May 01, 2008
Thoughts following Earth Day 2008
As It Stands in May 2008
More hope lies outside Earth Day, beyond its cutesy confines that treats endangered species like stuffed animals, greedily pushes unnecessary products as 'green', and suggests that planting a tree is a duty rather than a joy. Instead of all this Earth Day bombast, I see hope in the fact that it is 2008 and the collective consciousness of the world is changing—albeit slowly. What we lack is action manifested out of this burgeoning consciousness.
The environmental movement has never been so widespread or so widely accepted. Environmentalists are no longer confined to fringe-groups; being 'green' no longer implies elitism; and, most importantly, care and respect for the Earth is no longer seen as somehow dismissing human needs, especially economic. As one of the catch-phrases of the decade 'being green' perhaps portends a future where humanity is filled with a deeper awareness and understanding of the ecosystems we inhabit (so long as we keep from 'commercializing' it). Many circles—political, cultural, and religious—are awakening to the fact that our lives, and those of all other species remain intertwined; they are beginning to see that nature is not somehow separate from humankind—or worse, adverse to it. Astoundingly, despite all our technology, our distracting entertainment, our artifice, we are coming to understand that we remain as symbiotically linked to other species, to ecosystems, to nature as ever.
|Children in Kashgar, China. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
Due to spending the last nine months as a journalist for Mongabay.com, I am fortunate to have come to know countless organizations—many of which the public has never heard of—who spend time, energy, and resources attempting to educate the public, affect change, and save and restore what remains of our embattled ecosystems, species, and civilizations. I know of innumerable citizens who spend more hours than I could ever count working for a better world. Their dedication, optimism, and pugnacity in face of seemingly insurmountable odds leaves me in awe. These are people who do not give-up, who remain open-minded to every possible means; these are people who stay up into morning hours for pittance (sometimes less than that), who do so without accolades and recognition, who strive to make their voices heard even while they grow hoarse. They have faith in the ability of humankind to face itself.
|Gorilla in Gabon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
Many in our world are beginning to listen. I applaud those who have taken up some portion of the popular environmental movement: those who buy local and organic foods, switch off appliances, carpool or bike, recycle, change light bulbs, go vegetarian or vegan, purchase carbon credits, or donate a portion of hard-earned funds to environmental groups. I applaud anyone who has consciously changed habits to have less impact on their world. But I cannot mince words here; I feel it is time to be honest: what we are doing is not enough. A small percentage of the consumptive developed world making a few small changes here and there is not going to stop a future for our children that will be bleaker, harder, and far-less secure—not to mention a world hallowed out by loneliness, where silence is our only echo.
The changes in our understanding—the awakening of the global-consciousness to the importance of the environmental crises—must now manifest itself in action. There is a time for thought and debate and slow transitions, and there is a time when problems require large-scale actions. This is that time; it merely waits for us to act.
What Should Be Done?
|Tree frog in Thailand. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
This unbearable situation places more and more of the burden on the young and the unborn: they will be forced to live under the world we have wrought. They will see their parents and grandparents as plunderers, who sold out their future for ease and profit. To prevent this, the burden of change must rely on us. If our governments are thus far unwilling to confront these problems, we must force them to. Concerned and aware citizens should not become softer and quieter, rather our voices need to grow and combine until our governments stop putting off what needs to be done now for another day, another administration. They wish to avoid political fallout from making meaningful changes to our society—so we must make certain that there is fallout from hemming and hawing, from endless stalling. We must tell our governments that we are ready and happy to make the changes required as a collective society to create a civilization that is in harmony with the natural world.
|Seals in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
|Centipede in the rainforest of Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
We need scientists and environmentalists to become visible activists: we need people from all walks of life to take to the streets, both metaphorically and literally. Peaceful protests and marches, rallies, speakers are required to enliven the debate. So far, we have been too secluded, too cliquey, and too silent; the debate needs to move beyond the Internet and environmental publications. It requires visibility.
In addition, we need people who are willing to step up as environmental leaders—desperately. Every movement requires great leaders, and so far we have sorely lacked them. We have scientists, activists, writers, directors, movie stars, and journalists all making the case for the environment, but aside from Al Gore, international leaders, who are recognizable to the larger public, are non-existent. We need charismatic leaders who will be unafraid to speak truth to the public about the largeness and complexity of the crises, but who are also about to speak eloquently of hope and a better tomorrow. We need these new leaders to reach out to those who either ignore or deny the current crisis, and prove to them through the wealth of science available that we can no longer ignore the evident.
|Oil palm plantation in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
Measuring out the consequences of actions is imperative; at the same time open-mindedness is a necessity for fixing the issues we face. New solutions are constantly being weighed and measured in the environmental debate. Many of these receive little media attention, though their implementation (or lack thereof) will affect us for generations. While governments must remain open to all options, so must environmental groups. For example, using economic forces to save the world's remaining forests should not be disregarded simply because it employs the same forces that have devastated forests. When concerns are raised regarding REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) and other such programs, they should have a solid basis and not be raised simply because many environmentalists are distrustful of industrial economies. In order for wide-scale change to occur, our economies will have to change. Perhaps one way to do that is by beginning to use it for good in the environment, rather than ill. If we can save forests by given them economic worth (through carbon storage, rain production, water purity, indigenous-peoples' habitat, eco-tourism, and biodiversity) then we can accomplish what hasn't been since the movement to save dwindling forests began decades ago. Since many of the solutions to the environmental crisis will be novel; we must remain open-minded or our efforts will flounder before they start.
Our growing consciousness of the environment, like any change in society, always runs the risk of appearing 'extremist'. To avoid such a label we would do well to be practicable in solutions, embrace hope over doom, and show a willingness to see issues from various sides. I am not suggesting revolutionary action or anything of that sort, but we must make clear to those in power that the days of willful ignorance are over. The environmental movement in general must grow in numbers, volume, and urgency to finally make those in power, our governments and media, to listen. But to fully take-on this issue, we must also face ourselves.
The Requirement of Sacrifice
|Mangrove forest turned shrimp farms in Sulawesi. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
Let me be blunt: the developed world must make sacrifices. There was a time in our history when sacrifice was not a dirty word, when our ancestors—not so distant—happily made sacrifices for larger causes. To create 'a more perfect union' in 1776 men and women were willing to put their lives and communities on the line. Few complained about having less meat during World War II or spending time and energy in 'victory gardens'. In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement lost many of the generation's best leaders to create a more equitable and just society. Sacrifice is not new to the American ideal, even if it has been replaced with materialism.
What kind of sacrifices do I speak of? Put simply, we cannot consume as we have. Some of our insatiable consumption will be curbed by emerging technologies, but it will not be enough. No magic technology will solve the complex and massive problems we face. We have lived in a materialistic age for at least six decades, and it is an age we must leave behind. We have thrown our money at gadgets, toys, creature-comforts, at houses for two large enough for eleven, at six couches in one home and eight TVs in another, at hot-tubs, private boats, and second homes. All of these items require resources—tremendous resources—and we don't live in an infinite world. Resources have become increasingly scarce as human-population has increased, and the difference between the have-nothings and those who have-too-much has grown exponentially. Our desire for cheap products has pushed China into being the world's greatest carbon producer. Our desire for cheap furniture has helped illegally empty Asia's and South America's final forests. Our desire for cheap meat and soy currently presses farmers (and large-scale corporations) deeper into the Amazon. We have spent decades living off other nation's resources on the cheap. These have been immoral 'partnerships', where we strip them of their most precious treasures, for our luxury.
|Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
There is no religion that espouses wealth—in fact most of them outright condemn consumerism, stating that it cannot bring happiness or meaning to the individual or the community. As well, all respected philosophical thinkers place other values far higher than materialism. What truth does one gain by spending a life harboring unnecessary stuff? What spirituality is there in focusing on Earthly possessions? Where is morality when products are more important than the welfare of fellow humans? Buying without need is a quick emotive fix with an increasing debt—both to ourselves, our children, and the world.
|Coal-carrying truck in Xinjiang Province, China. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
Simultaneously, western nations need to put more resources and energy into pulling embattled nations out of poverty and conflict. Poverty—meaning a lack of necessities, such as food, water, health care, and security—is itself wholly immoral. Every human should have a right to the essentials of survival. In our world of plenty, it remains a great eye-sore on humanity that though we have food enough to feed every soul, people are still starving by the hundreds of millions. In addition, poverty time-and-again only leads to environmental destruction, not through wasteful indulgence but desperation. What parents wouldn't destroy a forest to save their children from starving?
|Logging truck in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
We should not fear the loss of the consumer philosophy; it was always a dead-end road. Instead we should welcome the freedom from insatiable and trivial want; we can be more than what we 'own'.
If only we shrug off these chains of materialism: a far more beautiful world awaits us.
Many people simply 'turn-off' when they hear about climate change and other global environmental issues. This should be understood as more than simply 'not caring' as many frustrated and bewildered activists have stated. People are overwhelmed by a catastrophe as large as climate change and sense in all of this an aspect of hopelessness. In the worst of times I also will admit to feeling an overwhelming desire to bury myself in the backyard. Perhaps, this sense of hopelessness also explains the continuation of 'green' skeptics: it's easier psychologically to deny the possibility than accept the science and deal with the changes it requires. Personally, I would swoon from joy if it were discovered that global-warming was a hoax or all species were conserved through some magical event, but, living in the actual world, I feel we must and can face up to these problems—as difficult as that may be.
The environment is not without such successes, either. The hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica is shrinking and estimated to disappear by 2050. Species thought to be extinct are being rediscovered in their habitats, proving that many may be more resilient than humans have given them credit for. In the US alone, 99 percent of the species listed under the Endangered Species Act are still with us. Deforested rainforest have shown the ability to regenerate, which could mean a complete rejuvenation of rainforests in a generation if they are finally given the priority they deserve. Everyday, there is positive news; everyday people are striving to take-on these global complexities. So long as we continue to work, despair will be washed away by hope.
|Turkana children near the Kenya-Sudan border. Photo by Rhett A. Butler|
Let us then shrug off the confines of April 22nd 2008 with its bombast, commercialism, and triviality. Instead, let us move forward with integrity, passion, intelligence, openness, and an unrelenting power for change.
Our long restless lonely dream is over; let us replace it with something brighter.
For further information on the environmental crises mentioned above, please see the 'representative selection' of articles below. ON GLOBAL WARMING:
- Carbon dioxide, methane levels rise sharply in 2007
- Scientists target safe-climate future
- Perennial ice disappears, media yawns
- China's emissions growth 2-4 times greater than expected
- Half the Amazon rainforest will be lost within 20 years
- Just how bad is the biodiversity extinction crisis?
- Recovery from worst mass extinction took 30 million years
- New cures for human ailments under threat by global extinction crisis
- Biodiversity key to fighting climate change:
- Ocean dead zones have nearly quadrupled since 1994
- Record food prices to climb through 2010
- 75% of world population to face water shortages by 2050
- U.S. furniture demand drives illegal logging in Laos
- 80% of world's undernourished children live in 10% of countries
- Sachs says biodiversity extinction crisis avoidable
- China aims for 100 gigawatts of wind power by 2020
- Environment is the number one issue for Australians
- Regrowing the rainforest
- Amazon state launches Zero Extinction Program for endangered species
- How activists and scientists saved a rainforest island from destruction for palm oil
|AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.|