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Case In Point

Warning: shifting baselines ahead

By Chris Honore’

“An Inconvenient Truth,” now playing at the Varsity Theatre, is a tour de force documentary wherein we see Al Gore, stage center, delivering what he refers to as his Global Warming Slide Show. His thesis — presented using large graphics, animation and film footage — is that we can now say, irrefutably, that global warming is indeed taking place. In fact, when graphed-out, and comparisons made over the last 650 years, we see that it is accelerating at an alarming rate. The hottest year ever recorded was 2005.

Implicit in Gore’s presentation is the term “shifting baseline,” coined by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly of the University of British Colombia, Canada. What Pauly means is that as we incrementally shift the baseline of what we regard as acceptable, we forget what once was. Some environmentalists regard the shifting baseline as slow motion disaster. We have forgotten that the prairies were once vast stretches of tall grass and thousands of buffalo; we have forgotten what the oceans were like before they were overfished, and kelp beds were filled with black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheepshead; we can no longer recall what coral reefs looked like when they were not degraded; nor do we remember the Florida swamps and everglades when their rich habitat stretched for uninterrupted miles; or when species of birds once sang whose songs are now silent. There was a time when, on a clear day, you could see forever.

Gore acknowledges that after his presentation some are moved to act, while others fall into a deep and abiding cynicism, having concluded that we have already passed the point of no return and it matters not a wit what we do. What awaits us are environmental disasters and habitat devastation that will make Katrina pale by comparison. Clearly, our world leaders — there is no better example than America’s current administration — cannot/will not summon the political will to declare a global emergency and take all necessary steps to avert the degradation of our planet. Nor are they likely to do so. Look only at the continued use of coal and the fact that it is not mandatory to use emission retrieval systems, though the technology is available. Look at the retro-designed, low mileage automobiles still being manufactured by GM and Ford. Think of the global dependence on oil, still, with minimal worldwide attention paid to renewable energy. We are a pitiable, myopic species, some might opine, that lacks foresight and courage.

Gore, however, believes that there is still time. He asserts, based on the best science available, that we have a window of opportunity, ten years at most, to avert an environmental catastrophe. But we must act; this is a crossroads moment in history. Gore then says an interesting thing: he underlines this declarative statement by insisting that it is a moral imperative. Actually he uses the term twice in the film.

By moral imperative he means that when we observe events that we determine to be dire, we must act. The consequences of doing nothing would be morally reprehensible and profoundly unethical. Global warming is such a situation. It is as great a threat to our national security, to worldwide security, as terrorism. To take no action would rob our children of the opportunity to live on planet earth as generations have done before, with the oceans in good health and the environment robust and user friendly for all species.

A moral imperative transcends all borders and regions and nations. It is a proposition that requires action. There is no rationale that supersedes a moral imperative.

For America it offers up an interesting dilemma and begs the question: can we as a people act morally? If we observe in the world events that are egregious, lethal, human tragedies on a global scale that deny men and women their unalienable rights, are we not morally bound to act? To at least speak out? To hammer the bully pulpit?

If we can justify invading Iraq based on a moral imperative (freedom and democracy must be spread around the world) how do we explain that we ignore the gulags of North Korea and the genocide taking place in Darfur? How do we explain abandoning the people of Rwanda? How can we not act regarding world hunger, populations desperate for birth control and medicines? And what of the worldwide scourge of AIDS? By what moral principle do we reject the Geneva Conventions regarding torture? And how can we explain ignoring global warming?

Becoming a moral country once again could indeed change the world, and, as Gore postulates, the environment.