Friday, October 30, 2009

Passing the Planet's Redline

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Peter Russell, a British author and futurist, has a mesmerizing world clock on his website. This clock doesn't tell time, it measures global stress issues, such as population growth, species extinctions, deforestation, and CO2 emissions. I reset the clock, sat down to read the paper, and came back an hour later. What happened in my 60 minutes of leisure time?

  • 1480 hectares of forest were cut down (3660 acres)
  • 690 hectares of new desert were created (1700 acres)
  • 3.1 Million tons of CO2 were emitted
  • 3.5 Million barrels of oil were pumped
  • 3 species went extinct
  • The world's population grew by 8,800 people
In autoracing, the term 'redlining' refers to the maximum speed an engine and its components can operate at without causing damage to the system. Go over the redline and the damage is usually widespread and severe. Watching the numbers on the world clock continue to grow, can there be any doubt that there is a planetary redline for each of these metrics? We don't know where the upper limits are, but it goes without saying that our world can not support limitless population, greenhouse gas emissions, desertification, or oil. If we knew these upper limits, and watched as the needle slowly approached the redline, I wonder if we would take the issues more seriously.

On the climate front, the carbon meter currently reads 385 parts per million (ppm). Many of the world's leading scientists estimate that 450 ppm is our self destruct point. Still others feel that we need to drop back down to 350 ppm, and have already hit the redline -- we just don't know it yet. The number is rising by 2-3 ppm per year, and to get atmospheric CO2 to stop rising, scientists believe that global emissions need to be cut by at least 50%. Whether we are approaching or have passed the limit, we clearly need to take our foot off the accelerator.

There is of course a second definition of redlining, which is the practice of denying or increasing the cost of necessary services (health, food, jobs) to residents in defined racially determined areas. Sadly, in an indirect way the world clock also measures this. As the metrics increase, it is many of the poorest in the poorer countries who will be impacted most, exacerbating the differences between 'haves' and 'have nots'.

Because of both redline issues, we need to start thinking more holistically about our planet. As Russell says;

"The real crisis we are facing is not an environmental crisis, a population crisis, economic crisis, a social crisis, or a political crisis. It is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness. A crisis is an indication that the old mode of operating is no longer working, and a new approach is required. This is true of a personal crisis, a family crisis or a political crisis. In the case of the environmental the old way that is no longer working is our self-centred materialistic consciousness. It may have worked well in the past, when we needed to provide ourselves with the basic commodities necessary for our individual well-being – but it clearly no longer works today."

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Image copyright ClimatePath. Adapted from / CC BY-SA 2.0. Globe image courtesy of Nasa.

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