Feeding Back

For years climate scientists have warned rising temperatures will create “feedback loops” – self-perpetuating cycles in which cause and consequence take on lives of their own.  Warmer temperatures melt pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, dark water reflect less light than ice and snow, hastening the melting of the remaining ice, creating more surface water, etc.  Warmer temperatures melt permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide, raising temperatures, etc.

Natural feedback loops are only part of the problem.  In Indonesia, developers are planning to cut away 11,000 square miles of peatland forest.  These forests, as the name suggests, grow in peat bogs.  Cutting the trees and draining the bogs results in the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide, to say nothing of the loss of the carbon-absorbing capacity of the forest.

The peat forests are cut to make way for palm oil plantations and the much of the palm oil will be used to make biofuel.  Aside from our rapid depletion of petroleum, the demand for biofuel is rising because people want – sort of – to do their part to fight global warming.  People at least want to be told that making a small change in their lives – like using biofuel instead of petroleum – can “help save the planet.”  Palm oil does make a nice biofuel, delivering 635 gallons of oil per acre, as opposed to corn’s 18 per acre.  Replacing Indonesian peat forest with palm oil plantations, however, and shipping that oil halfway around the world to put in a minivan or SUV is not really helping anything but the feedback loop.  The faster the forests are cut, the more the planet warms and the more attractive biofuel looks, at least superficially.

A recent article in BusinessWeek reported that the American ski industry is jumping on the “green” bandwagon with all sorts of gimmicks that don’t really amount to much.  At the same time, due to the very real consequences of global warming on snowfall in North America, the same ski areas are using more energy and water than ever before, making snow so people with disposable income can strap skis on the SUV, fill it with biofuel and head to the mountain resort and feel good about themselves because the hotel doesn’t wash their towel every day.  See where this is going?  Less natural snow means more coal burned to make snow; smaller snowpacks in the mountains means more water drawn from the valleys.

If the unexamined life was not worth living 2,400 years ago, it’s downright dangerous today.  If the feedback loops of nature are mirrored in human behavior, then they’re magnified and made grotesque by politicians.  Look to Pakistan for proof.  Despite Bush administration claims to the contrary, Pakistan is and always has been the central front in the war on terror.  Afghanistan’s Taliban were created in large part by Pakistan’s security services in the 1990s to bring a brutal stability to Pakistan’s neighbor to the north.  Nuclear-armed Pakistan was the nation teaching any and every rogue nation the secrets of building bombs.  Pakistan, not Iraq, was linked – and is linked – to Al Queada.  It’s where Osama bin Laden is most likely hiding.

Pervez Musharraf was sly on Sept. 12, 2001 and switched sides, stuffing his pockets with US cash and giving him a free pass on a host of activities that would have meant invasion for other nations.

When he suspended the constitution last week, he went on television and compared himself to Abraham Lincoln, who suspended some civil rights.  Sound familiar?  He fired Supreme Court justices, accusing them of “judicial activism.”  Sound familiar?  As head of the army and president, Mr. Musharraf claims the twin titles of political leader and commander-in-chief.  Sound familiar?

George Bush erodes civil liberties in America and Pervez Musharraf abolishes them in Pakistan.  The U.S. tortures detainees and soon every deputy and rent-a-cop across the globe will be waterboarding and Tasing and ripping out fingernails for jaywalking.

Feedback loops – whether natural or social or political – can be slowed, stopped and reversed, but it won’t happen in any case without effort and sacrifice.  Things have gone too far for easy solutions and we can’t rely on our “leaders” business or political to show the way.  Fortunately, there are benefits to unwinding the destructive loops we’ve created – community and mutual assistance and real patriotism.  It’s time to get started.

© Mark Floegel 2007

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