The other day, I was looking back over the photos I took at the Fill The Hill climate change event in Ottawa, back in October of 2009. At the time, the event made me optimistic. Here were all these young people concerned about climate change and ready to take personal action in response to it.
When I look at the photos now, the Hill seems a bit thinly populated. Contrast how many people turned out to express their concern about climate change with how many people get excited about a meaningless hockey game or concert and it seems like humanity has cause to worry.
The most important reason to deal with climate change is the ethical obligation we owe to future generations – the obligation to leave them a planet that can support their welfare. When it comes to how people decide on their priorities, however, it seems like such ethical obligations are very low on the list, way below personal financial welfare or convenience.
When I think about how the Amazon rainforest may be doomed because of human greenhouse gas pollution, along with the Great Barrier Reef and countless species, I feel overwhelmed with revulsion about how casually destructive our species is, and how little regard we show for the world which we inhabit and ultimately depend upon completely. We do not have the technical means to build a self-sustaining spacecraft and so the continued life of every human being on the planet depends on the continued operation of all the physical and biological processes that make the Earth habitable. Now – largely because we are fond of cheap energy – we are willfully assaulting those processes as though they are indestructible.
In the face of that, I wonder whether any personal efforts of mine are meaningful. If humanity as a whole is determined to commit suicide, why should I spend my life trying to stop it? The forces pressing for a sane and sustainable strategy seem to be far weaker than the forces that promise instant gratification today, with little consideration for whatever consequences follow.
Normally, this is where I would try to write an uplifting closing about how doing the right thing is appropriate, even when the odds are hopeless and when other people will actually resent you for making the effort. The noble course combines self-sacrifice (reducing your personal impact) with determined political action to try to produce a better outcome. While I still think that is true, and know my conviction will eventually return, it is feeling thoroughly sapped at the moment, partly by the way voters everywhere continue to make their political choices largely on the basis of their own short-term economic self-interest.
Humanity is very clever in a micro sense – when it comes to solving small problems in ways that benefit the solvers quickly and materially. When it comes to macro issues, it seems to be dumb luck and the sheer durability of nature that explain why we haven’t wiped ourselves out already. That isn’t much comfort though. There are limits to how much abuse nature can tolerate, and we have been beating it pretty harshly with a wrench lately (with still-worse abuse promised for the future). Perhaps humanity has no future, and perhaps the thing to do as individuals is choose whatever life seems most tolerable with that possibility acknowledged.