Yesterday, a massive failure of a water pipe serving my home, and two million of my neighbors, threw Boston into disarray. Some sort of car bomb in Times Square (that didn’t go off) has disrupted many and alarmed many more. I have been writing about the BP Oil Spill this week. All are connected — they are more than “catastrophes”: they all help remind us how connected and dependent upon technology we are … and I hope perhaps makes people think for a moment (or longer) about what that means.
Connecting With Nature
I have been a hiker and camped in the wilderness since I was a boy — when you’re climbing a mountain you know how precious water is, but also learn how little of our technology we actually need to survive. This said, I prefer my modern tent, clothing, water purifier, backpack and clothing to what I had forty years ago. But stepping into real, pristine wilderness almost instantly connects me to the systems of the source. I think my strong environmental bent is mainly linked to this life experience.
Millions of us living in the Boston area are using backup water now. It’s far from a catastrophe — the water we’re able to use from other reservoirs is untreated, so we have to boil it to kill the bacteria that might make us ill. I found it remarkable and somewhat heartening to see how quickly we came together to deal with the problem. But for a few days at least, we’ll all have to develop some new habits, put up with some inconvenience, and suffer some economic loss. Will we also stop to think, if only for a moment, that two million of us could have our water supplies and lives affected due to the failure of one pipe? I can imagine much worse scenarios.
The attempted car bomb in Times Square was disruptive in a different way. Little will change, but one can only think the residents of Manhattan had a little chill run up their spine, recalling the impact of terror from 9/11.
In the Gulf of Mexico, a single failure has created a widespread environmental disaster. It will affect the livelihoods of many, and disrupt a sensitive eco-system, likely for many years to come.
We have been talking about climate change for decades now. In the first phase in the 1980’s we began to realize that our domination of nature, through technology and energy was causing a problem. In the second phase by the 2000’s, we realized we had to act immediately to deal with it. Now in the third phase, we are realizing that we have missed our chance to solve the problem and we now also need to take steps to deal with the inevitable consequences.
So let’s consider these current disasters. Needless to say, the events in Boston and New York were trivial compared to the BP Oil Spill. But each stemmed from a single failure of technology that supports our complex infrastructure. Each resulted in a near immediate change in the way we live our lives, whether just for a moment, or perhaps far longer, but change our lives we did. Conveniences and necessities are affected — the impact is greater and longer depending on the scale. Now in 2010, five years after Katerina tore apart New Orleans, the city is beginning to come alive again. It could take years to reverse the impact of the oil spill.
But compared to impacts of climate change that scientists predict, all of these events will be forgotten as blips.
We’re Not Just Surface-dwelling Resource Extractors, We’re People
Take a moment to realize that we survive only when we live as a part of the earth, not just as surface dwelling resource extractors. Our dependence on the proper function of the earth is largely in our hands, and absolutely a matter of life and death. We must take significant action now. Yet we’re dithering on even the most trivial changes.
We can and do come together in times of crisis, and we accept change because we have no other alternative.
The magnitude of the crisis of climate change is vastly larger and longer than any of these current disasters. Yet of course each of these events will cause us to ask, “What could we have done to prevent…” the oil spill, the car bomb, and Boston’s water problem. Committees will investigate. We’ll make changes. These problems are concrete, current, and real.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
The problem with climate change is that it hasn’t really “happened” yet, and never will, in any single event. It is abstract, difficult to measure, and hard to tie to any given event. It’s only in the aggregate … after we start seeing patterns (or see something more dramatic and visual), that climate change will become real to most people.
I fear that as we try to figure out how to prevent oil spills, bombs, and water failure, we are missing the much bigger opportunity to take action. If we reconnect with nature, and look around, perhaps it would be evident that the way to stop oil spills is to find a different form of energy. I fully recognize that this will not happen overnight. But I think we under-estimate ourselves if we say that we can make change happen overnight, or even in 10 years.
We’re pretty good at responding to problems. But we’re terrible at doing what it takes to prevent them. Take a moment to think how powerful nature is, on this lovely spring day, and join in the movement of people who are willing to take action and understand that we need to deal with climate change.