That question has been reduced by science to maybe just three rational possibilities, none consistent with any of the popular religious faiths:
- Extinction of our own making
- Extinction by a celestial accident, such as that befalling the dinosaurs
- Survival of our own making for an uncertain period of time, but extending far beyond that projected for us by climate change
Our survival hinges, of course, on far more than solving climate change. It calls for a plan that puts care of the earth first, and the care and comfort of ourselves second. It must be executed faithfully. That would be a faith I could keep with every breath.
But our existence continues to run largely, relentlessly in the other direction, pulled by forces of our own making. Three are easily strong enough to sink us; in fact, any one of the three might do it alone, if untamed. One is the absence of population control. Closely related to it is poverty. The third is unharnessed and reckless wealth.
The latter takes many forms. It might be the least relentless of the three in the short run, but it’s also the least excusable. The guilty should all know better. It is powered by various combinations of conceit, ignorance, arrogance and greed.
First and foremost, those of us who live well in today’s world live too well, for the good of the planet. The instinct that has been labelled the territorial imperative plays a large roll. We draw mixed pride, comfort and security from real estate. Our home may fit a very small plot – but it’s ours! For most Americans and our families, it’s part of our identity. And, most of the time, much bigger than our conscious mind recognizes. We can’t seem to get away from the old saw: a home is our castle. Our appetites form its moat.
So, the first solution is up to us who live well, to live less abundantly. That doesn’t have to mean living less well. It means living better by living smarter and simpler. With a sustained, conscious effort, it could and can be done. It must be done, if we’re going to beat pollution, waste, and climate change. A wealthy businessman whose mind I’ve learned to admire said to me in the 1990s that the biggest challenge facing the business world in the 21st century would be waste management. When will corporate America and the multinationals see it? My view is that they have less than this century —much less — to grasp it, and meet it aggressively.
In the meantime, the rest of us have a pressing responsibility to live more wisely, ever more conscious of acts that weaken the environment and the earth. Let me start by acknowledging my own hypocrisy and my failure to put the earth first. As an octogenarian I’m too old to move again, to shrink the territorial claim, but I am determined within the year to reduce us to one car. I remember the big dream when WWII ended, “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” One car! Can you think of one stroke that would do more to correct climate change than cutting gasoline consumption by half? It might do wonders for the health of the earth, as well as our own. Only the very lame would not benefit from riding bicycles and walking more. It’s by discipline and exertion that we earn our liberty. Better choices come the same way. Without them, extinction can’t be far away.
Frank Mensel — March 2014