Unless you’ve got a secret hide-away on Mars, this planet is all you’ve got, and all that any of us has got. Given that fact, the Earth has given us, meaning human beings, a grand opportunity that’s also an enormous responsibility, namely “don’t screw things up.” On that score, humanity ain’t doing so well right now.
Our hearts are in the right place, at least for many of us, but the civilization we’ve created and spread around the planet indicates that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Rather than creating a civilization of gratitude and care, we’ve turned to greed and selfishness; humanity is consuming and wasting too much. In our rush for pleasure and convenience, we’ve filled the oceans with plastic, the air with greenhouse gasses, and stripped the land of its forests. While there are a few who deny that climate change is the result of human activity, the facts speak for themselves; 2015 and 2016 were the two hottest years on record, and 2017 is on pace to surpass them.
To be sure, good things are happening, but they may be too little, too late. Solar power holds the promise of low-cost, easily accessible and widely distributed energy, but if it simply replaces fossil fuels and our pace of consumption does not change, the Earth will continue to suffer. Appreciation for pesticide-free food has made organic produce the fastest growing segment of the food business, but if it’s not grown and consumed locally, then it becomes simply another link in the industrial food chain. Our cars are less polluting, but if we continue to increase our rate of jet travel the auto emission reductions won’t mean as much.
It’s consumption that needs to change if we really care about the Earth, but that seems to be the one thing most of us are unwilling to do. Our economic model presumes eternal growth; we’ve borrowed mightily from the future based upon that assumption. If consumption drops, the economy drops with it, and we don’t seem to have come up with a way around that. In other words, as a civilization, we’re stuck in a self-destructive spiral.
Back in the 1970’s the subject of population growth was a big concern; there were forecasts of widespread famine in the foreseeable future. As it turned out, the “green revolution” of advanced pesticides, industrial farming, fertilizers and bio-engineered plants proved the forecasts wrong, as did the use of antibiotics. But today we face exactly the same over-population and famine forecasts, this time due to global warming. Sea level rise, and a shift globally of favorable growing regions to less productive land and population pressures, are combining faster than many scientists and planners predicted. The growing threat of untreatable bacterial infection due to resistance to overused antibiotics risks global pandemics.
The Earth, however, has been around a very long time; at 4.5 billion years of age this planet has seen it all. The age of humankind, what’s now called the Anthropocene, has been pretty short compared to other ages. We appear to be the most creative species of animal in history, but our creativity has had exponentially increased impacts. The Earth abides, but human civilization is running out of time.