The data is pretty clear. Human life on this planet, as we know it, is on its descent. Ten thousand years after we harnessed the extractive possibilities of agriculture, we are racing through the planet’s resources—and heating it up in the process—at such a rate that we probably don’t have ten thousand more years to go. Maybe not even a thousand. Doomsayers barely give us another century.
Human life is likely to persist on earth in some manner, either through greatly altered lifestyle, reduced numbers, or some sonic-paced evolution that transforms us into creatures whose mental capabilities expand without our physical bodies being such gluttons of Mother Earth’s bounty. Any way we slice it, life as we know it is unsustainable.
Still, all that data hasn’t moved human behavior in any significant way. More than sixty years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded the wakeup call, we haven’t curbed our impact on the planet in any meaningful way, unless you consider flying so-called leaders to world-wide conferences to establish target reductions that are never achieved as an actionable step.
Data is not going to change our behavior because human beings—so ingenious in facing immediate, individual threats—are terrible at addressing slow-moving, collective problems. Lowering my thermostat, boycotting plastic containers, riding the bus: none of that will appreciably impact our environmental devastation. Besides, my neighbor is doing squat, so why should I bother?
Environmental collapse is like cancer: by the time we feel the direct effect of the disease, it’s already metastasized beyond control. Also like cancer, the mere thought of it floods us with doom; the sense that we are screwed.
Ahah! moments are not rooted in data, they emerge from personal experience. Some event or observation that illustrates how the path we’re on is totally wrong, even as the ability to redirect is beyond our reach.
For me, that moment happened about twenty years ago, on a Friday evening, driving my twelve-year-old son and three of his friends’ home from a middle school event. I drove in silence, savoring the chatter of boys rambling on as if I were invisible. School gossip. Sports talk. After ten minutes or so I realized how often these boys discussed vehicles going by. They knew makes and models, attributes of luxury and power.
Twelve-year-old boys who live in a city with excellent public transit don’t need to know much about cars. They won’t drive one for years, and even then, could easily get by without. Yet their knowledge of cars was encyclopedic because, well, automobiles are part of the American DNA. In that moment the implications of a world gripped in the thrall of the autonomy and power of individual transit on demand overwhelmed me. All American kids want cars, and most of the rest of the world wants to be like Americans. The fact that car culture demands excessive energy and enables an unsustainable footprint of ever-expanding development, is irrelevant. The next generation wants cars just as much as we did, and our parents did. Q.E.D.: we are screwed.
Twenty years later, all of these boys-to-men own vehicles: gas-friendly pick-up trucks or SUV’s. (One got married and has a child, so he drives a mini-van.) They don’t seem to care about electric; they certainly don’t ride the bus.
I know, I know. My example is statistically irrelevant. My sample size of four twelve-year-olds all grown up is tiny. Recent data indicates fewer young people drive than my generation, and fewer own vehicles. But that data also suggests the reason is lack of economic ability, not lack of desire. Yet, for some reason, chauffeuring twelve-year-old’s provided my moment when the tragedy of how we organize our lives and aspirations struck me as completely opposite what’s required for natural balance.
These days, evidence of the insane way we live at odds with our natural environment is rampant. Ever-expanding highway systems, hundreds of thousands of people flying overhead at any moment, a bag of peanuts delivered—within two hours—to our door. The average size of an individual home has more than doubled since Rachel Carson’s day: space that needs to be heated and cooled and furnished. Meanwhile, the number of homeless swells, along with the number of climate refugees. Carbon-absorbing forests are cut down; animal species go extinct on a daily basis.
I recently drove the length of the New Jersey Turnpike, never a consoling view of ecological balance. Mid-state, in that zone between New York and Philly that used to be casual farmland, now stand rows and rows of fulfillment centers, our latest, pandemic-enhanced building type. One single warehouse was over a quarter of a mile long and contained over 1,000 truck bays. Merely one among many.
Perhaps seeing those warehouses will be the event that makes one person, or even a dozen, realize we are screwed. Perhaps they’ll think twice about signing up for Amazon Prime. Regardless, their noble gesture won’t be enough to trigger mass revolt towards these monstrosities, or alter the damage already done by them and the thousands of trucks they require to deliver us peanuts on demand.
I don’t know how to slow down, stop, and redirect our unsustainable society onto a resilient path. I have no faith in international cooperation. I don’t trust our leaders to do it. Capitalism, certainly, isn’t going to be any help. So I guess it’s up to us, each individual, insignificant as we be. Can you recall the turning point in your thoughts about what we are doing to our planet? I’d love to hear the anecdote that triggered you. Perhaps, if we all start sharing our individual experience, it will somehow induce action that mere data alone is unable to inspire.