Paul Andersen: Fair Game
November 27, 2011
Acceptance of loss is the bittersweet mingling of solace and sadness. Author and ecologist Amy Seidl expresses both in her book “Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming.” Rather than issuing a lament on climate change, Seidl prescribes what we can, or rather must, do to adjust to a warming world.
Seidl’s book is timely, given the findings of last week’s UN Climate Change Report: “Heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are building up so high, so fast, that some scientists now think the world can no longer limit global warming to the level world leaders have agreed upon as safe.”
Just as the “Supercommittee” threw in the towel on the U.S. deficit last week, so some climate scientists are throwing in the towel on climate change: “There’s no way to stop it,” said a scientist from Carnegie Mellon University. “There’s so much inertia in the system.”
“What we have launched is colossal,” Seidl writes with remarkable equanimity. “Appreciating what an Age of Warming will look like is an enormous challenge to our imagination. Our approach to the biological changes we will witness could be duly rational, even dispassionate, like watching a volcano erupt and being amazed at the heat and gas released.”
I met Amy a few years ago at the Aspen Institute Environment Forum where she described her path to sustainability. She lives in a solar-powered home in rural Vermont. She cultivates gardens. She heats her home with a wood-burning stove. She is acutely conscious of her carbon footprint. She has kids. She has hope.
In her book, Seidl embraces the future with guarded optimism, urging that humans had better become damned good at adapting to a world without precedent in the greenhouse of our own making.
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The term she uses is “phenotypic plasticity,” the ability of an organism to adapt to changes within its environment, without the benefit of inheritance. While biologists usually apply this to “other species,” Seidl says it needs to become a focus for humans.
“In the Age of Warming,” she writes, “social adaptation means generating resilience when weather extremes, season variability, prolonged heat waves, and changing rainfall become the norm.” Climatic extremes ripple out and are “felt socially, culturally, and economically.”
The way we have known how to live will need to shift dependent on a future of unknowns. Through it all, we humans will test ourselves and the limits of our technologies. The coming turmoil will force adaptations we never thought possible, hinged upon our capacity to grow enough food for more than 7 billion people.
On this point, Seidl interviews young, “possibilist” permaculture farmers who grasp the coming challenges and yet are “motivated beyond grief and judgment.” Small, localized, custom farming capable of nuanced techniques must supplant rigid, unwieldy, GMO monoculture as the means to sustain dependable food supplies. It will be these young possibilists who do it.
“Finding Higher Ground” is not a blame game. Rather, Seidl gently nudges us toward more enlightened ways of living. Solar energy is a no-brainer, as is voluntary simplicity. Rather than squandering ten times the per capita power consumption of the rest of the world, Americans must awaken to realistic energy use.
Ultimately, asks Seidl, “How can human action be bent toward supporting life?” As the U.S. Department of Energy reports that global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 jumped by the highest one-year amount ever, hitting 389 parts per million, this question becomes a tipping point for concerted action through a moral response.
Seidl prods our collective conscience when she advocates “a historic cultural shift not unlike the way America ended its slave economy or the way workers broke with the tyranny of factories and unionized. It will happen by degrees, but it is sure to happen, because it carries such moral weight.”
Chagrined by the inertia of the cultural and political status quo, Seidl finds solace in the aggregation of small-scale local achievements in which an individual can empower change. This is a fundamental of the “pragmatic” philosophy advanced by John Dewey, where individual decisions are based on moral imperatives.
“We realize that to continue our use of fossil fuels is morally wrong,” Seidl states in a culminating judgment that is both damning and hopeful. By using the collective “we,” she casts a net wide enough to cover an entire culture with the admonition to do as she has done by finding higher ground.
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