The Trouble With Normal: 350 and the Future

After a light spring rain and the passing of not-too-distant thunder overnight, we packed up to head home from Mt. Rogers. Not three miles of hardtop east of our camping spot, we drove through a tenth-of-a-mile stretch where big trees had freshly been twisted and snapped. A small but powerful tornado must have barely missed churning through the middle of the crowded campground where we had spent the night.

I was shocked. In central Alabama where I grew up, tornados are normal. But not here!

The trouble with norms is that they are simply the peak of a curve, a “measure of central tendency.” Today’s norms are my no means fixed forever. They can fluctuate towards drastically greater or lesser measures that would seem inconceivable by current standards. As one my favorite Bruce Cockburn songs from the 70s puts it, “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”

A few important things are getting worse, and a century’s-worth of statistical records of heat and cold, wind and rainfall may be destined for the history books.

Humankind is facing the consequences of decades of ignoring or deferring the future. We have not possessed the will or wisdom to do what seemed so apparent that we must do starting in the earliest days of our environmental consciousness: to live within our means; to accept that there are limits to growth; to recognize we will always depend on the soil-water-air more than on Wall Street; to pay as we go with regards to natural resource use and to play fair. Now we’ve made our bed, and our children will lie in it.

At (or slightly beyond) the very brink of possible catastrophic shifts from normal, we are faced now with a grotesque, science-fiction kind of predicament (this is NOT a test!): we’ve got very little energy currency with which to do future business; and we’re tipping toward the point of no return for global climate disruption that can turn today’s norms (and every living and economic system dependent on them) upside down.

But let’s gather our wits and focus. In spite of dire warnings recently from Nobel laureates meeting on climate change, there is still a chance we can limit average global warming to not more than 2 degrees C.

Granted, this sounds like such a small change, but those norms of our ordinary industrial-age biological and meteorological world that we’ve been talking about are very finely tuned, hence our narrow “normals.” And we simply must understand that this thermal creep is the single most serious challenge and threat that humankind will have faced in all its history. It’s almost impossible for me wrap my head around this, but I must. We must.

It is possible that if we all act together, we can nudge the enormous atmospheric barge of CO2, alter its forward momentum just enough to divert it from the rocks ahead. We can’t stop it cold in its tracks in our lifetimes, and even with extraordinary, consistent cooperation and common purpose it will take decades to bring CO2 levels back to what most scientists believe to be the balance point: 350 parts per million.

Did you know that number? Bill McKibben argues that it is the most important number mankind might ever bring into our common language. Why? Because according to NASA’s Jim Hansen and co-authors, “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.”

You will certainly be hearing more about this number in the months ahead. It is an abstraction really. We haven’t words big enough to express the magnitude of our predicament. But numbers are universal. This figure will give ordinary people around the globe a common place to look, a common goal to which to insist all world leaders move. And if we can change in that direction, we just might be able to give our children’s children a life that is normal–by any recent historical measure.

In the concluding words of those same Nobel Laureates I mentioned before:

“We know what needs to be done. We cannot wait until it is too late. We cannot wait until what we value most is lost.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I was reading my daily BioChar digest earlier today and it said that the Chinese are going to beat us to environmental sustainability. Then, I read on Progress Report that Exxon is continuing to fund organizations that support global warming deniers. I don’t know the answer. About all I can do it act responsibly at a personal level and hope that others wake up in time. With the state of the corporate media, it is almost impossible to make any headway. Who in the heck cares that Michael Jackson died???