During the first week of February, I was over at my friend Arnold’s house to watch the Super Bowl, standing on his terrace during halftime. It had been snowing here on the highest elevations the week before but now it was shirtsleeve weather, as high as the low 80’s in the inland counties. Down in Texas, ice storms had closed half the state, New York City was snowed in after having been balmy two weeks earlier, it was drier in north China than it had been in two hundred years, the Arctic was warmer than anyone could remember and parts of the Midwest colder, Antarctica continued to melt, Australia’s north coast had been flooded for weeks, the same with Brazil, and Europe felt like a meat locker. And now Arnold and I were watching springtime in San Francisco roll through in the middle of winter.
Since Arnold is the smartest person I know, and is paid large sums of money to share his intelligence with companies and governments, I used him to check my bearings.
“It’s happening just like the climate scientists said it would, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Actually it’s happening bigger, faster, and more widely than the computer models predicted,” he corrected me. “It seems highly likely that climate destabilization is upon us.”
We both let that thought hang there for a minute before continuing.
“It’s hard to get your mind around,” I finally offered.
“And we’re not yet close to doing so,” Arnold insisted. “I find it very worrisome not just that so many Americans don’t get it, but that the thinking we are doing is so limited in scope. This is not a situation that requires a patch here and a patch there, even if that seems to be the maximum the political system is capable of. Whatever the outcome, the world will be rewritten. So everyone should get their scripts together. The situation requires largeness and dreams. We need to think in big pictures, really big, and seek out our most imaginative visions, no matter how off-the-wall they may seem at first sight. If we stay small, we’ll never get ahead of the curve.”
Arnold’s halftime admonition stuck with me through the next weeks and well into March, a period marked by the return of snow, then of spring, and then back and forth again. When I finally had time to take my smart friend’s challenge seriously, I came up with four candidates for the Big Ideas Whose Time Is Coming A Lot Sooner Than We Think sweepstakes:
1. Eliminate burning carbon as a source of energy. The effects of our burgeoning carbon emissions are clear enough to know that continuing in this mode will not be sustainable—perhaps by ourselves, likely by our children, and surely by the generations after that. But releasing society from its carbon footprint may very well be the most radical enterprise ever embarked upon by humankind. It means initiating a comprehensive redevelopment in which solar, wind, efficiency, hydrogen, and small scale nuclear are swapped in for gasoline, petroleum, natural gas, and, coal over the shortest possible time. It means rebuilding transmission systems and reorganizing utilities and industries. It also means weaning human culture from energy use, drastically reducing our patterns of consumption while raising our efficiency, and generating a universal ethic of energy husbandry.
2. Demilitarize Universally and Then Adjudicate Instead. Perhaps the least sustainable behavior of all is human reliance on force as a medium of cultural exchange. And at this moment, the participatory nature of the way we change climate requires us to make universal common cause, a virtual impossibilityin the armed camp the planet has become. The only option is to reduce the forces deployed—by anyone and everyone. They need to be replaced by global systems for adjudicating grievances and a commitment to cultivate amity and mutual respect. If rights are human—common to everyone—then they should be adjudicated in common. Generating trust is essential. It is unlikely we can survive without it.
3. Rely on the Local As We Globalize. Economic internationalism will have to generate political internationalism as well. Otherwise, there is no way to secure the common good or hold enormous industrial, commercial, and financial institutions accountable. And that inability throws society out of balance, at a time when more than anything, social balance is required. Such global mechanisms, however, will only be as successful as the vitality of their most local components. What’s required are institutions and approaches that will empower the local and regional in the administration of the common good. That means moving an increasing share of global governance and accountability to our smaller institutions. This in turn requires us to become as participatory as we can, generating affinity and organizing local manifestations of global principles.
4. Treat sustenance and health as essential human rights. We are entering an era of history when an increasing number of humans will be vulnerable and at risk. It is essential for us to redraw the bottom line of human society so that food, housing, and medical attention are beyond question. This will be an enormous emotional and spiritual challenge for us. It involves committing to alleviating the pain of potentially unworthy strangers and installing Compassion as the essential social tenet by which outcomes are determined and resources allocated. The goal is to rebalance the human equation somewhere significantly closer to its bottom and commit to ameliorating the lesser, not sacrificing them when things get scary. We must all be in this together. And being serious about that will require a lot of us to change the way we approach ourselves and others.
My list of Big Ideas Whose Time Is Coming A Lot Sooner Than We Think sounds like science fiction when I read it back to myself. But when climate deterioration accelerates and we begin to look desperately for some way to slow this slide down, I expect each of my four ideas will seem more and more like the epitome of practical.
I showed Arnold my list and he gave me a B- and told me not to quit my day job.
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