Since Christmas I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s environmental treatise, ‘The end of nature‘, and this evening I finally watched the film also known as ‘the Al Gore movie’, ‘An inconvenient truth.’ The close of the evening leads me to wonder if I’ve allowed myself to become lulled into complacency, convenience and comfort when there is so clearly so much critical work to be done. Our very existence is imperilled, and what the heck have I done about it lately?
These musings reminded me of a few of the founding principles with which I was raised:
* An understanding that life is complex, interconnected and systemic.
* That we are all empowered individuals — seemingly impossible changes don’t happen easily and the only certainty that is guaranteed through apathy is that nothing will change, or that it may change for the worse. Bearing personal witness to apartheid and the ending of it was powerful proof that every contribution makes a difference.
* And that with the gift of life, comes responsiblity — responsibility for one’s actions (or inactions), civic and social responsibility and one’s responsibility as steward over the environment.
I remember being completely entranced by that quote, “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” But I fear that in our instant gratification age, we have lost our place in the timeline of humanity, lost our sense of being part of something bigger in exchange for the pathetic trinkets of consumerism, lost our history, and if you read Bill McKibben, we’ve also literally lost touch with nature.
A people without history is ironically a people without a future and also a people destined to spend their time repeating the unlearned lessons of the past. “We recognize our relationship to the past and to our future because they are the same thing.” — Winona LaDuke, Anishinabe.
Consumer culture is a powerful force, after all it reliably (although shallowly) rewards our most selfish impulses. As a result, we think far too much of ourselves, our personal comforts and conveniences, and far too little — if anything — of anyone and anything else. It is a driver in the overall trend of depersonalization, both in the sense of psychological and social anomie, but also in the practical purchasing power sense that makes it not only okay, but braggable to many, that they bargained with a poverty-stricken craftswoman for a souvenir, or bought a carpet that cost part of the eyesight and all of the education of a child, but cost them much less than the asking price.
In our aversion to discomfort, we have become averse to asking the uncomfortable questions. Rarely does anyone ask the true cost of something, they’re only interested in the cost to themselves. That’s why I was amazed to see the front pages of Canadian newspapers on Earth Day last year. Multiple pages of the first section of various newspapers were taken up with measuring the ecological footprint of the average Canadian, of the average resident in various cities, and of talking about how much more had to and would be done to improve the situation. This wasn’t content ghettoised to the science section or the children’s supplement, this was news — as of course, our future existence as a species should be.
Ironically, it should be an ultimate expression of selfishness that should be the driving force behind individuals everywhere demanding a greener future. It is our quality of lives, comfort, material goods, bank balances that are at stake. Who wants to see the value of their vacation home plummet because of rising sea levels? Who wants to pay exponentially increased insurance rates because of losses arising from storms or fires or mudslides?
But I fear all indications are that conditions on our planet are getting worse. I remember my paleo-climatology professor trying to calm my fears a decade ago with the reassurance that, “These changes are nothing in geological time.” The earth, he declared, would survive, but as for us humans…
“We ask his blessings… on all the generations that follow us down to the Seventh Generation. May the world we leave them be a better one than was left to us.” Much like this great law of the Iroquois, I have always hoped that whenever I die I will, if I have any last sensible moments, be able to review my life and determine that I made a positive difference. What will life have been worth if living it served only to defile the planet? If this is the case at the final years of my generation, we’ve barely a hope of humanity lasting another seven.
I don’t subscribe to Agent Smith’s thesis in the movie ‘The Matrix’, but we’re certainly living up to his conception. “I’d like to share with you a revelation, I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species that I realized you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague…”
If we have become a cancer, I’d prefer to be in pursuit of the cure. So I recalculated my personal ecological footprint (you can too at http://www.myfootprint.org/. The good news? It’s half the size of the average American. The bad news, worldwide there exist only 4.5 biologically productive acres per person, so if everyone lived like me, we would need 2.9 planets.
So I tried calculating my carbon impact at http://www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator/. Those long flights really jack up the environmental impact, which stands at 9000, 60% of the average American.
And all this is more than a little depressing, considering the ecological impact of the average American so grossly overshadows that of any other nation! But as Al Gore reminds the audience, we shouldn’t move so quickly to dispair without trying action first. And that I know too well. It took almost half a century to dismantle the apartheid system (while its socio-economic impacts will take decades more to redress), so we should be prepared for the long haul to tackle the collective negative impact of human beings on the planet.
There is hope, and it is each of us.
“It’s amazing what a small group of committed people can accomplish to change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead