CALGARY, AB – We’re a strange old species – intelligent, emotional, capable of mind-boggling stupidity. Like Alice, we can “believe six impossible things before breakfast.” Will we continue to survive, or are we fated to become one of evolution’s failed experiments?
The reason I ask is simple. A number of middle-of-the-road sources – the International Energy Agency, Bloomberg Financial, the Governor of the Bank of England – tell us that to avoid climate catastrophe the world will have to leave at least two-thirds of presently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. They call this “stranded carbon.”
At the same time, corporate leaders steam full speed ahead on a course headed toward precisely that catastrophe. Exxon has said it plans to sell every barrel in its 25 billion barrel portfolio, regardless of climate change. Worldwide, oil patch leaders proceed to spend billions – maybe even trillions – of dollars looking for more reserves and planning huge megaprojects to extract same from extremely hostile environments.
U.S. President Barack Obama has just approved exploration in Alaska’s arctic waters (another example of cognitive dissonance); drilling proceeds off South America in thousands of metres of ocean.
Somebody’s crazy. Unfortunately, that somebody appears to be mainstream leadership, which is dragging humanity ever closer to the precipice.
We need someone watching this parade to call out, “Look, the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”
Oh wait, lots of people have been saying this for years.
What’s going on? Can anybody explain this cognitive dissonance? I don’t mean right-wing think tanks or climate change deniers, but people who believe in evidence-based decision-making, in the real world. “Energy experts” make solemn pronouncements about our global future without acknowledging this elephant in the room.
One possibility, of course, is that people like me are just nuts. Or that the scientific community is wrong.
But there are other explanations, more in the realm of psychology or sociology. We’ve heard of the “madness of crowds.” We know about self-interest and states of denial, and about propaganda which psychologically manipulates non-experts who are just trying to live quiet, decent lives. How are they to see through the smokescreen emitted by their leaders? And by the wealthy and powerful individuals who direct the mass media in creating public support for a false “reality”.
Will we wake up in time?
Will people rouse themselves in time? I’m not sure. It took Albertans several mediocre Progressive Conservative premiers to wake up and vote for a change of course. And perhaps even more strangely, the federal Stephen Harper government – a collection of misanthropic, mendacious poseurs – still seems to be a credible alternative to some Canadians.
In the last analysis, those of us who feel threatened by our looming global future have no choice but to keep donating to NGOs doing environmental and social justice work and supporting political parties which understand the need for urgent action.
As Israeli politician Abba Eban first said, “men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
We have to hope so. Otherwise, our grandchildren, at least metaphorically, are going to be toast.
Phil Elder is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.
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