Global Societies, Politics and the Environment

Nature’s Fury

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Heavy traffic produces severe air pollution in Bangkok
Nature is what we all have in common~Wendell Berry
The summer of 2017 has been one for the record books as far as natural disasters are concerned. I spent two weeks visiting friends in Seattle and was greeted by smoke-filled air each day due to wildfires that were raging out of control in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
Next, I returned to the Southeastern USA just in time to witness the arrival of multiple record-breaking hurricanes that had churned their way across the Atlantic.
And then over the past few days, I’ve been intently following the post-earthquake rescues in my adopted home of Mexico.

It seems that Mother Nature is pissed off and I can’t say I blame her! We’re all guilty of being very incompetent stewards of her bounty.

Where’s the respect?

Why is it that we as humans only respect nature when it’s breathing down our necks? How many Texans, Floridians and Puerto Ricans are going to be swayed to believe that global warming is real after experiencing the devastation caused by three category 4 hurricanes striking the USA within such a short period of time?

But this isn’t a post in which I will argue the merits of what I (and the vast majority of the scientific community) believe to be the facts—that climate change is real and that humanity’s role in it is at the very least enhancing the negative impacts of global warming to the extent that every living creature on planet Earth may be endangered in the not so distant future.

No, really, this isn’t going to be THAT post, but I do want us to consider the role of nature and how we view its impacts, especially as Westerners who have benefitted most by the exploitation of the Earth’s resources and therefore contributed the most to our planet’s warming.

I’m not writing this in an effort to make anyone feel guilty. That’s usually a wasted emotion and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Surely, we can think of more pertinent reasons to be better stewards of nature’s ecosystems (that sustain us all) than the mere feeling of guilt. Having a desire to leave a healthy planet for our children and grandchildren should be a compelling enough reason to persuade us to make wise political decisions now along with some major lifestyle changes in the years to come.

Submerged freeways in Houston. photo courtesy of CNBC
The lifestyle factor

Suburban sprawl, near total car-dependency and the kind of rampant consumerism that enables us to actually fill up those BIG trollies at Walmart and Costco with things we don’t really need in the first place has become the norm for a majority of Americans. Worse still for our planet is the fact that much of the developing world wants to emulate the American lifestyle.

Even in regions of the developing world that deplore the American government’s foreign policies, the locals who can afford it adopt the most extreme aspects of American consumerism, stocking up on unhealthy processed convenience foods and cheap Chinese plastic everything.

Will the Earth be able to cope and regenerate itself when 85% of Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, and on and on begin driving their own vehicles? This is the percentage of workers in the USA who drive their cars to work each day, although the percentage does vary from one state/region to another.

In order to accommodate all those vehicles, American cities have sprawled ever outward, insatiably gobbling up acreage and paving over the land in an effort to accommodate parking for an ever-increasing number of private cars and trucks. We’ve all seen the rivers of runoff produced by the impervious surface of an asphalt parking lot during a normal thunder shower.

This type of poorly planned development was one of the exacerbating factors in the dramatic flooding witnessed recently in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s four days of constant rainfall. Will American cities and development companies learn from these mistakes or return to business as usual once the initial rebuilding is over?

Low-lying (and often sinking) cities such as Houston in the south central USA, Bangkok in Thailand and Dhaka in Bangladesh are all at greater risk for such devastating flood events due to sprawling and poorly planned developments that have replaced the wetlands that once helped absorb excess rainwater.

Urban sprawl in Mexico City
Cars! Trains! Evacuation!

Some of you may remember that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mass transit vehicles appeared to be almost singularly lacking when needed to evacuate the thousands of poor exasperated citizens who’d been left to their own devices at the New Orleans Superdome, a site that was turned into an inadequate storm shelter. Before Harvey struck, Houston’s mayor made the decision not to attempt the evacuation of millions of people because the escape routes—broad concrete freeways—would almost certainly turn into raging rivers where many would perish while stuck in gridlocked traffic.

While it’s possible that trains and buses would have been stuck as well in a similar scenario, the need for multiple transit options becomes even more acute during a natural disaster. For example, during my three years living and working in Bangkok, I knew I could always depend on the elevated BTS Skytrain to whisk me across the city when the streets below were flooded and gridlocked during the heavy rains of the monsoon season.

USA vs. Paris Climate Accords

President Trump has made the decision to withdraw USA participation in the Paris Climate Accords, a much-lauded international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions by countries and thereby at least slow the worst effects of global warming. In my estimation, this was by far the most damaging decision he’s made thus far in his 9 months in the White House. The cost, both in terms of lives and financial loss from destruction and rebuilding, will surely be higher in the future than it would be to seek preventative measures now.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States’ voluntary commitment to the deal, which almost every other nation signed onto, was “really out of balance” relative to other economies. Really?

According to leading academics, the USA has contributed around 27% of all CO2 emissions that lead to global warming, while as of 2014, the population of the USA only made up approximately 4.4% of the global total. So, if Tillerson doesn’t think the USA should pay for the damage it’s done to the environment of our planet, then who?

Should we expect a relatively poor country such as India to pay our share, even though its citizens have contributed to global warming at a much lower per capita rate? Is that who we’ve become—a nation that refuses to admit our mistakes and excesses and shirks our duties? Shouldn’t we take responsibility for cleaning up our own mess?

Will technology save us?

Some believe that technological innovation will save the planet, and therefore us, from extinction. Possibly, but it seems wishful thinking at best, especially since those life-saving technologies are needed now in countries such as Bangladesh and India where droughts followed by intensified seasonal monsoon rains kill thousands each year.

A call to action!

I plan to let my representatives in Congress know loud and clear that I believe we should reverse course and rejoin the international effort to curb greenhouse gases and the effects of global warming. Our lives AND future livelihoods depend on it!

Peace~henry

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