25 February 2013


The premise.  Humans have catastrophically overpopulated the Earth, beyond the planet's carrying capacity for our numbers.  We have perpetuated the illusion that its plant, animal, and mineral wealth are "resources" for our use.  Acting on that illusion with little restraint, we poison and acidify the ocean, pollute the air, destroy forests which produce the oxygen we breathe, raze entire ecosystems to make room for our expansion, drive hundreds (probably thousands) of species to extinction through over-hunting or habitat destruction, use up non-renewable fuel reserves, desecrate beauty and fracture biodiversity.

The situation.  Starting about forty years ago, climate scientists, ecologists and naturalists began raising the alarm ~ we as a species had set in motion physical and chemical processes which would rapidly achieve such momentum that they would be unstoppable ~ environmental collapse, global warming, the eradication of a multitude of life forms.  At the time, it was within our power to rein in our corporate greed, rethink our assumptions about our garden planet, and reverse the abuse and plundering of the planet.  The warning was sounded ~ we are approaching a threshold beyond which degradation would be irreversible.  We have crossed that threshold.

Climate change is only the most obvious and immediate symptom of the changes we have wrought.  As the planet warms, glaciers and polar ice caps are melting, the complex course of global ocean and air currents is being altered, droughts and storms are intensifying in their duration and frequency, each phenomenon influencing the others in an ever-evolving feedback loop.  Crops fail, weather patterns change, sea level rises.

To visualize the Earth's interlaced cycles and their disruption, it is worth setting aside two hours to watch the PBS Nova episode Earth From Space ~ just click on the green "watch the program" prompt.  Satellite imagery and narration bring to life new information from nearly every field of science.  The program is informative and visually arresting.

Even if every nation on Earth were to immediately cease emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, halt over-fishing and deforestation, devise a humane and acceptable method for reducing our population to one-tenth its current size, stop all drilling and mining for oil, coal, and natural gas, reestablish wilderness and wildlife ~ even if we managed such a miracle, the momentum of change would take centuries to slow and reverse.  In the interim, permanent changes and losses will have occurred.  Already life forms from coral reefs to tropical rain forests, songbirds to tigers, are disappearing quickly.

The analogy.  It is a sad fact that humans tend to behave reactively in response to a crisis, rather than thinking ahead and behaving proactively to prevent one.  This is especially so when it comes to the intangible ~ concepts like environmental change don't hold the attention of most people for long.  Now that evidence of anthropogenic change is clear, our responses are varied, and tend to conform to the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross model commonly known as the five stages of grief.  See which stage(s) you occupy ~
  1. Denial ~ "I don't believe it."  "This can't be real."
  2. Anger ~ "This is so wrong!"  "Those damn greedy corporations/banks/politicians!"
  3. Bargaining ~ "How can we buy more time?"  "Recycle!"
  4. Depression ~ "I'm too sad to go on."  "What's the use?"
  5. Acceptance ~ "It's happening, we might as well prepare for it."
If this sounds grim, it is.  Just in the sixty years since I entered first grade, exotic creatures and places I marveled at (and hoped to one day see) are either diminished or no longer exist.  I cannot begin to describe the grief I feel.  Yet I am determined to minimize further damage, and to seek ways to restore a balanced relationship with nature.  Not just for me, not just for all of us, not even just for our children's children, but also (most importantly) for all the living beings with whom we share this world.  As an intelligent and self-aware species, stewardship is our privilege.  As the agents of so much destruction, restoration is our responsibility.  

As the planet goes, so go we all.

~ For an expanded and more articulate version of this view, check out Richard Schiffmann's excellent article The Five Stages of Environmental Grief.

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