It’s time for each of us to have a talk with our inner economist. If humanity is to survive the hardships that lie ahead due to climate change, we’ve got to abandon the now universal, but originally Western, ethos of economic growth. That onward-and-upward, more-is-better paean to the accumulation of individual wealth and to the idea of Earth-as-tool has led us blindly into a very tight spot. If we don’t abandon those notions and change the way our societies operate, we may face utter collapse.
So argues veteran environmental journalist Dianne Dumanoski in The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth. The book skillfully weaves evidence from climatology, biology, history, anthropology, economics, and other fields to dispel any feel-good misconceptions about global warming, explain its causes, and try to prepare us for what’s ahead.
If you were picturing a gradual climb in Earth’s temperatures potentially making northern areas more hospitable, think again. “Volatile” is the key word here.
Before the last 12,000 years of nearly unprecedented climate stability—the period known as “the long summer” that allowed complex civilizations to develop—chaotic climate swings were the norm. Climate varied more from decade to decade than it has in the past 12,000 years. Picture an ice age developing in the span of a lifetime, or even a decade—this scenario may confront us, depending on how the Earth reacts to our toxic influences.
The Earth’s volatility is a key point, Dumanoski stresses. Science does not (and cannot) predict all, and she says that in the century ahead, we need to prepare for swift, wild surprises. “Nature is not like a mechanical escalator but like a leaping dragon,” she writes. We’ve got to prepare for the worst even as we try to stop our ongoing damage to the Earth.
It’s not an original notion, but only a few have acted on it so far. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that in California, known for its regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a panel of leaders is forming a “Plan B” to deal with the disruptive effects of climate change.
The End of the Long Summer helps readers get the big picture and think globally, but it is less clear on how we should act locally. The idea that we must redirect Western civilization is daunting, so Dumanoski suggests strategies drawn from human history of surviving past climate crises.
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She advocates a two-pronged strategy of “survivability” (which she differentiates from individualistic, run-for-the-hills survivalism): Reduce the activities that are “disrupting the Earth’s metabolism,” she says, and improve the resilience of our communities and institutions by changing systems that make us vulnerable to climate change.
Dumanoski urges us to transform our global, must-keep-growing, too-big-to-fail economy and social systems.These systems prioritize the accumulation of financial capital over the generation of social capital. In the future, they will need to be based on trust and cooperation. There may be no one to bail us out if climate change interrupts international trade. We must revise our systems of producing food and “essential” goods to incorporate principles of functional redundancy, diversity, and compartmentalization. In crudely simple terms, we can’t rely on apples from Washington or clothing and steel from China being delivered on demand if climate change rapidly destroys croplands and interrupts transportation. Strong communities will be partially self-sufficient yet rely on multiple sources. They will have allies willing to help, and will warehouse a variety of foods and goods to get through hard times.
Dumanoski offers a number of policy suggestions—her own and others’—toward these ends. We could reinstitute grain stockpiles, which have largely disappeared from countries around the world since the 1990s, due to the policies of the United States, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Governments could mandate that manufacturers use diverse sources of raw materials, components, and services, and require companies to disclose their sources and suppliers, so that investors reward those who spread their risk.
Given the weak agreements that came out of the Copenhagen climate talks, however, it’s hard to imagine world leaders agreeing to change the underpinnings of the world economy. When the economy is mentioned in the same breath as climate change, it’s usually in reference to climate policies potentially hurting “the economy” or kick-starting a “green economy.” Dumanoski suggests that the fundamental ideas that drive economic theory have to change in order to cope with the climate crisis.
What would it look like to have a resilient community that functions in cooperation with the Earth? Could some indigenous societies serve as models? Notably, the idea is not explored in the book. Dumanoski does point to some encouraging trends in the growing activism for organic and locally grown food, the preservation of seed and farmland, crop diversity, and the acknowledgment of Earth as Gaia, a living organism.
The End of the Long Summer gives us another in a string of much-needed wake-up calls. While it may be hard to imagine humanity responding as Dumanoski very convincingly says we should, she emphasizes that we have the capacity to surprise ourselves. “The only certain thing about the coming century is its immense uncertainty,” she writes. It’s time to embrace that uncertainty and start preparing for climate change as best we can.
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