What is Really Important?

It seems I have begun to be entrapped in writing about politics again. It is an entrapment for only one reason: I think virtually everything that catches our attention is unimportant in the long run. Writing about ebola, or Ferguson–Treyvon Martin, or whether the second amendment should be repealed–is very tempting, and these topics truly matter on shorter term bases, especially to those who are directly affected, but it will hardly matter when climate change really hits. To see what I am trying to get at, consider the following.

The ocean, vast beyond the ability of the human mind to conceive, is to our largest cities as a skyscraper is to a gnat. When we play with it, we count upon its indifference. We trust that it is not about to notice us–that it is completely oblivious to our existence. If there were any likelihood that it would notice us there upon its shore enjoying its presence in our own ways, we would not tease it by playing tag with its waves, or any other game. We would hide.

Yet we seem heedless of the apparent fact that the Earth, in its entirety, is beginning to notice our existence. After all, that’s what it amounts to when our activities begin to register on a worldwide scale.

The tsunami of December 2004–the one that preceded Fukushima by seven years and took hundreds of thousands more lives–only hints at the kind of power we are dealing with when discussing such topics as global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, or ocean acidification. The energies of nature are incomprehensibly immense. Because we’ve met and “mastered” most of her daily manifestations, however, and have always swum in her waters, we are now almost entirely inattentive to her. Only when she occasionally unleashes her destructive side, as in that catastrophic wave–or a hurricane, flood, earthquake, drought, or tornado–do we pay her any mind whatever.

What may not be obvious, unless you look closely, is that the horrific tragedy of that tsunami, in which 250,000 people died, was tiny compared to the utter devastation that climate change could bring. The worst tsunami can only be a very slight imitation of climate change’s potential. No event known to man, in fact, compares.

The tsunami was triggered by a 9.3 suboceanic earthquake. That’s very large for an earthquake, but, on the global scale, earthquakes are only local phenomena. This one was barely felt outside the nearest landmasses, Sumatra and Thailand. Even the impact of the tsunami it created was merely regional. Since only low-lying land was affected, it’s safe to say that the portion of the Earth’s surface which was significantly impacted was far less than a thousandth of the total.

Yet it was the largest disaster to strike the Earth in several lifetimes. The largest that has already run its full course, at least. What we don’t know is whether the events set in motion via the huge success of the human species, events such as the gradual CO2 loading of the atmosphere, constitute a disaster on a global scale still in the making–yet at sea, so to speak.

The tidal wave of 2004 also illustrates quite vividly the ways in which a series of relatively small interconnected events can multiply their effects to produce a major catastrophe far beyond any one of them: a boulder somewhere in the rift between two tectonic plates is crushed by the building pressure of continental drift, starting a chain of other crushed boulders. The fault gives way; suboceanic soil slides; water rushes from one space to another at great depth. The surface roils and the disturbance spreads, becoming an expanding circular hump on the surface of a relatively calm sea. Crossing hundreds of miles of open ocean without a visible sign until, on shores most suited to accentuate a wave from just that direction, the sea suddenly pulls back as water withdraws to feed the swell, which at last shows itself still some distance from the land. Finally the sea rushes back toward the land and crests as people who were innocently going about their business or pleasure in idyllic little coastal villages all around the basin look up in surprise and horror.

How dare we ignore the early warning signs of global impacts of human activity! We have pricked the giant with our incessant growth. Climate change–with its floods, droughts, melting icecaps, acidic seas, dying reefs, rising sea levels, and fierce storms–ozone depletion, and dead spots in the oceans are Earth’s first twitches as it begins to stir–water shifting from one space to another, if you will.

Our “leaders,” obsessed with money and human-centered power, count their little collection of shells while the tide begins to draw back, exposing the sea floor as the ocean rises behind them in the background.

Human-centered “power,” indeed! Just wait until crops no longer grow, or the fresh water disappears–or comes all at once–and not just in some isolated places. Therein lies real power.

Our governments are infantile, like babies at the shore. And none has been more puerile than my own, the U.S.A., which has the body and the strength of a young adult, but has yet to show its mind to be more mature than a two year old’s, thrashing about in a tub of a sugar-rich sweet called money.

Some things are obvious. One did not have to read a headline to see the tsunami crest as it rushed to shore at Phuket. No one who saw the oncoming water would have waited for a government-approved siren, had there been one in place to sound a warning. No one seeing it would have heeded a politician’s denial even if the governments of the Indian Ocean’s perimeter had noticed the earthquake and still disputed the facts, like too many of America’s “leaders” have, to this day, denied the reality of global warming.

But just as surely as people would not have paid any attention to official attempts to veil the reality of the tsunami once they could see it cresting for themselves, so, too, will waiting until we all see the impact of global warming–or whatever it is that eventually does us in–be too late.

Climate change and ozone depletion and dead regions in the seas and who knows what else are, admittedly, not as obvious as a cresting wave. Not yet. These are the first signs of the building stress load. The real disaster is far more likely to manifest itself when some small “boulder” in the system is crushed. Something like a drought sending a fragile regional tropical forest to its grave, or an undersea volcano venting naturally occurring green house gases into the atmosphere, suddenly tipping the already borderline balance of chemicals past a critical point, triggering unforeseen consequences on an unprecedentedly devastating scale.

We do have a system for monitoring Earth-wide variations, however: the scientific community. It is rather long-range, though whether or not it is adequately long-range is doubtful (my Vision and the current economic climate indicate it is not). To that community, it is obvious that there are real, human-caused, changes occurring on this planet–changes of a global scope and having the potential of incomprehensible impacts.

For way too long, the army of agents of the corporate world, the Environmental Destruction Lobby (EDL), confused the issue with its cadence of denial and obfuscation. Now they’ve changed their tactics to cover up a lack of response by “greenwashing”–pretending to be doing something substantive while actually not.

For example, on a trip to a conference in Dallas one year, I was pleased to see a sign on the bathroom counter of the four star hotel in which I was staying telling me that I could avoid having my towels washed by placing them on the towel racks. Only those on the floor or in the tub would be collected by the janitorial staff.

I was there five days and, despite daily trips to the main counter after the first night, never succeeded in this strategy. Always, the towels were replaced with newly washed ones. It would have been greener not to have placed the signs.

There is little profit motive for recognizing an impending world-wide disaster. Tranquility is better for business: doing nothing, on the short term, costs almost nothing–a little P.R. is all. Greenwashing is usually cheaper and easier than truly going green. And who knows about the future, anyway? Especially a future possibly as remote as decades or perhaps even generations.

It’s not good business to plan that far in advance. Truly worrying about it can only interfere with today’s profits, but you’ve got to look green in today’s climate (the societal one, not that other thing that I talk about so much).

Now that the EDL has all but given up on obfuscation of the fact of the climate change crisis, they’ve switched to a strategy of appearing as if they were doing something. The advertising campaigns of the oil companies, for instance, are truly massive. It’s up to us to challenge greenwashing and insist on real movement.

It’s time we look up from our mundane activities, see the tell-tale signs of a receded sea, and yell, “Run! Run for your lives!”

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3 Responses to What is Really Important?

  1. Dallas Smith says:

    George, Very eloquently expressed! While individuals can respond logically and reasonably, it’s doubtful that governments, nations, tribes, and political parties are capable of responding to anything but (relatively) short-term gain and advantage. It’s a pity!

  2. I agree with Dallas, George–you articulate the problem well and the brunt of climate change will be felt by the poorer on the planet–we can pretty much guarantee that.

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