Albuquerque, the major city of the poorest state in the nation, does not seem to be actively preparing itself for what now seems likely to be the inevitable advance of desiccating global warming in the Southwest. We seem to be suffering from a kind of future shock, a disease of change that takes the form of extreme but futile avoidance.
While Mayor Tim Keller has done exactly the right thing in joining mayors across the country in working to adopt the goals and spirit of the Paris Climate Accords, which President Trump has abandoned, and while Keller is to be commended for his move to start making city buildings solar powered and to monitor greenhouse gas emissions wherever possible, I think it’s time to ramp up our climate change initiatives exponentially over the next four years.
There’s a major difference between a city working to contribute less and less to global warming and a city working to learn how to adapt to the climate change that is no longer theoretical but is already in our parched gardens, in our bodies, on our sizzling streets, in the watersheds we depend on, and in our energy bills right now.
Keller’s inspiring leadership in his first weeks as mayor not withstanding, it’s as if the spirit of Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator and deluded crank, had gotten a hold on the city’s leadership elite. Pruitt said recently that he thought global warming might actually be a good thing. That may be true for lizards and horny toads, but not for the hairless ape. As the environmental site EchoWatch has warned, scientists around the world say that “climate adaptation” is now “essential.” “Forest damage, drought and floods, for example, will all worsen, and tidal ranges are already changing. More than half of all the natural vegetation of California is at risk.” And what’s true there is true here.
It’s no longer enough to try to minimize the impact of global warming and helping not to make it get even worse. We must do that, of course, but it’s already much worse than we imagined even fives years ago. Albuquerque and environs need right now to convene a panel of experts from the national labs, the universities in our region, various political jurisdictions and tribal entities. Professionals and specialists on the panel should include doctors, public health officials, hydrologic engineers, hazardous waste experts, farmers, ranchers, historians, anthropologists. social workers, contractors, eco-NGOs, neighborhood activists, regional and community planners, and landscape architects. And they need to begin in earnest the arduous process of thinking about what Albuquerque can do to adapt itself and its people, in healthful and entrepreneurial ways, to the ecological future we’re so unprepared to face. And we have to do all this without much, if any, help from the federal government other than, ironically, the military and its technologists and engineers.
To prosper over the next 30 to 40 years, we need to turn ourselves into nothing less than a leading American city in the field of climate change adaptation, coming to terms with the reality of our condition and inventing practical ways to cope with heat-related crises.
But do progressives have anything more to say about global warming’s effect on their cities and states than the climate change deniers do? It really doesn’t seem so — yet.
Progressivism, liberalism or whatever we call it now, lags far, far behind its ancestral roots in the 1960s and 1970s when it comes to environmental awareness.
Why has this happened? I think we’re afraid to face up to the future. We want to flee from it instead of engage it. It seems too daunting for us to contemplate. And the deniers provide fanatical opposition we don’t seem to have the grit to challenge. We’re in a state of paralysis, a state of “future shock,” as Alvin Toffler described it in his book of the same name.
When Toffler wrote Future Shock in 1961-1962, he defined a psychological condition that most people in the world were suffering through even then, but trying to deny — the emotional confusion, anxiety and revulsion caused by a world that is changing too fast for us to cope with in a way that feels calmly rational and practical.
I first read Future Shock in 1971 and was struck by the very first paragraph. “This is a book about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change. It’s about the ways in which we adapt — or fail to adapt — to the future.” Global warming is a Tofferesque moment in history, one in which “the roaring current of change, a current so powerful today that it overwhelms institutions, shifts our values and shrivels our roots.” And it’s all come glaringly into public consciousness in an historical blink of the eye. We’ve gone from a world to which our species has adapted to the threat of a world that will be radically inhospitable to how we presently live our lives and earn our livings.
Change, Toffler wrote, “is the process by which the future invades our lives.” It’s happening now. And we are not responding. It’s because, Toffler said, “the acceleration of change in our time is, itself, an elemental force.” As short a time ago as the turn of the 21 century, global warming, as a social and political issue, was lost in a journalistic flack of petroleum wars in the Middle East. In the time it takes a baby to become a near-adult, global warming has come to be seen as an “elemental force,” itself, one that is fast changing the hydrologic reality of the whole planet in foreseeable but not predictable ways. It’s turning our relationship with the world into a constant set of blind-siding punches and rope-a-dope batterings that we try in vain to duck.
Future Shock is “a real sickness,” Toffler says. “It is the disease of change.” The paralysis it causes “calls in to question man’s capacity for adaptation.” How will we fare in the face of climate-driven imperatives of a new society struggling to survive? Can we adapt to its imperatives? And if not, “can we alter those imperatives?”
The concept of future shock — and the theory of adaptation that derives from it — strongly suggests that there must be a balance “between the pace of environmental change and the limited pace of human adaptation.” But the disease of future shock makes this exceedingly difficult, because future shock causes a “dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” People like Scott Pruitt are so intellectually wobbly all they can do is destroy.
The arrival of the climate change future has come so fast it seems to be mirroring the exponential growth of digital technology, which mimics the speed of genetic technology. The first mapping of the human genome was accomplished in 2003, and the operating systems of today’s smart phones happened only four years later in 2007.
Can a whole city adapt to massive environmental change? Has it been done in the past? How might it best happen? Is there a precedent in New Mexico? What are the costs? What are the consequences of getting caught flatfooted? How much heat can infants, the elderly, the homeless and the poor endure? How much water rationing can a city undergo without losing its economic edge? Is it possible for drought to create a danger of urban forest wildfires? There must be hundreds of such questions that need to be explored.
An ongoing panel or commission on Climate Change and the Future in the Middle Rio Grande Valley might give us a chance to contemplate what we need to do and how we need to think in order to survive and flourish in the speeding world ahead. Such work might make us a center of innovation for the future. That is, if it’s not already too late.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it