With this post, this blog begins an exploration of the world that, thanks to global warming, we are going to live in. It wants to make a simple point: That the central 21st Century choice will be either to accept the world that global warming will create, with all of the unwelcome transformation it will bring, or to decide to change our fossil fuel centric economy, with all the knotty transformations that that will require.
When global warming is discussed, we hear this bad thing will happen by 2050; this bad thing by 2075 and serious terrors by 2100. All of this seems safely beyond our time horizons, so it need not register emotionally. This is a mistake. For anyone living today under the age of 50, what global warming is going to do to the planet by 2050 will be part of the reality of the rest of your life for you can reasonably expect to live to above 80, which means you will live through the changes predicted for the year 2050. If you are a Cooper Union student, you have a better-than-even chance of living until 2080. If you are a newborn, like my granddaughter, your projected life expectancy will take you to 2095, with a reasonable chance of seeing 2100, the threshold of many promised terrors. One of the things we humans constantly ignore is that two years from now, it will be two years from now. And twenty years from now it will be twenty years from now, just as twenty years ago it was twenty years ago (I presume all of you 50 year olds can remember a world without the Internet or Google). When they say it is coming by 2050, remember you will live to see it and will have to deal with its consequences for the life you will lead.
Global warming has already altered the planet’s basic ecological systems enough so that we can predict with reasonable certainty the new global realities you will live through. We need to face those realities. Much of the explicit denial of global warming and much of the reluctance to address it derives from unconscious fears of changing the comfortable fossil fuel centric world we have lived in for 250 years. Humans are designed to fear change, particularly transformative changes whose risks and consequences are unclear. But in the throes of such instincts, what we are failing to grasp is that the real choice for the 21st Century is between two kinds of changes: uncharted changes in the way we provide the energy we need to maintain the wealth and prosperity we have become accustomed to, or topsy turvy changes in the world’s fundamental climate dynamics and the massively disruptive impacts of those changes on the economy and civilization we have built. If we are to debate global warming properly, the debate must revolve around which change we should fear more, changing fossil fuel use or the changes continuing fossil fuel use will bring about in our planet, its ecological systems and the lives we now lead.
The posts made under this topic are meant to focus that debate by describing the world we will live in if we do not face changing our fossil fuel use. Do we, for whatever reasons, try to live with the world these that posts will describe, or should we chose the enormous task of creating a post-fossil-fuel energy world, with all the effort that will require. The world of that choice is the world we are going to live in.
So, to begin to focus on that choice and to set the stage for future posts, let us take a brief look at the largest equivalent transformation in American history.
The greatest social-ecological disaster in American History was the Dust Bowl, 1931 to 1939. During those years, the United States paid the bill for three decades of ecological mismanagement of the short grass prairies on the Great Plains. These prairies, which run roughly from the 100th Meridian west to the Rocky Mountains, and from Saskatchewan to Texas encompass the bulk of five states, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, plus West Texas and the Texas Panhandle and the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
In this area, the annual rainfall averages less than 20 inches with periodic droughts. The resulting ecology was grassland, whose highest and best use was herbivore grazing, in specific the buffalo, an ecology adapted to the limited rainfall and reoccurring droughts. But beginning about 1900, such areas were aggressively plowed up for wheat farming and rural settlement mushroomed. Local boosters rebelled against recognizing the natural limitations on human settlement, seeking the densely populated rural landscapes that had meant economic prosperity and political power in the East. Publicists for transcontinental railroads and others who would profit from such settlement claimed that rain would follow the plow, i.e. once the grassland sod was broken farmland would generate its own additional rainfall. A serious of wet years prior to 1920 seemed to vindicate such claims, as did the high prices for wheat that World War I generated.
But in the 1920s, reality reasserted itself. Rainfall fluctuated dramatically; some good years intermingled with more bad ones. Wheat prices collapsed, leaving farmers sunk in debt and lacking the resources to change farming techniques. Farming methods, derived from more well watered lands, emphasized intense plowing and pulverized the top soil, leaving it vulnerable to the winds that ripped down the Plains from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1930, when the population of the Plains encompassed three times the percentage of Americans it does today, the Plains were poised on the edge of disaster.
In 1931, an eight year drought began. At the end of the year, in November, the bone dry, pulverized soil was picked up by the autumn wind storms and carried east, blackening skies over Chicago and Washington. Seven more years of drought followed, peaking between 1934 and 1936. Dust storms became a common American reality as some areas of the Great Plains lost as much as 75% of their topsoil, lacking both the moisture and the organic material needed to keep it in place. Agricultural production plummeted, to levels far below those needed to maintain most farms. Unable to pay their mortgages, hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced to abandon their land and flee. Ultimately, 2.5 million people, a number that constituted 2% of all Americans at that time, emigrated out of the Plains states, some heading for cities or better placed rural relatives, but most for California. Their struggles to create a new life in an unwelcoming California are described in John Steinbeck’s epic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” These were the Okies and Arkies of legend; named for the states they had fled, partially in pity, partially in derision, by the Californians who had to receive them.
At the time, particularly in California, absorbing 2.5 million climate refugees appeared to be an impossible task. But, when the outbreak of World War II drove up the demand for California’s agricultural produce and California war manufacturing boomed, the California economy almost seamlessly absorbed them. Back on the Plains recovery was more mixed. The depopulation from the Okie and Arkie out-migration was permanent, but in the 1940s, when the rains returned and World War II once again drove up wheat prices, the farm economy was rebuilt, around much different land holdings and a much lower population. The New Deal, through the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) invested significant resources in redesigning farming methods, ending the disastrous soil erosion of the thirties. Less helpfully, the New Deal ignored the ecological realities of the Plains and set out to rescue wheat farming. It sponsored widespread irrigation, drawing on the dam reservoirs the New Deal public works program created and, even more critically, on the waters of the Ogallala aquifer that underlay much of the Great Plains. But now, two generations later, the bill for ignoring ecological reality is again coming due. Two generations of irrigating far beyond the recharge levels of the Ogallala has so lowered the levels of the aquifer that, in a growing number of places, it can no longer be used for irrigation, and wheat production is plummeting in places like the Texas Panhandle. Once again, the agricultural population of the Great Plains is contracting as America still tries to maintain an agricultural economy at war with its basic ecology.
Global warming is the same story, a planet at war with its basic ecology. The world we are on course to live in will be the same story, one of wide ranging, high cost ecological disaster. Only if we chose not to accept such changes, but to create a new green fuel economy can we escape them. As noted above, we can accept the brave new world global warming will create or change the fossil fuel economy that is creating it while there is still time. But those two choices are the only ones the 21s Century is offering us. Whichever one we select will determine the world we will live in for centuries to come.