Field Notes From THE Catastrophe

I recently began reading “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” – Elizabeth Kolbert, 2006 and was initially happy to have found the ideal first book for those who are new to concerns about THE catastrophe(s) which will shape the future of human life on Planet Earth. To explain the oddity of the expression THE catastrophe(s), THE is capitalized to indicate the only issue that really counts in the present human condition and the appended pluralism highlights that this issue is a tightly interconnected “perfect storm” of crises.

This book is concise – 187ppg for the main body; accurate – with a couple of very minor and inconsequential errors in science (based on other sources); and should be eminently understandable by anyone with the equivalent of a Canadian high school education. Elizabeth Kolbert is a very experienced journalist (New York Times, New Yorker magazine) and obviously takes great pains and knows how do do her research. Her sources are a Who’s Who of legitimate experts on, the Arctic, climate modelling, ancient civilizations, biology, US politics and ocean levels.

The only reasons I am presently depressed by this book is that I have had to relive all the missed opportunities since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the G.W. Bush fiasco of America, the grotesque degradation of Canada by Stephen Harper – not mentioned in the book but ever-present in my thoughts – and the exposure of the depth of greed, ignorance and stupidity of the biological species of which I am a part.

However, of the fifty-some-odd books I have read over the past several years relating to these interconnected crises, I would strongly recommend this one as a place to start a serious exploration of our future under continuance of the business-as-usual model of civilization.

When my generation entered parenthood in the 1960’s, we thought we were bringing children into a world that was improving and would keep doing so as far as we could see into the future. In actuality I can now look back and see that, by the end of that decade, my own Quality of Life had begun to descend. I now look at Standard of Living as measured by GDP – the total amount of money we spend annually as a nation – and Quality of Life as quantified only be a general feeling of well-being, as being in reverse relationship – as the first goes up, the second goes down.

This feeling is corroborated by the increasing incidence of psychological illness, stress, obesity; environmentally forced or lifestyle diseases such as asthma, COPD, novel forms of cancer, diabetes; and zoonotic diseases which take advantage of over-crowding and human movement into previously unoccupied areas.

So – what to do?

First, we can stop reproducing ourselves. Obviously, that won’t happen. However, even to leave our descendants a chance of what we would consider to be a liveable life, we need to achieve large reductions in population. If we don’t, part of the un-liveableness of future human life will be nature’s way of dealing with over-population – pandemic. Perhaps we are currently seeing early, and so far controllable manifestations of this with HIV/AIDS, Ebola and related hemorrhagic fevers; avian, porcine and possibly equine Influenzas; the re-occurrence of mumps and measles and the mysterious polio-like disease affecting children in the US.

In order for the viral world to mount a horror show that would top anything Hollywood has ever produced, a single strain could evolve the following traits — it would be zoonotic (able to pass between species including human like a number of avian influenzas), pass from human to human through aerosols as easily as measles, have a long incubation period and be as deadly as ebola. Currently, virologists are saying that this is not likely to occur but, on the other hand, a bit of reading about past viral evolution seems to indicate that anyone who expresses confidence about what viruses may or may not do next is skating on thin ice. One outbreak of such a virus near a large city and 3 weeks of worldwide air traffic should lead to the normal pattern of those who look after the sick being the second wave and those who look after disposal of bodies being the third and nothing much left but to roll the credits.

Second, we can stop denying the science and the voluminous evidence all around us that massive change is already happening and start demanding that our so-called leaders do something to counter it. Reduction of lifestyle, sustainable energy, the end of economic growth, universal education (especially of girls), localization and raising individual levels of consciousness would all be good places to start. You can start this last one right now with a trip to your public library.

You might point out that the changes outlined above will never be initiated by democratically elected officials and you would be right — so maybe it’s time to take a second look at anarchy (if we do nothing we will get it anyway). Or just to realize that business-as-usual, including nation states and their political and economic systems are “just so 20th century” and get our butts into the 21st. It has already been here for 15 years for those who have been too busy shopping to notice.

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