|People of Earth: I come in peace...
||[Nov. 18th, 2004|07:11 pm]
|||||Ween - Ooh Va La||]|
What is it that empowers our consumptive impulses beyond all others in this Universe? By saying “our”, I am indicating the entire United States. As a benchmark of consumer culture, we are certainly second-to-none. This is clearly an undisputed truth. Material items—phones that play hip-hop ring tones to automobiles—permeate society to the point of necessity. All of these things require considerable energy to operate. We know that and, as Americans, are often aware of that fact in varying degrees of acceptance. Some are concerned about the so called “energy crisis” while others see it as purely economical, fearing rising energy costs. In the end I assert that both views are still shortsighted and ultimately futile to create change. Simply acknowledging a crisis or lamenting over economic woes will not alter the individual behaviors that drive consumption. While I concede that truly making sense of this phenomenon is subject to the same fate as monuments sand architecture built too close to the ever-present surf, it is possible to catch a glimpse of some resemblance of truth as to what really occurs in society with regard to energy consumption. Most of us dislike the idea of attempting to construct a puzzle during a hurricane, especially when the puzzle it set on a little coffee table in the most intense region of said storm. But there is something invigorating in just a glimpse of order and the beautiful complexity of interacting social phenomenon that make such investigation worth it before it all is blown away, and what is left is an eroded view of truth that gives rise to new questions.
But that is enough metaphorical bullshit for any legitimate inquiry into energy consumption. Perhaps the biggest issue is the oversimplification environmental issues combined with a lack of actual compassion or care in the individual. Mitigated by a set of very loud, very connected voices and interests groups trying to manipulate public sentiments and behaviors, concerns about environment are basically reduced to a mess. Those who stand to lose economically from true environmental responsibility downplay evidence while those overzealous, tree hugging folks we like to ridicule tend to exaggerate and sensationalize issues to gain support. Ultimately, both sides are at fault. It is my belief, however, that these public voices should not matter in the context of an issue with such global importance as environment. Instead, the actions are beliefs of individuals are what shape the action of society as a while. Americans are not the sole purveyors of environmental damage, but I feel it is necessary to accept personal accountability to make any progress. Earth is its own contained biological entity. It is a delicate balance of natural forces all contained within a responsive and dynamic choreography of events. Earth is a marvel, but it is not invincible. So for all intents and purposes, let’s first establish that there might be a problem with how Americans live.
For millions of years, a complex and diverse system of organisms have been killing, exploiting, and competing with one another to remain alive. To be sure, investigation of the natural world reveals both the elegant and serene as well as the gruesome and cutthroat. What made the relentless competition of organisms more or less fair, for roughly 3.5 billion years, was that no organism had an obvious advantage over all others such that its actions infiltrated all areas of life. Rewind just an instant in Earth’s 4 billion year history to the appearance of the first human species just roughly 2 million years ago, and it is quite easy to see that much has changed in a very short time. This is likened to, for all you sports fans, the last two seconds of play. It is the last quarter-mile of the Indianapolis 500. Of the whole football game, and all of the interactions that occur during it or the entire race and all of the moments that compose it, speaking of human existence is merely speaking about the last two seconds or the last quarter-mile. In that time, we’ve grown from a relatively small-numbered species to over 6 billion. Human population levels stayed consistently well below a couple hundred thousands for the majority of human existence, until the advent of farming. Numbers spiked slightly. It was a mild cause for celebration in the overall scheme of endurance of human life. What nobody could have predicted was what happened when oil and coal appeared as energy sources. Industrialization, a time period that represents roughly the last ten thousandth of a second of play in a football game or the last 4 inches of the Indy 500, accounts for an over one million percent increase in human population. Just the amount of biological materials consumed to fuel such an explosion is nearly unfathomable. A graph of human population looks unnatural, as the line dangerously hugs each axis.
How can massive amounts of evolutionary success hurt us? I can’t argue that it is right or wrong. All I can say is that it is the situation. However, the reason I may frame it as a problem without contention is because it is a clearly unsustainable trend. Many matters of global crisis today are indicators that our explosive reproduction leads to dangerous consequences. Simple shortages in food and water, disease, overcrowding, pollution, and others are readily available examples. We simply do not show respect for the planet that sustains us in repeatedly exploiting and exhausting every natural resource with no end in sight. This mentality is reflected in our most basic actions of daily life. Americans are simply not taught to think about the bigger picture. Something as simple as wasting food is completely taken for granted. People should not have to finish everything they attempt to consume. Such a request is unreasonable and possible unhealthy. What does not have to occur is the shameful and ubiquitous claim to entitlement throughout the human race. If a steak is not cooked how we prefer in America, we send it back. Menus are made to sell copious quantities of food that we can almost never finish. Everything is advertised as expendable. No matter that it would probably suffice to keep the phone we have rather than purchase a new one. Half the time we can’t even completely use a tube of toothpaste with thorough dedication. One of our favorite phrases is “just throw it out, you can get another one.” How did we gain this incredible entitlement to faultless waste and endless consumption?
Well sure, you can just get another one. That is certainly a fact. But what nobody seems to realize or want to realize is what a simple, thoughtless claim like that means. Imagine the pasta (we’re going to appeal to all walks of life with this one, even vegetarians) that you sent back because “the sauce was too spicy” or “it was overcooked” or just not good enough for whatever reason. We do this all the time. I am guilty of not eating food simply because I detest the taste. Nobody is without fault. This means that the food made possible by ingredients from fields that were tilled using stored energy, fed a constant stream of nourishing electromagnetism from the sun, hydrated by the intricacies of thermodynamics and meteorology, carefully tended to by farmers, harvested using energy-hungry machinery, shipped to a plant for processing, processed, packaged, shipped again to be made into pasta, packaged again and sealed, transported to a distributor, sold, transported again, cooked using more stored chemical energy, put onto a plate cleaned with stored energy, then carried and delivered to a table using biological chemical energy, was wasted on a whim of subjectivity and preference. What is more is that my ignorant assessment of all of the energy consuming steps taken to get something as simple as pasta to a restaurant table is grossly oversimplified. The point is that each step in the process takes an enormous amount of energy to complete, right down to the metabolic energy consumed by the chef as he or she prepares the meal. It is all a largely consumptive process to begin with. But in our overly consumer-oriented mantra of life, we waste without consideration to the incredible sacrifice already made to make our way of life possible.
This incredible chain reaction of events may be applied to any example. New technologies take the energy and efforts of intensive research as well as production, and transportation. Again this is overly simplified. In all this consumption of energy and willingness to waste, our culture still lacks any understanding of what truly occurs. We fail, time and again, to research the energy that is really used and wasted to create, process, and transport our many forms of converted energy around. There are no studies that accurately investigate our impact in terms of a science of energy exchange. Consequently, we continue on in ignorance. But scientific study and science is not a complete saving grace. Too often we place unrealistic levels of faith in scientific patch-cures for societal, cultural, and environmental problems. The problem is pathology of thinking, not necessarily of doing. As is often the case, the symptoms of the issue, the behaviors, are really products of this flawed thinking.
What is critically lacking is awareness and compassion. People tend to lack a true appreciation for nature and the complex and enduring set of biological forces that make modern life possible. Simply finding appreciation for the natural world, instead of abhorring any opportunity to experience nature, would go a long way in fixing the problem of environmental destruction. Similarly, if people were aware of just how much energy they stand to waste in a simple decision like replacing a gadget whose utility has not expired, or wasting food for trivial reason, the sacrifice would not be as readily made. Connecting with the natural world and having a true desire to preserve it is an individual process. It is not one that can be forced upon any individual, or scared upon one for that matter. The messages we receive attempt to confuse our belief that we need to change our behavior, lest we stop the freight train of consumption that fuels our hugely successful economy. Corporate interests, the entities that seem to carry much of America’s power, do not want people to be compassionate to their surroundings. The propaganda-laden messages they send do not help individuals find their connection to nature. Likewise, the fear tactics of many environmental groups do not create the necessary atmosphere of understanding for people to make their own personal connection.
Once we start to realize that it is the responsibility of the individual to improve the state of the world, we will be more willing to do little things that make a difference on a large scale. When one individual thinks twice about leaving a light on and wasting energy out of a sincere concern for wasting energy, then it instantly means that thousands of others are having a similar thought. In a population of 6 billion, general rules of probability tell us that we do not think alone. Any time we are willing to make an exception, to litter “just this once” for instance, means that thousands of other people are as well. However, most people do not think in this way. When we consider the actions of others and the global consequences of our own actions, we begin to be more responsible citizens of nature working in cooperation. We must be aware and we must cooperate to improve such a vast global problem. This is not a case of conflicted interests and yet it is too often viewed that way. People forgo what is best for the world for personal economic gains, and yet fail to see that there is personal damage in doing so. Everyone is living together, sharing the same space, and ought to be working together to preserve and appreciate it.
Certainly there will be great technological discoveries that mend some of the damaged caused by our consumer culture. Ultimately, such patches will not be enough to prevent unjustified additional damage. It is unhealthy to live at odds with one another to such an extent, and a little compassion and awareness can go a long way to making the world a better place. The road to change begins from within. Next time you are hanging around the alien entity known as nature, find something beautiful to appreciate and know you are a part of an intense global cycle that affects every living being on the planet. At least in that physical way, we are already connected. All that leaves is the daunting task of getting connected on a spiritual plane and learning to become a more compassionate and cooperative culture. Here’s to learning, brothers and sisters.
To see what the population graph looks like: