We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this too much. Until the beginning of the last century, circumstances held much of humanity absolutely accountable on a daily basis. Untended livestock meant no meat to eat next week, unplanted fields meant no food next season, unfelled trees meant no heat next winter.
The 20th century brought us industrialization and specialization of labor. We no longer had to be immediately accountable for everything. And with that realization came a newfound sense of freedom. We could defer payment until tomorrow and still survive. Like students away from home for the very first time, the sky was the limit. It was a giddy time to be alive.
The problem is that our ability to manipulate nature and machine has grown exponentially and inversely proportional to our ability to manage our impacts. We have become way too good at ignoring the consequences of our actions. We live like today is all we have, and defer payment until whenever.
Recent events are demanding our attention. Our adolescence is over. It’s time learn how to live more sustainably.
The idea of sustainability is a relatively new concept. It was first defined in very moral terms as our ability to continue without impacting future generations. The current economic crisis, coupled with the very real threat of climate change, has many rethinking this definition. Today sustainability is perhaps more accurately described in terms of a very concrete question: Can we continue, business as usual?
The answer, most definitely, is no. Beyond the threats of economic collapse and the very real and present danger of climate change, emerges another fundamental question, “What are we leaving our children?”
At the most visceral level, our purpose is to live long enough to ensure that there is another generation. As banal as this sounds, it’s our biological imperative. It can also drive a new integrity – one that looks at how we live our lives today, and how this will translate into our children’s ability to live tomorrow.
Consider the legacy of our garbage. According to the U.S. National Parks Service, the average plastic bottle can take up to 450 years to degrade, ditto for disposable diapers. Cans will take between 50 and 100 years to break down, plastic bags at least 20. While the batteries from your flashlight will take almost 100 years to disappear, that monofilament fishing line that you bought last summer will take a whopping 600 years to degrade. Glass bottles, on the other hand, will take a million years to return to the Earth. Experts say that Styrofoam may never disappear.
And then there’s the energy that we use to make all this stuff. The carbon dioxide that we throw up in the air today by burning fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, according to researcher David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. The high level radioactive waste from our nuclear power plants will last much longer. Plutonium 242, the longest-lived by-product of nuclear fission has a radioactive half-life of 387,000 years. That’s the time it will take to be half as radioactive as it is today.
We have reached a critical juncture. There is no more deferred payment plans, we can no longer afford not to pay a cent until some future date.
The path ahead will be determined by the decisions that we make today. There is little more to do than to answer the question, “What will be our legacy?” Will we continue to ravage the planet with little regard for our lives, let alone the survival of future generations, or do we choose to live each day with integrity?
It’s really not as difficult or as daunting as it sounds. To quote that great Canadian, Tommy Douglas, “Courage my friend, it's not too late to make a better world.” The first step is to begin.
David Archer’s new book, “The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate” (2009), is published by Princeton University Press.