Last chance!

not the cover on my office desk copy from back then, but good enough

“Covid-19 is not the end of the world but you can see it from here.[1]


World leaders have their hands full at the moment with covid-19. Why should they lift up their gaze and make the case for climate-change research and action? (And that’s precisely what some are doing.) Why now? Surely that challenge can wait another day.

Maybe it’s because the covid-19 experience has the feel of a preview of something bigger – a mere trailer for “Climate Change: the Movie.” 

Maybe it’s because they’re coming to grasp the meaning of “last chance.”

My own lifelong preoccupation with “last chances” came at an unlikely time from an equally unlikely and somewhat obscure source: 1979, when the eminent physical oceanographer Owen Phillips turned his attention from wind generation of ocean waves and the physics of the ocean mixed layer to write and publish The Last Chance Energy Book.

The book was short (only 142 pages) and crisp. In preparing this post I stumbled across a contemporary Air University review[2]. An excerpt: 

Our history of energy development has emphasized pragmatic concerns over either scientific or humanistic values. Phillips sees technology as a force destroying itself by the very social norms it has created; specifically, cheap energy has created a materialistic life…But since the energy sources exploited to build this ever-expanding life style are finite, an ultimate modification of this life-style is unavoidable.

But I have to confess that for most of the past forty years, I’d mislaid Phillips’ larger point. What I have remembered and thought about frequently was the argument Phillips made about our need to develop additional energy sources. He pressed the importance of making such adjustments was “while the lights were still on.” In other words, we have to develop new energy sources well before the old ones have run out.

All of us live a nano-version of this experience every day. Need to arrange a meet-up (okay, with social distancing maybe that’s no longer a thing)? Or your car broke down and you need road repair? Or you want to ask your life partner what was it again you were supposed to bring home from the supermarket? Easy, if you remembered to bring your cellphone. Easy, if your cellphone has charge. But a mini-nightmare otherwise.

Covid-19 is giving us a look at that more distant future. Inadequate education and training. A dysfunctional economy; massive unemployment and poverty. Wretched public health, and an overtaxed healthcare system. Crumbling infrastructure. Fragile food supply chains.

And focusing thought. What better time than now, while the images are fresh, and while we can still control our destiny, to begin to head off those scenarios?

To ponder such things is not to be alarmist. The brink, the edge of the cliff , the end of the road need not be a cause for fear. All of us have at some point been in that place; fact is, we’ve often sought it. The vistas have been breathtakingly beautiful. The air in our faces fresh and invigorating, uplifting the imagination, prompting new insights, expanding our mental and spiritual horizons. We’ve shared the experience with friends, built treasured memories. But all that comes from knowing where the edge is, respecting it, adopting appropriate near-edge behavior, allowing the experience to change our lives in fullest measure – not rushing blindly, unthinkingly, pell-mell toward it.

Thoughts for today. And while you’re pondering…

…In 2009, the musical group LostProphets released a single by the title “It’s Not The End Of The World But I Can See It From Here”; the sound is a bit jarring, but if you wish you can find and experience the video here.


[1]Something of a zipper quote: you’ve seen similar references to locations, etc.

[2] Air University Review, Volume 31, Issue 4. 

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