The financial crisis shows us the way
In the fall of 2008, as the global financial architecture crumbled, governments around the world swiftly committed themselves to spending trillions of dollars to rescue the global market in money, to save financial institutions from the consequences of their bad choices, and prevent a global depression. The original plan by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to purchase toxic assets soon morphed into a more economically dexterous notion of recapitalization through government purchase of preferred stock. And this headline grabber was accompanied by the massive provision of government assets to provide loans of guarantee for short-term commercial paper, money market funds, and bank deposits. All of which is done to get the money flowing again, and the great global engine of the economy churning ahead. It may be a matter of months, or perhaps several painful years, to successfully respond to a global financial crisis and its economic fallout. Unfortunately, we cannot continue to wait until the moment of dramatic crisis to make the necessary choices to transform the nature of industrial business as usual in order to save us from ecological catastrophe. It may take centuries, or perhaps thousands of years for us to provisionally recover from the consequences of a looming global climate change and ecological crisis. This is an ecological crisis that will fundamentally change for us and all the earth’s inhabitants the nature of the ecosphere. In response to the over 7 billion metric tons of carbon and other effluents industrial civilization pours into the atmosphere, our planet will be forced to find a new balance favorable for all life — a balance that, in all likelihood, will not favor our species. Many scientists believe we have already passed the points of no return. The question now is only, “How bad will it be?” Are we like the frog placed in a pot being slowly warmed until it blissfully succumbs? Will we gradually become poorer, our coasts uninhabitable, the death toll from famine continually rising, the Somalias of the world becoming the rule instead of the exception? Or will an ecological crisis sweep over us like the global financial collapse, a cascading impact of flood and drought, crop failure and famine, failed states and mass migration of the desperate, resource wars for food and water. Maybe a singular event, a runaway greenhouse effect suddenly unleashed through melting methane hydrates bubbling into the atmosphere will capture our attention as the financial collapse did? Perhaps both are true. We are slowing cooking ourselves. And we are also still pursuing the maximization of economic activity of all kinds, constructive and self-destructive, that will unleash catastrophe upon ourselves and our children and grandchildren. Katrina, for example, was not merely a chance weather event. It was a warning manifesting, in part, the intensification of storms fed by the increased heat of evaporation from the warming Gulf of Mexico. It is a matter of timing and of how long we continue to follow the unsustainable before dramatic consequences overtake us. At that point, it will be too late to do anything but to save a tiny remnant of what was. Sustainability is about making the choices that will allow us to turn away from self-destruction and toward freedom and prosperity. And sustainability is also, if we fail to act, about the earth doing the job for us, imposing a new reality that as a consequence will force us with extreme prejudice to mend our ways. Roy Morrison is director of the Office for Sustainability at Southern New Hampshire University. His next book is “Sustainability: A 21st Century Guide,” coming in 2009.