Racing To Extinction
By Bill Henderson

16 March, 2005

There are tragic stories of death and injury every day in all our local papers involving young guys in souped up cars racing recklessly, loosing control and killing themselves, their passengers, or, sadly in too many cases, innocent families in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Us old codgers ask ‘Why take the chance of possible death or a life of remorse and jail in reckless, speeding behavior? Why get even close to taking such risks everything considered?

Now this isn’t an op-ed on street racers, on reckless youthful behavior in sports cars or muscle cars, but on global warming. It is an attempt to wake you up to recognize our reckless behavior in risking the very future of humanity and maybe even all life as we know it by going too fast and behaving extremely recklessly.

Most of us know a little about global warming: the burning of fossil fuels and other side effect products of industrial societies combine to produce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increasing global mean temperatures leading to heretofore unprecedented climate change.

It seems that most of us think of this as a gradual warming, a far off in the future, perhaps even beneficial, unimportant background warming. In reality it is an almost unbelievably tragic disaster risking everything we value; a catastrophic accident we are already in, sliding towards a cliff.

In BC where I live the forest in two thirds of the province, plus parts of the Yukon and Alaska – an area equal to the American south-west – are dying due to a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetles are part of these forest ecosystems but their populations were kept in check by cold winter temperatures (more than thirty degrees below zero for at least two weeks). Two decades of unprecedented warm winters have uncorked a pathogen whose effects can be easily seen from space: an evolving, rapidly spreading disaster for lifeforms – including us – who live in these forests.

Warmer temperatures also mean deadly water temperatures in rivers and creeks for salmon both beginning their journey or returning to spawn. Combined with warmer waters disrupting feeding and introducing new predators and food competition in the North Pacific where they will spend most of their lifecycle, global warming may mean the end of the estimated hundred million year history of salmon in what we have so recently labeled the north-east Pacific.

I have used local, BC examples but global warming accidents are happening everywhere, every day. Like salmon and the flora and fauna in our forests, we are adapted for a very slender range of temperature to survive. We are nested in and dependent upon historic climates and interacting ecosystems. Global warming even now promises wrenching dislocation and death.

But these immediate effects of global warming pale before the possibility of runaway global warming where warming due to our greenhouse gas emissions causes greatly increased greenhouse gas production from normal terrestrial sources – the release of CO2 stored in tundra, for example - creating positive feedback loops which overwhelm regular biosphere regulation and lead to temperatures possibly hundreds of degrees warmer then present. Runaway global warming that could lead to an atmosphere like Venus.

In September 2000, world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was widely quoted in the press as being very worried about runaway global warming: "I am afraid the atmosphere might get hotter and hotter until it will be like Venus with boiling sulfuric acid," said Hawking. "I am worried about the greenhouse effect."

If we go over this cliff no more humanity; the extinction of almost every existing species except some bacteria; the end of life on Earth as we know it.

I have a re-occurring dream: I’m a young guy again, in a car with some friends traveling at night along the mountain two lane blacktop of my youth. We’re going way too fast, way too fast. We’re doing things like passing blind and almost loosing it on corners. In the moonlight I can see the lake far below.

I know an accident is going to happen but they won’t listen to me: shut up chicken. They are focused on the speed, the rush, on keeping the car on the road. It is insane and I’m trapped into going along with them.

Wake up.

An exponential increasing population with an economy growing at two percent, compounding in mere decades after centuries of industrialization based upon fossil fuel use, has us speeding recklessly, growing way, way too fast in a finite world.

Science has a convincing understanding of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels, a cause and effect first postulated more then a century ago. We are already in the skid – the accident is happening. The already existing greenhouse gases will continue to trap heat over the next century. It might be too late already to overt runaway global warming.

If we know that reckless street racing leads to death, why do we allow the production and merchandising of cars designed, engineered and promoted to street race?

If we know that continuing fossil fuel use risks our lives today and maybe human extinction, why do we still have an economy almost totally dependent upon fossil fuels while possible alternative renewable energy sources languish relatively ignored? Where fossil fuel exploitation is still subsidized by governments?

Why are we expanding ‘car economies’ (now in China and India as well as the developed world) when we should be aware of the global warming danger and know of other possible economic and social configurations that don’t require intensive fossil fuel use? Other ways of organizing our lives that don’t need the fossil fuel addiction?

Why do young guys continue to race recklessly when they see wrecks and pictures of the dead in the media and guys like themselves remorseful in the manslaughter trial coverage?

Why does everybody in our business community still demand exponential rates of growth and the wasteful use of what are now becoming very precious resources needed by future generations? Rates of material growth that can clearly be understood as risking catastrophic death and mayhem and perhaps even the extinction of humanity on this planet?

Why aren’t our captains of industry, our economic-centric politicians and commerce focused governments and all of us that own businesses (or work in or are financially dependent upon them) in the dock, right now, today, for risking unbelievable calamity just because of our personal, incredibly ignorant and unethical addiction to reckless speed?

When there are (when there we’re?) so many other possible ways of driving, of operating our economies, that don’t risk extinction?


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