by James Wells
James Wells develops systems that support energy efficiency incentive programs. He spends his spare time encouraging people to actively participate in the decision about the Gateway Pacific coal terminal.
In over nine thousand EIS scoping comments about the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point, several hundred distinct types of concerns were raised, in many variations and personal perspectives. The concerns ranged in scale from very local to world-wide. Stepping back to a wider view, they merge seamlessly together — there truly is no daylight between local, state, regional, national, and global impacts of the proposed coal export terminal.
Looking at the mosaic of all of the concerns, another pervasive pattern emerges. The commenters are asking hard questions about a proposal that is based on a commitment to continue, and even aggressively expand, the Combustapalooza for decades into the future.
The Combustapalooza is the civilization-wide frenzy of digging up or cutting down everything in sight, and then lighting it on fire. Burning stuff is the main activity in our economy, outweighing any other single activity. The Combustapalooza has been accelerating for hundreds of years, and in recent decades the gas pedal has been pushed all the way down to the floor.
The Combustapalooza, at least as we know it, is going to end. The only question is whether it will end somewhat gracefully, or very, very badly. If we double down on massive new combustion schemes, the chances of a good outcome are pretty much gone, which is a very big driver of the outpouring of concern about the GPT proposal.
We’ve heard a lot about global warming (except for the times when we mysteriously haven’t), but global warming is just a symptom, albeit a huge one, of a larger problem. As we approach and then overshoot the limits of our available resources, whether measured as supplies of stuff to burn, places to burn the stuff, or the ability of our Earth to absorb the resulting pollution, it simply won’t matter which proximate cause is driving misery in a given place and time. As measured in any number of dimensions, we are just plain running out of Earth.
It’s of course true that the right amount of fire, in the right place, can be good or even vital. It’s been part of nature since early in the history of terrestrial life. The problem is the scale of the binge – the largest and most damaging spree of any kind, ever, in history.
It doesn’t need to end badly. Solutions have already been recognized and put into play, so that we can continue to live reasonably well without lighting absolutely everything on fire. More solutions are in the wings. It won’t be the same world, but there can be a world where we and our kids will be okay.
If only it were as simple as building those solutions. First, we have to overcome a number of human obstacles.
Initially, the challenge was to inform and educate the public about the urgency of the situation and how to make the necessary changes. Strangely, this was the easiest to overcome. The information exists, and there have been many motivated messengers. But by itself, simply spreading knowledge isn’t even close to sufficient. As Bill McKibben said in Seattle, on the opening night of his Do The Math tour in 2012:
My original plan to solve this crisis was that I would write some books, people would read them, and then we all would do what we need to do.
This approach had some initial success before gradually turning into a march through ever-deepening mud. And then it got even worse. It was almost as if someone was deliberately obscuring the truth of the matter, sowing doubt in order to paralyze any effective action.
It seemed that way because it was. Legions of professional doubters, funded by the fossil fuel industry and applying lessons from their decades-long tobacco holding action, mobilized to sow doubt about the realities of global warming and shrinking natural resources. Even the core concepts of science came under assault.
Now, the battle is openly joined. In the Do The Math Tour, Naomi Klein doesn’t hesitate to make the call. We know who the enemy is: Big Carbon, especially the largest petroleum and coal companies. These companies are working hard to expand their profits regardless of the consequences for everyone.
As a result, efforts must now go beyond simply spreading the truth. We must directly engage Big Carbon, on several fronts, including advocacy, divestment, consumer action, political action, regulatory battles, and even non-violent direct action.
To win, we need to consider the cognitive terrain on which this battle will be fought. The narrative that each of us holds in our minds shapes every piece of information we take in, and every decision we make. That narrative has been shaped in turn by a cultural inheritance stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years, which in its depths is slow to change even as the waves on the surface may seem to be in constant motion.
The dominant world view in the United States still assumes a world without limits, perpetually promising new frontiers that will relieve the pressure and provide new sources of prosperity. Every few years, another magic frontier is paraded out. Offshore drilling. The Internet. The McMansion bubble. “Enhanced recovery” (you know, fracking). Soon, it will be the Arctic (what could possibly go wrong?).
Big Carbon and similar big businesses, of course, love the limitless model. To extract a resource from the frontier du jour is to “Produce” it, and thus justify profit.
Our entrenched concepts of unlimited extraction and combustion can be illustrated by considering a word and the meaning we attach to it. Think for a moment about the word “coal.” What images come to mind? It is literally impossible to consider coal without also thinking about it as fuel for combustion. In our minds, coal = fuel.
However, the two words “coal” and “fuel” are different. Coal is a rock that exists below the ground. It only becomes fuel in a specific application, if we choose to exercise it. It’s a corrupting use of language when we conflate a natural substance with one potential use of that substance, so thoroughly that we can’t even separate the two meanings.
Consider “crude oil” and you’ll find the same thing. Even the term includes an assumption that the “crude” substance will be “refined” for the purpose of more effectively lighting it on fire.
The materials around us are amazing miracles. For instance, if we choose to pump oil out of the ground, it can be made into literally anything, to an extent that we are only just beginning to comprehend. It’s a tragedy that the best thing we can think of to do with oil is to ignite it. At about the time that we really understand the full potential of oil to help our lives, it will be mostly gone, or will be so remote that it is very costly to extract.
The entire history of civilization can be summed up in two milestones.
The first milestone was the day we learned to light stuff on fire. It was back in the Paleolithic, and it was a very big day! Fire, good! At last, we could have barbecue, and so many other good things.
The second milestone will be the day we learn not to light so much stuff on fire. It is possible, just possible, that we may be reaching that moment as we contemplate proposals such as Keystone XL and the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
To reach this second milestone, we need to re-frame the house in which we think. We’ve seen how the names of natural substances like coal or oil are inseparable in meaning from their expected fate, in fire. Additionally, terms like Growth, Production, and Economy have steadily become outdated or corrupted to refer to things that are deeply misleading and now useless for the challenges ahead – these words now refer primarily to the process of using things up and leaving only pollution and trash.
We can’t discard the words – we need to re-purpose them for the present day and for our future. In the December issue of Whatcom Watch (http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1497 ) I took on “Growth,” but there are so many terms that have been imprisoned, and are crying out to be set free.
We can discover and then communicate the new meanings for these words through a variety of channels and methods, to create moments of clarity, so people can rediscover much of the goodness in our lives that has been stolen or allowed to slip away through inattention. Re-understanding the good things we all wish for our children is the key to gracefully ending the Combustapalooza.
How we navigate the ending of the Combustapalooza will be the most important legacy of our time here in the world. We can do it stunningly badly. We may leave a world that is not only superheated and polluted, but riddled with conflict over the diminishing dregs of the combustibles.
We can do it stunningly well – it’s still possible. Even measured from this moment, we have the potential to feed children better, live in more peace with more liberty, and also preserve enough of the Earth for our children. We don’t have to light our future on fire.
The actual result will be somewhere in between. This lack of a binary outcome does not diminish the importance of meaningful action. Every tick of the needle in the right direction may be the difference of many millions of human lives saved, or lived with more happiness and less need. Each step will require a lot of hard work and a lot of growth – the good kind – from all of us.
Here’s something you can do today: choose a word, and imagine all of the meanings that the word might convey, if it was freed from any assumptions or limitations. Or, create a new word. How many ways can you, and your friends, apply that word to make the world a better place?
And then, of course, I hope you will spread the word.