As the oceans rise to earth-destroying levels, the agricultural heartlands turn to desert, and the rate of skin cancer grows to match the rate of the common cold, future generations will look back on the early twenty-first century with a combination of curiosity and anger, asking, “What could the people of the earth have been thinking when they kept on doing what they had been doing for 150 years—ignoring all the warnings about humans’ contributions to the rapidly developing global scorching?”
The facts are well known. In the spring of 2013, the major media reported a clear scientific truth: the level of carbon in the air has reached 400 parts per million. Human beings have never lived under these conditions, and there is now more carbon dioxide in the air than at any other point in the last 800,000 years. Environmentalists predict that the earth will be at about 450 parts per million within another twenty to thirty years, and this will cause dramatic rises in sea levels around the world, obliterating many sea-level cities and possibly some sea-level countries.
Yet instead of taking dramatic steps to avert the crisis, most of the world’s leaders have continued on with business as usual. The Obama administration is no exception: it has capitulated to the oil and gas industries, accepted fracking and other environmentally destructive policies, and worked to preserve the primacy of oil and gas. Some have argued that the global economy is so completely dependent on oil and gas that their absence could potentially cause a massive economic meltdown, fueling the rise of fascistic tendencies among the ruling elites. If this is the fear, then now is the time to talk honestly with the American public about dramatically reducing consumption, combating the immense power of the 1 percent, and preparing ourselves to counter the mainstream media’s obfuscations of the urgency of the coming crisis. Only Obama or the next president would be in a position to talk this honestly to Americans. Unfortunately there is no indication that Obama will do so, or that our political system is capable of giving credence to any candidate who is willing to speak honestly about the depth of the environmental crisis or about the sweeping changes needed in the United States and around the world to avert the crisis.
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Indeed, the small percentage of people who do pay attention and worry about this development have largely given up on reversing global scorching (a term developed by our ally at the Shalom Center, Rabbi Arthur Waskow) and instead have been asking how we can live with it. Recognizing that the gas, coal, and oil industries are unwilling to give up the huge sums of money they’ve invested in fossil fuels and exploration for new reserves and that these industries will fight any attempt to replace them with a more planet-preserving environmental policy, many environmental theorists have become “realistic” and try instead to focus on micro-steps unlikely to avert macro-level devastation. The much-heralded agreements between the United States and China to reduce the levels of carbon emissions are, at least in regard to the United States and other market-driven countries, unlikely to produce the level of transformation needed.
To avert global scorching would require a global populous willing to change its consumption habits to reduce the amount of unnecessary or planet-destructive goods produced. It would also require a massive shift away from urban sprawl and toward the creation of livable cities in which people work close to where they live so that they can rely primarily on mass transit. We would need to build environmentally clean factories that reduce the carbon in the air, rather than increasing it, and to more or less eliminate the production of beef, pork, and chicken, so...