Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“God’s Wrath?”

Twenty percent of Pakistan is beneath what once was a tamed Indus River; a River until recently held in check by miles of levees (not unlike the state of much of the Mississippi River).   The Indus River was in check, that is, until what U.N. officials are calling the worst natural disaster to date attributable to climate change drove the River beyond its banks, forcing thousands to flee and adding their desperation to the millions in the region already in need of relief.  "If this is not God’s wrath, what is?" 40-year-old taxi driver Bakht Zada wondered, as he watched his livelihood, history and culture being washed downstream toward the Indian Ocean.
Researcher, writer and university professor Wolfgang Sachs once noted that "Nothing is ultimately as irrational as rushing with maximum efficiency in the wrong direction."  From where I sit, Professor Sachs has captured the human condition very well, as we heedlessly stroll down the road toward catastrophe at a very efficient pace.  The tempo at which we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere continues to increase while evidence mounts daily that says following such a path is folly.  While a fifth of Pakistan sits under water, Russia’s drought-ridden landscape burns and 700 people die each day, China is having its worst floods in decades, ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet is expanding rapidly up its northwest coast, and Iowa has been soaked by its wettest 36-month period in nearly 13 decades of record-keeping.

Climatologists are now openly saying what laypeople have been wondering aloud for months.  The Pakistani flooding, Russian heat wave and other extreme weather events occurring around the globe are linked to and exacerbated by climate change.  Scientists at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported this week that “the sequence of current events matches . . . projections of more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.”  Almost simultaneously, 16 of Australia’s leading scientists, speaking through the Australian Academy of Science and across a range of disciplines, produced a report pointedly confronting climate change deniers in an effort to set the record straight on climate science in the middle of a national election in which the validity of climate change has been hotly contested.

The degree to which the Pakistani flooding and other extreme weather events are due to climate change layered upon more typical climatic cycles (or, even as Mr. Zada suggests, due to the wrath of God) is certainly questionable.  However, that climate change is occurring at all can no longer be questioned by people of good conscious.  Nor can we continue to rationally deny humanity’s historic and continued contributions to climate change.  Yet, we still question and debate the latter point and still deny that the earth’s climate is changing at all.  Fiddling, in effect, while the world – now all too literally – burns.

That some still question the human influence on climate change is ironic, to say the least, since the underlying cultural ethos of ever-increasing production founded upon ever-improving efficiency  goes largely unquestioned, while that increasing production is linked directly to escalating climate change.  In fact, the need for increased productivity is not only an unchallenged truism but has been deified, particularly in our western culture, where we pride ourselves in being efficient.  The more productive and efficient a people are, our cultural myth goes, the more likely we are to prosper as a nation, to survive as a culture and to be more comfortable doing it.  We reach, yearn and strive for higher productivity; try our utmost to do more, make more and consume more with less effort, less money, less guilt.  And doing, producing and consuming more for less - all iconic measures of efficiency - are unquestionably good.  Right?

Our parents used to tell us that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Today, we can add “productive” and “efficient” to the list of qualities that raise us closer to divinity.

Rachel Carson observed that we live in a time “in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.”  Seldom challenged, because we have elevated efficiency and productivity to a godlike status.  Increasing factory productivity goes unquestioned, even if it means laying off employees who have dedicated themselves to a company for decades.  Proficiently pumping pollutants into the air we breathe and water we drink is rewarded, so long as we are comfortable while productively poisoning ourselves and the planet.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” Albert Einstein warned, “It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  What we need now are a little less intelligent foolishness and a lot more people of courage to question our blind devotion to the god of productivity: to ask why when productivity is deemed sacrosanct; to question power when the idol of unbridled growth goes unchallenged; to speak truth in the face of a torrent of misinformation.

Perhaps Pakistani taxi driver Bakht Zada is correct after all.  If it is our twenty-first century god of ever-increasing production that is ultimately causing our climate devastation, then the Indus River flooding may, in the end, have been the result of a god’s wrath, albeit a god of our own making.  "If this is not God’s wrath, what is?"

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