"We have less than 10 years to halt the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences for people and the planet.
It is, simply, the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family."
-- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Aug. 9, 2009
My "baby girl" turns 30 this month. And though my tongue keeps tripping over the words, I’m "pushing 60."
My thoughts, in the New Year chill, have accordingly taken a contemplative turn. I’m thinking about the passage of the generations, the kind of legacy we’re leaving our children and what the future holds in store.
As a Baby Boomer, it’s been terrific growing up in the greatest country on earth — the greatest nation in the history of the world.
I grew up with the absolute conviction that my life was going to be better than my parents’, that both nature and the heavens (courtesy of NASA’s lunar space program) were at our command and that this was all going to go on forever.
I didn’t think twice about getting up in the middle of night to use the bathroom, flicking on the lights and flushing the toilet. I took it for granted as an innate right. Yet just 20 years earlier, my parents had been living on farms in southeastern Nebraska in homes without electricity or indoor plumbing.
Now, though, as I pull the space heater a little closer, I’m a lot less confident about this inexorable march of economic progress. In fact, I’m convinced it’s coming to an end.
In 1867, when Nebraska became a state, there were 1 billion people on Earth. In 1955, the year I was born, there were fewer than 3 billion. Today, there are more than 7 billion people on the planet. And none of us want to live like my parents lived on the farm in Johnson County, fetching wood and carrying water. We want to live like Donald Trump and Lady Gaga. Go wherever we want to go, buy whatever we want to buy and consume as much as we want to consume.
We Husker fans, for instance, think nothing of dashing down to Florida to watch the Big Red play Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Assuming we can afford it, we view it as our prerogative. The environmental cost of making such a trip — our "carbon footprint" for the energy and resource consumption — never enters the equation.
But the Earth’s strained ecosystem can’t accommodate this growing demand much longer. We’re already approaching "peak oil" where global consumption of this finite resource will outstrip production. And the oil, coal and natural gas burned to fuel our high-consumption lifestyles are daily altering the climate around us.
The evidence is everywhere. Record heat waves and drought (worse even than the legendary Dust Bowl). Rampant wildfires. Superstorm Sandy. The Department of Defense is so alarmed by what’s happening that officials have officially identified climate change as a “national security threat.” And the insurance industry, which is being forced to foot the bill for all the damage from these more frequent and extreme weather events, has acknowledged the reality of climate change since Hurricane Katrina.
Ready or not, we’re about to get a crash course in climate change.
And it would be far better for everyone if — starting now — we tried to get ready, because things aren’t going to be the way they were. The high-consumption lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to is permanently winding down.
Getting ready for climate change will mean reducing our dependence on carbon fuels and the greenhouse emissions they produce. It will mean growing more of our food locally and eating seasonally to lower production and transportation costs. It will mean driving less in more fuel-efficient vehicles. It will mean making our homes and businesses more energy efficient to lower our energy demand. It will mean development of our renewable wind and solar resources to keep our utility dollars at home and at work in our communities. And it will mean getting our publicly owned power districts off of coal as soon as technologically feasible, and implementing a carbon fee on the fossil fuel industry — with the money rebated to the public.
This is a brave new world we’re on the cusp of, and it will not be as lavish or profligate. The days of Donald Trump and Lady Gaga setting the bar for our quality of life are numbered.
We have just emerged from the holiday season. Despite the riot of consumption associated with Christmas shopping, the holidays have traditionally been a time for friends and loved ones to gather together. And that is the community ethic we will need to be extolling in the years ahead, as our consumption levels inevitably drop.
Things will never again be as they’ve been. The age of infinite appetite is over. But with the company of friends and family and fine food, it will still be possible to have a good Christmas.
Tim Rinne is the state coordinator of Nebraskans for Peace, the oldest statewide Peace & Justice organization in the U.S.