When I was a child in Sydney, I eagerly opened the cereal boxes looking for small colored pictures to paste into a stapled book the cereal company provided.
My favorites were the spectacular fish and corals of the Great Barrier Reef. When I eventually visited the reef in my 50s, I saw bleached coral, no color and few fish. That was 30 years ago. It’s worse now.
Back then I had no sense that the sea could change. Today we know that the oceans cannot continue absorbing heat and chemicals or survive overfishing. The growing global environmental calamity was largely created by me and the other billion or so middle-class consumers — and our ranks are swelling.
In the 1960s and ’70s, I cheered as evolving public attitudes and the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced American manufacturers to cut pollution. Predictably, they responded by exporting polluting industries. So 20 years later I blamed China, then corporations. Now I recognize that pollution comes from my consumption.
My parents had an expression for that, “like the pot calling the kettle black.” Today I understand that our culture of blaming, of deflecting attention, is as much a part of the problem as the physical pollution itself.
Since 1770 when James Watt designed the steam engine that kicked off the Industrial Revolution, lifespans doubled and global population jumped tenfold. We enjoy automobiles, antibiotics, computers, vacations and retirement. I live a longer, richer, healthier and safer life than any pre-industrial potentate.
Unfortunately, we didn’t pay enough attention to how we achieved these vast benefits. Ignoring impacts was easy for the first 200 years of accelerating industrial growth. We assumed an almost unlimited capacity of the oceans and air to handle industry’s emissions and other modern society wastes. Our planet now says, “Slow down. Keep dumping and you’ll kill your golden goose.” It’s time for us to pay attention. But how?
The answer is complicated because culture comes as whole cloth. You can’t just pull one thread (like pollution) without disrupting civilization’s fabric.
Attempts to limit carbon dioxide emissions instantly trigger reactions from all the players who benefit financially and politically from keeping things just the way they are. For manufacturers, dumping industrial waste is pure profit. When nature could no longer absorb the dumping, the cleanup costs were borne by society, by you and me.
Industry doesn’t suffer financially from forest fires, violent storms or species depletion. Quite the contrary. Social calamities are opportunities for suppliers to provide new, profitable goods and services.
But if we stay on this path, we’ll eventually go over a cliff, and we don’t know how close we are to that edge. On the face of it, the solution is obvious; change industrial processes so they are less environmentally damaging. That’s easy to say but terribly hard to do. Our culture is deeply committed to the practices that brought us climate change. How much are we really prepared to spend to modify industrial processes to reduce dumping? To make it personal, how much more am I prepared to spend for almost everything I consume, to pay the true cost for a healthier, less dangerous planet?
I’m not personally suffering, and I’ll be dead before the sea level enters my living room not far from Corte Madera Creek in Larkspur. Am I prepared to drive less or fly less, to not see my children and grandchildren so often? No, I’m not — unless everyone else is. How likely is that?
We have widely dispersed families because it is simple and cheap to visit each other. Modifying transportation (or any area) touches everything else. Reducing consumption, accepting higher prices, or moving to planet-friendly manufacturing is infinitely complex. We are only where we are because everything is the way it is. That’s our climate change dilemma.
Changing our planet-exploiting culture seems impossible, yet if we don’t, we’ll go over that cliff. Will it take a planetwide disaster, one that devastates us all, to get our attention? I look in the mirror, see the cause, and hope for a collective solution.
Barry Phegan, of Larkspur, is the author of “Developing Your Company Culture, and Conflict, Meetings, and Difficult People.”