Tuesday, January 26, 2010

David Orr's "Down to the Wire": a call to arms for the future of Humanity

I have read no shortage of books that illustrate the importance of mitigating and adapting to imminent climate change, but David Orr's recently published Down to the Wire presents "the long emergency" with an immediacy and clarity I have not yet encountered. In a little over 200 pages, Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, describes the likely consequences of "climate destabilization" in vivid and sobering detail. Most importantly, Orr frames climate change as a symptom of several deeply-rooted perspectives espoused by Western culture including our propensity to solve complex, global problems as if they can be fixed like a giant machine, and the tendencies of the human psyche to ignore many of the most uncomfortable realities by shrouding them in myths of capitalist growth and religious predestination. Orr tackles political corruption, religious fundamentalism, greed, ignorance, short-sightedness, dependence on foreign oil, the complete devastation of our most treasured landscapes (literally the explosion of mountains) among other societal ills that must undergo radical eradication before we can rest.

In his most optimistic view, if the world begins to curtail greenhouses immediately, we will suffer traumatic lifestyle changes including coastal flooding, displacement, desertification, tropical disease in formerly sub-tropical places, massive species extinction, etc. Continuing on an unchanged trajectory, however, we are charted to experience a world in which challenges our basic understanding of how the world works and endure a population bottleneck that cuts our population to one-sixth its current size. The description is nothing short of biblical.

I want to share one very haunting passage:

"The Earth, then, will be very different from the planet we've known. Our descendants who come through the bottleneck may reside in the same places in which we do, but they will most likely live in very different circumstances than we presently do. They will be the survivors of a close call with extinction. Will they know, and, if so how will they understand that history? What will they make of the ruins of industrial civilization, some submerged far beyond different shorelines? What kind of people will they be? Will they understand the events, trends, processes, and people who took us to the brink of extinction? What will they know about the pre-bottleneck world? Will they know what they were denied? Will they have succeeded in preserving the best of human culture, literature and art? Will they live in a democracy, a totalitarian state, or a tribal anarchy? (157)."

Orr offers a realistic, frightening, but ultimately hopeful message to conscious readers everywhere. Change must begin with how we understand each other and how we understand humanity's place on Earth. If we continue to treat the world around us (human and non-human) as if it were expendible and limitless, our civilization will expire in the next century. Alternatively, if we recognize the rights of future generations, hold our leaders accountable, and approach the world with wonder, curiousity, and respect for all forms of life, we will be able to set the earth on a trajectory of healing.

I strongly recommend this book and hope you share your thoughts on the topic.


LES said...

Thanks for posting this, Robby! Orr is required reading for 446 this semester, so I'm sure it'll generate some good discussion here :)

Stephen said...

Despite being only 25, I've lived through at least two apocalypses. There was the July 1999 one predicted by Nostradamus. The planets were aligning or some shit like that. Then there was Y2K, which as you may remember left the world a nuclear wasteland. That totally sucked. And I'm looking forward to Quetzlcoatl's wrath in 2 years. Or not.

To be blunt I think apocalypse-mongering is a rhetorical fallacy that moves real life present concerns (such as global warming) into the discourse of fantasy. I'm not an environmental scientist. But I do know a little bit about how to argue my points without resorting to conjuring Hellfire and Brimstone. (It's strange that Orr critiquing "religious fundamentalism" while still dispatching the fundamentalists' rhetorical strategies.) And correct me if I'm wrong Robby (and I usually am), but don't most environmental scientists envision a gradual increase in the frequency of climatological disasters, and not some Doomsday event?

And why does Orr ask "what the world will look like" during the Road Warrior scenario? Isn't that against the whole point of his book, which (so it seems) is about trying to prevent us from getting into such a mess in the first place? It's a cheap rhetorical tactic, one that asks for us to cower in fear rather than work for change.

I can agree with his point that there is need to reconceptualize our relationship to the planet. But I can't roll with polemicists who traffic in fearmongering. Mass fear as the foundation of some of our country's stupidest political moves (see: Patriot Act, Executive Order 9066, etc.) This isn't to suggest that environmentalists are going to open internment camps, only to illustrate that societal fear and anxiety usually doesn't lead to intelligent planning (and are often exploited for selfish ends). If the environmental movement wants the put some pep in its step, it should argue its points by invoking hope for something better rather than mobilizing images of mass death.

I'll look forward to Orr's next book on how to take out Master Blaster in Thunderdome.


Robby Boyer said...


Orr spends a lot of time in the book describing the most likely scenario should we fail to act. He tries to describe it as realistically as possible and indeed, it is very scary. I see no reason why we should sugarcoat the predictions. You mention that the problems associated with climate change will increase gradually, but what do you consider gradual? I think this is the scariest aspect of climate change. If I sit in a bathtub and increase the temperature 1 degree every minute, when do I begin to scream? Between 1960 and today, the earth's human population has increased 50%. We don't see that happen in a day so it's not shocking to most of us, but 3 billion humans in fifty years is not gradual by any standard.

Because there will be no single "event" we don't associate the many "small" events with the same phenomena. But I don't consider Hurricanes (which are predicted to be stronger and more frequent as a result of increased ocean temperatures) to be "small" events. Presented in a single book, they may seem extreme or hysterical, but I'm unsure how to present them otherwise. Any suggestions?

Finally, Steve, if you read the book (which I suggest you do before ripping on it), I think you'll find that tone is ultimately hopeful. At the end, he paints an inspiring scenario of his home town after it has innovated in a post-oil economy. The entire last chapter is filled with solutions and next-steps. I don't think he'd devote as much time to it as he has without some hope. I think it's quite uplifting. Perhaps I should have included that in my previous post as well.