Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hanging by a thread

We began this week with the news that the Wilkins Ice Shelf was at astonishing risk of breaking off the Antarctic continent. The European Space Agency has been tracking the progress of the disintegration of the land bridge that connects the Wilkins Ice Shelf to the rest of the continent. Its splintering increases the possibility of the ice shelf shattering into a thousands icebergs, blocks and shards of ice in the southern ocean.

It is more evidence that humans are heating the planet at faster rates than scientists had predicted, with increased risk that ocean levels with also rise faster than projected. When – not if – the plug of the Wilkins Ice Shelf finally breaks away, the continental ice it was holding back with crash into the ocean much faster, and flood more fresh water into the ocean – water that has been locked into the ice for probably centuries.

Ironically, the other iceberg of human ingenuity – the global financial crisis – is drawing from us a response that is directly inverse to the one required to deal with the increasingly urgent threat of global warming. Instead of curtailing our unrestrained, debt-fueled consumption of stuff and the resources required to make, cart around, sell and operate this stuff – especially fossil fuels – the most compelling thing our governments are asking us to do is spend – spend our way out of the economic crisis that, it strikes me, greed and over-spending got us into in the first place.

We are expected to trust our governments as they urge us to spend, spend, spend at a time when we need to tighten our belts and learn to sew on buttons, patch holes, and reuse, reduce and recycle to conserve fossil fuels and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. After all, who needs another of what Laura Carroll last Saturday so insightfully called in her essay 'Inconspicuous Consumption' in The Age's A2 supplement a piece of "billion-year-old carbon frozen in the humiliating form of a large, green Incredible Hulk doll".

I'm currently reading a collection of Kurt Vonnegut's non-fiction writings, A Man Without a Country, which includes various recent addresses and speeches on the war in Iraq and climate change. In a piece on fossil fuels and climate change, Vonnegut tells us:

We are all addicts to fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on.
And all for the sake of keeping the gunky wheels and cogs of the economy rolling and chugging along. I sincerely do appreciate that Rudd's stimulus packages are to inject more consumption cash into the market to keep businesses going and keep peoples' jobs.

But when the ice of Antarctica is about to go crashing into the ocean at unprecedented rates, I really wonder if we are being so short-sighted and have lost sight of what's truly at stake – and consequently are not thinking deeply and creatively enough about what we need to do. If anything, we don't need to slow down or speed up the nasty treadmill of the neo-liberal economy. We need to get rid of it and build something else. And preferably something that works.

[Image is from the European Space Agency (ESA) website]

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