Facts, probabilitites and imagining

This issue of Montreal Serai is dedicated to the environment which is why it contains facts, probabilities and imagining. We need all three to see the environment, to see ourselves, because the environment is us. Whatever we do to it we do to ourselves. See climate change. Many of us are having trouble giving climate change the attention that scientists say it deserves. From the point of view of our senses, the evidence for climate change is subtle or mainly a problem experienced by others. If only we could imagine others to be part of ourselves! A mind boggling proposition?

Fair to say that the contingencies of everyday life usually distract us away from the effects of climate change. So it is hard to conceive that 2/5ths of the world’s people already face serious water shortages and that water borne diseases fill half of the world’s hospital beds. Sure it is a fact that ice is melting at an unprecedented rate and oceans are rising, but far away from here and not where we are… Increasing drought, floods and shrinking water tables surely mean shorter growing seasons and increasing food shortages…but not here…where supermarkets and stores are full to the brim of head- turning temptation.

And it is a fact that we are doing something. Canada does have the Clean Air Plan, after all. Even if this Clean Air Plan exempts the Alberta Oil Sands from compliance, so as not to cramp their rapid expansion. It is thanks in large part to this development and the astonishing rate of its progress that Canada is the 3rd largest carbon emitter per capita in the world, 9nth per GDP, the 6th biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Canada’s carbon production is 34% above where it needs to be next year to meet its Kyoto target.

Some of us Canadians are clearly having trouble imagining the consequences of our behaviour. It doesn’t help that it’s so blinking cold here and a slightly milder winter does translate into lower heating bills. And look how green all this summer rain makes the grass in the park! It takes imagination to see the future and to see facts that were once probabilities. It is a fact that some of us are busy imagining everything is okay.

In a short documentary, I asked some local kids to count the cars and the people going down their street. One 8 year old boy counted 236 people in 45 minutes, when in reality there couldn’t have been more than 50. He said, “I don’t know why there’s so many cars and not much people. It must be the terrible weather we’re having.”

Cartoon by Susan Dubrofsky

Given the 853 cars counted by his brother, the little boy reckoned there should be more people. He didn’t know of this ratio: more traffic = fewer people, less community, more bad weather. Yes, scientists universally agree that we are the terrible weather we’re having, and that it is the way we are consuming at break neck speed that is the biggest problem.

But if the weather here is not terrible enough to capture our attention, it could be very soon: Hot on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report comes a new study by James Hansen at NASA, chock full of probabilities, that make the IPCC predictions very improbable, and all government carbon reduction targets wildly off the mark. In short, the Hansen team find that, rather than a thousand years to melt, at current rates, it is “implausible” that polar ice will survive even for a century. They predict sea levels will rise 59cm within the next hundred years, drowning most of the world’s centers of population! Imagine that! No more them and us. You can read about the Hansen study here.

But let us not despair. As a species, our capacity for imagination and ingenuity is another fact and also our strength. Drastic probabilities could inspire us to feel the danger and react sensibly…help us feel the heat, even on cool days, feel the thirst and hunger of drought, the grief of loss… and then the satisfaction of being part of a global solution. Montreal Serai dedicates this issue to the environment and the possibility of coming to our senses to save ourselves.