• Global Warming, Polio, and AIDS

    Community, Communication Design

    I am starting to feel that all the solutions to carbon sequestration (and, incidentally, other global “problems”) have been tainted by our planet’s experience with polio.

    Now, what, you ask, does global warming have to do with polio?

    The poliomyelitis virus was a singular, non-adaptive enemy. Single cause, single effect. Our immune systems love this kind of attacker: the virus is introduced, and an antibody is produced, protecting us from all future attacks. Thousands of years of evolution have given us the benefit of this seemingly “perfect” immune response. Jonas Salk actually relied on this to develop his vaccine, which, like other vaccines, effectively “tricks” our bodies into thinking they have contracted a disease, so it will produce antibodies to protect us from future infections. So simple, yet it saves millions of lives.

    In truth, vaccines have done us wonderful good, but they have conditioned us as a species to expect magic-bullet solutions to larger, systemic problems for which there are no magic bullets, save the elimination of our very culture.

    AIDS, for example, is a complex disease, caused by a virus that is not only adaptive and prone to mutation, but also uses our immune systems against us. Every day, the scientific community is thwarted by this enemy, that is always one step ahead of our adaptive capacity. Add to the biochemical nature of the disease the dozens of ways it can spread from host to host, and the cultural barriers that hamper containment via preventative education. You have a nightmare, with no cure in sight, and no options but “treatment.”

    With carbon sequestration, we are trying to apply a polio solution to an HIV problem. As one of my favorite business school professors said to me once: when you are trying to solve a problem, look to the CAUSE, not the EFFECT. Carbon buildup in the atmosphere is not a disease we have to cure. It is not a cause; it is an effect.

    Precisely because it is the result of systemic conditions, if we want to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, we must take a systemic approach. The equation, surprisingly, is deceptively simple:

    1. Stop producing more carbon than the planet can sequester.
    2. Ensure that the planet’s ability to sequester carbon is not further compromised.
    3. Increase the planet’s ability to sequester carbon.
    

    Next, we must ask:

    1. What produces carbon in the atmosphere?
    2. What sequesters carbon in the atmosphere?
    

    Here is where the trickier issue emerges: what are we do do, then? Give up cars? Airplanes? Stop burning anything, for fear it will release carbon into the atmosphere? Are we to abolish slash-and-burn agriculture as well as crude oil refinement? The answer, unfriendly and squeamish, emerges with scary clarity: we would have to change the way we live to change the world we live in.

    Thankfully, we are an adaptive species. We can get used to anything, even a warmer climate. Even a polluted atmosphere. Even, perhaps, the decline of hundreds of species thanks to the destruction of their ecosystems.

    But... if we don’t want to get used to these things, we must get used to other things: walking. Riding bikes. Orchards instead of lawns. Eating seasonally, locally, and organically. Planting trees instead of chopping them down.

    If every family in the United States planted a tree, it would pull 1 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere annually (from http://www.coloradotrees.org/benefits.htm#17). It might not undo all the damage, but it could make a dent.

    It’s time to stop looking for the next Jonas Salk, the next magic bullet. There is no “cure” for global warming. The cause is our culture; the effects are inevitable. The most we can do is treat climate change the way we would treat any other systemic, adaptive plague: with education, behavioral modification, remediation techniques, and restorative enterprises that employ cooperation and collaboration from the local to the global level.

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