The Root of Our Environmental Problems: Individuals Refusing to Change Themselves
We were all born into a culture with certain values.
When I was a child, flying was an unalloyed good. It meant spreading culture, learning new cultures and cuisine, and so on. In principle we knew something about jet exhaust and that extraction caused people to be displaced from the lands and occasionally spilled.
Cars meant freedom. The solution to pollution is dilution.
But the world changed and our understanding of it did too. Diluting pollution didn’t solve it. It spread concentrations out, but some didn’t go away. It grew until it passed thresholds to lower Earth’s ability to sustain life. We could put our heads in the sand for a few decades, but by now the changes make it clear what we thought improved life hurts it.
It doesn’t seem fair. We didn’t create a culture so dependent on things that hurt others. We’re like people prescribed Oxycontin told it didn’t cause addiction who became addicted. We didn’t knowingly risk getting addicted but we ended up that way. It’s not our fault, but no one can or will get us clean but ourselves. It’s not fair that others are profiting from our misery, leading us to harm others, but if we don’t take responsibility for improving our own lives and stopping hurting others, it will never happen. Any solution must be top-down and bottom-up, not just one. We have to change governments and corporations, and we have to change ourselves as individuals, billions of us.
It also seems unfair that the people suffering most from our environmental problems are those contributing the least, and that those causing the most will feel it last. It seems to me the height of unfairness. Yet more unfair is that if the people suffering the most who contribute the least don’t act, nothing will change. The people who cause the most problems will change last. Their success comes from the system, so everything in their lives tells them they should keep doing what they’re doing, believing it helps, even when it hurts the most. Then again, any of them who do change can make the biggest effect, partly from their personal impact, but far more by their being role models.
Speaking of role models, we have nearly none in sustainability. Can you name anyone prominent environmentalist trying to lead who is also trying to live sustainably? I’ll give you Greta. I’ve asked hundreds of people and no one could name anyone else. Some suggest an uncle living in the woods, but never someone trying to influence on a national or global scale.
Meanwhile, every environmentalist anyone can think of flies around telling others they have to pollute less while they themselves don’t. They say “it’s important to reduce but what I do is so important it’s worth it.” Well, how many people think what they do is unimportant, like keeping their job or not seeing their family on the opposite coast isn’t important. So we follow what they would-be leader does and we have a world of people saying “you should pollute less, but what I do is so important, I’ll keep polluting.” I would guess Al Gore and Naomi Klein would lose their shit if they had to try to live sustainably.
Despite all this unfairness arising from being born into a system we didn’t create, we still live in it and contribute to lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life, which hurts innocent people and we don’t have to. We grew up believing flying was good so chose to live flying distance from our parents, we made business decisions requiring flying or some other unsustainable extraction, we rely on cell phones made of rare earths dug by children in deadly mines, we buy from Amazon, we order takeout, we bought a home in the suburbs and have to drive to buy food and earn a living, we married someone from an ocean away and feel we have to fly across the ocean twice a year to see family.
We believe that what pollution brings improves life. Giving it up means deprivation and sacrifice.
As much as everyone wants clean air, land, and water, it all comes down to this: you live on the opposite side of the continent from your mom and she may get sick one day or you want to buy a car and you know the SUV is safer in a crash. You care about the environment, but you’re not going to sacrifice family for it.
We believe the quality of life in our culture is better than any. It does seem to create some problems with the environment and can’t seem to end poverty despite claiming it will real soon, likewise anxiety, isolation, depression, and suicide, but we believe our ingenuity and a bit more technology will solve these things. Looking back, we live longer and healthier than a few generations ago and incomparably better than medieval times, serfs living in dirt. As far as we extrapolate back, the trend continues. It was yet worse in Stone Age times. Part of the reason we put on fat so fast is that they didn’t know when their next meal would come. Whatever happens, we must not go backward.
There’s a problem with this edifice: the evidence contradicts it. History, anthropology, and archaeology.
Archaeological and anthropological evidence tells us we humans evolved into homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago. Some people define human as the genus homo, in which case we go back 3 million years. Until shortly before the Industrial Revolution, we went from as few as one thousand individuals to nearly one billion. If a million-fold increase to populating six continents, forming innumerable cultures and languages, doesn’t qualify as thriving, I don’t know what does. That thriving produced people like Jesus, Buddha, Shakespeare, Laozi, Aristotle, Bach, and Mohammad. It included creating the pyramids at Giza, developing democracy, Polynesians discovering Hawaii, creating art and calculus, playing sports, circumnavigating the globe, forming cultures in the arctic, and you know the rest.
We did all of that thriving using only materials within the biosphere, with the occasional exception of a mine dug by hand, rarely deeper than plants’ roots. Energy came from the Sun through photosynthesis, becoming food in the form of plant, animal, or fungus or useful power in the form of heat, wood to burn, animal muscle, wind, and water flow. In that time, every way we influenced nature around us through eating, burning, exhaling, pooping, and even causing extinctions left Earth’s overall ability to sustain life unchanged.
In other words, contrary to popular opinion today, we don’t need to pollute to live or thrive as individuals or cultures. We don’t need to pollute for science, arts, travel, health, or longevity.
We can choose otherwise.
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