Having now passed the 50th anniversary of the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson it’s tempting to feel the ecology movement she fostered has made a difference. However, in comparing its successes to its failures, I’d argue the ecology movement has been a colossal flop.
During the past half-century global environmental conditions have fared worse, not better. Faced with evidence of destruction of the world’s forests, ocean acidification, global warming, population growth pressure, exposure to health-damaging chemicals, over-fishing and destruction of animal habitat, many scientists are now predicting a near-future extinction event to rival the largest in earth’s history. Whether people and the societies we have created will survive is unknown, but that human beings are the cause of this potential extinction is now obvious. We are indeed clever and resourceful, creative and industrious; we also happen to be too greedy.
Our contemporary social narrative is bleakly naive, namely that our creative abilities and capacity for adaptive innovation will provide a steady path to future well-being. When things were slower and technology less pervasive, such a point-of-view had possibilities. In fits and starts we’ve tried to keep up with our effects on nature, but their relentless and accelerating growth renders any present effort to “catch up” nearly impossible. To be sure, good people are working hard to implement good ideas and practices, but emerging economies can’t afford clean technologies; the world’s population continues to expand, placing new demands on global productivity.
Facts alone are not enough to save the world; if true, we would have saved it by now. People are driven by emotions, not facts – by desire, attachment, urges to avoid suffering and to seek satisfaction. Hope and fear overwhelm rationality and go on to form the ground of human behavior. Despite efforts to mitigate what we know about people by creating law and order, governing systems, education, reward and punishment, the truth remains: our desire for personal security makes us short-sighted, and simultaneously produces its own set of problems.
Our inherent problem is that we objectify nature; we see ourselves apart from a hostile, external force we try to control. Moreover, our responses to ecological destruction reflect a belief system which all but guarantees their inadequacy. Despite heart-felt, honest feelings – even despair – about the worsening condition of our world, our addiction to “moreness” trumps all. A persistent industrial ethic many generations in the making molds and conditions our ecological solutions. Thus our recycled garbage is picked up by large trucks, transported to large processing facilities and refashioned by large machines; all these industrial-scale efforts produce prodigious quantities of greenhouse gasses, but it feels good to recycle. The largest environmental groups ironically add to the solid waste stream by cranking out millions of pieces of direct mail, in part to raise millions for yet more direct mail. In short, trapped by hope and fear our eco-solutions all too often echo our problems.
Our desires are too strong and our needs for satisfaction and security too great. Alternatives like outlawing plastic packaging or mass-boycotts of products by consumers are deemed too radical and therefore unlikely. For all our right environmental aspirations, we seem stuck between a rock and a hard-place. It’s a sober thought, but perhaps before we can succeed, we must admit our failure.
One thing is perfectly clear. We are killing our planet.