By Ryan McGreal
Published December 27, 2006
I hope everyone enjoyed a few days off to spend with family and friends this Christmas.
Personally, I find I suffer from a kind of Charlie Brown complex - holidays like Christmas, which emphasize the continuity of ancient traditions, always seem to provide me with opportunities for anxious contemplation of looming threats to that continuity.
As Linus concluded, "you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem."
It doesn't help that my taste in reading runs to alarming non-fiction and apocalyptic fiction. That's how I found myself just after Christmas sitting up late and reading my just-received copy of The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (watch for a proper review next RTH issue), looking out the window at a steady drizzle of rain.
I'm only partway through The Weather Makers, but it is already a breathtaking book, promising and by measured increments delivering the means to think about the climate as a complex, moving, ever-shifting entity, "the great aerial ocean" as Alfred Russel Wallace called it in 1903.
In his book The Long Emergency, Jim Kunstler chiselled out a simple, grim, and hard-to-refute thesis: people cannot or will not confront the two-fisted challenge of climate change and peak oil in time to respond effectively, and civilization will suffer accordingly through a chaotic period of cascading crises with a sharply reduced capacity to adjust.
Kunstler focused more on peak oil, a subject with which he is more familiar, and ticked off the effects of climate change through a speculative but comparatively simplistic checklist of dangers.
Flannery, by contrast, ignores peak oil but delves deeply, fluently, even lovingly, into the beautiful complexity of climate science, teasing out the various patterns and cycles that shape climate and explaining how they intersect over time.
One of his conclusions is that we are today in an anthropocene period, in which human activity is one of the patterns shaping our climate. What may surprise you is when this era began.
Bill Ruddiman, an encironmental scientist at the University of Virginia, found nothing in the natural cycles [affecting climate] that could account for the stability of our long summer [which began 8,000 years ago after the last ice age], and so he began to lok for a unique factor - something that was operating only in this last cycle, but in none of the earlier ones. That unique factor, he decided, was ourselves, and in doing so he revolutionized another recent development - the endowing on our post-industrial times of its own geological period.
The widespread advent of agriculture - cutting and burning forests, planting crops and cultivating swamplike conditions - measurably increased the production of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, forestalling another ice age.
Interestingly, as the climate grew drier around 6,000 years ago, humans adapted by designing more complex irrigation systems and by congregating around cities, dividing labour among farmers and various artisans to improve labour productivity.
The sum of all this change was a shift in human organization, and by 3,100 BC Mesopotamia's southern cities had become the world's first civilizations. Indeed the city, [archaeologist Brian] Fagan would argue, is a key human adaptation to drier climatic conditions.
This human adapatation to a changing climate in turn exerted its own influence on the climate.
Ruddiman's thesis implies that, by adding sufficient greenhouse gases to keep the Earth 'just right' to delay another ice age, yet not overheating the planet, the ancients performed an act of chemical wizardry. ... According to Ruddiman, however, it was a damn close thing.
However, I'm interested right now in the role that cities may play in the future, as, in Flannery's words, "there are unmistakeable signs that the Anthropocene is turning ugly."
When people think "environmentalism", images of wooden houses nestled in forests or pastoral settings jump to view. Getting "back to nature" or "close to nature" implies leaving the city behind, packing a tent, setting out across calm water in a cedar canoe, resting in a hammock hung between two trees - go on, pick a stock image.
Of course, when everyone tries to do this, we end up with suburban sprawl, which actually magnifies dramaticlaly the energy consumption, pollution, and sheer waste of civilization, by which I mean human life organized in a permanent community of physical buildings.
One of the most important things environmentalists must do - and many are already aware of this - is to recognize and cultivate a sense that to a large extent, environmentalism means living in cities; dense, diverse, physically bounded, rich in living trees and plants, requiring less energy to heat and cool buildings or to move around, managing and reducing net carbon emissions, and learning to produce food locally rather than trucking everything in from elsewhere.
This has always been a good idea, but as our climate grows more chaotic, huddling together for security and cooperation in a well-defined, well-designed place may turn out to be crucial for our long-term survival.