Spoiled Earth

While I don’t purposefully intend to come across as fatalistic or dour, the thought has been on my mind a lot lately that mine may well be the first generation to come of age with the knowledge that the earth as we know it has an expiration date and the legitimate fear that we will likely live to see it spoil. Two days ago, the temperature in Sydney, Australia shot the mercury up to a record 114˚F and earlier in the week the cover of The New York Times was painted a vibrant orangish hue showing how America’s rising annual temperatures are cooking us from the inside out. The streets of Beijing are so heavy with soot and carbon dioxide that people smoke cigarettes for fresh air and about a billion people in Southeast Asia are just now discovering how great this electricity stuff is. As a planet we have pretty much landed on the other side of the Rubicon of climate change and our response has been the resounding belch of a people bloated with lifestyle too rich to give up.

That this current generation of young people is the first in American history that can expect to live a shorter life than their parents did signifies more than a cohort of blubbery type-II diabetics that were unable to stop mainlining processed sugars. It signifies the formal death of our belief in the inevitability of human progress. Since our founding fathers first flipped George III the colonial bird, America’s ethos has relied upon the Enlightenment ideal that man is the arbiter of his own destiny and the world is ultimately malleable. All of the religious frippery around determinism and predestination is ultimately null and void because god always “pre-ordained” that the believer him/herself was good and thus, playing with house money; Not only did these people believe they had the power to shape the world to their will, but god was gonna help them do it. Every damn thing we ever did, from the shining city on a hill to Manifest Destiny and Buzz Aldrin, was about taking that next step that our ancestors never dreamed of taking. I mean, look at a place like Las Vegas: a giant neon city built out in the middle of the fucking desert where the only natural resource is the ability to cook an egg by leaving it on the ground for a couple minutes? Why else would we build such a gaudy monument to consumerism in the middle of Satan’s anus if not to assert our dominance over the elements and display just how awesome we as a society are? And now my generation will be the first to truly begin reaping the whirlwind of our incessant consumption.

A map of the increases in average temperature this year. (Courtesy of The New York Times)

A map of the increases in average temperature this year. (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Now, I don’t wish to belittle the genuine and cataclysmic terror felt by Americans during the Cold War over the threat of nuclear winter or the current fear of atomic weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. God knows I have spent my fair share of time catastrophizing about having the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought upon me and those I love, but the fear of a nuclear holocaust or World War III is an entirely different beast when compared to the threat of climate change. Stopping the proliferation of nuclear arms is a fairly straightforward enterprise and the US government has been doing a pretty damn good job of thwarting the designs of those trying to procure them for less than noble means. I can guarantee you that as soon as American intelligence finds out the Iranians are going through with the final stages of uranium enrichment—and they will find out quickly—President Obama will give those boys to the count of ten to slow their roll before he drone strikes the unholy hell out of them. There is no similarly direct and decisive action in the war on climate change, nor is there an image capable of conveying the urgency and destructive potential of a warming planet in the same way a mushroom cloud does.

As a thought experiment, let’s just take one nation—America—and one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—cars—and try to brainstorm how we could substantively reduce the warming of the planet by reducing or eliminating its production of carbon dioxide in, say, 25 years. The most recent US Bureau of Transportation Statistics report on the subject estimates that there are a little more than 250 million passenger vehicles registered in the country, while the US Energy Information Administration says that Americans used those vehicles to consume more 134 billion gallons of gasoline in 2011. Now, to give you a better visual of what 134 billion gallons of gas looks like, I want to imagine a couple of oil tankers pulling up next to a regulation-sized Olympic swimming pool. Depending on the size of the tanker trucks involved, I want to picture all of the oil in 2 to 4 of those bad boys being dumped into the pool until it’s filled with viscous obsidian goo. Do you have that picture in your mind? Good. Now do that around 6.5 million times and you’ll get an idea of the staggering volume of petroleum consumption in this country.

This won't go over well

This won’t go over well

We are a nation built on a million miles of asphalt. It takes a fair bit of time to make it from sea to shining sea in America and we planned our cities accordingly. In retrospect, it probably would have been difficult to construct the infrastructure of our nation in a less energy efficient fashion. Only one US locality, New York City, can claim that fewer than 50% of its households own a car. In Europe, those poor buggers were forced to build their metropolises as claustrophobic layer cakes of cholera and squalor. Here in America we had millions of acres of fruited plains and shit, so we spread out. Go west young man and all that. If a Brit followed that advice he’d have to stop after about 5 hours of driving because he hit the Celtic Sea. Like the American government has determined that some banks are too big to fail, the American people have decided that our country is too big to conserve.

So, where does that leave us? Do we resign ourselves to the fact that we will be living on an ever microwaving planet? I’d argue that to a certain extent we’ve already begun to deal with that reality, even if only subconsciously. I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that the world I present to my children will be a demonstrably different one, which is not to say I don’t try to conserve and recycle and support green energy. It’s just that I’m fairly certain that all of those efforts will merely affect the speed and violence with which these changes take place. The one hope I have for preserving our environment lies not so much in conservation as it does in innovation. I may have gotten a C in high school chemistry, but it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me that we could find a way to artificially produce o-zone and pump it back into the stratosphere. We can do a lot of damage as a people, but we can also work wonders. Any optimism I have lies in the idea that humanity has one more trick up its sleeve to give mother nature the slip. And if we can’t find it there, we should make sure to check our ass. Some of our best work got pulled out of there.

 

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Categories: Environmental News

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1 reply

  1. Thank you! Going running right now. Will welcome thought on ALL the places I don’t need to drive, all the food I don’t need to consume, and all the stuff I don’t need to buy. Appreciate your perspective on American consumption—spot on target. Lisa

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