Life is hard. Looking at environmental matters makes it look all the harder.
How do you ever want to find happiness when even hope seems lost?
Many an environmentalist campaign continues to look as if it were all just about saving a certain species. Save the panda, save the tiger, save the polar bears… “save the whales, save those snails.” At best, it has expanded to concern about the habitat, and its wider ecological role (if there is an obvious one), as in the long-running calls to “Save the Rainforest.”
Poster children, charismatic megafauna – and to someone taking a long hard look at the (“environmental”) state of the world, an almost clueless, childishly naïve, and overly optimistic view of things. Not that these species and their habitats were not threatened; they are. You cannot save a species when the entire world is changing, though – but “Save the Planet” is the height of hubris.
Not to forget that it is not “the planet”, not “nature”, that needs saving, it is us. Nature will go on, new species will develop – but what about civilization, or even the human species?
Overly negative, many want to say to that. We are inventive, we have technology and power, we will adapt again and again, as we always have. Just be realistic; we aren’t threatened, lives have been getting longer.
Unfortunately, although an honest look should indeed include that we are not the most stupid, it also has to acknowledge that we are getting ever deeper into trouble.
We are running up against planetary boundaries and into territory where ecosystems, if not the entire earth system, could shift to new states. In other words: We have always known the world as a relatively stable stage, going through certain cycles, perhaps, but all in all giving the drama of life room to unfold. Sure, there are the seasons, there is the Southern Oscillation (El Niño/L a Niña) with its associated weather phenomena, there is even (a) warm period and (the little) ice age within human historical memory.
Now, though, there is a distinct possibility that this Earth we have always known and been able to live in may shift and become Eaarth, as Bill McKibben put it, which is radically different.
Already, we are seeing extreme weather events that even scientists attribute to man-made global climate change (although only hindsight is 100%, and especially so in science), and that show how this is not “an engineering problem with an engineering solution:” flooding, and “farming in hell” are not things we can just easily find technological solutions to; a shift in ecosystem states also means a shift in ecosystem services – and those are the very foundations of our existence.
Even if you argue that we need to free ourselves from the chains – though roots may be the better image – that bind us to Earth, we probably shouldn’t leap before we have invented wings and know we can fly. (Which, right now, we know we couldn’t.)
You could, of course, also discount our understanding of ecology. Then, though, it is only clearer that the (geo-)engineering solutions that are sometimes proposed are a pipe dream if ever there was one. You don’t believe we know enough about ecology to know what will happen with ecosystems and the Earth system in the future, e.g. with climate change, and you can’t seriously believe that “it’s time for humanity to take the steering wheel” and manage the Earth system. We are not even certain enough about the ways our own eating relates to our own health, can’t even control our expanding waistlines, but believe that we should be able to control the entire Earth system? Seriously?
Even if you think that we misunderstand ecological functioning and will not see quite such serious changes, but “only” be left with a perhaps impoverished, but still stable, world, you can still take a long hard look at present trends, and see nothing but trouble.
Sure, modern civilization has lifted people out of poverty, has brought longer lifespans, has enabled some of us to live in great affluence – but rising numbers and lifespans, and increasing affluence, also means greater pressure on resources. Food prices have become highly sensitive to any shocks already; food and farmland have become objects of financial speculation; costs of fuel and (other) petrochemicals have been high – and that is just one, albeit essential, area where peak oil may be showing its influence.
As much impact as peak oil would have, with rising numbers and demands, it may be peak everything, and it is accompanied by “the race for what’s left” of the (more easily usable/reachable) resources the modern world requires, from farmland and food, to agrochemicals, to rare earths and silicium for electronics – and solar panels. Add in the very real possibility that the real Hunger Games are on, thanks to the drought…
Nothing but this bleakness, some seem to think, is provided by the honest look at reality. Things look dire. Yes, the optimists could point to all the adaptability and inventiveness of humanity – but it is an adaptation that has brought humans into just about any and all habitats on Earth (just not the deep sea), but not with the great comforts modern civilization has brought, and it is an inventiveness that has brought the great comforts of modern civilization, but isn’t possible for all of us given how many resources that would require… And both do not deal well with ecosystem shifts.
It is all, probably, quite true. Then again, “in the long run, we are all dead.” There is also this, though:
We who are reading this now are alive, and probably want to stay this way – and even have a good life, if it’s not too much to ask.
We will have enough hope, or at least be good enough at repressing or denying those fears (whether they turn out to be just fears or truth), to go on living rather than off ourselves.
For that, we need hope as little as a seed needs hope: Not at all. We only need to live. But how about we also grow – and realize our potential to truly grow – learning, conserving, and creating?
Radical honesty, then, becomes less about accepting that we may be in deep trouble (and seeing trouble no matter where we turn), and more about the search for hope against hope, or for better – because this is what also makes us human.
We live, and we (can) learn.
And, we have hardly begun to scratch the surface of what we could do to live better.
Not to just live better as individuals, right now, nevermind our or the world’s future.
To create good lives for us, and not lose the world in the process.
To not just live like tourists visiting this planet, leaving in their wake despoliation and destruction, all for a little while of quick fun, but to make ourselves at home in this world, living truly richer lives.
To live and let live, and inch closer towards fulfilling the potential that this our species has, not for violence and destruction, but for great things, from personally satisfying lives of rich experience and grand purpose, great virtue and grandiose works, by way of communities of living and real growth, to bio-mimicking techniques and technologies employed to satisfy needs, whether you want to live a quiet life of subsistence or move towards the stars…
We are alive, and we can live better, for ourselves and the world – it’s high time we started acting like it.