You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?
“The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”
Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” says Gilding.
This is not science fiction. This is what happens when our system of growth and the system of nature hit the wall at once. While in Yemen last year, I saw a tanker truck delivering water in the capital, Sana. Why? Because Sana could be the first big city in the world to run out of water, within a decade. That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 percent of sustainable capacity.
“If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees,” writes Gilding. “If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the Earth’s CO2 blanket, the Earth gets warmer. If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation; this is high school science.”
Of course local weather in any particular area at any particular time is not the same as climate. But what we are seeing is a function of a warmer atmosphere that holds more moisture, and hence more storms, more intense storms, and dramatic changes everywhere. Add this to overpopulation and an emerging developing world, and what you have is something unsustainable. And when it hits critical mass, the earth won't be endangered, we will. Because it will shrug us off like fleas from a dog.
Every day when I drive 25 miles to work in a place that is not accessible to me via public transit I know I'm contributing to the problem. Yes, we have a Civic and a Corolla, both of which get close to 40mpg on the highway, so I use far less fuel than the person at my employer who is still driving a Hummer. And yes, I have tried to set up a carpool with a co-worker, but she refuses to car-pool because what if her teenaged children get sick and has to leave in a hurry? And my employer is very likely to move even further away, at which point I will probably be spending money on hotels at least one and perhaps two nights a week. But the reality is that we have set up a situation in which we are far too reliant on the individual automobile, still fueled largely by fossil fuels, and while tornadoes and hurricanes and snow in Arizona are warning us of impending catastrophe, we continue to do nothing, and Americans continue to vote for ignorant fools who say that God would never let our planet become inospitable, as they pocket huge checks from the petroleum industry.