350 (living as if everything matters)

You may have seen references to the number "350" in recent months, in connection with concerns about climate change.  I've seen many of my "tweeple" (twitter contacts) who are involved in green issues and the good food movement talking about it, and finally checked it out.  

And here's the deal:  In a few short days, an organization by the same name (number?) will coordinate an international day of action, with almost 4,000 events currently planned in more than 160 countries, all around the world.

So what's all this about?  Nothing less than our common future.

One of the measurements used in calculating global warming and climate change is how much carbon dioxide (CO2) is in the atmosphere.  Right now, scientists have determined that there are 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Doesn't seem like much, right?  Well, they also have determined that the amount of carbon dioxide that allows for the maintenance of a liveable planet for humanity is 350 parts per million.  (More explanation here.)

Right.  So we're currently OVER the sustainable level.   What does that mean?  Well, it means that our climate is changing, ice caps are melting, weather is getting wilder, and droughts and floods are affecting the lives of people all over the globe.  It's already happening, now.  This is key:  many of the projections that scientists were making a few years ago have been blown out of the water--now, scientists think that the Arctic ice will melt completely in the summertime in just a few years (2011-2015) rather than 85 years from now as was projected just a couple years ago...

So are we just doomed?  Thankfully, no.  But we have to get the concentration of carbon dioxide moving in the other direction, and we have to start now.  We need to stop these current changes from taking on a life of their own, and if we don't get the levels down, the climate will change too much for us to be able to reverse.

350 describes it this way:  

We're like the patient that goes to the doctor and learns he's overweight, or his cholesterol is too high. He doesn't die immediately—but until he changes his lifestyle and gets back down to the safe zone, he's at more risk for heart attack or stroke. The planet is in its danger zone because we've poured too much carbon into the atmosphere, and we're starting to see signs of real trouble: melting ice caps, rapidly spreading drought. We need to scramble back as quickly as we can to safety.

If someone wants to argue that the economic costs are too high, or they don't believe the science, I don't know what else to say except that this world is too precious to gamble with.  I don't want to roll the dice and hope that the projections are wrong, do you?  (This You Tube video by Gary Craven goes over the logic of our various choices pretty clearly.)

So, what can you do?  

  • For starters, you can get involved on October 24th, by attending or organizing an event near you (find one here, organize and register your own here).  The goal of these events is to bring attention to this issue, to raise awareness, and to pressure our politicians to act.  There's lots of info, ideas, organizing plans, and resources on the website.
  • If you want to make concrete changes to reduce your personal carbon impact, try out this carbon calculator and find ways to reduce your output.

  • Take a look at the example of "No Impact Man," a guy in Brooklyn, NY who decided to see what it took to lead a zero-emission life.  We don't all have to go that far, but we can take a few small steps and have a big impact--which is why he started the No Impact Project, providing concrete, doable actions that we can all take.  A movie about his experience just came out--learn more about it, here.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face...but, then, what's the alternative?  Sitting back and just flipping the channel?

One of the first times I came to visit the farm, I caught sight of a sentence highlighted on their brochure, which spoke to me so deeply I could hardly think about anything else for weeks:

Let us live as if everything matters.

Because it does.

And that's the truth of it.  I think we know it deep inside when we let ourselves grasp the enormity of the situation.  We were entrusted with an amazing gift, this tiny, unique, bluegreen orb out there in the vastness of the universe, our only home...and how we live here matters. 

knowing, forgetting, and making change

As the fall season settles in, I'm finding myself with a little more time to read in the evenings.  I've got a few things on the bedside table, but the one that's occupying my thoughts most right now is a book by Elizabeth Kolbert called Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.  It's a journalistic account of what's happening to our planet, with first-hand reporting and interviews with residents and scientists around the globe, in the Arctic, in Holland, in Costa Rica, in Vermont...

I've just started the book, and I'll tell you, it's a challenging read. I had read a series of Kolbert's articles in the New Yorker, a few years ago, and they were shocking, actually.  I mean, we hear about global warming and climate change, and we have been experiencing increasingly unsettled weather in recent years. I've read about vanishing glaciers, and endangered polar bears.  But this knowledge hasn't really penetrated my visceral, immediate worldview.  Somehow, it's possible to know something--in this case, the vast dangers of global warming to our planetary ecosystem--but then to compartmentalize that knowledge away from everyday decisionmaking.  Kolbert's articles were shocking, they hit me hard, and I tried to share them with people ("You've got to read this!"), but soon thereafter, I forgot about them.

Our ability to forget such things, or compartmentalize them, is one of our real human weaknesses.  I smoked cigarettes for years.  I knew they were toxic, I knew they were lethal.  Yet I continued.  In the final year that I smoked, I would treat myself to a smoke after going to the gym, some kind of sick reward.  We humans are strange and complicated beings.

When we allow ourselves to fully integrate such scary knowledges--like the dangers of smoking, and the vulnerability of our planet--we can make real changes in our behavior.  But this is hard work, and perhaps why there is so much resistance to acting to slow down climate change.  (I'm referring here to change at the individual level, not the corporate/organizational/political level, which has another order of challenges...)

Personally, I'm working to integrate the knowledge that I've been gaining about eating meat: the tremendous strain placed on our environment from producing a meat-heavy diet, the miserable and fetid lives of animals that are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (and the diseases that thrive unders such conditions), the difficulty in finding meat that is sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered...

We can take smaller steps, like participating in Meatless Monday, a campaign to cut out meat one day a week in order to improve our health and reduce the stress on the environment.  We can make sure we understand the manifold connections between food production and climate change (watch Food, Inc, if you haven't already), and pass on what we know.  We can support local farmers, and get to know the people who produce our food (check out the USDA's new website, "Know Your Farmer" and find farmer's markets near you).  We can choose organic, pesticide-free and heirloom varieties of food, to diversify our food supply and reduce the number of toxins added to our food and to the earth.  And we can start, all of us, to grow a little of our own food.  (There's an app for that: "Botanical Interests" can help you start gardening with your iPhone; thanks Urban Gardens for the find!) 

There's so much more we can do--we can step away from plastics, carpool and buy fuel efficient cars, press our government to invest in public transportation, and compost our vegetable waste, just for starters...

But mostly I think we have to let ourselves deeply integrate the intellectual knowledge we already have, and let a global perspective shape our vision.  The scientific community is very concerned, as each year, new research is outpacing earlier projections.  The icecaps are melting faster than we thought, there are redoubling effects that were unforeseen, and each year we are breaking more and more funky weather records...(If you haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth, the movie explains why weather will get more and more extreme and unsettled, rather than simply getting hotter.) 

All the knowledge in the world, though, isn't going to change our behavior, until we see ourselves as part of, integrated into, the natural world, rather than separate from it.  We are each of us organic matter, part of the universe, connected through the air we breathe and water we drink.  These elements cycle through us and swirl around us.  What I do to the air and the water impacts that planetary swirl.  We are woven together, and we are creating our future, at every moment, with every breath.

(This post is in alliance with Blog Action Day, focused on Climate Change)