“Paper or plastic?” We make that choice without so much as a fleeting thought about what it means to us, to our way of life, to our kids’ future. Razed habitats for paper pulp. Trees torn down that would have produced oxygen and sucked up carbon dioxide. Milling chemicals discharged into the seas. Unbelievable quantities of plastic building up, never to break down. Turtles choking. Dolphins suffocating. Biodiversity plummeting. What must it take to get us to remember to bring reusable bags?
As our world population is growing ever faster, let’s face it, our human nature is only going to have a bigger footprint. More fishing, more plastic waste, more urban discharge, more habitat destruction, more carbon dioxide. Our future looks pretty bleak actually.
And here’s the thing: we don’t have an answer. We actually don’t know how to fix the damage we’ve done. Losses in biodiversity. Toxic food supply. Warming waters. Acidifying waters. We have started a cascade that would take millennia to stabilize if we stopped our impacts now. But we are not going to stop. Far from it, our business model is based on growth: without growth, our stock markets stagnate and economies collapse. But with growth, our impact on the natural world increases, threatening our way of life. Pick your poison.
We have a choice: Happy animals, or animals suffering from our success. (Image A by Kate Charlton-Robb, image B by Chris Jordan)
But what can we do? Certainly we each must ask ourselves, the problem is so huge, what can little ol’ me possibly do to make a difference? We must come to see ourselves as the critical link between the natural world and our kids’ future. As we degrade nature, we degrade our way of life. Nature is not limitless, and she is not forgiving. When fish stocks collapse, that’s it. When we have buried ourselves in plastic, that’s it. When we have warmed our waters to the point where only jellyfish find it comfortable, that’s it. It’s up to us to find solutions before we get to that point.
We have a choice: Happy fishermen, or dead fish. (Image A by Lisa Gershwin, image B by Raimundo Valentim)
In truth, our environmental problems are probably the biggest issue humanity has ever faced. Nature is our life support system. It is where we get our food, our oxygen. All the other big issues such as jobs and health care and the economy are intimately tied to the state of the environment: as our food supply and air supply become increasingly toxic, so too these toxins in our own bodies cause increasingly more illnesses; as our changing climate leads to increasingly erratic and severe weather, so too farming becomes less predictable and the cost of cleanup will steadily rise. Nature is not a convenience; nature is the basis of our existence. As we put her in peril, so too we peril-ize ourselves.
But to most of us, this is as foreign as speaking Klingon. We simply cannot imagine that things will not continue to be good and that we will not somehow find a way. We cannot imagine that we could do so much damage to nature that it could result in our own discomfort. But what if this is exactly what we are doing? What if we really are heading down a path that our kids are going to ask us, “what the hell were you thinking?”
Without a solution in sight, we must buy time to give the next generation a chance. Humans have shown time and again that given enough time and money, we can solve the really thorny problems. Putting man on the moon. Splitting the atom. Mapping the human genome. A cure for HIV.
Buying time will do three important things:
(1) Let today’s kids have a chance to figure out how to solve it
(2) Create jobs
(3) Actually make a difference – to be part of history rather than just watch it go by
But how do we buy time? Is recycling enough? Is it about joining Greenpeace? Is it about eating sustainably-caught fish? Is it about turning off lights that are not in use, or about converting to solar power, or driving an electric car? We are surrounded with “greener” options, and most are better than doing nothing. But these are not enough.
We must raise hell.
Lisa-ann Gershwin is the Director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services, and is now with CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Australia. Her most recent book is Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean published by the University of Chicago Press.
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.