I'm generally not one to be an alarmist about environmental issues and climate change. Why not? For one, it's frankly depressing. Story after story about how we're ruining the oceans or the atmosphere - it's just a little overwhelming and I think most of us have a natural reaction to not want to be brought down by bad news. I know many activists who would be upset or frustrated by that reaction, but it's part of our nature. Secondly, I just don't feel as an individual there's much I can do about it. The problem is too big, too unwieldy, or as the saying goes, "above my pay grade." Certainly individual actions can make us feel better, and have an impact on our immediate environment, but I can't control what goes on in China or India or anywhere else. More on this at a future date, and what I think it means for urban design and planning.
Having said all of that, two articles came across my inbox recently that do give some idea of what is going on with the climate and our environment. The first is a really fascinating piece about how trees are actually moving as the planet's temperatures change. Robert Krulwich writes:
After the last great ice age, as it warmed, temperate forests (with help from birds, wind and berry-eating bears) moved north at a rate of more than half a mile per year. This time, can the plants keep up?
Miles Silman, a forest ecologist at Wake Forest University, has been pondering this question. He (and others) have been looking hard at patches of forest on the slopes of the Andes mountains in Manú National Park in Peru. The trees in each patch have been counted, measured, watched, providing a good baseline to see how things have changed. As described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her new book, The Sixth Extinction, one of Silman's grad students, Kenneth Feeley, and his colleagues discovered that trees on these mountain slopes are already in motion. Not all trees, though. Just some.
Feeley looked at changes over a 4-year period, and found that trees have been moving up to get cooler at an average rate of 8 feet a year; but some, Kolbert writes, were "practically hyperactive." Trees from the genus Schefflera, (which we know as part of the gingseng family) were "racing up the ridge at the astonishing rate of nearly a hundred feet a year."
The second is a thoroughly depressing piece that features James Lovelock, a maverick scientist who came up with the Gaia hypothesis that is the foundation of modern climate science. Decca Aitkenhead writes:
As with most people, my panic about climate change is equalled only by my confusion over what I ought to do about it. A meeting with Lovelock therefore feels a little like an audience with a prophet. Buried down a winding track through wild woodland, in an office full of books and papers and contraptions involving dials and wires, the 88-year-old presents his thoughts with a quiet, unshakable conviction that can be unnerving. More alarming even than his apocalyptic climate predictions is his utter certainty that almost everything we're trying to do about it is wrong.
Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.
And what's Lovelock's controversial prescription?
What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."