A significant portion of humanity believes the planet will continue to provide its fruits indefinitely. An even larger portion doesn’t care — they are understandably too occupied with life’s daily burdens. Today we face a reality that goes against the core of our understanding of who we are and why we exist. Reality and time are now opponents that will not let us pass without great cost to the sanctity of those beliefs.
Once we burned people at the stake for heresy at the mere suggestion that the Earth orbited the Sun. Our eyes and social customs failed us. Three thousand years ago no one knew there was DNA, or black holes, or that the earth orbited the sun. Anyone who tried to explain those realities would face ridicule or worse. Public perceptions always lag behind reality.
We cling tenaciously to custom and the “group think” of our peers. “When I look outside, the sun still shines. The rivers still flow. I can still buy milk in the market. You can’t tell me anything different. I just don’t believe it. La la la la la la, I don’t hear you. I’m not listening.”
People didn’t want to hear about the Earth orbiting the sun, just as they don’t want to hear that the Earth they grew up with is no longer there; and never will be again. Just as there are social norms of behavior, there are norms of perception. Those norms bind us together. The faster the change, the more those norms are threatened. The foundations of our civilization are shaken.
A Little History
Over the past two centuries change has been picking up speed. Most of us really didn’t notice because we were too busy working, paying our bills and getting on with life. There were those who pointed out changes that were happening, but we put that information in one of those little boxes in our brain and left it there.
In 1962, the best-selling Silent Spring was published. Rachel Carson informed the public of the dangers of pesticide residues. Pesticides contaminated water supplies, sterilized soils, and were already responsible for serious threats to human and environmental health. Though she was already dying of cancer, her writing was both eloquent and factually sound. The insecticide DDT was banned and the environmental movement spread though the public consciousness. To a large degree, Silent Spring resulted in the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Nixon administration.
In 1968, thirty individuals from ten countries gathered in the Academia Dei Lincei, in Rome. They were scientists, educators, economists, industrialists, humanists and civil servants. They met at the invitation of American John D. Rockefeller; and, Dr. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrial manager and economist. The objective was to discuss a staggering topic — what was perceived then as the present and future predicament of man. The Club of Rome grew out of this meeting and their findings were published as The Limits to Growth – A Report For THE CLUB OF ROME’S Project On The Predicament of Mankind.
For the first time, the human footprint on Earth was clearly seen as a potential threat to sustainable development and global environmental health. Conservatives today accurately suggest this is a progressive movement that intends to form a new world order by unifying nations to address global issues like climate change, population and conservation. The reader must decide if this is a good or bad thing.
In 1969, Stanford professors Paul and Anne Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. It gave an alarming picture of exponential human population growth. The Ehrlichs outlined how consumption, left unchecked, must eventually deplete resources and exceed a finite planet’s capacity to support civilization. Human enterprise turned out to be surprisingly resilient. Mass starvation and chaos was delayed. A “Green Revolution” took place, thanks to new agricultural techniques developed by the American agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Ernest Borlaug. Still, the point and inevitability of the Ehrlichs’ hypothesis remains correct.
In 1979, a report was published by the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School. It was entitled Energy Future. It warned about the eventuality of “peak oil.” One by one it evaluated the economics of coal, gas, and nuclear energy in the world’s energy future. It identified conservation as the “key energy source, and explained how well-paying jobs would be closely tied to the new technologies of efficient energy choices. Clinging to old technologies and energy sources would ultimately slow the economy and progress. It described America making a well-balanced transition to sustainable energy. It also warned about energy wars, corporate efforts to protect stranded assets of fossil fuels, and political battles to resist change.
Three of these books were written nearly half a century ago. All were best-sellers. They eloquently described four threats we still face today.
1. Humanity’s unbridled consumption and exploitation of Earth’s resources can exceed the planets ability to provide vital goods and services.
2. Humanity’s waste and pollution disrupts Earth’s natural systems and is toxic to life.
3. The sheer number of humans is responsible for the most rapid extinction of species, depletion of nutrients and disruption of bio-geochemical systems than at any time in Earth’s entire history.
4. The choices we have made to power our global economy (fossil fuels) are warming the atmosphere and global ocean. This is compromising marine systems and altering the climate that provides us with food, oxygen and water.
Resistance to change is strong. No one should be surprised that we face imminent disruption of our cultural and economic norms. Change is taking place at an exponential pace. We are already seeing refugees escaping shortages, and growing social instability around the world. There are forces that believe we must strengthen borders with increasing nationalism. There are also forces that believe global issues require cooperation and nations to join in common cause.
A secure future will require another agricultural revolution of even greater magnitude. It will require a new way of conducting business. Thomas Piketty’s 2014 tome, Capital – in the Twenty-First Century documents the most comprehensive and clear appraisal of modern western economic policy. It repeats the Club of Rome’s appraisal that unbridled capitalism, without oversight and regulatory controls, simply perpetuates economic inequality and consumption at the expense of innovation. Adaptation to change also compels us to take a long, hard look at the moral and ethical values humanity has rigidly clung to for millennia. Ignorance is not bliss, it is suicide. We need more and better education and economic policy to find more sustainable paths ahead.
Cultures don’t change easily. That is why it is necessary to repeat the message again and again. Yes, for some of us it is getting boring to hear the same drum beat about globalization, climate change, population, resource depletion, pollution and impending breaches in security.
Well, tough nuggies. The Earth goes around the sun. Global warming is human caused. We have achieved dominion and the commanding influence over the entire planet. Without rapid adaptive changes, we will commit genocide to this and future generations. Read up on it and spread the word. The train has left the station and we’re on it.
W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.
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