Two Dark Clouds

Noam Chomsky recently wrote that “two dark clouds … hover over all consideration of [the] global order: nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, both literally threaten… the decent survival of the species.” (http://lists.portside.org/cgi-bin/listserv/wa?A2=PORTSIDE;b6d2f8ef.1202c).

I don’t know whether Chomsky intended to treat these two threats as equivalent, but I see a qualitative and very disturbing difference between them. Although I agree that either an all-out nuclear conflict or global ecological devastation could render the planet uninhabitable by our species, the manner in which they are likely to come to pass makes our environmentally generated demise more likely.

I hope the example I’ve heard many times to explain this difference is only metaphorical, since I find the possibility that someone has actually performed this experiment nauseating. I’ve read that if you attempt to toss a frog into a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out to save itself, but if you place a frog in a pot of warm water and slowly increase the water’s temperature, supposedly the frog will sit there until it cooks. This exemplifies the difference between the two doomsday scenarios.

The world witnessed the horror caused by the two relatively weak atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan in 1945. Perhaps, because of that, no country has dropped a nuclear bomb on another for the past 67 years. Since 1945 we’ve developed many much more powerful bombs and at least nine nations now have nuclear weapons (USA, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). It is possible, even likely, that sooner or later one of these nations will use its bomb or lose it to a group that will. This could lead to a worldwide conflagration, but this eventuality would require a deviation from our current behavior. In other words we’ll have to change our present course of conduct before a widespread nuclear war could erupt.

This is not the case with the approaching ecological calamity. Many scientists predict that modern society’s existing rate of consumption will cause one or a series of environmental disasters on a planetary scale during this century. The pace at which we are releasing hydro-carbons and other pollutants into our atmosphere is increasing. The speed of climate change and resource depletion is accelerating. The methods giant energy corporations are using to feed civilization’s growing energy needs are becoming more dangerous or dirty (e.g. hydro-fracking, deep sea drilling, tar sand extraction). Recent data shows that our global ecosystem is deteriorating more rapidly than the best computer models of a decade or two ago predicted it would. This speed-up means we’ll plunge into an abyss of environmental calamity even more quickly, simply by doing nothing different.

The collapsing time-frame we have to prevent this cataclysm makes it a more imminent threat than nuclear war. We’ll run out of time in the next few decades to save the habitability of our planet without detonating a single nuclear device. This is why I believe we have to take the threat of environmental Armageddon even more seriously than the danger of nuclear war. We’re already in hot water. We need to act to turn down the heat now or the vast majority of us are going to cook.

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