Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We're F@#&%'d?

200px-Giant_Panda_Washington_DC.JPGEver have someone tell you that?

Let you know that by virtue of how badly we've messed up our planet, our bodies, our food supply, or something else specific and agenda-laden or just general and dismal, we've essentially wiped out our chances of making it more than a generation or two?

Don't bother: on account of failing to read the owner's manual, our planet's warranty has been voided and we're left with a no-receipt, no-return policy.

I hear it every so often, in some variation or the other. And I just refuse to accept it. If we're truly screwed that badly, then why bother? Why not stop taking the train to work, don't bother selling your Accord for a Prius just go out and buy a 70's Buick with an oil blow by problem, don't bother voting for Obama, go buy a few bottles of whisky and hit the local tribal store for a few packs of smokes. Hit the road with your oil and whisky bottles in the trunk and just see how much damage you can get up to while you still have the chance! Why not, just for the added thrill, have unprotected sex with a few prostitutes and see if you can't just speed your personal denouement up a little.

That's probably not realistic divergence from my normal patters, but there is some truth in the idea. If we really are doomed, why not enjoy the final few years? That's what I'd to if I, personally, knew that I had five years to live. I'd make sure I was leaving a good legacy for my family, but I'd be taking a few more long weekends and generally probably not working out as much in favor of some more air travel. But if I'm going to tighten the carbon belt, cinch in my natural resources budget, make the tough choices at the grocery store, I have to know that it counts for something.

Sometimes I think that real doomsday attitude is a marketing issue. There is a finite amount of money (even if it is increasing) that people will spend directly or indirectly on environmental issues. Note that I regard buying happy-carbon-debt-free golf balls (or whatever) for a 50% premium in the same way that I'd regard donating the same amount of cash to Greenpeace or accepting the lost free time that comes from riding public transit. The economics of it is another issue...this is about marketing.

But with this limited amount to go around, groups compete with each other. Sure, they may all have the same save-the-planet goal, but when it comes down to it, different groups have different beliefs and different priorities. Some propose moderate solutions, some extreme. Some fund research, some activism, some political lobbying. And all of them have a vested economic self interest in ensuring that they receive a good dose of public support -- even beyond any belief in the "rightness" of their approach.

What's the easiest way to kick up support for your issue? Raise the volume of the alarm bell you sound! That leads to a spiral of increasing doomsday-one-upmanship just as dramatic as the upward spiral in the sizes of women's clothes (it's true -- women's clothes have grown by several sizes over the past few decades -- its a marketing thing too).

Then add in The Discovery Channel and their penchant for The Next Big Disaster. Hey, if the sun really does go hypernova (don't worry, it won't, they physics doesn't work out) the we are sure as hell screwed. No doubt. Atmosphere: gone. Genetic code: destroyed. Even the cockroaches wouldn't make it.

images.jpegI'm writing this not out of response to some overstated pro-environment commercial or rant. I'm writing it in response to my semi-annual re-exploration of Barbara Tuchtman's masterful A Distant Mirror.

The introduction alone is a spectacular read, a dive into a sense of perspective that can only come from contemplating an era in which Europe and Western Asia lost 1/3 of their population, a truly interminable war raged, the populace lived in a state of almost incomprehensible ignorance and under perpetual threat of starvation, extortion, conscription, exploitation, taxation, and a host of other apocalyptic horsemen that those of us in Western comfort can scarcely contemplate.

If our own decade has been one of collapsing assumptions has been a period of unusual discomfort then it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse, before.

She wrote this in 1978, looking back on one of the most turbulent periods of American history. The sentiment, however holds true: if you think life is troubling now, look back through history and you will see that we've been here before and we've made it through. As Voltaire, quoted in Tuchtman's introduction, says, History never repeats itself, man always does.

This isn't a plea for inaction or unwarranted skepticism. It is a plea to stop crying wolf. To accept that in order to motivate requires the hope of success or victory. To stop assuming that to showing any doubt or weakness isn't playing into the hands of the skeptics but rather that this over-the-top and unquestioning fanaticism is.

So back off from the overstated agendas. Tell me how bad it really is, how much better it still can be, and what I can do to help. Tell me frankly about the grey areas and the black areas, about your assumptions, about the data that doesn't fit and the alternative theories.

Give me back the numbers, show me the error bars. Let's fight the good fight, but let me know, for real, how I can help.

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