Flourishing in Our (Only) HabitatHere is most of what I know about how humans stay alive. As a human, I would like to make sure these things are available in abundant supply.
- We need abundant fresh air and water.
- We need a lot of other organisms.
- We need it not too hot, and not too cold.
- We need each other.
We need abundant fresh air and water.
Obvious, right? Yet in 10 years, 5 billion people could face water shortages, and up to half of those could be severe. We are constantly threatening to suffocate ourselves with goopy skies or drown our lands in toxic effluvia. It's astonishing how often, and profoundly, we drift in these directions. We're so short-sighted. It's like we think we can evade the consequences of our actions.
Information and Greed
Why do we do things like this? As far as I can tell, it's either 1) lack of good information, 2) greed, or 3) both.
Sometimes we don't have the key information we need before we, say, inject poisonous wastewater into precious aquifers in a drought-parched region vulnerable to extreme vascillations in precipitation in the coming years (e.g. oil company pollution in California before and during the state's worst drought in recorded history and also in the last 1,200 years).
But too often, the reason people don't have important information is because they don't want to have it. They don't want it because it means they would make less money doing what they have already decided to do.
Increasingly, the information to make good decisions with respect to our air, water, and other needs is actually freely available, if we care to take a look. In which case, ignorance really is no defense.
We need a lot of other organisms.
Sure, we eat them, but we also need them for innumerable reasons, including to
- live inside us (e.g. gut fauna)
- provide much of what we need for our homes (trees! textiles! sod!)
- stay in good health (medicine!)
- keep our soil healthy and stable against erosion (bugs and smaller bugs and plants and trees again!)
- clean our air and water (more trees! also, microorganisms!), and, as an added bonus, to
- enjoy fun things to do (pets! climbing trees! parks! birdwatching! scuba diving!).
In fact, we are so dependent on other organisms, very little of human life as we know it is imaginable without the planet literally crawling with them.
In spite of this, we humans seem to have a knack for killing other organisms off. We've managed to kill half the planet's animals in the last forty years, and 75% of those who used to live in rivers and freshwater ecosystems. We like to overcut lumber, overfish the sea, and extinct our fellow organisms in a manner comparable to a planetary collision with a giant meteor. We poison these neighbors liberally and keep paving over their homes. It's like we think the world would be a better place if it contained only us, when in fact it would not be a nice place at all.
You know it's bad when a legendary, eighty-plus year old Harvard biology professor wants young to people to take to the streets in outrage, and uses the rhetoric of a fiery evangelist to try to get his point across.
But, but...ME FIRST!
Now, I get that there are some organisms that are not our friends (Ebola! malaria! AIDS!) and others that can sometimes be a royal pain in the neck (rats! tigers! termites! bears!). But really, fellow humans, must we be so extreme about everything? What if we got a little confidence in our ability to take care of ourselves in the presence of other organisms? I mean, do we really think we have to have all the planet all to ourselves, like the worst kid in preschool? Can't we learn to coexist?
I also get that our livelihoods are made in many different ways and in many different places and when it comes to eating enough and keeping our families safe, one less wetland or one more dead wolf may not seem like such a big deal.
Let me go ahead and say here that if you must — truly must — drain an acre of wetland or burn a patch of rain forest or fish unsustainably in order to survive, it's not really even you I'm worried about. Not really. Because if that's where things are at for you, the rest of us — especially those of us who are relatively economically secure — have already let you down so profoundly that, you know what? I don't blame you. I really don't. You gotta do what you gotta do.
But let's be honest. That's not the usual scenario. Most of the time when people are whining about how they have to keep doing destructive things to stay alive, they are full of bullshit. Yep, I said it. Bullshit. These are people, under the cover of businesses and corrupt governments, who have already decided what they want to do, and are making up excuses to justify it.
No doubt about it: sometimes there is no easier way to Make Money than to decimate other species. But that is no justification. Make Money in a more difficult fashion. Killing off our neighbor species for convenience's sake is just not the way to go, long-term. (I can imagine exceptions for Ebola and malaria and tuberculosis and such, but even then, let's not forget the law of unintended consequences. All of life is interconnected, in ways we rarely appreciate fully. We must proceed cautiously when assuming species eradication is the way to go.)
The worst is when the killers don't even fully know what they are killing off but proceed anyway, sometimes trying to outrace the biologists and regulators. Such conduct is unconscionable and needs to be punished, publicly, and in a manner comparable to the unspeakable loss such damage causes to the planet and the rest of this. This is what systems of justice are for.
Them vs. Us.
But it's also not the whole story to blame only institutions and corporations. These are only collections of people with legal cover: no more, no less. They and their actions are funded by the purchases of other people, consumers like you and me. They are funded by governments, who are funded by taxpayers like you and me. Their existence depends on the sustained effort of workers and employees like you and me. They do not exist apart from us.
Ultimately, then, all the finger-pointing and blame must be balanced by ownership of the problem. We will not find our way out of this catastrophe merely by heaping opprobrium on bad actors, however smug we may feel as we take this necessary step. We must take the additional step of scrutinizing our own lives, each and every one of us, preferably on a daily basis, and ask: If the way I am living, the goods I am purchasing, the past times I indulge, were enjoyed by every one of the planet's people, how long would the world as we know it survive?
All of us together, and the affluent most of all.
The answer, for me and nearly everyone I know, is: at the rate I'm consuming, the planet's resources won't last very long at all. In the United States, we consume at a rate that would require four Earths to sustain.
There are so many good ideas for how to fix this on an individual and collective level that even a modicum of interest will find them in abundance and the challenge quickly becomes which to implement first. We each need to take this kind of pro-active interest, not waiting until public shaming drives us to stop our most egregious activities.
The burden for these changes should fall primarily on those of us with the means to make changes without sacrificing our well-being. In other words, those of us not already hungry or hurting. If you have the time and ability to read this website, that probably means you. (It certainly means me, since I'm able to write it.)
We need a dose of good old-fashioned humility in this. None of us is entitled to contribute to the extinction of life on our planet. Let's stand tall, take a look around, and make it our daily task to preserve all that is beautiful and holy about the world as we know it.
We need it not too hot, and not too cold.
Humans, like other organisms on this little orb, seem to do the best when we don't have to live in temperature extremes. I, for one, get grumpy when it's over about 90 degrees Fahrenheit or under, well...my lower limit is even more puny. So I'll skip it. The point is, I don't want my planet to boil, or have outrageous temperature swings.
And it's not just a matter of comfort. The fellow organisms we need to be happy (see above) can't buy extra parkas or air conditioning units online. They have to make do with what they have. And what they have is what they're used to. Change that too fast, and they won't be able to adapt as fast as they die off. In fact, one out of six of the planet's species alive today will be eradicated due to global climate change, if we don't take action immediately. Such carnage matters, even independent of the devastating effects it will have on our own species.
So, can we quit messing with our climate, already? Please?
The Problem of Goop
You know, not all of us are scientists or policy makers, but we all have a stake in this. You don't have to be an expert to understand that when you take a bunch of goop out of the ground and put it up in the sky, your sky will get goopy and change life for those of us stuck underneath it. It's just not that difficult of a concept.
I believe in robust discussion and debate, but the time for talk is behind us in this. There is no real debate left. The numbers tell the story. In the United States alone, the people who got us to the moon, our physicians, our chemists, our geologists, our meteorologists, and many other groups of scientists all agree that climate change is real, and humans are a major cause.
Just because somebody has grabbed the bullhorn and is monopolizing the conversation in a way that produces inaction, doesn't mean we have to go along with them. Really! We all know how this plays out: all the time people in power say DO THIS and the people they're talking to disregard them and do something else. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't. The point is, it's an OPTION.
So I say, anytime we hear someone say, "Wah wah wah it's too expensive to cut our carbon emissions," we either 1) correct that nonsense with a message that actually comports with reality, 2) let them prattle on but figure out how to achieve the OPPOSITE of what the greedy people want, or, best of all, 3) both.
We need to stop arguing about it and morosely shaking our heads, and focus on taking action instead. We don't have any time to waste.
And don't let anyone tell you there's nothing you can do, that the problem is too large, or it's too expensive, or inconvenient, or whatever. Expensive? You want expensive? How could any remedial steps we could possibly take be anywhere near as expensive as throwing all of the planet's life-support systems out of balance? How are these things even comparable?
We need each other.
There are so many things we each can do to prevent or reverse these calamities. If you are feeling hopeless and isolated by the problem, join a movement that is bigger than yourself, and take heart in the courage of others. Regardless of whether you are a joiner, you can still focus on a short list of steps you personally can take to reduce environmental impacts in your own life. (Sometimes I start to feel satisfied I've done my part, and then reviewing such a list reminds me I have many more opportunities to make an impact.)
Let's skip the bickering, though. It wastes our energy and our time. We have more important things to do than get in shouting matches with people determined to stand in the way of what needs to get done. Let's use the energy that would be spent on those shoutfests and just do the damn things that need doing.
Maybe we can't all do the same things, but we can each stretch ourselves, leaving the very comfort zones that got us into this situation, and trying new ways to fix this problem. It's not a question of how little we can get away with doing. It's a matter of how much we can possibly get done, because the consequences of not acting are dire.
We humans are brilliant and creative. Let's use those sharps to stay alive, together with the rest of our planet.