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

Broken Records
distributed 7/22/16 - ©2016

Reading through Thursday morning's newspaper -- our local rag is the Denver Post -- the business section provided a break from the column feet of Republican convention coverage.

Page 10A caught my eye with two headlines almost side by side: "Another record year for tourism" and (referring to Denver International Airport) "DIA passenger traffic sets record for May". May's numbers are an 8.2 percent increase from May of 2015. This is the ninth consecutive month the airport set a monthly record. On the tourism side, "For the fifth year in a row, Colorado hosted a record number of tourists who have left a record amount of cash in their wake." With the pro-growth mindset of the Post -- and especially of their business writers -- both of those record-setting trends were lifted up as good news.

But the repeated celebration of broken records brought to mind other news that I'd seen this week. Tuesday's Post had a short report, "June sets another record for global temperatures." Just below that was another story, "Greenland's ice melting quickly" -- which did not use the word "record" but did speak of "increasingly worrisome studies" showing that "the rate of loss has increased."

On Tuesday, Wunderground' Jeff Masters headlined his blog post, "June Does It Again: Global Temperature Sets 14th Consecutive Monthly Record." He wrote with more detail than the Post's brief account. "Even with the intense 2015 - 2016 El Niņo event out of the picture, June 2016 was still the planet's warmest June since record keeping began in 1880. ... June 2016 marked the 14th consecutive month that the global monthly temperature record was broken, which is the longest such streak since global temperature records began in 1880."

Dr. Master's blog cited a recent prediction from a prominent climate scientist. 2016 is off to such a hot start that "he laid 99% odds on 2016 setting a new global temperature record, which would make it Earth's third consecutive warmest year on record."

And, to keep the theme going, this morning, Jeff Master's blog announces, "Eastern Hemisphere's All-Time Temperature Record: Kuwait Fries in 54°C (129.2°F) Heat."

I don't see anyone celebrating the string of reports on climate records. It is not good news when these kinds of records are broken.

I am also painfully aware that there is a link between the contrasting sets of records: booming travel and scorching climate patterns. The ever-increasing air traffic points to continued high use of the fossil fuels that keep the planes in the air -- and the upper atmosphere emissions from jets are especially damaging. All of those tourists coming to Colorado, while a boon for our economy, also are adding to the climate impacts of our highly-mobile society.

The presumptively good economic news pretty much demands that the climate news will continue to get worse.

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It is no secret that "business as usual" is catastrophic for the ecological health of our planet. But that awareness never seems to be evident in the reporting of business and economic news. The presumption is that any economic activity is good. More jobs, more spending, is always to be celebrated. The climate and environmental impacts of that growth are simply ignored.

That mindset is so thoroughly entrenched that it never has to be explained. In our culture, it would be surprising if a journalist -- or a politician -- took the time to explain why economic growth, a rising GDP, or high stock prices are good news. It would be like explaining why a decline in murder rates is a good thing. It is just self-evident, isn't it?

And that is why it is so hard to make real progress on climate change. Many aspects of the changes that are needed to slash our climate impacts contradict the unquestioned beliefs of our economic worldview. Leave fossil fuels in the ground? That's an economic heresy. Conserve precious resources by driving or flying less, by turning off air conditioning, by holding off on upgrades to your phone? Those are threats to the central assumptions of our economic system.

And because those are core assumptions, not conscious factors in how we think, we don't even know how to reframe the conversation. The beliefs are invisible to most of us, most of the time. So it is jarring and confusing to raise questions about these presumed benefits.

A record number of flights through DIA in recent months? For many folk, the only troubling question is how that might increase the lines at airport security.

It would be truly surprising if the Denver Post's business writers expanded the scope of their reporting. During those record-setting months, was the use of jet fuel also at record levels? What are the connections between those emissions and US climate policy? They don't tell us. What if the headline read, "Record traffic at DIA a setback to Denver's sustainability goals"?

If the invisible assumptions about economic growth are not questioned and challenged, then almost any action on climate change will feel like an attack on the good life. A successful climate strategy has to include the work of evaluating our cultural assumptions. We have to start dismantling the presumed virtue that any increase in economic activity is a good thing. We have to start naming the hidden costs and dangerous implications, so that those "good news" reports about broken economic records will feel as disquieting as the "bad news" reports about broken temperature records.

As far as I can tell from my watching of the Republican convention this week, climate change was never mentioned. It wasn't denied, and it wasn't lifted up as a matter of concern. It was just ignored. And because it was never acknowledged, then the signs about "Trump digs coal" were expressions of economic hope. The never-voiced assumption was that burning coal is an unquestionable good for the economy.

Breaking down unquestioned assumptions is a task that take persistence. Over and over again, we need to lift up places where environmental costs are invisible, and challenge the presumptions about what is good for the society. We need to create anxiety around those things that are so often presented as wonderful -- like lots of people flying through the city's airport. For climate action to be seen as positive, we need to break down the existing assumptions that hide environmental damage.

May we be persistent in raising those questions and critiques. May we repeat our message over and over again, naming those issues so often that other people start to expect our concerns and take them seriously. May we be so persistent that we start to sound like -- and you had to see this one coming! -- "a broken record."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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