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Expired · 19th June 2011
Ray Grigg
Moral Ground is a book of environmental essays that contains a chillingly poignant one by Derrick Jensen, You Choose, in which he has asked people a simple and fundamental question. "Do you believe that this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?"

Jensen's question embodies the premise that we live on a finite planet which we have been using as a place of endless resources, with the result that our human population has burgeoned to a crowded 7 billion, we are displacing most other species from their habitats, and we are wrecking our life-sustaining ecosystems in the process. While some people may disagree with this premise, most now recognize the severity of the global environmental stresses we are causing and accept the validity of Jensen's question. It was their answer that was chilling.

"I've asked that question of thousands of people," writes Jensen, "and almost no one says yes. The answers range from no's to derisive laughter."

Jensen's unscientific sampling is probably accurate – most people know of the problem and its severity, they just aren't doing much to solve it. The famous British theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, said he expects we will "cook ourselves off the planet". Roger Penrose, the Oxford physicist of comparable calibre, noted that, "We might destroy ourselves... by overheating of the Earth," before we devise a theory explaining gravity (New Scientist, June 13/09).

Given this kind of assessment, anyone who is trying to raise awareness of this environmental threat to a level that inspires collective concern and action must be mystified by what people are thinking these days. A few worried people are desperate for some kind of corrective measures. But most people really don't seem to comprehend the significance of the looming threat.

The paramount environmental threat, of course, is the entire issue of greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change. It has not been adequately addressed by nearly three decades of United Nations' negotiations. And the subject simply disappeared from consciousness during Canada's recent federal election, as if a collective denial suppressed it or an orchestrated distraction lured attention from this critically important subject. If the feverish mania of hockey's Stanley Cup finals had been directed to this issue of substance, perhaps the dark musings of Jensen, Hawking and Penrose wouldn't seem so prophetic.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has announced that recovering economic activity has generated a record 30.6 gigatonnes of global greenhouse gas emissions for 2010, an amount 5 percent higher than the previous 2008 record. This is bad news for the pledge of the international community to hold the global temperature rise below 2.0°C, the threshold at which environmental conditions are likely to escalate from serious to dangerous. In addition to "more flooding, harsher storms, rising sea levels, species extinction and reduced food security," notes Deutsche Welle, (May 31/11), we may also lose human control of the global warming agenda as ecosystems – such as the thawing of massive permafrost areas – move into unstoppable feedback loops. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, called the agency's greenhouse gas measure "another wake up call" (Ibid.).

"Another wake-up call." We have been getting them for years, each issued with a little more urgency and desperation than the one before. But the inclination of our consciousness is invariably to hit the "snooze button" every time we're dreaming of another entertaining distraction, every time we're drifting out of the illusion of perpetual economic growth, every time we come closer to the environmental reality of our day.

With an ingenious blending of evasion and obstruction, we continue to subvert solutions by building the conditions for failure. The IEA's 2011 report notes that, "The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2.0°C target is to be attained" (Ibid.) But, unfortunately, "80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions projected for 2020 are 'locked in' through existing or under-construction fossil fuel power plants" (Ibid.). Meanwhile, we continue to encourage fossil fuel exploration, thereby creating the ironical situation that every successful find of oil, coal, gas or methane subverts the urgent transition we must make toward a carbon-zero economy.

What we are thinking really is mysterious. Years of wake-up calls have not reduced greenhouse gas emissions – except for the Great Recession of 2008, global emissions have just continued to climb. And any time the damaging economic activity falters, governments rush to re-energize it.

No wonder Derrick Jensen's poignant question, "Do you believe that this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?", is met with a chorus of either "no's" or "derisive laughter". Well, we all understand "no". But just what, we might ask ourselves, is the meaning of that laughter?