Earth: Too Big to Fail? | The Nation


Earth: Too Big to Fail?

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A Magnitude Shy of What Physics Demands

About the Author

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is the author of fourteen books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities...

Also by the Author

The future will follow an unpredictable route, but we must still follow a compass called hope. 

As Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us, any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Think of Schwarzenegger as the hinge between the fantasy of Terminator 2 and the reality of our predicament. Think of Obama...

Well, in T2, there's Miles Dyson, a slender, well-spoken African-American family man who will engineer the computer technology that will create the intelligent machines that will annihilate practically everything. Sarah--Connor, not Palin--sets out to kill him, but her son shows up with his Terminator-Schwarzenegger sidekick, and they instead convince the not-so-mad scientist he's about to do something terribly, terribly wrong. He then leads them to his workplace to destroy everything he's ever done. When their violent erasure program sets off alarms that bring in squadrons of cops, Dyson ends up gravely wounded and holding the trigger to set off the explosion that will wipe out the technologies endangering future humanity--and himself.

Seeing this movie with its acts of self-sacrifice now offers an occasion to ask: when's the last time you've even seen a major politician who'll put his finger to that trigger with humanity in mind, no less simply do anything that's bad for reelection?

What if Obama would say what he has to know, what they all have to know, that saving the planet from our slo-mo, unevenly distributed version of Judgment Day requires destroying the status quo and maybe changing everything? What if he'd just learn from Schwarzenegger that you can do quite a lot and still survive politically?

As a disgusted Bill McKibben recently put it, "Obama will propose 4 percent reductions in [US greenhouse gas] emissions by 2020, compared with 20 percent for the Europeans (a number the EU said they'd raise to 30 percent if the US would go along). Scientists, meanwhile, have made it clear that a serious offer would mean about 40 percent cuts by 2020. So--we're exactly an order of magnitude shy of what the physics demands."

Bill, a normally mild-mannered guy who was overjoyed at Obama's election, called the president's position "a lie inside a fib coated with spin."

Thanks to a sudden decision earlier this month by the Environmental Protection Agency allowing the executive branch to address the issue of climate-change gases under the Clean Air Act, Obama has apparently been given superpowers to act without being completely hamstrung by a reluctant Congress. Or as the Center for Biological Diversity put it, "President Obama can lead, rather than follow, by using his power under the Clean Air Act and other laws to achieve deep and rapid greenhouse emissions reductions from major polluters."

Will he? Probably not. After all, he's the man who stood up in Prague last April and said: "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." For a moment, it almost sounded as if he was going to be the action hero of our antinuclear dreams, wiping out one apocalypse that has hung over us for sixty years. And then he added that he didn't actually expect to see the abolition of such weaponry in his lifetime, though he didn't say why.

Now, we're in an action movie in which the fate of the Earth is truly at stake, and the most powerful man on the planet has allowed himself to be hedged in by timidities, compromises, refusals, denials, and the murderous pressure of corporations. Those too-big-to-die corporations are the reason why the Senate is unlikely to ratify any climate-change treaty that threatens to do much of anything. Really, corporations--half-fictitious, semi-immortal behemoths endowed with human rights in the United States and possessed of corrosive global power--already are the ruthless cyborgs of our time. They are, after all, actively seeking a world in which they imagine that, somehow, they will survive, even if many of us and much that we love does not. Sorry, poor people, young people, Africa; sorry, Arctic summer ice--you're not too big to fail.

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