General · 14th May 2014
“Tragos” is the Greek word for “goat” and the root of our word “tragedy”. In classical Greece of the 5th century BCE, the theatre events they called tragoidia (tragos + oide for “ode” or “song”) were dramas celebrating the mystery and unpredictability of life. Although scholarship is uncertain about the exact meaning of the goat in these tragedies, one of several plausible explanations considers them an enactment of the demise of a hero of epic stature who is undone by a fatal character flaw. Like the sacrificial goat being led to its inevitable slaughter, citizens witnessed a noble person being inexorably undone by a flaw of which he was unaware. Held in traditional amphitheatres, these civic events were moralistic and philosophical lessons to all Greeks, cautionary reminders that such failings would eventually exact their full payment.
The characteristic of the tragedy that made this theme tragic, of course, was its inevitability. Because the themes were traditional, those attending the theatre would know the outcome, so could follow the progression of events to their fatal conclusion. Implicit in the drama was the lesson that any mortal could be subject to the same fate. This added a personal, introspective and reflective quality to the tragedies. To the hero and audience alike, nothing in life meant quite what it seemed.
Because the themes of these Greek tragedies are universal as well as particular, they apply at a collective level, too. Civilizations, as scholars have recently noted, are not that different from individuals. Their demise may not be as inevitable as the Greek tragic hero, yet any one of them could possess a flaw that may be fatal. Indeed, our history is full of examples of civilizations of vast sophistication and complexity that were undone — like the sacrificial goat — by failings they were unable or unwilling to confront.
We may have a similar tragedy unfolding today. The plot has been defined by scientists. Their most recent, considered and unequivocal conclusions have been provided in three successive reports from the Working Groups of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The first, The Physical Science Base of Climate Change, was published in September, 2013. The second, Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, appeared in March, 2014. And the third, Mitigation of Climate Change, was presented in April, 2014 — a synthesis of these reports will then be released in October, 2014. They describe the carbon emissions of a global civilization powered by fossil fuels to be on a fatal collision course with the laws of nature. We now know, in general terms, how this drama will progress and what the ultimate outcome will be if we don't alter our collective behaviour.
The IPCC scientists warn that we must institute a carbon emission reduction of at least 50% by 2050 and 100% by 2100 if we are to avoid the multiple and debilitating effects of global temperature increases that will likely destabilize the economic and ecological foundations of our civilization.
Despite over two decades of trying, however, the United Nations has been unable to secure an effective global agreement that reduces greenhouse gases. Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, with each year's record exceeding that of the previous one. An assessment by the International Energy Agency predicts a continued increase in emissions of an additional 38% by 2035 with almost no significant lowering in the proportion of fossil fuel consumption.
The world economy of fossil fuels seems to have its own unalterable agenda. Any negotiated carbon reductions to 2050 are now expected to be undone as the explosive demand for automobiles in Brazil, India and China increases their vehicular emissions by an estimated 71%. Meanwhile, the airline industry anticipates a doubling of its fleet over the next 20 years, adding 35,000 new airplanes and another 90,000 daily flights to meet rising demand. And ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, considers it “highly unlikely” that governments will initiate a low-carbon energy strategy “in light of the negative implications for economic growth and prosperity that such a course poses.” Accordingly, ExxonMobil expects that none its huge supplies of proven hydrocarbon reserves will ever be “stranded” because they will be “essential to meeting growing energy demand worldwide” (Globe and Mail, April 2/14).
Canada's role in reducing carbon emissions has been as abysmal as these predictions. Besides breaking its legal commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, it has no credible alternative policies — its recent pledge to reduce CO2 emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 is on track to be a hopeless 24% above. And any reductions earned by provinces or municipalities will likely be offset by increased emissions from Alberta's tar sands — a paper submitted to the media by 26 concerned University of BC professors notes that just “the additional bitumen production needed to meet the [expanded capacity of the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline to Vancouver] would increase Canada's annual CO2 emissions by over 27 million tonnes”, with an additional “93 million tonnes” emitted when this oil is eventually burned (National Post, April 10/14). The planned Northern Gateway Pipeline will have a comparable effect.
British Columbia's policies reveal a similar lack of carbon awareness. The government is betting its economic future on liquid natural gas (LNG), another fossil fuel that may be as damaging as coal when escaped methane is considered. Provincial regulations still allow the massive mining of coal, even accommodating its export from the United States through BC ports— global coal consumption is at record high levels and going up rather than down.
This promotion and consumption of fossil fuel can be understood as an unfolding Greek tragedy that — so far — we seem incapable of changing. The plot and conclusion of this drama are clearly defined by science and nature's immutable laws. The only uncertainty is ourselves and the character we bring to the theatre of real life.