Monday, October 20, 2014

The Second Weather

Weather might be defined as mutually interacting atmospheric and hydrospheric responses to a single major source of energy. That energy comes in daily cycles as the earth turns about its axis—and is distributed as summer, then as winter to the globe’s two hemispheres as the planet circles that source: the sun.

It used to be—back in those days when the word “economy” meant “frugality” and had not yet acquired its current meaning—that weather was the economy. And in those days no sensible human ever thought that one could manage the weather. It was a blessing or a curse. And chronic changes in regional climate could only be countered by migration. Then came the age of fossil fuels. Not in a literal way, of course, but certainly in an effective way, discovery of coal and oil introduced a new, call it second, source of energy. Not literally because the fossil fuels had all been created using sunlight too—but long ago. The consequence has been that humanity has come to imagine that economies can be managed—presumably because coal can be mined and oil extracted. More or less of it had become a matter of human effort and of enterprise.

Our own is a unique period in history, never before experienced. Incremental changes—like learning to travel by wind or to produce energy by falling water—did not really change the fundamentals, but the fossil fuels have, in effect, brought major change. We now live in a time of Second Weather. Some believe it will never end. Humanity will never run out of its second, its free, energy. This belief, anchored firmly in the concept of progress, itself the child of the Second Weather, is thought to be human ingenuity. Never mind that fossil fuels will eventually run out. Something will replace them. Technology. Like fossil fuels, it is something that can be managed—yes, even by politicians. Therefore rest easy.

Some of us doom-sayers are dubious—even as fracking fracks on. Whether it is the first or second weather we’re talking about, they are both in the realm of chance and unpredictability just because they are such monstrously huge systems that, no manner how many enticing graphics we can produce to track some minor function of either, we cannot really get beyond observation. But the illusion that we are now in charge is tempting.

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