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There's Nothing More Important Than the Environment
editorial by David M. Switzer
"I hope my grandchildren will never look at me and tell me, 'Grandpa, you could have done more for us.' If we adults fail to put the environment on the front burner, our children and their children will not have any hope of experiencing the abundance and diversity of life's creatures that existed when we were still young."
-- David Suzuki & Holly Dressel, From Naked Ape to Superspecies
If we don't take care of the environment, we're not going to be around to do anything else. Although the state of the environment is not so great, it's not hopeless -- we need to consider this moment in time as an opportunity. As David Brin says in an interview with Living Planet (posted on his web site): "Pessimists and optimists offer little to this transforming process, because both views encourage complacency. Cautious hopefulness seems best, recognizing that good things are happening."
Environmentalists have been warning us for many years -- for example, John Brunner's novel of ecocatastrophe The Sheep Look Up was published in 1972. But on the whole we haven't listened. Lots of decisions are made by governments, companies, and individuals as if we humans are separate from the environment, as if we can do whatever we want -- but that's not true.
Al Gore demonstrates in his movie An Inconvenient Truth the link between temperature and the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. He shows that ice in Greenland and Antarctica is disappearing at a shocking rate. He reminds us that solving this problem wouldn't be completely unprecedented. We've already solved one global environmental problem -- we no longer produce CFCs and the ozone layer is on its way to recovery. As Gore says, "Political will is a renewable resource."
We're going to run out of oil within my lifetime -- maybe not every last drop, but at least in terms of supplying all the demand. This is going to require a huge change, sooner or later, voluntarily or involuntarily. We can wait until we run out of oil, and risk the self-destruction of our culture. Or we can do something now.
We like to believe that we're smarter than our ancestors, but younger cultures (younger in comparison to tribal cultures) have regularly self-destructed when their main fuel source runs out -- it happened to the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Inca, and the Aztecs.
Jared Diamond in Collapse describes in detail what happened to several cultures that self-destructed. For example, he takes us to Easter Island -- the location of those mysterious stone statues with big hats. The island was completely deforested by the time Europeans came exploring. Consequences of the loss of forest for the islanders would have been "losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields." Secondary consequences were "starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism."
With respect to societies that have chosen to fail or succeed, Diamond says: "Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping their outcomes towards success or failure: long-term thinking, and willingness to reconsider core values." The inhabitants of Easter Island kept cutting down trees until they were all gone. In contrast, Japan in the late 17th century began to regulate use of its forests -- and today, even with its large population, Japan still has a huge percentage of forested area.
Whereas in the past cultures have collapsed without affecting other cultures far away, now the world is interconnected to a great extent. We're all in the same proverbial boat. Although we may colonize other worlds at some point in the future, right now Earth is the only planet we have.
In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight Thom Hartmann explains some of the major environmental problems we face, why it is that we have these problems, and what we can do to turn things around.
Hartmann shows how deforestation, extinctions, and climate change are causing problems in various places in the world and will cause even more problems in the future. He points out that alternative energy sources require oil to produce -- for example, solar cells are made of minerals that need to be mined.
There are some places in the world where we can see what our future will be like if we don't change things. In Haiti trees cover less than one per cent of the land. About 80 per cent of the people live in abject poverty. Hartmann writes: "As much as 16 hours a day are spend by the average country-dweller in search of food or firewood, and an equal amount of time is spent by city-dwellers in search of money or edible garbage."
How is it that so many of us don't know important things about the world, and even if we do know we don't do anything about it? Hartmann argues that we have become docile, easy to control. "Far more seductive than opium, infinitely more effective at shaping behavior and expectations than alcohol, and used for more minutes every day than tobacco, our culture's most pervasive and most insidious 'drugging agent' is television." Spending so much time watching a flickering box, we have become disconnected -- from other people, from nature, and from life itself.
Our culture tells us that we humans are the pinnacle of creation, that the world was created for us. Where can we find an example of a culture that thinks differently? Tribal cultures, which have lasted much longer than ours, believe that we are part of nature and should cooperate with the other parts. Hartmann doesn't advocate returning to a hunting and gathering lifestyle, but he does think we can learn some things from the older cultures.
"The evidence from analysis of tribal peoples alive today is that tribal life is relatively stress-free, satisfying, produces more leisure time than city/state life, and -- perhaps most important -- is sustainable indefinitely." What does he mean by a tribe? A tribe is a politically independent unit with an egalitarian structure, obtaining resources from renewable local sources. Each tribe is unique, and has its own identity; at the same time, people in one tribe have respect for those in other tribes.
The goal of the tribe is the security of all its members -- that is, getting everyone to the point where they have what they need to live. After that, each member is free to pursue their own interests. As more and more people in our culture realize that money is not making them happy, they are looking for some other way to live -- some way to transform their lives.
The subtitle of Hartmann's book is "Waking Up to Personal & Global Transformation." If we transform ourselves -- that is, start telling different stories about how we view ourselves and our place in the world -- eventually a critical mass will be reached and our culture will be transformed. (For a fascinating description of how small changes can make a big difference, read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.)
Does this seem unlikely to you? It's happened before. Hartmann gives the example of segregation. Two generations ago it was considered normal by most people in the US but then over a relatively short period of time it became unthinkable by most people. Our culture was transformed when enough people started telling a different story.
How could we do things differently? Robert J. Sawyer has some ideas, which he includes as aspects of a Neanderthal culture on a parallel Earth in his Neanderthal Parrallax trilogy. Neanderthals keep their population constant, use clean sources of energy, and call for a vehicle when they need one rather than everyone having their own. Neanderthal houses are "grown through aboriculture, tree trunks shaped around building forms that had subsequently been removed" (Humans).
This last feature reminded me of Hundertwasser, a painter, architect, and environmentalist whose work I encountered when I was in Vienna. His work is full of bright colours, spirals, and the integration of humans with nature. He designed buildings that have grass on their roofs, trees in their midst, and floors that aren't flat. Why don't we have more buildings like this?
In David Suzuki and Holly Dressel's Good News For a Change, they describe how people are making positive contributions to the environment. We don't hear about these people in the news very often -- as I argued in a previous editorial (issue #16) the major news sources aren't always good at telling us what we need to know. People often think that they can't do anything significant by themselves -- but you could certainly join one of the many groups that are making a difference.
What makes people happy? Ultimately it's not buying things, which is what our culture tells us will make us happy. Studies have shown that once you get beyond a certain basic level, having more things doesn't bring you more happiness. Suzuki and Dressel believe that it has "more to do with connecting with others, with feeling useful and, amazingly enough, with sharing everything -- from food and feelings to ideas and beliefs." So if you think some things need to change in the world, get out there and share your thoughts with someone.
I have some links to web sites that deal with the environment here. Also see my editorial "What Could Be Better Than Civilization?" from issue #10 for a discussion of Daniel Quinn's books -- another perspective on essentially the same topic.
Dave Switzer recently cancelled his cable TV. He plans to spend more time communing with nature, thinking, and talking with friends.
Cover artist Cédric Trojani is a French illustrator. He's studied painting and sculpture in a fine art school and he's always been a science fiction and fantasy reader. Cédric does his images using 2D and 3D graphic programs and a graphic tablet. When doing a 3D picture, he spends most of his time on texturing and lighting. He would love to be hired to draw science fiction covers and illustrate books. Cédric is 36, married, with one child.
Last modified: October 3, 2009
Copyright © 2006 David M. Switzer