This is a phrase the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti used to describe the preciousness of our current moment. Originally an aeronautical term, the time of useful consciousness is those few moments between being deprived of oxygen and passing out, moments in which the full extent of the danger is know, but it is still possible to act. We are in the Time of Useful Consciousness, the brief period where we still have an opportunity to save the delicate balance of the atmosphere and the civilisation that depends on it.1

How long is this time? Only a few decades. We have around 30 years from 2017 in which to act decisively to reduce carbon emissions to around ‘net zero’: if emissions are not close to zero by 2045 it will likely no longer be possible to stay within the ‘safe’ level of below 2 degrees Celsius and prevent catastrophic climate change.2 The process that needs to happen is a descent down the ‘Carbon Staircase’: a visualisation of the deliberate and rapid steps required to move from our present peak carbon production to a zero carbon economy by around 2045.

The first step (present – 2020) requires nations beginning to act on the most basic commitments made under the Paris Agreement: measures like removing the existing subsidies for fossil fuels, implementing stringent carbon taxes or recalibrating emissions trading schemes to make the price on carbon realistic. The second ‘herculean’ step (2020–2030) will require the complete phasing out of coal mines and combustion engines in cars. The third step (2030–2040) will require the transformation of cities though building with low or zero-emission materials (wood instead of concrete) The last step (2040–2045) will be the transition to all energy being generated from renewable technologies. By 2045 almost no fossil fuels can be consumed globally. The ‘controlled implosion’ of the fossil fuel industry needs to occur within the Time of Useful Consciousness.

Defined By Ralph Chapman

1. Lawrence Ferlinghetti interviewed by Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm, 23 August 2012, www.KCRW.com.

2. Ralph Chapman, Time of Useful Consciousness: Acting Urgently on Climate Change (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2015).