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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Driving on Ice
distributed 2/14/14 - ©2014

"Wacky weather" does not do justice to the strange things happening around the planet.

Two recent ice storms in the southeastern US dangerously disrupted the entire region. England has wide-spread flooding from bigger rains than have been recorded in centuries. (Thankfully, nobody there seems to be using the "biblical proportions" line that cropped up with Colorado's exceptional deluge last fall.) California is in deep, deep drought. Alaska is having a persistent winter heat wave with summer-like snowmelt. On the bottom part of the globe, Australia's record-breaking heat from 2013 seems to be continuing at full strength into this year.

And, as I've detailed so often, climate change is only one of the threats growing around us as surging human numbers, powerful technologies, and a willful disregard for natural limits converge. These are not ordinary times -- we're facing unprecedented situations, and the rules for sensible behavior need to be reconsidered and rewritten.

The winter storm that paralyzed Atlanta a few weeks ago provides a fruitful metaphor for how we need to head into these rapidly changing times. Advice that is commonly given for how to drive on ice and snow is a vivid and practical parallel for how we, as a society, need to do act in the years to come.

Remember these sensible guidelines for winter driving, and see the wisdom that they provide for us on a much larger and more significant scale.

  • Listen to the forecast, and trust the experts.
    Atlanta had trouble, in part, because predictions for two inches of snow were not taken seriously, and people didn't leave school and jobs until the snow started falling. By then, the roads were already a mess.

    With too many of the crises building around the world, reputable experts have given clear and accurate warnings of climate instability, water shortages, depleted fisheries, etc., etc. But those predictions are frequently discounted until they actually start to happen, by which point it is impossible to take prudent steps.

  • Slow down.
    This is the #1 piece of advice for drivers who do have to travel on treacherous roads. You just can't drive at the speed limit when the highway is slicker than an Olympic skating rink, and your vehicle has tons of inertia that keep it from changing course.

    Yet full speed ahead seems to be the mindset of business and government as we slip into a new global situation. High rates of economic growth and development, increasing use of energy and water, and delight in soon-to-be-obsolete technologies have us careening ever farther into ecological danger zones.

  • Look farther ahead, and plan carefully.
    On a dry road, you can be OK paying heed to the traffic just ahead of you. But when it becomes a challenge to stop, start or turn, you need to look for possible trouble way up the road. Changing course to avoid hills or other hazards can keep you out of a messy situation.

    Policies based on the next election cycle, or the quarterly balance sheet, can't address the troubles that take decades to develop. Wise leaders will think in terms of generations instead of months, and will consider course changes that skirt the most obvious perils.

  • Don't use cruise control!
    As somebody with decades of winter driving experience, I was amazed to see this on the list of tips. Cruise control puts the car in charge, with an assumption about ordinary conditions on the wide-open road. It will do pretty much everything wrong on ice.

    "Business as usual" is the cultural equivalent of cruise control. And BAU is just as clearly the wrong way to behave. I think of the line that opens Gus Speth's important book: "all we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today ..." Mindlessly following the ordinary rules is a sure path to disaster when the situation is radically different.

  • More power won't help, and will probably make it worse.
    You can tell who doesn't have snow driving experience when you see them gun the engine and spin the tires to get going. Without good traction, gentleness is the best course. Start slowly, and brake smoothly.

    There are those who look to powerful technologies to carry us through the coming changes. Build massive sea walls to protect cities from higher tides. Genetically engineer new organisms that may be able to live in a harsher climate. Build bigger dams and drill deeper wells. The gentler approach, the one that can keep traction when the future is unpredictable, seeks resilience instead of the perfect technology. By giving up an unrealistic sense of control, we can keep in better touch with the world around us.

(If you really want a comprehensive set of driving tips, without analogies to the global situation, check out the solid advice from Tom & Ray, the "Car Talk" guys of public radio fame.)

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It is possible to draw parallels between winter driving and global environmental policy because they both demand a sensibility about avoiding and minimizing risk. Be attentive to what is happening. Rather than wait until trouble appears, anticipate it, and take a precautionary approach.

The Precautionary Principle provides guidelines for public policy that are largely disregarded in US law, business and governmental action. The principle is, I hear, taken more seriously in Europe.

The standard, precautionary advice about driving on ice gives succinct tips that can -- and should -- be translated to the issues facing our community: climate change, sustainable agriculture, energy policies, urban design, pharmaceuticals, biodiversity, and so on. Let's pay close attention to the forecasts, and drive carefully into the future.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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