Penguins.mooh.org

New Years Revolutions

Somewhat oddly, I haven't posted anything up here for exactly a year. I personally blame the other micro-blogging sites out there (tumblr, twitter, facebook) for satiating my need for writing voluminous texts and treatises. Why labour over a long form piece, when your thoughts can be published live, in a stream of consciousness to the internet?

Today, I make amends. I've been driven to write this because, fundamentally I feel like I'm witnessing what can only be described as the apocalypse. Or, more accurately, the latest apocalypse to come knocking on our doorstep. As a society, we've had quite an interesting decade, in that we've faced a number of apocalypses, and we've managed to muddle through each of them quite well. At the beginning of this century, we were all scrupulously avoiding getting into lifts at the start of the year to avoid that dreaded Y2K bug. IT folks had actually managed to get together to fix that before any huge damage was caused, and the actual changeover passed with nary an incident. As my first apocalypse, I was somewhat disappointed in it.

Barely two years had passed before the next apocalypse arrived, in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was pretty sure at the time that the world was going to war, and that "the world had changed". Again, once the shock had worn off, I ended up being disappointed by that apocalypse. The world had changed, for sure, but not in any of the ways that I had predicted. Political forces seemed to be working hard to stabilise the situation behind the scenes. If anything, I was picking up quite the reputation as the unreliable Nostradamus (Yes, I realise the irony).

Beyond the odd computer virus set to destroy the internet, the world was relatively calm for the next few years, until we first started hearing about this dreaded super-bug – the avian flu (ca. 2006). Again, I was sure this was a sign of the coming apocalypse. Having some knowledge of the method of action of this nasty bugger, I was even more sure that we were all doomed. Yet, the people at the CDC put some plans into place to handle the outbreak of this avian flu. I remember a lot of chickens were killed. I never received word on the plight of rubber chickens in China.

And so we lived with an outbreak of avian flu every year. It loomed over us, a malevolent presence, only recognisable through the hideous face-mask deformations it caused in its victims. On every report of a new virus sub-type, I stopped, and thought that maybe this would be the one that would become a pandemic. I acclimatised to this situation, safe in the knowledge that I could just buy drugs off those smart cookies at the CDC. Or that was the plan until the global financial apocalypse hit – seriously threatening my ability to buy antiviral agents.

As far as apocalypses go, the GFC was pretty convincing. It had all the hallmarks of an apocalypse: sudden onset, dire consequences, impotent rage, and a rain of bankers from the sky. This time, I was pretty sure the world was about to turn to shit. So, I took precautions with my wealth, became more cautious, and generally tried to protect myself from the fallout of the eventual collapse of the financial system. It was obvious the whole system was a house of cards, based upon something so ephemeral as confidence in the system and the belief that insane financial risks are worth taking. Again, against all odds, the situation was stabilised. I still don't know what was done, or whether anything was really fixed, but somehow our economy hasn't been sent back to the stone age.

2009 brought another outbreak of flu – this time from our porcine friends. I was worried about it again this time, but I wasn't panicked. I knew what the precautions to take were, and that in good time, the vaccines will be released to stem the spread of the flu. The plans worked as expected, and maybe we were lucky, but we didn't suffer through a deadly pandemic. Crisis averted.

Which brings us to today. Today, I sat in dismay as I saw the Copenhagen climate discussions collapse. For all the apocalypses that I've showed undue panic over, climate change is one apocalypse that until now, I haven't been able to get worked up over. The idea seemed too abstract, the consequences too far away. Yet, over time, I've been reading more and more. I get the problems now. I see what's coming down the track, and submerged island states are the least of our worries. It's pretty grim, and it's not the world that I want to live in.

Fundamental to my worries are that we're going to live in a less opulent society. This may sound very self-serving at first blush. That I'm a limousine liberal, a caviar-swilling socialist. However, I look at this capitalist freedom as a buffer-zone, that allows people to actually voluntarily be good people. I worry that if you push people into a corner, if they become desperate, or angry enough, they'll do terrible things. I had this realisation when I went to visit Dachau. That, whilst walking amongst the apparatus of a horrendous social machine, all of this was created by people who weren't madly evil, but by people who, in the most banal of ways, became these monsters (see Zimbardo's Stanford Prison experiment). That the capacity is there in everyone worries me, and I worry what's going to happen in Africa when already desperate people become even more stressed by their surroundings.

I'm willing to accept that perhaps the climate models are wrong. God knows I've modelled enough stuff to find out my predictions are totally off base. I'm going to err on the side of science though, and go with the models until there's compelling evidence otherwise. However, there's a whole bunch of great reasons to cut down on usage of fossil fuels. If you liked the War in Iraq, you're going to love renewable energy, as it frees up the US for more imperialistic action to exert political (or otherwise just for you hawks!) pressure upon some pretty terrible regimes. Are you worried about the fact that the economies of the west seem to be based upon financial services, and the sale of fart apps on the Iphone? Have no fear! You can build entire new industries upon the development of green technologies. There's so much money to be made it's nuts! Are you an investment banker, and you're worried that all this pesky regulation is going to come in, and ruin your coke-filled lunchtime meetings? With the introduction of carbon-offset trading, you've got a great chance to destroy yet another economy! This time, you're not even playing with the lives of people – you can play with this inconsequential thing called the environment!

Given all these great reasons to do something, why am I fundamentally disappointed? It's because, at a time when we really needed clear action, we were hit with the reality of our society. I don't doubt the motivations of the negotiators at Copenhagen. I don't think they didn't try hard enough. I just don't think we're going to get a political solution to this problem. Which leaves us in a remarkable position. In 1869, about 182 km from the city that my family is from in India, a bloke was born. He had an interesting life. Unlike Obama, he didn't win a Nobel prize. He did talk a lot though. One of the things he said was "You must be the change you wish to see in the world". It's stuck with me. It's the kind of thing I think should stick with you too.

With the failure of diplomacy, and the reluctance of society to change its ways, we need a back-up plan to get out of this situation. So here's what I say: Be that change. Wake up every day, and ask yourself what you're doing to DIRECTLY help the situation, and if you're not helping, find a way to help. Everyone can get involved. What's the goal? To develop technologies that will either a) obviate the need for fossil fuels, b) mitigate the damage done by climate change, or c) directly protect those at greatest risk. If you have skills that could be useful to the development of technologies, get your arse on over and start working on it. If you're tangentially related, you can help too. For example, graphic designers aren't just useful for making snazzy t-shirts. Scientists need all the help they can to make diagrams. Help them make clear easy to understand diagrams. Another science example – IT people can give some time to some labs, making sure their data is well organised, archived and published to avoid any East Anglia climate research shenanigans. I don't know why Google doesn't come in and just devote a whole block of its staff to running the IT infrastructure for places like the EBI. They're the best in the world at this, and if climate change is as important a problem as we all think it is, I think we should have the best and brightest working on it. If you don't think you can do anything – you're wrong. Bake a cake for people you know working on this problem. Have a word with them, and let them know you appreciate it. Take advantage of your social network. Find someone working on this problem, and help them directly solve at least part of the problem.

In 10 years, I haven't learnt much about apocalypses. I still get worried whenever I hear about them. However, I'm more optimistic about our ability to mitigate this upcoming apocalypse. But, we're only going to get through this if we get our best and brightest working on this problem. So, instead of lobbying politicians, it's time to lobby people and get them to understand what it means to everyone to solve this problem. Finally, the poster that inspired this whole rant (click on the image to go buy it).

If you know anyone that needs to be inspired to act, I think it's $80 well worth spending.

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