By Shannon Osaka – Grist, via Other News, Rome, 2 August 201)
A 66-page New York Times Magazine with only a single article on climate change written by Nathaniel Rich and titled “Losing Earth,” is online now and makes for fascinating, if sometimes depressing, reading. Between 1979 and 1989, Rich writes, humanity almost solved the problem of global warming. The piece follows climate scientist James Hansen and environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance as they try to get pretty much anyone — politicians, the media, energy companies — to engage and act on the issue of climate change. But while they managed to move global warming onto the public stage, the opportunity for binding international action came and went with the 1989 U.N. climate conference in the Netherlands. The U.S. delegation, led by a recalcitrant Reagan appointee, balked when faced with an actual agreement. “Why didn’t we act?” Rich asks, almost plaintively, in his prologue. He argues that the primary barriers to inaction today — widespread climate denial and propagandizing by far-right groups and fossil fuel companies — had not emerged by the mid-1980s. “Almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves,” he writes. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 “Tragedy of the Commons” — another dark theory on collective irrationality argued that, as a species, we would always tend towards overuse of shared resources and overpopulation. His thesis was hugely influential, and continues to be a staple in environmental research. This idea — that the long timescale of climate change has made it difficult for us to act on it — is the theoretical underpinning of “Losing Earth.” It’s no one’s fault that we didn’t act in the 1980s. But at the same time it’s everyone’s fault. But forty years after Hardin’s paper debuted in Science, economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing that communities around the world do successfully manage and share resources — even over many generations. They do it through cooperation, communication, and small-scale local institutions. She was famous for showing that environmental problems can be solved from the bottom-up.
So did we really “lose Earth” in 1989? Of course not writes Osaka. But it is a sobering reminder of how much work we have left. “Human nature has brought us to this place,” Rich writes. “Perhaps human nature will one day bring us through.”