Sunday, Aug. 07, 2022|
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I pay moderate attention to my carbon footprint. You probably do, too. It just seems like the right thing to do.
I recycle. I drive a Prius. My house has solar panels. My yard is xeriscaped. I support green energy. I never vote for politicians who, head in the sand, contend that climate change is a hoax.
And I never bothered to have children, avoiding the projection of my carbon footprint into the future in an exponentially increasing size.
You may be doing all of this or even more. Good for both of us. But have you noticed that whatever we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working?
The failure can be described in a number of ways: The persistent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The disappearing glaciers. The increasing global temperature. The extreme weather. The drowning polar bears. And so on.
In fact, the proposition that all of us working together can save the environment by making small changes in our lifestyles has probably always been doubtful. The forces that nudge the globe’s weather in one direction or another are massive. They’re unlikely to be much affected by a minority of eco-friendly individuals, no matter how well-intentioned.
Unfortunately, national and international attempts at climate remediation have been halting and half-hearted, and at present they appear to be less effective than individual efforts. The Biden administration is rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate, but at best that accord is modest and nonbinding. And our nation’s commitment to the agreement is so weak that only a few thousand votes separate us from an administration — former President Donald Trump’s — that essentially rejected the idea that climate change is real.
Does this mean that the climate change battle is lost? I suspect that it does.
Our capacity to address climate change effectively is undermined by humankind’s essential myth: the notion that the earth’s resources are unlimited and that, therefore, any amount of growth and consumption can be sustained.
Until recently this misconception has worked reasonably well. The elemental story of human civilization is the depletion of local resources and then migration to new ones. This was fine when mankind consisted of a few nomads roaming the planet. When Europe was full we crossed the Atlantic to a New World. As our east coast began to overfill and wear out, we kept moving west. Eventually, we dabbled in colonialism, absorbing Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines. Now we’re fantasizing about colonizing Mars.
As we push up against the world’s geographical limits, we’ve extended our ability to extract Earth’s resources more efficiently, which has allowed us to maintain a corollary myth, the idea that all of our energy problems can be solved by better technology.
But one dangerous result of all this myth-making is complacency, and there’s not much middle ground between complacency and resignation.
Eventually we will have to accept the reality that growth cannot be unlimited as long as our resources are finite. This would require a sea change in human psychology. Are we willing to accept a life with less of the comfort, pleasure and self-indulgence that are provided by burning fossil fuels?
The Nobel Prize-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer thought that humankind was capable of profound paradigm shifts. One of his examples was human cleanliness. He said that when he was young — he was born in 1903 — going to the theater meant enduring the acrid stench of unwashed human flesh. Now we take showers more than once a week. Singer took this dramatic transformation of human behavior as evidence of the possibility of less trivial changes in our attitudes toward, for example, race or homosexuality.
I hope he’s right. Unfortunately, we may find it easier to clean our bodies than to clean our atmosphere. The break-even point between our ever-growing consumption and the earth’s capacity to support it is closer than we think because, for the most part, we avoid thinking about it, at all. And, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, because we can’t change the way we think “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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