I have no doubt that the climate is changing, nor that it will continue to change. It seems reasonably well established that the Earth has gone through extreme climate swings in the past; on the basis of that i predict that it will do so again. Maybe humans are not responsible for climate change, and the planet would be warming in any case as it sheds the final remnants of the last ice age. Maybe it is entirely our fault. The truth usually falls between the two extremes. I do not believe that humans have the power to destroy the Earth or life. Suggesting that we do strikes me as the height of egocentricity: both preceded us by unimaginable lengths of time and will survive us for just as long. We do, however, have the power to destroy ourselves and most of the forms of life we know.
We have a carbon dioxide problem that is seriously destabilizing multiple, interdependent systems. The carbon dioxide is the result of harvesting ancient plant matter to burn the hydrogen it contains. The carbon contained in the ancient plant matter doesn’t burn, so it remains after the hydrogen combustion and combines with oxygen in the atmosphere. In essence, the carbon is a waste product, i.e. trash.
We have mountains of trash. We flush gallons of water down the toilet with a small amount of urine and turn potable water into waste. We define ourselves by what we own, which must be manufactured and produces waste in the process. And much of what we own is disposable, turned into waste in short order and replaced with something that’s creation generated waste.
Waste is everywhere, but that is the way of the life. I generate carbon waste by breathing. Plants pollute their environment with oxygen. And together we get along nicely, because i happen to require plant waste as an input for living and plants happen to require my waste. Look around anywhere, it’s happening from the micro to the macro. One thing’s shit is another thing’s staff of life. It’s the way of the universe, or God’s plan, or whatever you choose to call it. I call it elegance.
That’s not what happens with most of our waste, and that’s the fundamental problem. The loops aren’t closed. In the grand scheme of things we had better start working on closing them, because they’ll close with us or without us. If they close themselves it is likely to be without us, or at least the vast majority of us.
On a more practical level, i think of a man i used to know who lived through WWII in Central Europe and spent time in a Soviet P.O.W. camp; he became very successful and money was not much of an object. Yet at the end of every meal he could be found nibbling the last bits of fat and gristle from a bone, not just the bone from his plate but every bone at the table. Though he was as wasteful as the rest of us in many other ways, he knew the want of of an empty stomach and he was determined to avoid it.
We’re in the unenviable position of needing to imagine what our wants will be if we continue to waste so profligately. Take a long walk somewhere beautiful. Watch your children. Think about your next meal. That’s what’s at stake. If we refuse to conserve what we were given, our children and grandchildren will make their home in our trash. There is no way around the fact that if we put something into the environment that does not constitute the input of another life process, then we will eat it, drink it or breathe it.
I used to marvel at a meal of pork in Korea. It started with people segregating their kitchen scraps and depositing them in a drum outside the apartment building. Pig farmers gathered the drums and in the end i’d tuck into a meal of my own kitchen waste. We need many more of that sort of closed-loop answer, though they won’t all be so simple. Complex solutions will be required to address our present circumstances, but they’ll all boil down to waste not want not.
You don’t have to believe in global warming to realize that today’s waste will be tomorrow’s want. You do need the desire to conserve what you’ve been blessed with so that you may pass it on to your descendants. (Call it generating long-term wealth if you like.) It’s about our values. And frankly, if our values put politics and accumulating material wealth above the health and well being of our children then we really don’t deserve what we have, but we do deserve what we’ll get.