I couldn’t sleep the other night and decided it would be cool to watch a Netflix documentary. Oops.
I’ve always been a conservative leaning guy when it comes to the Constitution and federal vs state governments. I’ve been more of a liberally-minded guy on individual rights–let people do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else–and I’m a nature-lover. I grew up in the Texas Hill Country, and it’s just goddamn gorgeous out there, but from a young age I recognized that there was less and less of it. The more I rode in the car with my parents, the fewer hills and trees I saw, and the more houses or businesses or quarries or industrial plants I saw.
It always broke my heart a little.
So, I’m a bit of a green dude. I’ve tried to avoid supporting companies that use loads of pesticides, but I don’t typically insist on organic. I curse under my breath when I get packages with tons of plastic packaging. I worry about how many plastic grocery bags are piling up in my garage. I see first-hand that we’re eating up more natural resources than we can replenish, and I have always felt that there’s no way we can sustain our “advancement” as a society.
And then I watched Sir David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet and it fucked me up. Attenborough does such an amazing job of intertwining the timeline of his career and everything he’s seen with the rise of population, carbon levels, and reduction of environmentally-stabilizing wilderness. He ties industrialization with wilderness reduction, but where he really got me was his ability to tie that reduction to real and tangible harm.
When discussing the impact of fossil fuels and general non-renewable resources, he says something along the lines of “humanity has released the carbon from thousands of years worth of animals in 200 years.” If you consider that the refinement and combustion of a hydrocarbon is chemically similar to the original creature that hydrocarbon originates from going through decomposition on the surface, it’s a comparison that really hits home. We’ve released a few millennia worth of gasses in the short period of the industrial era.
His lifetime of experience, combined with existent scientific research, presented with the passionate desperation of a man who sees his mortality and believes this film to be his last opportunity to save not only ourselves, but also every wild species on the planet, is deeply impactful. By framing the problem from multiple angles, and tying each of those angles to a single causality, he makes a strong case for impending catastrophe.
Basically, he’s made me a climate change believer in a way that nobody else has managed to do.
Now, that might not in itself seem like enough to send me into something of an existential spiral, but it sure as hell did. It wasn’t the assertion that we’ve managed to reduce the wilderness coverage of the globe from 2/3 to 1/3 in less than a hundred years, which I personally believe is likely to be accurate (maybe even an underestimate). It wasn’t that swaths of reefs in the oceans are dying because the pH of the water has shifted beyond what they can sustain, which I personally believe is true (and is probably our fault). It wasn’t that we’ve transitioned to this reality where the ability to sustain a practice for long-term success isn’t a consideration for profit-driven enterprises. It wasn’t even that we’re reaching a point where we won’t be able to grow enough food to feed humanity, which seems ever more apparent as we’re being forced to use crazy carcinogenic pesticides and engineered fertilizers to help our overworked farmers make a living.
It was that I knew there was nothing that I could do to stop it.
Who am I to do anything? I’m just a guy trying to raise a family and make ends meet. Nobody knows me. I don’t have a following of any kind. I don’t have a reputation as a scientist that will leverage folks to see the errors of our ways and make changes. But I’m trying anyway, because I feel like I must.
As a logician and scientist, I’ve analyzed this problem before. I’ve read the research and dismissed many of the conclusions as representing some poor data practices and playing into confirmation biases. What I’ve learned from the places that I found credible is that the biggest offenders, by a huge margin, are not individuals but commercial and governmental entities. It’s such a large gap that even if we managed to reduce our individual footprints to nothing, we’d barely make a scratch. For example, if you look at the data coming out about the impact to carbon emissions from the quarantine, which was a worldwide reduction of travel by a huge percentage, the numbers look promising at first saying that there was a 17% reduction during peak months, but in the end, the impact is only going to be a 4-7% reduction for the year. So, if we all stay home and our cars are only having a 17% impact (averaged out to 7% when we return to normal living) where the heck are the other 83% coming from?
Industry and infrastructure.
Infrastructure is controlled (or at least regulated) by the government. That means we have to convince our leaders that the only way to truly “Keep America Great” is to ensure that we replenish our resources as we use them so that they will be there for future generations of Americans. I would have thought that this would be a no-brainer, but with lobbyists making our politicians rich to help keep their investors rich, we’ve seen virtually nothing in the way of legitimate efforts to increase our infrastructure sustainability.
Some day (hopefully very soon) we will be able to convince the political apparatus that renewable resources and sustainable processes are the only way to ensure the long-term survival of our species and pretty much any other.
That brings us to Industry. I firmly believe that industry will not change until their consumers and/or government regulators force them to. They are making far too much money to consider the possibility of really making lasting and impactful changes. If they don’t stay competitive, they will lose money and go out of business and then their competitor will rise and wreak the same havoc they did before. They do this for profit and they won’t stop until it’s no longer profitable. How do we make it more profitable for them to work sustainably?
I don’t really know, but I do know that corporations only listen to dollars, so we have to begin showing them that the long-term implications of unsustainable operations and what that looks like to their bottom dollar. They have to see that harvesting without allowing regrowth will only serve as a self-limiting mode of operation. They will run out of supply and then they will run out of business.
What I can say with some certainty is that humans have a history of adapting and overcoming through innovation and technology. Sometimes that tech ends up failing in spectacularly unanticipated ways, but other times it succeeds and carries us forward. It is my sincere hope that this documentary turns the tide and Sir David Attenborough’s final witness has the impact he desires.
Stay ready. Stay safe. Stay free.