Thoughts on 400 PPM by Antony Brown
When I left San Francosco in 1971 the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 325 parts per million (ppm) although I didn’t know that then. I was headed to Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s experimental project in Arizona. There, 43 years ago, global warming was one of the topics in the discussions we had with Paolo during his weekly site visits. It was clear even back then that the levels were rising and that eventually they would have a profound impact of the planet. One of the goals of Soleri’s Arcology concept was to apply systems thinking to human habitats, to reduce the growth of human impact including the millions of tons of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air. Since then the speed and magnitude of global climate change has been frighteningly fast. Now the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has past a milestone that we have been warned about by scientists. At the observatory on Mauna Loa Hawaii a new observation puts current CO2 at 400 ppm . This scary figure should be a wake up call for everyone on the planet.
In September 2012 sea ice in the arctic melted to its lowest extent in recorded history. This wasn’t predicted to happen until the 2040s but it is happening today and while this may seem unimportant as we go about our everyday life it is perhaps one of the most critical indicators of things to come. Loss of sea ice accelerates the speed of warming and there are indicators that we are in a vicious cycle where warming is creating the conditions to melt the permafrost and release the methane trapped in it. Methane is a far more lethal contributor to the trapping of heat on the earth than carbon dioxide. That will raise the temperature and release even more methane while we continue to create even more carbon dioxide. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has stated that climate change is driving arctic ice into a “new state” with rapid ice loss and record permafrost warming. What could this make our home planet look like by 2050? No one is certain and I am not going to make any kind of prediction. All I can say is that it will be a vastly less benign planet than the one we are used to.
Of course we have been sleeping for the last 40 years aided and abetted by the fossil fuel industry in its efforts to continue to reap profits even if it may mean the destruction of life as we know it. Now that the arctic ice is melting there is a rush to extract more oil in that part of the globe and allow more cheap gasoline to put more CO2 into the air. By anyone’s measure this is totally insane. Knowingly we are destroying everything we depend on for life. Are we really that crazy? Why are corporations seeming unconcerned despite all the “green” advertising?
Talk to an executive and ask them if they would knowingly create conditions that would jeopardize the future survival of their children. Of course the answer is “no way”. And, as private citizens they may well have concerns about what we are doing to the atmosphere. So what is the basic problem here? If people are not insane, and I don’t believe they are, then who is responsible for the seeming lack of care for the future?
I believe it is because everyone of us is trapped in a system that is greater than ourselves and controls the way we operate. For example I would love not to have to use my car to get to work but the transport system we have in my town is based on automobiles. I am trapped in that system. It is the system that makes the decisions. Systems, especially complex ones, and the mega corporation certainly qualifies, are self organizing systems that take on a life of their own. The main goal becomes the perpetuation of the system. Things that have grown so large and pervasive are extremely difficult to change. Like any complex system its function and evolution depend on its initial conditions. For a corporation these include operating in a competitive environment, satisfying shareholders, satisfying the boss all the way up the chain. Feedback systems are broken and actions external to the system have no implications. Working within that system it is no ones fault that chasing and maximizing profits drive the process.
If we look to nature for models that have evolved and worked for millennia we can see that the large centralized monolithic systems are an aberration and are ultimately very fragile. Nature on the other hand is distributed, complex, diverse and resilient.
Corporations are powerfully good at getting things done, but currently they have an anti social mission. If new corporations were created more in tune with natural distributive models and initial conditions were not based on a simple money orientation but on societal goals, I believe we might have a real chance of making it through the next century and beyond. We need to un-trap ourselves from the systems that have created this mess we are in. By restructuring to different organizational systems we can respond to real threats not only to our livelihood but also to our survival.