General · 24th September 2009
We can't begin to solve our environmental problems until we accept we have them. And we can't devise solutions until we understand the problems. Finding these solutions is often challenging enough; accepting that we have them is even more challenging.
Most big environmental problems are difficult to accept because they arise out of behaviour we consider ordinary. This makes them difficult to recognize and difficult to solve. As problems, they usually arrive slowly, building little by little until we suddenly realize that a species of bird is rarely seen, that catches of ocean fish are dropping, that polar ice is inexplicably melting, that new storms are getting more severe. By the time we recognize that these problems exist, they're already big.
If a salmon spawning bed is being silted in by erosion from a road or construction site, we can quickly discern the problem and likely correct it. But big environmental problems such as global warming are slow to develop, slow to be recognized and, even though we may know what the solutions may be, we can't necessarily implement them because we can't slow the momentum of behaviour we consider ordinary. When our civilization is energy dependent, how do we suddenly eliminate the 28 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide we annually emit into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels?
Whether a problem is big or small, however, we first must recognize and accept it. And if environmentalists are the first to have such a realization, they are often at odds with others who are slower to reach the same awareness. Consequently, environmentalists are commonly accused of being "doom and gloom", and their expressions of concern are regarded as negative, alarmist, unhelpful or even subversive. They have been called "enemies of society" and are sometimes deemed irresponsible outsiders and obstructionists, cynics who resist progress and undermine a society's confidence in itself. They have even been judged as ungrateful because their criticisms are levelled against the same culture that provides them with so many benefits.
In the great scheme of things, however, environmentalists are part of a necessary process that continually evaluates the course and details of our collective behaviour. We need such scrutiny to assess whether or not our strategies and activities are wise, whether or not they are sustainable, and whether or not they ultimately strengthen the collective human community. And these evaluations are often uncomfortable because they may question our core values and our basic assumptions about behaviours we rarely analyze. But all such evaluations are inherently helpful if they can be received and considered dispassionately. Diversity of opinions in a society, like diversity of species in an ecology, actually increases the likelihood that human societies will survive and prosper.
A review of recent history provides us with three useful insights about the present environmental condition of the planet:
• First, the pervasive environmental problems we are confronting are newly recognized; barely five decades have passed since we have been getting clear insights into the impact of human behaviour on the planet's entire ecology.
• Second, we are still in the process of assessing the seriousness of these problems; global communication and monitoring capabilities are defining the extent and rate of species extinction, climate change, ozone thinning, soil degradation, melting ice, declining ocean fisheries, rising human populations, fresh water depletion, forest loss, energy challenges, ocean acidification, etc.
• And third, we actually know how to solve many of these problems; we even have most of the required technology. But we lack a unanimous will. We continue to wait for clearer justification. We persist in being diverted by political, economic, cultural and theological conflict. And we want simple and efficient environmental solutions that give us salvation without sacrifice.
A huge gap still separates our lagging resolve from the enormity of the environmental problems we have to solve. Even simple solutions can be bedeviling. With consumer goods, we can obviously refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. But how do we refuse to buy in a society saturated with temptations from advertising? How do we reduce in an economic culture that promises endless plentitude? How can we reuse in an economy that has been designed for disposability? How do we recycle when so many products are still made of inseparable but incompatible components? Even the most obvious solutions can become frustratingly complicated. And looming beyond all the little details are the really big problems.
When we compare the enormity of our environmental challenges against the effectiveness of the solutions at our disposal, frustration and worry collide with habit and hopelessness to produce anger, resentment, exasperation and even despair.
But the best cure is action. Doing a little of anything is better than doing nothing. Even the smallest gestures offer relief – "Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something." Attend a council meeting to advocate for a smarter zoning strategy. Send a letter to a politician about an environmental concern. Write to a newspaper explaining your vision for a healthy community. Holiday closer to home. Drive less. Buy an organic apple.
We each have environmental work to do. This is now a certainty. Even if all the solutions are not perfectly clear, we each have enough information to begin somewhere. The longer we procrastinate, the more difficult the work will be. And the sooner we begin, the better we will feel.