For decades we treated the natural world like both an endless cornucopia and an open sewer. Now we’re finding out what the consequences are, and people are surprised?
Right now, wildfires are burning in California, Oregon, and Washington. In Manitoba and Ontario. In Siberia. Sardinia. Spain. Turkey. Greece. Italy. Lebanon. Finland. More heat domes, trapped high pressure zones, are bringing deadly triple-digit temperatures to Europe and the United States, and are expected to get worse. Record rainfall flooded Europe last month. There’s an extreme heat wave in India. Greenland’s ice is melting at an alarming rate. Rivers and wells are drying up in the American West, killing fish and crops, forcing people to beg or steal water or give up and move. If it sounds alarming, that’s because it is. For decades, we’ve fucked around, despite being warned about the consequences if we stayed on this path. Now it’s too late, and we’re finding out what happens.
The area between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean hasn’t always been the giant vegetable farm and cattle ranch that it is today. There are swaths of desert and generally arid landmass there. People greened it with water from aquifers and mountain streams lush with snowmelt. Feed enough people who demand cars, SUVs nearly the size of tanks, dirt cheap manufactured goods and world travel, and the snow falters. Do it long enough and the water, however prodigious, eventually runs out. Westerners finding out that their wells are dry and may never come back, however, seem so surprised that it’s really happening.
“This is something that you don’t really think of having to deal with in a country like ours,” said Klamath County (Oregon) Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris, as quoted by the Associated Press. “It’s unimaginable to me even though it’s going on right in my community.”
Justin Grant, an Oregon farmer whose well ran dry and who cannot irrigate with river water, also sounds flummoxed. “I’m trying to wrap my head around how to get through the season,” he told the AP. “You hear the word ‘unprecedented’ so many times that it loses its impact, but really, this is not normal,” said Roger Smith, a retired Oregonian whose well also dried up.
If only we’d been warned that blowing through our natural resources would lead to disaster! But wait, we were. Over and over. For decades.
Amplifying a 1972 study from MIT which showed that the overexploitation of critical resources and increasing population put the world on track for disaster in the 21st century, the Club of Rome published the first of several warnings for a world that was poised to blow past critical tipping points nearly fifty years ago. The news was greeted by jeers and mockery by the same kind of people who now call COVID-19 a hoax (and the wealthy people who sponsor them), but now we’re finding out just how right they were.
This summer, Gaya Herrington, a Club of Rome advisor, dusted off the old Limits to Growth models to see how they stood the test of time. Pretty well, it turns out. Not all the models they used predicted a disastrous outcome, but the last half-century has generally followed a path between the “Business as Usual” timeline in the MIT study (one that assumes we make no lifestyle changes to accommodate natural limits) and others that assume we progress technologically (at great cost) and gain access to more resources, but create a pollution-based predicament instead. Either way, we’re proceeding apace towards the kind of ecological decline and social collapse that will dramatically lower our quality of life for a good long time.
Since we’re finding out just how badly we’ve screwed the pooch, maybe it would make sense to pay more attention to scientists and less to people whose vast fortunes depend upon us continuing to consume and pollute like there’s no tomorrow. So what are they saying these days?
It’s grim. Really, really grim.
Last week, a paper by researchers from Oregon State University, signed by 14,000 scientists from around the world, warned of “untold suffering” if we don’t wake up and smell the burning coffee. Yes, it’s bad now, but it can still get a whole lot worse. No matter what, we’ve still got baked-in disasters coming from carbon emitted years ago, because these things don’t stop on a dime. We’ll be finding out for years what the pursuit of industrial output and growing riches has done, not only to the atmosphere, but also to biodiversity, groundwater depletion, ocean acidification, the nitrogen cycle, and even our ability to keep growing the crops we need to feed ourselves.
The ongoing global pandemic gave us an idea of how much we can accomplish if we take a situation seriously enough to change the world around it. It also reminded us to expect mockery, political polarization, denial, conspiracy theories, obstinate resistance, and straight up violence from people whose aim is to stand in the way of the rest of us trying to do the right thing. In the years to come, we will have to make serious changes in the way we live, not to avoid the damage done while we were in the “fucking around” phase, but simply to adapt to the changes we and our ancestors set in motion. Will the haters stand in the way, still?
There will still be people who are surprised and confused when they face the consequences of their actions, despite having been warned, and despite having seen 2020 and 2021 unfold around them, just like the people who loudly proclaimed that COVID-19 was a hoax and who refused to wear a mask or get vaccinated, and then find themselves on a ventilator or in a pine box. We will have to find a way over, under, around, or through the people stopping the rest of us from doing the good work of mitigation and adaptation to a changing world. So far we’ve been reasonable, pursuing “market based solutions,” “bipartisan legislation” and blaming individual consumers instead of dismantling the systems that force us to choose among all bad options. How long can we sustain this kind of patience with trolls?
Maybe the next few years will be about finding out.
Related: Is the Heat Dome Newsworthy or Not?
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