Our Phaethon moment.

Know your Greek mythology? Then you know that Phaethon (also Phaëton, “the radiant one”) was the son of Helios, the Greek god of the sun. Like any teenager of today, he pestered his dad for the keys to the car…only in this case the “car” was the chariot of the sun. Helios caved. He couldn’t bring himself to practice tough love, and handed his son the reins.

You can guess the outcome. Phaethon wasn’t ready.

He tried to drive the sun across the sky, but couldn’t control the immortal horses. The chariot first veered too high, so that Earth began to chill (ice age!). Then it careened toward Earth, torching and desertifying the plains of Africa (think global warming). Climate change explained!

Other gods frantically tried to right things, but to no avail. Zeus himself finally had to step in. Horrified, he hurled a lightning bolt at the boy by way of damage control, sending his flaming body into the river Eridanos.

Well, fellow charioteers, now it’s our turn. As Joel Achenbach astutely observed in Tuesday morning’s Washington Post, we’re now at the helm of spaceship Earth. In a signature thoughtful piece, he notes that things have changed since Rachel Carson’s day, and that nature no longer runs the show. Achenbach quotes Stewart Brand’s line in the Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” You won’t regret reading Achenbach’s article in its entirety. Worth pondering.

Managing Planet Earth?

Absolutely. As Achenbach and those he interviewed note, we have no alternative. At seven billion strong and with many of us consuming resources at a per capita rate fifty times that of our ancestors only a century back, we’re having an impact on the surface of the planet, like it or not. Our only choice remaining is whether we’ll manage the planet well or poorly.

Hmm. Managing the planet? As discussed here in this blog and many other places, this implies that locally, everywhere, and at all times over the entire globe, we’ll be making decisions that simultaneously balance (1) resource use, (2) environmental protection, and (3) resilience to nature’s extremes. Furthermore, we’ll do this so well that the next generation can keep up what we’ve begun, never missing a beat – indefinitely.

Do you think we’re ready?

Well, let’s see. For a reality check, let’s just take a quick glance at some of the other headlines in the same front section of Tuesday morning’s Washington Post.

How about this one? U.S. water and sewer systems tapped out. The lead in this story speaks to failure of an 1889-vintage brick sewer here in Washington DC not too many months back. The article points out that the decay to roads and bridges is more visible, but the decay to our water and sewage systems is far more of a threat to our continued health, happiness, and prosperity. The average DC water pipe is nearly 80 years old. Here in the city, we’re flushing 3 billion gallons of raw sewage a year into Rock Creek and the Anacostia River. Leaks take away 25% of our drinking water before it reaches our faucets. We’re replacing only 10 miles a year of our 1000 miles of pipe here in DC. Do the math. A century to refurbish the system. Want to speed it up? Too bad. We don’t have the money. And even if we did, we couldn’t afford tying up all the roadways with the pipe repair. And DC isn’t the exception. It’s the same across the nation.

Some engineering!

Here’s another one, also on the front page: Case ignites conservative ire over EPA. Turns out an Idaho couple has been trying since 2007 get permission to build a home on a 0.63 acre lot in an existing subdivision in Priest Lake Idaho. But EPA decided there might be a wetland there. According to the article, the couple in question, if they fail to comply with EPA to return the land (which they purchased for $15,000) to its original condition, could be liable for fines up to $37,500 per day. The EPA claims this was just a starting point for negotiations.

Yeah, right. But please, this is not about what’s right and wrong. Instead, just ask yourself how many repetitions of this scenario are underway across the country and across the world. Think of the accumulation of these as sand in the gears of that managed planet of ours. Achenbach and the people he interviewed caught this one…they speak to the need for political leadership that doesn’t seem to be there. But don’t blame the politicians. The rest of us incite them to the behavior we see. The point is that on a managed planet, we simply can’t allow a proliferation of dustups of this number and scale.

So-o-o-o-o-o…bickering in the control room of Spaceship Earth? Not a good sign.

Buried inside the front section? A lake-effect snowstorm blocked visibility and caused large multi-vehicles pileups from Michigan to Kentucky. A brief AP piece reported that a dozen minor earthquakes that shook up Ohio last spring were almost certainly caused by a well used to dispose of wastewater from nearby oil and gas drilling. [Good news! The well has been shut down, and it might take only a year for the tremors to die down. I’m reassured…aren’t you?] The article notes that similar problems have surfaced in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arkansas. And yet the pace of fracking is accelerating, such oil and shale extraction spreading.  We have little time to work this all out.

A managed planet? Indeed. No choice, remember? Ready or not. And this cursory look at one day’s news in one city suggests we’re not quite ready.

Do we want to avoid Phaethon’s fate? Then we need to: (1) find the Owner’s Manual for this chariot-planet of ours; (2) take a crash course (excuse the metaphor) in Drivers Ed, and (3 — a tip of the hat to Sarah Palin) man up.

More on these three points in the next post.

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3 Responses to Our Phaethon moment.

  1. Bill:-

    It’s a lot more complicated than you say, because the decisions we make must also factor in human development. This factor is too often ignored. Let me give you an example. In terms of resource use and environmental protection, and possibly resilience to extreme weather events, a carbon tax or other fiscal regulatory mechanism is a no-brainer. But in terms of its impact on real human beings, such fiscal mechanisms become much more problematic. In fact, if one believes in the Precautionary Principle, they become very difficult to justify. Sure, you and I can afford to pay more for energy, but for people in Sunflower County, Mississippi; Allendale County, SC; or East St Louis, IL; or the vast number of the poor in our inner cities; or for most Native Americans on tribal lands; these mechanisms will have a real and negative impact. More for gas and heat and cooling means less for food for their children. Adjusting their taxes is meaningless if they’re not making enough to pay taxes in the first place. Or, on a much larger scale, how should the Chinese or the Indians strike this balance?

    Achieving balance is the key – but let’s not forget the human factor as we carry out our balancing act.

    • William Hooke says:

      Spot on, John, as usual. You’re hitting on some of the points I plan to develop more fully in the next post. Human factors/equity issues loom large here. More soon…as I try to catch up with you!

  2. Pingback: A (well) managed planet? | Living on the Real World

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