Imagine, for a moment, the entire human race (~7.3 billion of us) as a single person. They’ve been walking along a trail for the last 100,000 years or so, but suddenly they’ve come upon a fork in the road. They can’t stop or turn around.
Before them lay two trails. On the left the trail is lush, green, fairly open and seems to be mostly clear of debris and big rocks. The right-hand trail is pretty cluttered at the outset, with large boulders and logs on the path itself, and thick overgrowth throughout blocking out most of the sunlight.
Remember, they can’t stop or turn around. They have to make a very important decision, and make it very quickly. Take the trail on the left, or the trail on the right?
It’s obvious that they should take the left-hand trail, yes? The path seems safe, well-lit, and free of most obstacles. Much better than the questionable right-hand trail. The only thing stopping them from immediately veering left is this bad gut feeling they can’t shake.
What isn’t immediately clear to them is that the left-hand trail starts off green and safe, but quickly becomes a rocky, barren, flooded landscape that suddenly drops off a cliff to certain death. The right-hand trail, while packed with challenging terrain and poor visibility, eventually opens up to become lush, green, and easily travelled once again.
But they can’t see that far. They can only make their best guess based on current information and make the best decision based on that information.
If you can’t tell already, I’m talking about climate change. Closer to the point, I’m talking about how the climate talks in Paris happening from November 30th – December 11th will play a part in the future of humanity. Our future as a species. Whether or not the person in my story will veer left or right. As it stands, that person isn’t paying too much attention to their gut, and is thinking that the left path is looking pretty good right now.
The purpose of my post today is not to debate whether or not climate change is happening, nor whether it is a natural process or the result of human activity. I am no expert, although I studied some of this in school on my road to becoming a geologist, but to say or believe that climate change is not a thing, and not a thing we are responsible for accelerating, is simply false. This is happening, right now, in the real world, and it will impact us directly. A few examples for this are here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Let me be abundantly clear: The Planet Earth will survive this. It will continue spinning, likely with life and breathable air, for many millions of years, before becoming lifeless and falling into our expanding Sun as it dies some 5 billion years from now. The massive distinction here is that, while the Earth will spin on, we are and may be ultimately responsible for making it 100% inhospitable and incapable of supporting human life. The keyword here being “human”.
Now, I’m not here to offer up solutions or tell everyone they have to “recycle more”, mostly because my solution is not possible. I don’t mean it’s not physically possible. I mean that it’s not socially possible. My solution is as follows:
- Sell your car, or keep it. It doesn’t matter because you won’t be driving anymore. And nobody else will, either.
- Disconnect your house from the electrical grid, and heat your home without burning wood.
- Stop buying any and all products that are produced from non-renewables.
- Oh, and the last one, stop eating meat.
Chances are that you went through the list and categorically said “no” to every single one of those things. Why? If I may venture a guess, I’d say some of those reasons include:
- I like to drive my car to work (or take the bus), instead of walking 10+ kilometres.
- There’s no way I’d make it through winter/summer without home heating/cooling.
- Doesn’t that mean I have to stop buying everything?
- WHAT!? NO! (Unless you’re already a vegetarian/vegan)
Well, if these answers reflect your own, guess what? Climate change will continue, and you will be contributing to the destruction of our fragile environment, whether you like it or not.
In my opinion, there are four main factors preventing our species from properly tackling this head on (listed in order of impact):
- Public opinion
- Human nature
Firstly, public opinion is a huge hurdle in the road to ending climate change. I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself shaking my head at online news article comments about the “climate change hoax”, or “scam”, or the “lack of proof”. We can’t come together and unite against this common problem when a large portion of us doesn’t believe it’s a problem.
Say what you want, pledge to a platform, associate with whatever party you like, but at the end of the day politics is as divisive as public opinion. When a large part of politics gets boiled down to a popularity contest, everything from budgets to promises become convoluted and works slowly. This is intricately related to popular opinion, since a function of politics is to voice opinions of all the people and work towards a common goal for the betterment of the entire country. Remember that some opinions include not believing climate change science.
Technology is another major factor in this. Every year car companies release increasingly efficient automobiles that are more environmentally friendly. But that’s kind of like releasing cigarettes that are 5% less carcinogenic. Smoking will still be hazardous for your health and they could still kill you. The thing is, if there was a technology that could magically fix the planet, we’d have used it by now. The problem is that nothing is that simple, industrial and technological progress has raised our species up to god-like status, but that has come at the expense of the environment in which we live.
Money. What can I say, it rules the world – quite literally. It defines our existence, from how we’re raised, to what we eat, where we live, and how far we can travel at any given time. It just so happens that if you have enough of something (like oil, or beef), you can trade that commodity for its value in money. Gone are the days of bartering or exchange for equal goods. Now it’s all money. It’s also the reason why oil companies, who obviously have swarms of scientists that know what their product is doing to the Earth, continue to produce. They can make a LOT of money doing it, so why would they ever stop, even when it’s doing unimaginably terrible things to our future? (I also can’t say a whole lot here, since I’m a geologist working in the oil industry, and I like money which let’s me do fun things.)
Human Nature. I’ve saved this one for last, and in my opinion it’s the biggest thing on the list. Why, you ask? Well, let me explain by analogy.
John is a middle aged man who just got laid off from work. He has so much more free time now. He wakes up, makes the family breakfast, takes the kids to school, kisses the wife goodbye, and then heads home to 8 hours of whatever he wants. He could do anything! Go for a long hike, clean out the garage, paint that landscape he’s been thinking about, or learn a new language. What does he do instead? He binge-watches a whole season of some Netflix superhero show and eats a little more than he should have. In the back of his mind, he’s thinking “it’s okay to have a down-day. Tomorrow I’ll get back on the job hunt and eat a little healthier.”
John is a procrastinator.
Fast forward a few weeks and John has slumped into a mean routine. Every Wednesday he sneaks out to his favourite burger joint. Or is it Monday? Maybe it’s a few times a week, no big deal. No job in sight and everything still running smoothly, John is enjoying his time off, but he has an empty gut feeling. He should be doing more.
A month later, his physique has started to show the first ill-effects of his new lifestyle. He steps on the scale one morning after a few extra slices of bacon to find that he’s packed on 15 pounds. “That’s not too much,” he lies to himself. It’s nothing he can’t turn around. He’s only 34, and plays basketball regularly. He convinces himself he can snap back into shape in no time.
Jumping ahead another few months, we find a man in a predicament. He managed to find another job not long after we last left him, but John hasn’t managed to shake his newfound lifestyle habits. He’s 40 pounds heavier and doesn’t make it to basketball every week anymore, although when he does he’s worn out early and doesn’t put up the same numbers. He argues with his wife often, who’s well-meant concern quickly turns into a fight. But John is stubborn, he still believes he can turn it around. One morning, looking into the mirror after stepping out of the shower, an unrecognizable person peers back out at him. He realizes that he’s in trouble, and forsees a future of weakness, depression, and health risks resulting in a likely shorter life than he had planned.
This is John’s critical moment. This is the tipping point between denial and acceptance. If he chooses not to act, which he could, it would spell almost certain doom for him and his family.
We are John. The entire human race as a whole is John.
The point at which the lines diverge and shoot off in different directions in the graph below (published by the IPCC) is akin to a doctor looking John in the eye and saying, “if you don’t turn your life around, you’re going to die.”
And that’s exactly where we are right now, as a species. Future generations, hopefully many of them, will look back on this time in either extreme wonder at our courage to act, or disdain at our cowardice and complacency.
Even if my earlier hypothetical solution happened, right now, the Earth would continue to warm for a long time, the oceans would become barren, and many animal species would disappear. Sadly, there is no “success” scenario past this point. There is only damage control now. Our children, and their children, and their children, will feel the environmental effects of our society in more extreme ways no matter what we do now. There may be a time when a “vacation in Florida” is not a thing anymore, not because it’s too hot (which it may be) but because Florida is underwater. There may be a time when eating a “wild” fish doesn’t happen anymore, not because of overfishing (although it will contribute), but because the oceans are toxic to marine life. And there may be a time when our grandkids can’t go out to play tag, not because the sun is too harsh, but because they won’t be able to breathe the air without assistance. These are all horrible outcomes, but they are all possible, and might even be inevitable.
We can, as a species, mitigate or avoid the effects of climate change if we, collectively, take the path on the right, suffer through the first stretch of unforgiving trail, and then emerge on the other side all the better for it. Not just ourselves, but our entire environment and everything in it.There is no miracle solution (outside of Elon Musk converting the world to solar energy and electric cars) or at least I don’t have it. It has to be a joint effort combining politics, technology, industry, and the sciences into a common goal of making our world a safe and hospitable place in which to raise future generations. And the poignant bit is, it starts with you. You can actually make a difference. There are those that believe that they couldn’t possibly have an impact on the environment whether it be good or bad – that they are only drops in the ocean. But, as a certain saying goes, what is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?
How do you make a difference, though? I don’t have an answer on the grand scale. But, in my opinion, the single biggest difference you can make right now is to get educated on the subject. Learn the history of climate science, what it documents, and why CFCs are screwing up our air. Learn that climate science isn’t motivated to get us to buy new products or adapt new lifestyles – those things spring up because of our changing values. Learn that science in general doesn’t care if the environment or our entire species dies – it is just a tool that indicates (with abundant evidence) that we are getting ourselves in a sticky situation. Learn how to ask questions, of yourself and of others – especially those that wield power or influence. Learn how to make a difference in your own life, for your own health; in your friends lives; in strangers lives.
But, above everything else, learn how to think critically.
- Why do I recycle these cans? Where do they go, and how are they recycled?
- I wonder how much energy I use to keep the heat and lights on while I’m out? How can that energy be better put to use?
- Where does this beef come from? What’s in the beef, and how does it affect my body and health? How much energy did it take to make this, and where does that energy come from?
- Can the bus take me everywhere I need to go? Do I need this truck? Am I building a house or moving anything, or do I just like how it looks?
- What makes up the air we breathe and why does my car engine impact that whatsoever? Why can’t I throw my trash on the beach? How could something so small ever have a far-reaching effect?
Just a few basic examples that I’ve tried to employ in my daily life. I won’t be a huge hypocrite though, after writing this I’ll hop in my car and drive into town and then eat some burgers, maybe. But at least starting to think this way may be beneficial in some instances first, then lead to bigger changes down the road.
I’m not trying to scare anyone. We don’t have the luxury or time to be scared. No one should be able to push it out of our minds and say, “climate change won’t affect me” because that is literally smacking our kids and grandkids in the face. Climate change is happening like that final exam you’ve been dreading and there’s nothing to do about it but face it and conquer it. The environment will get worse before it gets better. We need to take the power of critical thinking and apply it to everything we do and encounter in our consumer-driven society. The future of our species is worth taking the time to consider, and with any luck we’ll be able to avoid the easy-looking path on the left.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you start to make an impact on whatever level you can, today.
Featured image: The smog-covered skyline of Beijing. – Google