Tuesday, January 26, 2010

David W. Orr's "Down to the Wire": a call to arms for the future of the Earth

I have read no shortage of books that illustrate the importance of mitigating and adapting to imminent climate change, but David Orr's recently published Down to the Wire presents "the long emergency" with an immediacy and clarity I have not yet encountered. In a little over 200 pages, Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, describes the likely consequences of "climate destabilization" in vivid and sobering detail. Most importantly, Orr frames climate change as a symptom of several deeply-rooted perspectives espoused by Western culture including our propensity to solve complex, global problems as if they can be fixed like a giant machine, and the tendencies of the human psyche to ignore many of the most uncomfortable realities by shrouding them in myths of capitalist growth and religious predestination. Orr tackles political corruption, religious fundamentalism, greed, ignorance, short-sightedness, dependence on foreign oil, the complete devastation of our most treasured landscapes (literally the explosion of mountains) among other societal ills that must undergo radical eradication before we can rest.

In his most optimistic view, if the world begins to curtail greenhouses immediately, we will suffer traumatic lifestyle changes including coastal flooding, displacement, desertification, tropical disease in formerly sub-tropical places, massive species extinction, etc. Continuing on an unchanged trajectory, however, we are charted to experience a world in which challenges our basic understanding of how the world works and endure a population bottleneck that cuts our population to one-sixth its current size. The description is nothing short of biblical.

I want to share one very haunting passage:

"The Earth, then, will be very different from the planet we've known. Our descendants who come through the bottleneck may reside in the same places in which we do, but they will most likely live in very different circumstances than we presently do. They will be the survivors of a close call with extinction. Will they know, and, if so how will they understand that history? What will they make of the ruins of industrial civilization, some submerged far beyond different shorelines? What kind of people will they be? Will they understand the events, trends, processes, and people who took us to the brink of extinction? What will they know about the pre-bottleneck world? Will they know what they were denied? Will they have succeeded in preserving the best of human culture, literature and art? Will they live in a democracy, a totalitarian state, or a tribal anarchy? (157)."

Orr offers a realistic, frightening, but ultimately hopeful message to conscious readers everywhere. Change must begin with how we understand each other and how we understand humanity's place on Earth. If we continue to treat the world around us (human and non-human) as if it were expendible and limitless, our civilization will expire in the next century. Alternatively, if we recognize the rights of future generations, hold our leaders accountable, and approach the world with wonder, curiousity, and respect for all forms of life, we will be able to set the earth on a trajectory of healing.

I strongly recommend this book and hope you share your thoughts on the topic.

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