As I mentioned in earlier posts (“Hat’s Off” and “Floating down the River . . .”), I’m aware that scaring people about the deteriorating health of the environment can be counterproductive. People who are frightened and see no way to fight back are inclined to go out and buy more stuff, surround themselves with comforting things, and distract themselves from the source of their fears. I’m equally aware that the way we’re living is unsustainable. In the process of tearing through resources and pumping out waste, we’re racking up a long list of environmental bills. Sadly, our children and grandchildren will be forced to cope somehow when those bills come due.
Knowing those facts, I walk around with my hair on fire under my hat, wanting to grab people by the collar and shake them till my hat (or theirs) falls off, and shout: “Don’t you realize what’s happening? Don’t you understand that we’re all contributing to environmental problems by buying a lot of stuff we don’t need? Don’t you know that there are environmental costs to all the stuff we buy? Species extinctions, groundwater depletion and pollution, soil erosion, desertification, endocrine disruption, climate change, ocean acidification, and on and on. You’d better take these problems seriously and do everything you can to fix ’em, or there’s a very good chance that down the road your kids and grandkids are gonna curse your memory.”
The problem with that idea (in addition to the risk of having my lights punched out by some temperamental soul who doesn’t appreciate being shaken by the collar and screamed at) is that few of us are inclined to deny ourselves the pleasure of buying new things — especially if we suspect that our choices will not affect the environment one way or the other. And, in fact, most of us realize that environmental problems are so enormous that the effects of our little, individual indulgences (or sacrifices) are truly insignificant.
So what we’ve got here is one big — and growing — environmental mess. With each day that we fail to reduce our burden on the ecosphere in the present, we compound the difficulty of correcting environmental problems in the future. And because we believe that our own actions are largely irrelevant, we passively wait for government regulations or technological innovations to descend from above, deus-ex-machina style, and fix all of our problems for us.
The trouble with the sit-around-and-wait strategy is that it ain’t workin’. The government is hobbled and nearly dysfunctional. Republicans not only oppose new environmental regulations, they want to roll back most of the ones that are already in force. While the President can issue some executive orders for the sake of the environment, his ability to make big changes is limited. As for technological solutions, to be brief, inventions that help the environment in one way generally (perhaps inevitably) harm it in other ways. Beyond that, the ecosphere is unraveling along a multitude of seams. Even if we could develop side-effect-free technologies (which isn’t going to happen), we can’t invent and deploy those technologies fast enough to mend all the rips and frayed edges.
So it’s up to each of us to cut our unnecessary consumption and thereby reduce the wear and tear we inflict on the planet. Since one person’s consumption reduction has no appreciable impact on the environment, what we need is a movement — an anti-consumerist movement — to sweep the nation and the world. With the release today of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, that movement may be about to begin.