Bill McKibben Do the Math Tour. It hurts so good?!

This entry was posted Friday, 23 November, 2012 at 3:53 pm

The “Do the Math Tour” hit Durham Monday with a good punch, hopefully kicking our progressive community in the ass with a stark reality, (my take away was little of what we do is nearly enough to make a dent unless the “tent” gets much larger and more focused).  Michael Brune, Sierra Club President, was brought to tears as he explained digging out his childhood home from several feet of storm water and sand from Hurricane Sandy.  Only a Class I Hurricane, but it set records for: 1) it late arrival, 2) lowest barometric pressure north of Cape Hatteras, and 3) largest ever tropical storm, wind field.  But it was the storm surge that really was the devastating blow.  This follows on a year and a decade of steadily more catastrophic weather events, statistically correlated with anthropogenic global warming (See Jansen on Midwest Drought, a first time when a leading scientist may the case that a specific weather phenomenon was directly correlated to anthropogenic carbon).  And we are just getting started with less than .8 degrees Celsius.

New reports came out this week prior to the Doha IPPC meetings from IEA, WMO and World Bank characterizing the “dire” and grim forecast for the planet.  Now the conservative leadership is saying not 2 degrees, but lets not go 4 degrees Celsius global mean average, which has a high probability of where we are heading.  350 ppm is what many believed as the top end (hence the name of Bill’s org.).  We blew by that this year and are at 390 ppm  right now.  The Holocene oscillated closely around 180 to 280 or less (350 is likely too high).  At the rate we are going, we are headed towards 800 ppm, primarily due to the residual time of carbon in the atmosphere, over a 1000 years.  Sadly, in an article in part of McKibbens “Do the Math Reader,” it seems the “global leadership” already recognizes 550ppm is the low ball figure to be expected.  (Not sure what 2 degrees Celsius is in ppm–that would have been good for his presentation to highlight from a marketing standpoint).

This brings us back to the Do the Math Tour.  McKibben could make a career in comedy, “I am here to bum people out.” That he did, but with brilliant dry wit, part revival, part Movement building.  His Rolling Stone article received more hits than Justin Bieber, even though Bill said he didn’t have the “longing stare of the bare chested Bieber” that cover the magazine in which his article appeared!

Brune on the other hand remains optimistic.  After reading his book (Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil), I was sickened by the upbeat appraisal of our situation and lack of historical balance that calls out the mistakes and failures.  McKibben, on the other hand, is the most articulate synthesizer of our day , placing blame where it is due, but boldly promoting collaboration and action, now on two fronts: 1) divestiture from fossil fuel companies, and 2) civil disobedience.  His description of jail in DC for the Keystone Protest was smack on.  It is time for us to stand up.

Yet, things do not look good.  The window of opportunity is closing fast.  There is already too much carbon in the system to avoid serious impacts.  But if we don’t do something immediately, we are doomed to a world that will be hellish, in the least.  We really have no idea how bad “bad” will be, given feed back loops that are poorly understood and modeled, but we do know we have broken the system.

This article is reflective of the new efforts by some in the media to connect the dots, something most scientists have refused to do:

It is a pretty impacting piece, not only in its pick up by Yahoo. News for redistribution (and likely readership), but due to the content of supposition and implications on climate change.  This is the first time I have read the extent of causal connection tracing Sea Ice loss to Jet Stream oscillation to higher extremes in both periodicity and intensity of Storm Systems.  This is a phenomenal piece of journalism, except for some outrageous lines that pour calm wind over what should be a red flag of warning.  The Arctic Ridge is weakening/fluctuating, and plays an important role pinning the jet stream in a somewhat periodic oscillation.  It’s loss means the weather systems, lows and highs, get blocked from moving, causing drought and flood and their impacts to pile up.

McKibben, unlike our scientific community, has also connected the dots and placed in context what is happening and where we are going.  He is a leader who underestimates his own style, self-demeaning manner and his excellent power of articulation.  We need to heed his warning and rally behind his effort.

However, unlike the South Africa Divestiture Movement that brought about the collapse of Apartheid, the numbers are very different.  You have on the one hand, capitalism and its cheap energy addiction pushers, the Fossil Fuel Industry, and the fate of the planet on the other- a David and Goliath story on steroids.  The numbers are much bigger and the ideology much harder to break through.  We are comfortable living the lie, and there seems to be some evolutionary advantage to authoritarians stubborn conviction to a destructive habit.

South Africa was a small market for the industries that “played with the devil,” so the economic calculation was to lose value in global markets or exact change in South Africa, a pretty easy balance sheet.  Carbon is so much bigger in terms of numbers and impact.  To think that the fossil fuel industry is going to leave its’ enormous assets of reserves in the ground is “pie in the sky.”  But we have no other option, geo-engineering and carbon sequestration are absolute absurdities.  This means transitioning on a level of wartime, ramping up of alternative energy and efficiency, changing building codes and stopping “cold turkey” the burning of carbon.

I am certain we could do it if we had the leadership, or “political will” as Al Gore keeps saying.  However, the 1% and those of an ideological worldview that can not face the scientific reality will fight as if their livelihood depended on it.  And it does as Naomi Klein’s article in The Nation ( nails eloquently the framework of the debate.

Research on human behavior seems to show that instead of catastrophic events shaking our worldview and opening us up to new ways of looking at things, it reinforces and pushes us backward into regression and even greater assimilation with others of the like mentality.  Luckily there are more of us than them, but they hold most of the capital we need to shift our system.

Are we going to continue the Presidential debate that laid open the raw horror of our American capitalist system?  The Ayn Randians, Libertarians and 1%ers who resonate with Romneys “47%” moochers and “gifters”?  The Republicans are imploding and devouring themselves, which was inevitably with a platform so full of hate, fear and misperception. America is tired of the rhetoric and wanting to move on.  However, at the core of this 2012 election has been this issue of our worldview.  It is a spectrum, no doubt, but the dialog and debate has been heavily influenced and framed by a failed system that has broken our wonderful planet.

My guess is that civil disobedience, as McKibben suggests, is high on the list for everyone over 40. Divestiture, absolutely, but this should have been the case for academic assets decades ago.  Making money on the destruction of our planet isn’t a real smart move for institutions of higher learning, dedicated to helping young people have fulfilling lives.  Those under 40 are going to need to focus on techniques of survival and resiliency.  It is going to be a wild ride.  Thanks Bill for the wake up call and reality sandwich, it hurts so good?!