As I said before:

It hardly needs pointing out that He, in this instance, is God. It’s not unusual to see this sentiment expressed in religious terms. After all, if human beings are reshaping the basic biophysical systems of the planet, they are like unto gods. What terrifies people about that idea is not so much the power itself, but the responsibility that comes with it. If the entire biosphere is the product of our decisions and actions, then we hold the fate of the only known life-bearing planet and all the life on it in our hands. That is an almost unthinkably heavy burden to bear. It seems only God could bear it.

Nonetheless, bear it we must. It’s time to start thinking about the unthinkable. Speaking of which, Christopher Mims does some good and interesting thinking in this post.

He frames things this way: The Earth has a certain amount of biological productivity, based on the energy it receives from the sun. Insofar as we degrade or destroy bits of that natural life-support system, we have to reconstitute its “ecosystem services” some other way, mainly through technology. Unfortunately, the Earth is better than us at creating a system in which humans can thrive; biology, after all, is just extremely advanced technology, in comparison to which our machines are clumsy and wasteful. Replacing ecosystem services with technological services — replacing freshwater with desalinized water, say — will exhaust an increasingly large portion of our inventive capacity, time, and work.

Here’s how Mims puts it:

In a hundred years, the biggest industries will all be devoted to the cybernetic enhancement of the planet itself. Whatever limbs we sever now, whatever critical systems we wreck, are going to have to be replaced. Imagining that they might even be upgraded underestimates the unfathomable parallel processing power of 4 billion years of evolution on this planet, which is essentially a vast computer for determining the optimal solution to the problem of resource allocation. So no, I don’t think we’re going to do better.

We might survive in a such a world, might even materially prosper (there are always underground colonies!), but it’s worth asking whether a fully cybernetic world is one we ought to choose. Is our own survival and material prosperity all we care about? Or is biodiversity worth something in its own right?

I guess if I differ with Mims anywhere it’s that I’m not quite so fatalistic, at least on even-numbered days. Like him, I think we’re clever enough to avoid a complete collapse of human population and wealth. But I also think we’re clever enough to at least envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.

What stands in the way of that vision is not lack of ingenuity or technology. It is myopia and tribalism. For most of our evolutionary history, it was small bands, maybe dozens, to whom we extended our trust and concern. In the Anthropocene, we’ve seen examples of tribal loyalty to city-states and nation-states, to races and religions, but only very rarely to humanity as such, much less to the entire biosphere. We are not accustomed or well-suited to thinking of “life on Earth” as the appropriate scope for fellow-feeling.

There’s no way we can rewire the human brain in the short time we have left to act. But we can cybernetically enhance our collective cognition and decisionmaking with information technology; we can reform our laws and governments; we can teach our children better.

The first step is simply to take responsibility, to recognize that there is no longer any Other. There’s no them — no foreigners, no outsiders, no exogenous threats, no enemies. There’s only us, the crew of Spaceship Earth, hurtling through space, alone. [Cue Star Trek music ...]

Filed under: Animals, Article, Business & Technology, Cities, Climate & Energy, Climate Change, Infrastructure, Living, Pollution

from Grist http://grist.org

http://grist.org/business-technology/getting-used-to-being-in-charge-of-the-planet/

by Philip Bump

Ki-moon_small

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stood at a podium outside the U.N. on Friday wearing a dashing bike helmet — only to break my heart.

A promise had been made to me that I would get to ride bikes with the secretary general. To be fair, the promise was only implied; the invite from the Embassy of the Netherlands and its associated partners read only, “U.N. Bike Ride.” But I definitely was under the impression that the secretary general of the U.N. and I would very possibly be riding bikes simultaneously, in the same vicinity, in concert. Discussing issues of the day; inspiring others around us to celebrate the bike as a low-carbon — high-fun! — means of transport.

This is not me.

I hadn’t been to the U.N. before. People that live in New York don’t really go there. Only in New York City would an international organization tasked with keeping the world prosperous, healthy, and at peace be relegated to a strip of land by a murky river and then ignored. The complex sits like a once-great college campus at the end of 42nd Street, oozing stale optimism onto the highway that runs underneath it. It’s a symbol, not a destination — for this idea that we can all work together to change the world for the better despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

With the Earth Summit — or as it’s officially known, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (oh, bureaucracy) — now days away, we’re in one of our hopeful periods about the U.N., like we just bought a lottery ticket that probably won’t pay off but-what-if-this-one-time. Maybe this time, the U.N. will shift the world on its axis.

And how better to inaugurate that sentiment than a bike ride through New York City? A rainbow-colored coterie of diplomats and press and New Yorkers sweeping out from behind the high gates of the U.N. like Willy Wonka stepping into the public light, a show of solidarity revealing a magic that inspired the world. Or, at the very least, a visible statement of the utility and rationality of using bikes in America’s biggest city. I mean, it works in the Netherlands, and bike use is expanding in the U.S.

The very least I could do is join in.

What strikes you about events at the U.N. is how chummy the whole thing is. Everyone in the group gathered at the base of the famous thin blue tower last Friday seemed to know one another, all had the same credentials on lanyards around their necks, knew the speakers without introduction. I was an outsider, a New Yorker from the other side of the fence playing catchup. Without intending any disrespect, it was like meeting the homecoming court at a high school you don’t attend: a cozy clique with in-jokes and a hierarchy for which you can readily figure out the whos if not the whys.

The event began with a presentation, with speakers, as these things do. I missed one or two while pleading my case to security (I’d arrived after the credentialing office had closed) and straining to hear from my safe-enough distance away. But I arrived in time for the gifts. Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya presented Secretary General Ban with a legitimately cool old bike taxi, a vehicle with thick tubing, brown paint, and a fringed platform on the back to carry things. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t attend such things, so he sent his ambassador, the city’s Commissioner of Transportation Janette Sadik-Khan. She offered the gift of future bikes, 10,000 scattered around the city as part of the recently-announced Citi Bike system, which will place rentable bikes throughout the city. (And by “the city,” I mean Manhattan and small parts of Brooklyn and Queens.) The master of ceremonies, Ambassador to the Netherlands H.E. Herman Schaper, presented the secretary general with an oversized bike bell in Dutch orange.

A bell is given.

When it was the secretary general’s turn to speak, he broke the bad news right up front. An undefined injury to his hand (his “steering wheel,” as he put it) meant that he wouldn’t be riding after all. The crowd seemed unfazed; I quashed my disappointment by recording the sad fact in my notebook followed by four exclamation points. He praised New York’s efforts to make “the city that never sleeps the city that always bikes,” and suggested that bikes would help transport the world to “a better tomorrow, a better future.” And with that, he was done.

The secretary general, his hand.

Ambassador Schaper came up to send the bike riders off, explaining that the route had been curtailed somewhat from their original vision. The NYPD (with its own rocky relationship with groups of bike riders) suggested that taking over multiple intersections during rush hour might be ill-advised. The route, then, would be in reserved lanes, from U.N. headquarters up to 50th Street. Some six blocks. At the end, the ambassador announced, there’d be a place to park your car. “Your car!” a man behind me guffawed.

To the bikes. I milled about making small talk as participants put on their helmets. Well, as some of them did; it didn’t seem to be required. The turnout was modest. An initial peloton of maybe 15 riders set out, with a few more handfuls following in bunches. I was among the last to leave, the large helmets having been appropriated by others with less large heads than my own.

By the time I exited the complex, it was not the inspiring scene I’d envisioned. I rode silently behind two others. The impression that we gave to the tourists standing around was probably less “Oh, I see that cycling is an effective, sensible way to get around the city,” and more “That tall guy on the bike appears to have a helmet that’s too small.”

When I arrived at the finish a few minutes later, nearly everyone was gone, retired to a reception at the residence of the Dutch ambassador. I asked two elderly women if they had any thoughts about the stand of empty bikes in the middle of their street, but they demurred. And that was it. Just me, standing on 50th Street, surrounded by bikes being loaded into a U-Haul truck.

Which is when it struck me that this exercise may not have been a rip-roaring success. If the goal was to light a fuse about bike transit that would explode in Rio, it was a dud. Shuttling bikes in the back of a large truck doesn’t exactly convey an Earth-friendly message, after all — nor does riding six blocks in a lane protected by the police suggest that biking is an effective way to get around the city. Having your most prominent representative show up unable to ride because of a minor injury is not helpful.

It was hot. I didn’t have a bike, and even if Citi Bike were already in place, the closest station to the U.N. would be several blocks away. So to get home I did what so many New Yorkers would do.

I hailed a cab.

Filed under: Biking, Cities, News

from Grist http://grist.org

http://grist.org/news/un-tries-to-inspire-world-bike-revolution-doesnt/

Via jaaron

Photo of Beijing smog by jaaron on Flickr.

Last week, the Chinese government demanded that foreign embassies stop reporting independent air pollution measurements. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, for example, has a monitor on its roof that automatically tweets information about the city’s particulate and ozone pollution.

06-11-2012 09:00; PM2.5; 38.0; 105; Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (at 24-hour exposure at this level)

— BeijingAir (@BeijingAir) June 11, 2012

The government claims that its objection is based on the small sample size such readings necessarily represent. The real critique, of course, is that air pollution in that nation’s capital is an on-going source of tension and embarrassment – one that they’d rather not be a matter of public knowledge. It’s embarrassing to have your carefully crafted messaging fall apart in the face of scientific evidence.

But that’s China – a repressive regime that mirrors 1984, right? They don’t know the freedoms and honest debate that comes from living in a democracy.

Hold that thought.

[Virginia] State Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, who insisted on changing the “sea level rise” study in the General Assembly to one on “recurrent flooding,” said he wants to get political speech out of the mix altogether.

He said “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term” that conjures up animosities on the right. So why bring it into the equation?

That’s from the BBC, by way of Climate Progress. Note: this is not a repeat. Our earlier story about sea-level rise reflected North Carolina‘s efforts to make measuring the rise illegal. This story, believe it or not, is probably stupider.

And in some ways what Stolle insisted upon is even more egregious than what China has asked. China at least admits that there is pollution, arguing that embassies shouldn’t publish data because it represents only a small sample size. At least that argument is rooted in some sense of how science works. Stolle, on the other hand, considers an expression describing the state of the world to have a political bias. The analogy would be China claiming that the expression “air pollution” is a tool of capitalist oligarchs.

If they did, I’m curious how State Delegate Stolle would react.

Filed under: Cities, News, Politics, Pollution

from Grist http://grist.org/news/did-you-say-sea-level-rise-you-liberal/

ifttt puts the internet to work for you. via task 1211278

  1. Australian Govenrmnet looks to create a unified zero to 10 star rating system that harmonizes NABERS and NATHers rating systems with Green Star. 
  2. Despite numerous technical issues with this idea, it may help industry and consumers to better understand energy efficiency. I certainly have a few clients that still confuse their NABERS and Green Stars.  

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