Earth: Too Big to Fail? | The Nation


Earth: Too Big to Fail?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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.

I've had the great Hollywood epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day on my mind ever since I watched it in a hotel room in New Orleans a few weeks ago with the Superdome visible out the window. In 1991, at the time of its release, T2 was supposedly about a terrible future; now, it seems situated in an oddly comfortable past.

What apocalypses are you nostalgic for? The premise of the movie was that the machines we needed to worry about had not yet been invented, no less put to use: intelligent machines that would rebel against their human masters in 1997, setting off an all-out nuclear war that would get rid of the first 3 billion of us and lead to a campaign of extermination against the remnant of the human race scrabbling in the rubble of what had once been civilization.

By the time the film was released, the news of climate change was already filtering out. Reports like Bill McKibben's 1989 book The End of Nature had told us that the machines that could destroy us and our world had, in fact, been invented--a long, long time ago. Almost all of us had been using them almost all the time, from the era of the steam engine and the rise of the British coal economy through the age of railroads and the dawn of petroleum extraction to the birth of the internal-combustion engine and the spread of industrial civilization across the planet. They weren't "intelligent" and they weren't in revolt, nor were they led by any one super-machine. It was the cumulative effect of all those devices pumping back into the atmosphere the carbon that plants had so kindly buried in the Earth over the last few hundred million years.

The Superdome is, of course, where thousands of New Orleanians were stranded when Katrina, the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, broke the city's levees and flooded the place. A maelstrom of institutional failures left people trapped in the scalding cauldron of a drowned city for five days while the world looked on aghast. It was a disaster that had been long foretold, and no one had done much to forestall it. No one had repaired those crummy levees or bothered to create a real evacuation plan for the city--and, unlike the revolt of the machines in T2, the future actually arrived. Like climate change.

For many, it was a foretaste of our new era. It may not be clear what role, if any, climate change played in the generation of that particular hurricane, but it is clear that, in this era, there will be, and indeed already have been, many more such calamities: the deadly freak rainstorms in Sicily, Britain and the Philippines this fall, the increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic in recent years, as well as in the intensity of droughts, floods, heat waves, crop failures and the displacement of populations, as well as the massive melting of glaciers and sea ice in the cold places, rising waters in the coastal ones and oceans going acidic with devastating effects on marine life.

This is the actual nightmarish "movie" of our times. This is what our less-than-intelligent machines have actually wrought. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already responsible for 150,000 deaths annually. Unchecked, it will kill far more, and no one's measuring the despair in the island nations that may disappear and among those who live in, and off of, the melting Arctic. Looking at the Superdome during the commercial breaks in T2, I wondered about the apocalypses already under our belts and the bumpy road ahead.

The Governor of the State with the Uncertain Shoreline

The plot of the movie, as most of you undoubtedly recall, is that the Terminator, also played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the low-budget 1984 original, shows up again, sent back from the future ten years after in the first epic. This time around, he's not action heroine Sarah Connor's nemesis; he's on the side of humanity, specifically of her son John Connor, the boy with the unambiguous initials who will grow up to lead the resistance to our extermination by machines.

Another more advanced Terminator is, in the meantime, also sent back from the future to destroy the messianic boy and his foulmouthed commando mom. The rest of the movie is a feast of shootouts, chases, explosions and brilliantly plotted action. It was all surpassingly strange and compelling when I watched it, while wiped out with what was probably swine flu, a fever dream of the past's nightmares that somehow didn't manage to anticipate our waking hells.

Now, of course, the movie's cyborg star is a major force in the real world. He's my governor, more powerful but less charismatic than in his Terminator incarnation. Recently, he traveled to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to release the state's 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy, a 200-page document about the array of devastations the state faces and what countermeasures we can take. Early on, that document states:

Climate change is already affecting California. Sea levels have risen by as much as seven inches along the California coast over the last century, increasing erosion and pressure on the state's infrastructure, water supplies, and natural resources. The state has also seen increased average temperatures, more extreme hot days, fewer cold nights, a lengthening of the growing season, shifts in the water cycle with less winter precipitation falling as snow, and both snowmelt and rainwater running off sooner in the year.

Looking to the future, the report predicted that there would be more fires, less water, loss of coastal lands and up to $2.5 trillion of real estate put at risk by global warming. The Terminator, or governor, was on the island because, with even modest further rises in sea-level, it will disappear entirely. Hasta la vista, baby.

During the years the Bush Administration refused to do anything at all about climate change, Schwarzenegger arrived at the helm of a state that had already developed major innovations in energy efficiency and in creative price-structuring that took away power companies' motives to push higher energy consumption. California had also sought to set new standards for carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. The bill to do the last of these was crafted in 2002 by Fran Pavley, a newly elected state assemblywoman from Ventura County. When Obama came into office, the roadblocks were finally removed and the bill became the basis for national regulations that will make vehicles 40 percent more fuel-efficient by 2016. Pavley and Schwarzenegger were there at the Rose Garden signing of the regulations last May.

As Ronald Brownstein reported in the Atlantic this October:

Ambitious new initiatives have cascaded out of Schwarzenegger's office--including the two measures raising the renewable-power requirement on utilities, a state subsidy program to encourage the installation of electricity-generating solar panels on 1 million California roofs, and in January 2007, an executive order establishing the nation's first "low-carbon fuel standard," which requires a reduction of at least 10 percent in the carbon emissions from transportation fuels by 2020. Schwarzenegger signed a Pavley-sponsored bill imposing the nation's first mandatory statewide reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The bill required the state by 2020 to roll back its emissions to the 1990 level--a reduction of about 15 percent from the current level. (By separate executive order, Schwarzenegger also committed the state to an 80 percent reduction by 2050.)

It'd be easy to go with the Atlantic and frame the governor as a hero, but he landed in office by promising to cut vehicle taxes and has been in bed ever since with the state's biggest greenhouse gas emitter and the world's fifth biggest corporation, Chevron. Even the organization that sent him to Copenhagen, Climate Action Reserve, is backed by Chevron and Shell--and the oil and coal industries have been the biggest domestic roadblocks to real climate-change measures. Nonetheless, at the Copenhagen climate conference he talked about R20, the alliance of states and provinces he's co-founded to implement climate change measures at sub-national levels. And he has suggested that climate-change deniers like Palin are "still living in the Stone Age."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size