At this point, there seems to be little need to repeat the alarming data we have on climate change and the colossal destruction of the planet’s eco systems. Week after week, new data comes in with grimmer and grimmer news about the state of planet earth and our future on it, but to little avail.
We know that the planet’s temperature is rising rapidly, so much so that in 50 years we will be living in a climate so hostile to life that we have no idea how human populations will function. We know that overfishing and falling oxygen levels in the ocean due to temperatures rising is destroying marine life and delicate eco systems that take decades to rebuild. We know that human activity is ruining global biodiversity and costing billions of dollars a year, and we know we are decimating the world’s lungs, the Amazon rain forest, at rate so fast it is losing the ability to regulate weather systems. All of the above spells imminent disaster for the human species, yet the vast majority of political discourse centers around trade agreements, terrorism, and whether Hillary Clinton will run for President or not. These topics are important of course, but our survival on planet earth should probably take precedent.
Why are we incapable of taking this seriously, and why do we treat ‘the environment’ as just another issue?
Part of our collective ignorance is probably due to the fact that modern living has so separated us from our natural environment that we don’t have any real conceptual understanding that we are completely reliant on it for our survival. We live in heated homes with running water, electricity and gas. When we want water, we turn a tap on, and when we want food, we pop to the store to buy it. No going to the river with a bucket, no hunting, and no uncomfortable temperatures, unless we choose it for an adventure holiday.
The other part of our mass cognitive dissonance most likely stems from the rather alarming ramification of our increased intellectual understanding of just how badly we are screwing up the environment – that our entire economic system is completely unsustainable, and the philosophical underpinnings of our society are fundamentally wrong.
We live in a society that values growth at all costs – the bigger the better and the more of it the better. Quarterly financial reporting demands companies continually prove to their shareholders that they are growing, meaning they will go to extreme measures to add more to their bottom lines. Logging is profitable, so therefore we must do more of it, regardless of damage to rain forests. Cars make money, so we must make more of them to make more money, despite the fact that more cars means more CO2 pollution. People want to go on vacation so we need more flying and more planes, regardless of vapor trails and damage to the ozone layer. Every year, new cell phone models come out because we want them, although they have been built at great environmental cost.
This is what is taught in business schools around the world, that business must grow. This is what gets our politicians elected, whether voters believe they will grow the economy and provide more jobs to provide more money to buy more things. Looking at this rationally, it is impossible to see how this can continue given we live in a finite system that thrives on balance, not growth.
Studying eco systems gives us a clue as to what happens when one species in it grows out of control. As the predator species decimates other species in the eco system, collapse becomes increasingly likely given an extremely delicate balance is needed to ensure everyone’s mutual survival. This very basic illustration should help explain why:
Take one of the links out, and the system becomes inherently less stable. Take out more, and collapse is almost guaranteed. As humans plough through more and more species to make way for our own food, the very system that creates that food becomes less and less stable. As humans, we believe the rules don’t apply to us, but as the science pours in, it is increasingly clear that they do.
It is Earth Day today, one day out of the year when us humans remember that we have some sort of responsibility to look after the giant eco system that created us. That’s nice and all, but it will take a lot more than Google changing its search box to raise awareness of just how screwed we are. There can only be serious change if we begin to think differently, and that means starting with a very basic premise: we do not control our natural environment. It controls us.
Until that get through our thick skulls, we should probably start stocking up on emergency supplies because it really is that serious.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.