How We Can Save The Planet, Before It’s Too Late


Science News


With the implication that the President of the United States committed a federal crime, there was plenty of important and unsettling news that flew under the radar this week — and much of it had to do with the climate.

On the West Coast, where smoke and ash from an assortment of large wildfires have flooded into cities, cancelling sporting events and school activities, people would almost certainly agree.

On Wednesday, Seattle had the worst air quality of any major city in the world — worse than Dubai, Jakarta, and Lahore. Portland was third-worst, Vancouver, B.C., fourth-worst, and San Francisco tenth-worst.

None of this is normal. There have always been wildfires in the summer in the West, but almost never on this scale.

Elected officials are sounding the alarm. A week ago, Oregon’s senior senator Ron Wyden took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to speak about the fires and try to, in his words, “lay out of the consequences of the failure to deal with climate change.”

It was a vivid presentation. Wyden stood in front of a cataclysmic-looking image of a red sky and bright orange sun looming over a small firefighter camp outside of Medford, and went to work.

“I remember when I began in public service, Westerners would prepare for individual fire seasons — and some would be a bit worse than others,” he said. “But now, we are basically in a situation where we have infernos rage throughout the year.

“Today, the fires are so bad, the smoke is so thick, people in my home state are fleeing their communities to find pockets of breathable air,” he later continued. “Farmers have watched as crops are burned to the ground.”

What has happened? It’s not all that complicated. Over the last four decades, as temperatures steadily have risen, wildfire season has gotten longer and the wildfires themselves have raged more frequently and more intensely than ever before.

Here’s Wyden: “It is not a coincidence that the mega-fires now happen routinely and are getting bigger… the temperature hikes bake forests and landscapes, they dry out materials, and they are magnets for fuel for the infernos.”

Toward the end of his speech, Wyden got political. He said that he now regards his vote to confirm Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior as one of the worst he has cast in his career in public service — a career that dates back to 1980.

But this goes far beyond Ryan Zinke. Take another news item this week. With the volume of arctic sea ice continuing to plummet, the sea north of Greenland — the coldest, thickest ice in the Arctic — began to break up.

The Guardian reported that this section of ice “was referred to, until recently, as ‘the last ice area’ because it was assumed that this would be the final northern holdout against the melting effects of a hotter planet.”

So there you have it. The “final northern holdout against the melting effects of a hotter planet” is, by all appearances, melting.

We could continue to go over the week’s news items, like the report from the N.O.A.A. that we just completed the hottest July in the history of the country, but the bottom line is clear and the bottom line is this: We are in serious, serious trouble. We need to radically change the way we live, or face near-certain extinction.

Of course, some people don’t believe that. Some — plenty — trust that capitalism will course correct in time to step up and save the world. After all, businesses have a great interest in ensuring that there are still people around to buy their goods and services.

Alas, capitalism is the reason we’re in this mess. It is a system predicated on perpetual growth, and, because of that, it will never be compatible with the health of a planet that has a limited amount of resources.

No matter how it dresses itself up, capitalism ultimately needs us to consume more and more; we need to consume less. That, it seems, is the only way to survive.

Adam Smith will not save us. So what will? Sticking with international agreements like the one reached in Paris two years ago would be a fine start. But according to the great Noam Chomsky, we do best to look to the examples set by Indigenous people.

In a 2016 interview on Latin America, asked for reasons to hope, Chomsky pointed to countries like Bolivia and Ecuador in which Indigenous people have begun to assert political power for the first time in the modern era as “a tremendous step forward for the entire world.”

That’s because, across the globe, it’s Indigenous people who are leading the fight for the planet — both by sustainably coexisting with it, as they’ve done for generations, and, as if that isn’t enough, by battling relentlessly huge corporations who seek to pillage it.

Bolivia, the South American country with the largest Indigenous population, has since 2006 been led by an Indigenous president: former labor organizer Evo Morales, who is currently in the midst of a third term and will stand for a fourth next year.

Morales’ record is mixed — he’s taken as much criticism at home from the left as he has from the right — but he’s still one of the world’s most progressive leaders, and Chomsky’s point is more that the record of the people who elected him is quite clear.

They’re not practicing environmentalism as a value. They’re engaged in the much broader understanding that to protect ourselves is to protect the places that give us life — that the goal is to contribute to the balance of the natural world, rather than try to dominate what is surely indomitable.

So yes: many of us face the task of reimagining what it means to live successfully. But there are guides to follow.

For all of the challenges that they face, we know that the rate of deforestation on tribal land is lower than on non-tribal land, that biodiversity on tribal land is higher. That’s not a coincidence. It’s hope for the future.

The relationship that these communities have with the land they live on, in the face of so much violence and oppression, both current and historic, works. Questions about scale notwithstanding, we all must take note.

“It’s a kind of incredible irony,” Chomsky said, “that all over the world the leading forces in trying to prevent a race to disaster are the Indigenous communities… Those that we call primitive are trying to save those that we call enlightened from total disaster.”

He speaks the truth.

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