A FUNDAMENTAL LAW OR A MINDSET WE CAN CHANGE?

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Most of us were brought up believing the best way to ensure our happiness and security was to amass wealth. That belief was passed down from one generation to the next, going all the way back to when large numbers of humans gave up the nomadic way of life and settled down on farms and in villages. So deeply ingrained is that belief, we accept it almost as if it were derived from a fundamental law, like the law of gravity. We don’t question it. We simply take it for granted.

But now, certain people (such as myself) are coming along and saying, Whoa! Wait a minute! Amassing more and more stuff isn’t making us better off; it’s making us worse off. In fact, our overconsumption is beginning to pose a grave danger to the viability of thousands, if not millions, of species—including our own. We must reduce our consumption now!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of us respond to those words with denial. The syllables bounce off us like so many rubber balls. And why wouldn’t they? The ideas underlying them contradict our bedrock belief that wellbeing is tied directly to the things we’re able to buy. And besides, from where we sit, the environment looks pretty good. Yeah, we know about climate change and various kinds of pollution, but those problems seem distant and fixable.

Our attitudes might be different if all of us had the time to follow environmental news, because if we did we would find articles everyday with headlines like the following:

  • From USA Today: “On Four Continents, Historic Droughts Wreak Havoc.”
  • From The Guardian: “Humans Creating Sixth Great Extinction of Animal Species, Say Scientists: Study Reveals Rate of Extinction for Species in the 20th Century Has Been Up to 100 Times Higher Than Would Have Been Normal Without Human Impact.”
  • From The Huffington Post: “2015 Has Been A Year of Record-Breaking U.S. Weather Events: Floods, Droughts, Hurricanes, Fires—and It’s Not Over.”
  • From Weather.com: “South Carolina’s Catastrophic Floods Caused By One of the Most Prolific Rainfall Events in Modern U.S. History.”
  • From The Washington Post: “Iran City Hits Suffocating Heat Index of 165 Degrees, Near World Record.”
  • From Earthsky: “2015 Wildfire Season a Record-Breaker.”
  • From CNN: “Torrential Rain—Up to 20 inches in Spots—Pummels much of Texas.”
  • From Al Jazeera America: “NASA Data Shows Global Groundwater Depletion: Water Is Drawn Faster Than Replenished in Most of World’s Largest Aquifers According to Two Studies.”
  • From Weather.com: “Hurricane Patricia Recap: Strongest Landfalling Pacific Hurricane on Record.”
  • From The Daily Mail: “Mystery of Siberia’s 200ft-Deep Craters Solved: Enormous Holes Were Formed by Methane Eruptions Triggered by Melting Permafrost.”

Since environmental policy is my field, I’ve read hundreds (if not thousands) of such articles over the years. And after observing environmental conditions and studying environmental issues for decades, I know that what we’re doing to address environmental problems is far from enough.

Steven E. Koonin, director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, made a similar observation in a recent op-ed, in The New York Times, entitled: “The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks.” Here’s a relevant passage from his article:

According to scenarios used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global annual per capita emissions would need to fall from today’s five metric tons to less than one ton by 2075, a level well below what any major country emits today and comparable to the emissions from such countries as Haiti, Yemen and Malawi. For comparison, current annual per capita emissions from the United States, Europe and China are, respectively, about 17, 7 and 6 tons.[1]

Koonin doubts we’ll be able to achieve the necessary cuts and argues that adapting to the consequences of climate change—doing things like building higher sea walls and switching to drought-resistant crops—will be essential.

It’s true that adaptation will be necessary, but as we’re adapting we must keep in mind that climate change isn’t the only critical environmental issue we face and that the things we do to adapt to climate change will exacerbate other environmental problems. For example, building higher sea walls and switching to drought-resistant crops will endanger species that depend on there being no sea walls (sea turtles, among others) and non-drought-resistant crops (a multitude of insects and birds).

Ultimately, environmental conditions will force us to reduce our consumption of goods. The more we voluntarily cut back now, the less draconian future cuts imposed by environmental and social conditions will need to be.

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[1] Koonin, Steven E. “The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks.” New York Times. November 3, 2015. http://nyti.ms/1OnQ5zA

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