Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Metricene, again

I have to admit that when I read the WaPo piece, Spaceship Earth: A new view of environmentalism, it pegged the needle on my frustration index. Why, might you ask? The title sounds like a metaphor I’d use, after all. That’s precisely the problem, as the piece says:

More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.

This is a sharp departure from traditional “green” philosophy. The more orthodox way of viewing nature is as something that must be protected from human beings – not managed by them. And many environmentalists have reservations about possible unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts. No one wants a world that requires constant intervention to fix problems caused by previous interventions.

At the same time, “we’re in a position where we have to take a more interventionist role and a more managerial role,” says Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.” “The easy answer used to be to turn back time and make it look like it used to. Before was always better. Before is no longer an option.”

To which I say: No kidding. That situation has been painfully obvious for a long time, which is why I’ve been talking about how we live in the Metricene (my term) and not the Anthropocene. The difference between the two is huge in terms of its implications for humanity and the world: The Anthropocene is the period when humanity has had an impact on the environment, and it began either in the 18th century when we got serious about burning all the fossil fuels we could rip out of the ground or about 8,000 years ago when we started using slash and burn methods to clear land for use in farming. (The latter view, which I agree with, is promoted by William Ruddiman and is known as the “early anthropocene hypothesis”. I highly recommend his book Plows, Plagues and Petroleum.) The Metricene is the next step, when we aren’t “merely” affecting the environment but have disturbed it so much that we have to take control of it to avoid catastrophe. I’m convinced we’re there already, and the accumulated impacts of our past, current, near-future actions now dictate that we will have to live “measured lives on a managed planet”.

Before any newcomers to this site leap to the comment section and lecture me about the dangers of geohacking, let me say: I know. I’m probably more concerned about our chances of screwing things up on a planet-wide basis than you are, and I don’t like this turn of events in the least. But my feelings about it have nothing to do with the story the facts tell. We can (and many of us do) focus obsessively on some slice of the sustainability issue — nitrogen pollution, particulate matter from diesel engines, mercury pollution, hydrofracking, etc. — but doing so without considering the grander context runs the risk of making locally good decisions that are globally bad.[1] We have to step back from the wall-size mosaic that’s just inches from our nose and look at the pattern that emerges from all the tiles. The picture they reveal is growing less pleasant by the day as our preferred, comfortable options for dealing with the interlinked mess we’ve created are quickly disappearing, leaving us with only unpleasant remedies like geohacking and active, long-term stewardship of the planet. And that leads directly to more authoritarian governments and influence of big corporations, and not the market of decentralized and diversified energy production and consumption we’d all prefer.

So, my request of you, dear reader, is to take a deep breath and step back from the immense and detailed mosaic that is our sustainability situation. See the entire image and then use your power as a voter and a consumer to push us in the right direction.


[1] A classic example, which you’ve heard from me before, is hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. For all the benefits they promise — zero tailpipe emissions, freedom from oil imports, etc. — the bottom line is that a HFCV requires about three times the electricity per mile as an equivalent EV. And as we continue our drunk’s walk into a future where we’ll be very hard pressed to reduce our CO2 emissions from electricity generation, we need to get as much benefit as possible out of every clean kWh we generate, which makes HFCVs a luxury well beyond our means.

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