The Size of the World

Presentation: November 16, 2017

Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.

As scientific knowledge presents an expanding universe of human interaction with nature, America retreats to a shrinking world of national prejudice and economic materialism.  When will we begin to live in the larger world?  Why does compassion and active concern for natural systems among some people produce its opposite among others?

Sam Avery is a professional solar installer, author, and former history instructor at Elizabethtown Community College.

The Size of the World

Why are some people passionately concerned about global heating and others adamantly committed to ignoring it?  Why, as we approach the tipping point of irreversible climate damage, do we continue to extract, refine, and consume the carbon fuels that are causing the problem?  Why do some think that more coal, more petroleum, and more natural gas is moving backward, while others see it as moving forward?

The answer lies in the size of the world we live in.  The familiar world we have always known – the world of cars and shopping centers, electric lights and central heating, gas stations and monthly utility bills – the world we live in, is not big enough for climate change.  It is not big enough to accommodate higher temperatures, stronger storms, drier droughts, and melting ice caps.  Nothing like this has ever happened before.  It does not fit anywhere in our understanding of who we are and what we do.  There is a vague sense that the new climate threatens our way of life, but we don’t know how, or why, or what can be done.  There are no traditions or accumulated wisdom to fall back on.  For many, because climate change does not fit into the world, it cannot be real.  It cannot exist because there is no place for it to exist. 

By the world I do not mean the physical universe of space, time, and matter.  I do not mean objective reality.  I mean the psychic-spiritual world in which we see ourselves participating in everyday life, the world we wake up to every morning and step into when we go out the door.  I mean the everyday world of friends and family, where we do things, think things, and talk about things, the world in which we imagine a future pretty much like the present.  This is the world that is too small for climate change.  It is a world divided by geography, ethnicity, language, and religion, a world where compassion, concern, loyalty, and effective action ends at the national boundary.  But it is not the whole world; there are people out there beyond the borders, people who do not look like us.  Being human in this divided world is not as important as being a type of human.  Nationality comes before humanity.  This world is too small.  It is not wrong; it is not bad; it is only too small for what is coming our way.

But there is a hole in this world – a small opening in the sky through which you can see a much larger world.  The hole is a simple fact, a number that is growing larger over the years.  It’s a number that can be measured objectively anytime, anywhere, a number that changes everything about being human in the twenty-first century.  It is a fact that is not an opinion.  The number – the hole in the sky – is 403: 403 parts per million carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Of every million molecules in the atmosphere right now, 403 of them are carbon dioxide, or CO2.  That’s less than one half of one percent of the total mix, but it’s huge.  It’s huge because it is much bigger than it used to be and it is getting bigger every year.  The number was 280 parts per million before people started burning fossil fuels.  403 is a 44% increase.  44% more carbon!!!   That’s not a marginal increase.  That’s not 2% or 5%, it’s nearly half again as much!  And the number goes up about 2 ppm every year.  (You can keep track of it at CO2.Earth on the internet.)  The number varies from season to season due to photosynthesis.  Right now, after a summer of plants absorbing CO2, the number is actually lower than it was last spring, when it was about 410.  This coming spring it will go back over 410 to around 412.  CO2 is different from other pollutants because it’s not just in dirty air around smoke stacks and urban areas; it’s evenly spread throughout the entire planetary system.  We have changed the chemistry of the whole biosphere.  Every cubic inch of the Earth’s atmosphere has more carbon than it used to, and that what is changing how the planetary system works.  That additional carbon dioxide absorbs more energy from the sun, heats the atmosphere, and changes global weather patterns. 

Have you noticed any changes in weather patterns recently?

Global heating is a fact, a scientific fact.  Not everybody believes it; but the good thing about science is that you don’t have to believe it, and it’s still true!

This little hole in the world – this little 403 ppm – is not a big yet.  Not many people even know about it.  But it’s big enough to let the air out of the world we think we are in.  This number is the first truly global problem humanity has ever faced.  If we ignore it, there will be more storms, floods, and droughts, more infrastructure destruction, less agricultural production with more population, and the real possibility of mass extinction.    If you take the time to look through this little hole, what you will see is a whole new world of living relationship with every other human being on Earth.  Not just your friends, your family, your country, but with everyone in the world.  You see not see independence; you will see interdependence.  You will see that you depend on all people, and they depend on you.  You see a humanity that, for the first time ever, has to act as a whole.  We cannot deal with climate chaos as separate individuals or separate nations.  Carbon dioxide molecules do not care who emits them or what country they come from.  They do not care if you, as an individual, have cut back of fossil fuels, or waste them recklessly; if your nation has passed laws reducing emissions, or continues to extract and burn them.  No matter who you are, you and your people are in the same boat with everyone else.  Each CO2 molecule mixes into the extent of the atmosphere and stays there for hundreds of years.  Each country cannot protect “its own” atmosphere; people as a whole have to care for the Earth as a whole.  This is a totally new angle, and an existential crisis.  Civilization will live or die by how it responds.  Climate is not just another issue in the world; it is an issue that changes the world itself.    

This does not mean you have to believe in climate change.  It does not mean you have to be in favor of it or against it.  That’s the wrong question.  You don’t have to want to see the familiar world change.  I, for one, would as soon keep things pretty much as they are.  But it doesn’t matter what I want or what I think.  The physical properties of the Earth’s atmosphere do not respond to human preference.  Thermometers measure temperature, not opinion poles.  The best we can do is to look at the world the way it is and make the best of it. 

The best of it, if we are lucky – and smart – may not be so bad.  The transition will be painful, but the new, larger world may be better than we think.  Looking closely through the hole in the sky you may see a world where humanity has the scientific knowledge, the practical vision, and the political tools to act as a whole.  There may be fair, equitable, and coordinated ways for all people to reduce or eliminate carbon fuels for the good of all people everywhere.  In fact, there has to be exactly that.  Global heating is a unified threat to the health, the physical infrastructure, and the food supply of human civilization everywhere.  It is happening throughout all parts of the planet.  The transition to renewable energy will hurt at first, but may, in the long run, become the unification that makes human life possible in the global age.  A unified approach to global heating may bring about transcendence of international division on other issues.

The political crisis of 2017 is a struggle between two worlds: the old, comfortable, familiar world we are used to, and the new, unfamiliar world that seems to be forcing itself on us.  Which do we choose?  Do we stick with what we know and fight the oncoming tide, or cave in to the inevitable?

That, I think, is a bad question, the wrong question.  We should not choose one world or the other.  We should not defend one against the other.  We should concentrate on what we actually see going all around us and not on attacking people on “the other side.”

Let’s take a closer look at the world we live in now, here in America.  Its values, generally speaking, are individual initiative, family, church, self-reliance, fiscal responsibility, limited government, and private enterprise.  It rewards bravery, hard work, honesty, patriotism, and personal freedom.  (I’m rounding off some corners here.) These are not conservative values, they are core American values; they date back to the founding of this country on a new continent.  These are the values that have gotten us where we are today.  They have made America the most powerful society on earth.  They have made America great.  But they did not start out conservative.  They became conservative only as America entered a new world of global trade, international terrorism, space travel, intercontinental weaponry, and global climate chaos.  Americans are no longer rugged individuals, carving a living out of the wilderness.  The forests are no longer unlimited; we see where they begin and end.  The atmosphere is no longer infinite; we know it is but a thin layer over the land.  The oceans are no longer endless over the horizon; they are only so deep and so wide.  We all live and breathe within a planetary enclosure; despoiling any part of it can no longer be an individual freedom.  You can no longer treat the natural world any way you want.  Where American society came of age in a world of boundless horizons and unlimited resources, it finds itself now in a closed biospheric system that demands conscious attention to resource use and waste production.  The frontier is gone.  There is no out.  Waste products, chemicals, spent uranium, or carbon dioxide can no longer be thrown out; they can only be thrown in.  We live in what we produce, in what we consume, and in what we waste.  A healthy, vibrate society still depends on personal initiative, individual responsibility, and free enterprise, but it depends also on a healthy, vibrant biosphere.  Human life is a form of life, and must exist within the limits of life itself.  

Yes, there is conflict here.  There is a difference between the world of rugged individualism and the world of diversity, ecology, tolerance, and international cooperation.  But to choose between them is a mistake.  The situation is far too complex to declare allegiance to one side and deny the other, yet that is what we seem to be doing.  We seem to be more interested in finding fault with the other side than in looking at the world the way it really is.  It is natural to divide down the middle and declare one side good and the other bad: natural, but not smart, not sophisticated.  We have to be smarter than that.  We have to accept complexity.  As one world passes into another, we have to accept a conflict of values.  

Here’s why: We have to accept complexity because that is how the world works.  People aren’t bad or good.  Carbon isn’t bad or good.  I found this out the hard way.  A few years back, while researching a book on the Keystone XL pipeline, I interviewed a farmer in rural Nebraska.  He had heard about tree huggers like me getting all excited about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

“Look over there,” he said, pointing over endless rows of dark green leaves waving in the wind.  “What do you see?”

“Corn.”  I replied.

“And what’s making it grow?  Carbon!  Carbon is fertilizer, not a pollution!”    

He was right, of course.  Life on Earth, or anywhere else, would be impossible without carbon.  Carbon is really good stuff.  I tried to say something about balance, about too much and not enough, but he was on to something else by then.  He had scored his point. 

The other reason to avoid the good–bad simplicity is to avoid political manipulation.  In a democracy, if voters think there are only good guys and bad guys, they make themselves easy to convince and easy to buy. Money in political campaigns is most effective when tearing the other guy down.  Painting your own candidate as good, intelligent, honest, and competent takes too long.  Complex scenarios can be boiled down to single issues. If you have only thirty seconds, it’s easier to scare voters with nasty “facts” about how bad, stupid, corrupt, and incompetent the other guy is.  Complexity has no place on bumper stickers and paid political advertisements.  But complexity is how the real world works.  Vision, wisdom, and practical knowhow – the qualities we need in leadership – are based in a multidimensional understanding of what is real.  If democracy is going to work in the world we are moving into, voters have to see more than good and bad.

Let me be more specific.  Looking through the hole in the sky – looking at 403 ppm  becoming 450. 500, and 600 – it is natural to look for someone to blame.  Who is doing this?  Who is the bad guy?  Who is destroying the atmosphere that all life depends on?  Of course!  It’s the oil companies!  The coal companies!  The frackers!  They’re making billions of dollars selling the fossil fuels that are causing all the damage!  This is the “natural” reaction.  But it is not the smart reaction.  If we look past our own noses, it is plain to see that fossil fuel companies only sell what we buy.  They would not drill wells, lay pipelines, and blow up mountains if we didn’t buy petroleum, natural gas, and coal.  If we didn’t burn carbon in cars and furnaces and factories, there would be no excess carbon in the air.  The oil companies are doing exactly what our dollars are telling them to do.  These are not bad people!

We can’t even blame the fuels.  Fossil fuels are wonderful!  They’re compact, they’re portable, and they provide highly concentrated energy for every human need.  Coal, oil, and natural gas provide us with transportation, heating, cooling, lighting, entertainment, communications, fertilizer, and refrigeration.  Without them we would be immobile, cold, hot, dark, dull, out of touch, and hungry.  They are the very lifeblood of modern civilization.  We depend on them absolutely.  We should not blame them for the carbon they produce, or blame ourselves for using them.  We should not think of them as bad.  It is much smarter – more sophisticated – to think of them as transitory.  They have not been around for long, and will not be around much longer.  They have brought us from the horse-and-buggy days to the wonders of modern living.  What we have to realize now is that they will bring us no further.  It may be human nature to blame fossil fuels for climate destruction, but it serves no human purpose.  We should forget the blame game, thank fossil fuels for the ride, excuse ourselves politely, and move on.

Moving on – that’s what we should be using our smarts for.  Instead of blaming other people, inanimate products, and ourselves for addiction to carbon fuels, we should be figuring out how to get off them.  How are we going to do that?  If we are dependent on carbon fuels for everything from getting to work, to keeping warm, to eating food, how are we going to live without them?  Even if there were no climate problem, we would still have to stop using fossil fuels because they are finite.  There is only so much in the ground.  We will run out eventually and the fossil fuel age will end no matter what we do.  This means, in no uncertain terms, that the future of humanity depends entirely on renewable energy:  solar, wind, geothermal, cellulosic biofuels, and anything else we may discover along the way.  These sources are miniscule in their importance now, but the human future depends on them absolutely.

I used to think, along with many others, that the way to break the fossil fuels habit would be to run out of them; to use them up.  There’s only so much coal and oil and gas in the ground.  As the supply goes down; the price goes up, and as the price goes up; renewables become more competitive in the marketplace.  The transition would happen, I thought, through natural market forces.  We won’t have to change how we live; we’ll just pay a little more at the pump.  I wish that were true.  I wish we could just let the market lead us away from the damage we are causing to the atmosphere.  But it’s not going to happen that way because there is way too much fossil fuel available – five times too much!  If we burn just a fifth of all the fossil fuel in proven reserves around the world, we would raise global temperatures 2 degrees centigrade (3.6 Fahrenheit), which everyone agrees would be too much.  And there’s probably a lot more fuel out there that we have not discovered.  If we let the marketplace run its course, oversupply will keep the price of fossil fuel cheap, and we will keep buying it for a long time – way past the time when sea levels rise, world agricultural production declines, and large-scale extinctions begin.  We cannot let the market destroy the living world in the name of free enterprise.  We have to stop using fossil fuel consciously and deliberately.  This is a survival test – we have to know what is happening and do what we have to do as if our lives depended on it.  We will adapt to new realities or we will fail to adapt.  Humanity has to watch that little hole in the sky as it grows bigger and develop a coordinated worldwide response to the crisis.  We have never done anything like this before, but we can do it.  If we fail, we do not deserve our place as the dominant species on this planet.   

That’s my thinking on the subject.  I might be wrong, I might be overlooking something, and there are a hundred other ways to construe the same information.  But I think that 403 is a hole in the world we live in today.  It’s not so bad yet – it’s still a small hole – but it’s getting bigger all the time.  You can watch it grow, every day – every year.  When it gets up to around 450 in a few years, it will open up the sky.  Everyone will see it.  What I present to you now in a college classroom will be common knowledge everywhere.  We will be looking at an entirely new world that will change who we think we are and what we think we are doing here. There will be new ways to heat houses, to keep the lights on, to keep cool in the summer, to have computers and telephones, to drive cars, and to have food.  How will we do it?  Questions that seem political and economic today will become spiritual questions tomorrow:

“What is really important?” 

“Is economic growth what human life is about?”

“Is there a world bigger than America?”

“Do we need guiding principles bigger than politics and economics?”

“Can religion point toward the present and future as well as the past?”

“Can we love other forms of life as we love ourselves?”

We should ask these questions, but I do not think we should answer them too quickly.  The world, after all, the new world we are moving into, grows larger with questions, not answers.  That is what a world should be: a place to wonder, to look, to study, to ask: 

“As carbon levels rise, what will happen to plants, to animals, to people?”

“Where will food production increase?  Where decrease?  What will be the overall affect?”

“What will rising ocean temperatures do to marine life?”

“What will rising sea levels do to coastal cities?”

“What other forms of economic growth might there be, besides more money and more stuff?”

These are interesting questions that make the world interesting.  They invite us to learn more about other forms of life, about complex natural systems, and about our own history and development.  They challenge us to overcome assumptions about what we need to survive, to be happy, and to live well.

The world we see around us now is not the culmination of human history.  This is a transitional period.  This is not all there is.  The only way to deal with climate change successfully is to approach it from a global and not a national perspective.  This is new. This is the first truly global crisis; we have to see as it is and act as a world.  I do not mean this in an idealistic sense.  I do not mean that we will all live in peace and harmony or that we should deny ongoing international tensions and conflict; but I do mean that we have to resolve international conflicts peaceably.  This, interestingly, is not new.  We know how to resolve conflicts peaceably within nations – it’s called law.  We need only develop the same practice between nations.  This will come to pass as the size of the world expands to include all people everywhere.

This new reality is unsettling to many.  But I do not fear the future.  If we approach climate change successfully, we will develop the tools we need to approach other global problems successfully.   Every major problem confronting humanity is global and not national: environment, trade, economic development, disease, disaster relief, population, and war.  All must be faced as a world, a united world, a real world, a practical world with real solutions to real problems, a world unafraid to create itself.  The new world will be one of balance, collective self-awareness, and creation care.  We see it even now, through that little hole in the sky, and begin to envision ourselves living there.

But why the opposition?  Why are so many people turning the other way?  Why, in the last year, do we see within our own country massive new fossil fuel development: pipelines, coal terminals, coalmines, tar sands, and fracking wells?  Why are newly appointed government officials climate deniers, gas developers, and former oil company executives?  Why are public lands and national monuments opening up to oil and gas development?  Why did the US government just sign an agreement with China to build $73 billion worth for chemical and fossil fuel infrastructure in West Virginia?  Why is the new world such a threat to the old?

Government policy in the current year, both federal and state, is not just business as usual.  It is an in-your-face denial of the future.  It is a deliberate rolling back of recent policies based on a growing awareness of climate disaster.  That gives me hope.  Hope, because what we are seeing is reaction.  It is pushing back against what is happening, which is a tacit recognition that it is, in fact, happening.  Denial is a form of recognition.   What we see happening around us this year is undoing what has been done, which means that something very real and recognizable has been done.  Policy so distinctly anti-climate and anti-environment is a clear admission that people are paying more attention to climate and environment.  This new awareness among some is a threat to the established order.  Any limitation on carbon emission is seen as a threat to unlimited economic growth; any worldwide policy is perceived as a threat to nationalism; and any threat to corporate freedom is construed as a threat to personal freedom.  (Corporations, in this country, are still understood to be persons.)  From the standpoint of the old world, the new world must be stopped, and stopped now, before it goes any further.  This gives me hope, because there is no other way for the new world to emerge from the old.  There has to be a reaction, there has to be denial, there has to be thesis and antithesis – the yin and the yang – and that is what we are seeing.  We are seeing the complexity that means something is happening.  We are seeing the birth of the new world.

People don’t change worlds easily, and they shouldn’t.  The old values of individual responsibility and self-reliance should be treasured and perpetuated into the future.  They are no longer the whole world, but there is room for them in the new world.  The larger world we see through the hole in the sky is one in which every human being, however industrious, self-motivated, and enterprising, will live interdependently with every other human being, and with the living world as a whole.  There will be a place for self-reliance, a place for the old world within the new, but we will never again be rugged individuals carving a living from the wilderness. 

America is great, and will be great in the future, but America will not go backward.  America will never be great again, in the old sense of the word. 

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