I have heard many doom and gloom scenarios for the world's end over the years. I react differently depending on my mood. I came across the most recent two days ago.
These scenarios can be very depressing, especially those that deal with the environment since that is a topic which is near and dear to my heart. My first degree was a joint honours program in Environmental Science (B.E.S.) and Biology (B.Sc.) at the University of Waterloo. In the first year of the 4 year curriculum it was tough to remain optimistic in the E.S. half of my head. When faced with the dire facts it is easy to fall into a terrible snit that no amount of chocolate cheesecake, alcohol or other delights could shake off. They hit you hard, perhaps too hard with the sad facts. Many people, in fact, dropped out which was a shame since the remaining 3 years really did try to give you tools to make a difference.
So what new The World will End drove me to golb you might ask? I read an article in Tuesday's Globe about Tim Flannery and his new book, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change. This Australian author admits that writing the book and confronting these issues (man's effect on the environment…) was so depressing that he didn't want to get out of bed some days. His conclusion is that he has to do all that he can as an individual to promote greater care on the part of humans on our small blue-green island in an ocean of lifeless space. So he has used solar power and heating to bring his country home off the electricity grid and he writes to inform others of the importance of proper stewardship of our environment. He tries to remain positive and remain optimistic about our chances.
And I agree. One of the most important lessons I learned during my Bachelor's degree (I believe it was in 3rd year) was that the environmental problem caused by them (i.e.: not me) somewhere out there isn't the problem at all. The problem starts with me.
I needed (and am still trying) to realize that our effect on the planet is neither equitable nor is it benign. We all left an imprint on the earth. We are squandering our and especially our children's environmental health (wealth?) for short term gain. This is as clear to see as the smog surrounding cities and the increase of colour in our sunsets, regardless of what many politicians or oil industry executives would have us believe. The problem is, however, made too big and the enormity and scale dwarfs us into thinking that we can do nothing.
In reality, the problem is too big for politicians or multinationals or the United Nations or even a World Government (if such a thing existed) to solve. A government or company is just a representation of us or some kind of vested interest. No. The problem as Flannery has, I think (I am on a long line of readers waiting for his book on reserve at the library), realized is so ENORMOUS that we all have to tackle it. This is really hard. Extremely hard, in fact, for those of us in the first world who have grown complacent and cosy in our oversize ecological footprints.
So I don't look to Kyoto protocols or my government or anyone else to solve this problem, I look in the mirror. Those organizations may help along the way, but I'm the one who is really responsible. If I've driving when I could walk or bike, if I'm landfilling when I could be reducing my need for materials, if I'm a client of large multinational factory food conglomerates instead of buying local, organic products, if I doing any of these and other eco-hazardous things then I am the problem. Every single choice I make can be that butterfly wing that leads to a hurricane on the other end of the planet.
And going back to that ecological footprint, my results (and bear in mind that this is a fairly crude estimate but certainly a reasonable one for only a little effort) are as follows:
-total footprint 4.5
-in comparison, the average ecological footprint in your country is 8.8 global hectares per person.
-worldwide, there exist 1.8 biologically productive global hectares per person.
-if everyone lived like you, we would need 2.5 planets.
So even though I do bike to work each day I still effect the earth 2.5 times more than I should. This is my problem and yours and everyone's. It's too important to be avoided. Flannery puts it well when he says that our choices in regard to the planet are really an issue of morality.
Of course, there is a view which can be taken at a bigger level. George Carlin delivered this message best in his delightful "The World is Fine" monologue. If you haven't heard it then I recommend you find it. You can read a transcript at this blog if you can't get a copy of the album; it's called Jammin' in New York. Ever since last summer when I first heard it, I have often thought about getting a copy to some of my old Environmental Science profs like Bob Gibson or Greg Michalenko or Sally Lerner. This would be a great test: sit the first year students down and have them listen to George and then divide up the class to debate it.
Carlin points out that the planet is doing fine. It is the people who are in trouble and as soon as they screw things up enough to drive themselves extinct (by provoking the environment), the planet will go on. Perhaps, he surmises, we were 'invented' to come up with plastic and now that plastic is here, there and everywhere we can be dispensed with! Ha! What a grand view… yes Virginia, we ARE that unimportant! It is worthwhile, I think, to remind those who haven't studied biological history that the waste gas products of early anaerobic bacteria built up steadily (not so long ago in our Earth's geologic past) to the extent that is caused massive extinctions in those bacteria. Evolution went happily on to produce organisms that could use that toxic gas in the atmosphere. That gas is none other than our friend oxygen!