For a guy who gets nervous when he has to call in to work and tell somebody he’s going to be five minutes late, I have a hard time even imagining what it’s like for a doctor to tell a patient he has cancer.
And yet they do. And I doubt they sugar-coat it. After Sen. Ted Kennedy’s recent diagnosis, I’d bet Kennedy and his family heard it in blunt terms that same day. A doctor came right out and said “You have a large tumor in your brain.”
If I was the patient, I know some part of me — the wishful part that wouldn’t want it to be true — would desperately NOT want to hear it.
But I’d have to, wouldn’t I? Because otherwise, there’s no hope. You can’t deal with a problem until you first admit it exists.
If you DO know about the problem, you can almost always find some useful way to react to it. And so another part of me, the rational part that wants to live in the real world, would want to know it as soon as possible.
That’s pretty much what’s been on my mind over the past 20 years or so, as I’ve thought about the state of the world, and we humans in it.
My first lesson in environmental thinking came from a big field — Matthews Pasture — right next to my house in Houston, Texas, in about 1970. It was a 50-acre tract of land with meadow, trees and horses, all fenced in and surrounded by subdivisions.
My senior year in high school, the bulldozers showed up and the place was soon filled with streets and houses. The image of it nagged at me: One year untrammeled wildland (as much as a horse pasture gets, anyway), the next year houses — which I knew would be there pretty much forever. I could see the generalized lesson applied all over the world: Wild habitat turns into human resources, but human resources never turn back into habitat. I had to ask myself an uncomfortable question: “Given a finite world, what does that mean … eventually?”
In light of that, everytime I read a triumphant story about somebody recycling, or converting their car to run on restaurant grease, or finding ways to cut back on energy consumption, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical.
I just read a story in the local paper about a guy who set himself the experiment of cutting his gas and energy consumption in half for 30 days. His story was breezy and optimistic, and I’m sure plenty of people felt hopeful and uplifted after reading it.
There was nothing wrong with what he did, but I keep seeing Matthews Pasture and thinking there’s some large element of untruthfulness in his and everybody else’s grinning approach to the problem before us. The doctor never quite tells us the blunt truth.
In Ted Kennedy’s case, the problem came out into the open immediately, with the list of possible solutions right on its heels — radical solutions, but the only ones available.
It occurred to me years ago that the very phrase “environmental problem” was a bit of a lie. There are no environmental problems, really.
If you come across a dead stream, polluted by toxic wastes, that’s not an environmental problem, it’s a human problem, human caused and, perhaps, human solvable. Humans actually took some action to make it happen, and only humans can stop or reverse those actions. Certainly “environmental problems” have severe impacts on the environment, but those impacts — and the impacts they in turn have on us — aren’t the environment’s fault.
Likewise for the phrase “petroleum shortage.” There is no shortage of petroleum. There’s lots and lots of petroleum, and there always has been. There is no shortage of natural gas, or redwood, or big tasty lobsters in the oceans, or anything you might name which has become difficult or pricey to get in recent years.
There are enough wealth and resources in the world that we humans could live like kings, indefinitely into the future … except for the fact that there are too many of us consuming them.
That sounds stupidly simple, doesn’t it? And yet we almost never hear anyone actually recognize it and say it out loud.
Not enough lobsters is really too many people. Not enough timber is really too many people. Not enough oil is really too many people.
I applaud this guy for his experiment in conservation, and all those people who recycle plastic and aluminum and such. And yet I feel all of that is the equivalent of us, the human race, denying we have cancer.
One recent denier – Thomas Sowell, I seem to recall – wrote that every human on earth could live within the borders of the state of Texas, with space for a house and yard for each. It was a slick argument, the type of thing that would go right into legions of unwary heads and find purchase there.
But it was also about the dumbest thing I’d ever seen an otherwise-intelligent man write. Because when you add in all the farms needed to grow food for those people, when you add the stores to buy stuff from, the bauxite mines for aluminum, the forests for lumber, the parks and wildernesses for recreation, the oceanic fishing grounds for seafood, the electrical generation plants, the roads and rivers and railroads and electrical lines to deliver all this stuff, when you put in the schools, hospitals, factories, dairies, meat markets, cattle pastures, government buildings, churches, entertainment facilities and — on and on and on — there’s already not enough room or food on the whole planet for 6.5 billion people.
People are hungry and poor all over the world. And don’t go telling me it’s just a problem of distribution. Expanded distribution, however wonderful the result might be, will cost something. Outside of the application of a dictatorial level of government force, the majority of us aren’t willing to pay that cost.
In the end, every manufactured thing you see around you, and every bit of food, is extracted from the planet. We almost literally EAT the earth to live as we do.
And there are just too many of us for there to be enough earth to feed us all.
There is a solution. It’s a radical one, but it’s the only one available: fewer people. Radically reduced birth rates, everywhere. And yet is that going to happen? Given the fact that anyone who brings up the subject instantly gets accused of genocidal impulses and hatred of humanity, it doesn’t look good.
But every scrap of energy you and I might save by conservation, even in a month of it, will be used up — a million times over — by the needs of the more than 10 million people who will be born during that month. We might convince ourselves we’ve done something worthwhile, but we’re really only putting off dealing with the true problem.
And unless we do, right now, things will change drastically, nastily, within your lifetime. For rich and poor alike.
It’s already happening.