Human beings treat most of life as if “the way things are” was inevitable, and that it can be expected to endure. When we go to sleep, we should be able to wake up the next day and take a long, hot shower, whip together a few organic items for breakfast, commute about town in a trendy vehicle filled with a tank of reasonably priced gas, pick up a quick, well-made latte on the way to work, and settle into our workplace–a climate-controlled environment replete with all sorts of technology we want to use to complete the tasks at hand. And that’s just the basics of everyday life.
Thanks to “progress,” we have a whole spectrum of innovations and comforts that have made our lives easier, faster, more convenient, and more predictable. The way things are now seem like the way they were alway meant to be, and tomorrow will bring more of the same–or better. We’re on the upslope to the (really) good life–thanks in large part to more “stuff” and more manipulation of the world around us to achieve the ends we desire. “We can drill way down into these shales for natural gas and be energy-independent!” “We can brew up great coffee at home on a Keurig, skip the coffeeshop, and save time and money!” “I can stream Game of Thrones on my smartphone way out here in the woods!” And all of that. It’s been a pretty great setup for a while, and feels exactly like the kind of pleasant, ideal path humans were meant to tread. I enjoy many of modern life’s great comforts myself: I’m typing this on a tablet, connected wirelessly to happenings across the world via WI-FI, and sipping great coffee recently shipped over from a country thousands of miles away.
The thing about the inevitability, and the expectation, and the comfort, and the predictability, is that as much as it feels like things are supposed to always be this way, it’s only been so for a relatively short amount of time. We, and our planet, have never known what it would be like for human beings to be able to explore, and dig, and reconfigure, and use just about anything, anywhere, for years and years of time. In recent decades, we’ve had our eyes focused a little more carefully, our ears to the ground, and some of the devices we’ve constructed out and about collecting data to try to understand how the world we are manipulating–which is also the environment in which we live–is changing in response to our dominion. We’re finding out, rather unsurprisingly, that its servitude has led it into a dilapidated state that’s in stark contrast to our perceived “progress.”
If you’ve followed the news in the past several weeks, you’ve likely heard about both the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the White House reports on the status of our planet and its climate, and watched the ensuing–often partisan–furor. The news wasn’t good. If you were open to the notion that the planet is changing in a dramatically negative way–particularly in ways less hospitable to people living on it–they were a fresh reminder that the hot shower-gasoline-Keurig-smartphone dream is actually taxing our world ecosystem in unsustainable ways. If you were unsure or doubtful about an (anthropogenic) changing climate–especially because those with political views you can’t get on board with won’t stop talking about it–these reports and the ensuing activism likely only exacerbated your doubt and irritation.
The problem is that those who actually research such things professionally have had near one-hundred percent unanimity about a human-caused changing climate, in a negative direction, for years now, while the opinion of the general public is that things are probably A-OK on the whole. Or if our opinions are otherwise, we’re tacitly accepting the unsustainable status quo the majority of the time with our action and inaction.
What will it take for us to be shaken out of our expectations-filled, denialist/avoidance slumber? What thing will be the splash of cold water that gets us to jump out of bed and alter the harsh dominion we have held? Will it be when good coffee disappears, potentially later this century, because the growing regions of the world no longer support the plant or climate-change-friendly fungus destroys everyone’s crop? Perhaps we’re willing to settle for much less delicious hybrid varietals of coffee bean, or some other drink altogether–thought tea and cocoa aren’t expected to fare well either.
Will it be a couple of decades straight of debilitating drought in places like California, where I live–resulting in overwhelming water shortages, intolerable heat, and the complete loss of one of the country’s major food-growing regions?
Why is it human nature to wait until it’s too late or too close to home before we actually do something about the challenges before us–especially when we’ve caused them in the first place?
The earth will likely go on just fine long after the planet no longer supports human life at all. It might take a new age or era of time to stabilize from the ways we’ve messed things up, but the world should go on clicking for millions or billions of years pleasantly without any people around. We are not inevitable.
It’s our own future as people who can live and flourish on this planet that is in the balance, and in our power to control toward either a sad end or a different kind of progressive future. And it’s not just the future of generations after us–it’s the future of how we will live, struggle to live, or be overcome as the earth continues to change in our own lifetimes. The most urgent change we need to make is with energy. Fossil fuels, which took hundreds of millions of years to develop, are being culled and combusted in a matter of decades–contributing to an exponential increase in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is driving the changing climate. Natural gas, a recent darling, is an imposter of an alternative. A quick watch of Gasland, despite its rather propogandic ethos, makes that quite clear.
But before we can make large sweeps in energy policy, we have to get everyone to even agree that the climate is changing in troubling ways. Maybe it needs to be selfishly personal: coffee, maple syrup, drinking water, local air quality, whatever. Find something the skeptic and the complacent will be compelled by. And then, when the furor is a more united voice gaining volume and influence, we have to convince the economic powers in the energy sector to do what is, for them, unthinkable: leave the fuels in the ground. There’s more there to burn than can run out before it’s too late for the climate. But we’re culpable in that too.
Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, has famously reiterated with regard to food that we get to place “a vote with our fork” of what we want the food industry and food policy to look like. If we stop buying certain things altogether then there will no longer be a market for those things that aren’t getting purchased. The less we all use anything powered or shipped by means of fossil fuel, the smaller the industry will be. It costs energy corporations $1.8 billion daily just to explore for new sources; it’s doubtful they’d continue if there is no longer a future for them.
While we pursue meaningful energy change on a worldwide scale, it’s up to us all locally to decide each and every day the kinds of things we want to support with our purchase, consumption, and use, and the kinds of things we wish and need to disappear. They will if we all stop supporting them. Life as we know it will disappear if we don’t.
“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go on forever…This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.” (E.M. Forster, Howards End)