One Big Crisis
Alex Steffen says solving our current planetary crisis could lead to an unimaginably good future. Here's how we get there.as told to GOODWe are at a moment unique in human history, when we are using the planet's bio-capacity so quickly that we risk a catastrophic collision with ecological reality. Every creature and every biological system on Earth is now dependent, intentionally or unintentionally, on our management. We've never been in the position of managing the planet before and we have no idea how to do it.It's really serious. What's at stake here is not just the ability of civilization to function in a way that we have come to take for granted, but possibly even the survival of human beings. And, unfortunately, the causes of the crisis are complex and everyone on Earth is involved. There's a tendency for people to think that there's an environmental crisis and a poverty crisis and a war and terrorism crisis, and so forth. But in reality they're all the same big crisis. Right now we are coming to realize the magnitude of that big crisis.
We need people who change their thinking and not just their light bulbs.The future toward which we are moving quickly is unthinkably bad. However, the kinds of things we need to do to solve these problems could lead to a future that is unimaginably good.In 2009, we're going to have what may well be the most important international summit of our lifetimes: the Cop15, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen, where we will decide what the successor to the Kyoto treaty will be. It is the last opportunity we're going to have as a species to decide the degree to which we're going to tackle climate change before it's too late. And the United States will play a critical role, because we've been the ones holding up progress.In the last ?ve years the politically expedient form of environmental activism became privatizing responsibility, encouraging us to think that the future of the planet depends on us making small choices in our daily lives: recycling, buying organic shampoo, whatever. But most of the damage that we cause in our lives is caused by big systems we have very little control over as isolated individuals. We have this idea that changing the world ought to be reducible to simple steps, but it just doesn't work that way; this isn't that kind of a world. Even if we all followed every last eco-tip and simple step, we'd still be hurtling towards catastrophe.If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to not just do fewer bad things: we need to do different things altogether. We need to reinvent the way our whole society works. We need bright green upgrades to our cities, our energy systems, industrial design and technology, farming and forestry-everything. It all needs to change, essentially immediately. That will take millions of people transforming their lives to pursue new solutions, to become more effective and innovative citizens, business people, investors, community leaders, and so on. We need people to actually step up and do big things. We need people who change their thinking and not just their light bulbs.I don't think that we have ever experienced, at least in American history, a transformation of political opinion like the one we've seen in the past several years on the environment and climate. Young people understand that the world we're talking about is the world they're going to raise their kids in, that this isn't a distant reality, that the ice caps are melting now. While that gives me hope, the gap of understanding between those people and the 70-year-olds who are in the U.S. Senate is staggering. It's a generation gap that makes everything the boomers talked about in the 1960s look like a disagreement at a tea party.I really think that the biggest political difference on the planet right now is what time frame you define moral responsibility in. Most politics is really all about hoping the good times last until the rich old people die. There's even a denial that we can do anything about the problems. It's all about delay, fake debates, and encouraging cynicism, inducing apathy.But there's another political force growing fast, and that's the politics of optimism. It's a politics that says transformation is not just a duty, it's an amazing opportunity. We might, instead of doing nothing and leaving our kids a ruined planet, decide to build them an awesome future and spend the rest of our lives enjoying it. That's the choice we wake up to every day now: cynicism or change.
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