Open in Case of Emergency



In November 2012, the Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report that concluded it was too late to hold the future increase in global average temperatures to just 2 degrees Celsius. “It’s time,” the report announced, “to prepare for a warmer world.”

The same month, the World Bank released Turn Down the Heat, which soberly set forth why a 4-degree warmer world must be avoided. Meanwhile, accounts of myriad emergent calamities were easy to find in the press: the failure of the Rio+20 talks, “zombie” coral reefs, calls for higher birth rates, declining Arctic sea ice, an approaching “state shift” in Earth’s biosphere, and other evidence of strain in natural systems and of human blindness, ignorance, or denial.

Time to buy an Ecopod?

Clearly, trouble is coming—but there are better responses to it than stockpiling canned goods and weaponry. In view of humanity’s failures of foresight and political will to address the array of sustainability problems ahead, we asked some notable thinkers to ponder what we might do to make the best of it.

A central theme of their answers is “build resilience.” That requires, according to Laurie Mazur, diversity, redundancy, modularity, social capital, agency, inclusiveness, tight feedbacks, and the capacity for innovation. To begin strengthening our resilience, Erik Assadourian urges the construction of an enduring environmental movement that can engage people and ground their ethics and behavior in ecological reality. Michael Maniates echoes the grounding theme in his call for environmental education to stop misleading and underpreparing students for the challenges ahead: that the coming crises will galvanize action rather than generate anger, fear, and conflict. Paula Green stresses the value of community roots and strong social capital, including intergroup networks to bridge different communities. Bron Taylor argues, carefully, for an ecological resistance movement. “Given the urgency of the situation,” he writes, “extralegal tactics should be on the table, as they were in earlier causes where great moral urgency was properly felt.”

If the crises do threaten conflict, that risk will be aggravated by a rising tide of environmental refugees. Michael Renner writes that tens or even hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced by 2050, yet money spent on adaptation measures in developing countries is already inadequate—a shortfall that must be remedied. Failing that, such migrations will join other pressures driving us to deploy geoengineering techniques—giant space mirrors, carbon-capturing cement—as quick fixes for a disrupted climate. In reviewing these schemes, Simon Nicholson urges research to continue but notes that the least of their problems are the technical uncertainties and unpredictable effects; many are fraught with grave geopolitical risks too.

Governance will figure crucially in our response to the coming “long emergency,” as David Orr terms it (following James Howard Kunstler). Brian Martin argues that governance should be flexible, not stiff. That requires participation, high skill levels, robust debate, and mutual respect. If this sounds like a deepened democracy, Orr agrees: he calls for “a second democratic revolution” in which we “master the art and science of governance for a new era.”

If circumstances overtake our best efforts, there may be some comfort in Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan’s telling of Cuba’s story. Forced to the brink by the Soviet Union’s collapse, Cuba suffered a period of harsh adjustment but has scavenged a culture with a small environmental footprint and remarkably high levels of nonmaterial well-being.

Is it too late? In the concluding essay, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson says the real question is, How much will we save? “We can see our present danger, and we can also see our future potential. . . . This is not just a dream but a responsibility, a project. And things we can do now to start on this project are all around us, waiting to be taken up and lived.”

—Tom Prugh

Credit line for cartoon page 253 : Leo Murray