Why We Can (But Won’t) Save the Earth

Today I find myself supremely frustrated by the following set of facts:

  1. Humans are smart enough to predict, detect, and measure environmental problems caused by our actions.
  2. Humans are also smart enough to produce viable solutions to circumvent or minimize many of them.
  3. Humans are unlikely to act with sufficient speed, unity, and scale to succeed in doing so. (See Copenhagen.)

In other words, we’re smart enough to get ourselves out of the mess we’ve created, but not wise enough to. What’s wrong with us? To answer this question, I came up with this thoroughly unscientific and completely unsubstantiated graph based on my observations of myself and others. Ta da.

Super Unscientific Chart

Cool colors represent information gaps: issues we’re not aware of, are incorrectly informed about, or don’t want to find out more about.

Warm colors are things that prevent us from acting even though we are aware of the issue.

Since a total of two people (Kevin & me) were directly polled, I’m only going to look at each from a personal standpoint. No accusations, no exhortations. So, ignorance: both the lack of awareness of external problems and the lack of awareness of how my everyday actions contribute to them. I’m fairly well informed, but the likelihood that there is crap happening out there that I don’t know about, and that I’m unaware of the full consequences of my actions are both 100%. Misinformation and denial are are two parts of the same coin. It’s staggeringly, gut-wrenchingly depressing to accept full responsibility for my actions and unconscious habits.  I can see how tempting it would be to turn to misinformation (thoughtfully provided by corporations, lobbyists, Fox News, and other organizations that want to maintain the status quo) for comfort. No one wants to think, “Hey, I’ve just gone and totally screwed over the Earth!”

The warm colors are issues that I struggle with every day. Knowing about and accepting responsibility for the mess we made is only the beginning. The next part is actually doing something, and even concerned global citizens are up against a strong sense of complacency. I have a comfortable life. I’m deeply attached to my car, my electricity, my central heating. Although I’m vegetarian (for mostly non-environmental reasons) and unlikely to ever have children, I have never given up anything that would have been a serious hardship.  Heck, I feel a surge of stubborn resistance at even the thought of giving up my daily shower.

Related to complacency is a deeply rooted sense of entitlement, and its uglier counterpart, greed. Any action phrased in terms of ‘giving up’ is not going to fly. Even the green movement is hitting mainstream as a consumer movement of substitutions, not real changes and reductions. As a first world citizen, I am only starting to get over my sense of entitlement to cheap clothes, cheap food, whatever kind of transportation I can afford, and the right to act without the least regard for other people, animals, and habitats. The invisibility of the costs of my lifestyle doesn’t help, either. (See ignorance, above.) 

And finally, culture is the glue that holds my unsustainable, if recovering, lifestyle and mentality together. Culture legitimizes, excuses, and even soothes with conspicuous consumption. Going green means wrenching yourself out of an entire mindset and culture and into one in which what you buy is less important than how you live. Brave new world, indeed.

Each of these problems is deeply intertwined, but they’re easy enough to diagnose. The hard part is coming up with effective, wide-ranging solutions — and finding a way to get everyone to implement them. Like, now.  Because it’s either we change now or the Earth forces us, less nicely, to change later. It’s looking increasingly that the human species is opting for the latter.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Emec on 05/26/2010 at 06:00

    You’ve started a great discussion. I responded to this entry and posted it on my blog: http://livinglightlyinawaveringworld.blogspot.com/2010/05/in-response-to-why-we-can-but-wont-save.html


  2. Posted by Ginger Peairson on 02/06/2013 at 11:47

    Old posting. Need it for a college class. Have to compare a current event with an old event. Have you read Chief Seattles; “letter to president Pierce, 1985”, it’s in all english text books. Makes you wanta say, hum-m-m!


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