Yesterday Salon magazine ran a piece by Mike Davis about the end of the Holocene and how this abrupt departure from the climate stability we’ve known for the past 10-11,000 years means that global agriculture is doomed and the planet is going to start starving to death in the next hundred years or so. My friend Joel sends articles daily that underline this – articles about dwindling resources, how cassava may be the food to get us through the coming period of food scarcity, and his perspectives on how the only thing that can save us from mass die-off is technology, technology and more technology. On the other hand are the corporations using ecological fear-mongering to sell more and more consumer products (environmentally friendly bottled water by nestle anyone?) with governments using tax incentives to back them up (trade in your old car for a new hybrid and get cash back immediately!) in a short-sighted attempt to prop up the failing economies of the “first world”.
Not only do I find all of this overwhelming and crazy-making – but for the first time in my life I’ve started to actively avoid articles and discussion about potential apocalypse. I know – me – rabid activist and ecological dogmatist disengaging from the debate about where we go from here? After decades of having the ecological crisis ignored shouldn’t we be happy that at least the alarm is finally being sounded so we can make changes? Hm. Personally, I would rather just get on with my life in a productive and positive way without being harped at constantly about things I can’t change anyways.
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First of all, although the Mike Davis article clearly puts the ending of the holocene at the feet of humanity (climate change after all is entirely our fault according to many), after years of environmental readings and discussions I am not really convinced about this. The climate is definitely changing as can be seen in the altered migratory patterns of animals and the increasingly erratic weather patterns (I caution here about using weather as an indicator of climate as it is not) – and I do believe that human activites probably have some impact – but I do not believe that we are the sole cause. Remember that what marks the Holocene is an “unusual” 10,000 year period of climate stability that allowed for the development of agriculture – 10,000 years ain’t much in the history of this planet (4.6 billion years people) and it’s impossible to gauge how long the holocene “should” have lasted if no humans were in existence. Remember, lots of things (including asteroids and meteorites, volcanoes, unchecked fires, large earthquakes, etc) can trigger mass extinctions and climactic shifts – and though I suppose predictive models exist – I’m not any more convinced at those coming from the fear-mongers than I am by those who refuse to acknowledge climate change entirely. I really don’t bother with articles like the Davis piece much anymore because I can’t detect their use value between fearmongering and guilt induction – inappropriate motivators particularly in the absence of positive actions with which to move forward.
And so we have advertising bordering on the ridiculous. Witness this latest nonsense from Nestle with their new “eco-bottle” containing a smaller label and 30% less plastic. Never mind that they are still marketing a product in North America that is entirely unnecessary (remember water fountains? Notice how those are all but gone from public space and office buildings now? That’s a result of people turning away from municipal water and towards bottled water. And it’s a crying shame.) There are tax incentives available for ditching your car, no matter the age or fuel-economy, and purchasing a new hybrid machine. And earlier this year we witnessed the craziness that was people taking all their lightbulbs out of their homes to replace them with more eco-friendly versions (rather than replacing them as they wore out). This list of ecological consumer madness could go on and on – my point being that none of this really helps the environment. The companies still pollute like crazy, their products are not designed to last for any length of time necessitating continued purchasing into the future, and the amount of energy used to make a new product far outweighs any energy savings you as a consumer may rack up. And don’t even get me started on the corporate scam that is carbon-credit purchasing. You really expect me to believe that giving $50 or $100 to a private corporation to plant trees is going to help save the ecosphere? Much better that money go into a non-profit green rooves initative, or electing a progressive municipal government that believes in re-wilding parks (native plants in BC making for amazing heat sinks in innner cities which is a much better strategy than contributing towards planting in tree farm number 47).
To recap – fearmongering and guilt make us sitting ducks for advertising that preys on consumer fear, thus encouraging corporations to continue polluting and producing. Rather than devising political, non-profit strategies for reducing greenhouse gas production (like better public transit, green roofs, and real investment in parks over increased development) we are bullied into believing that our purchase of a hybrid vehicle is all we can do. If you care about the toll that driving takes? Fuck a new car – get on the bus or walk or cycle. Don’t like the amount of plastic in one bottled water over another? Take your own damned bottle. Really. It’s stupid to think we can buy our way out of this mess and it’s in a corporation’s interest to keep promoting that idea.
At the end of the day I’m not sure how much it matters that I walk to work or use a reusable coffee cup though of course if a whole city did that we would notice real improvements in air quality and a huge reduction in daily waste. But that’s not why I do it (or why I carry my own chopsticks, keep a stash of metal cutlery and dishes in my desk, or compost my organic matter in the backyard). Nor am I motivated by the fact the world might (or might not) be ending, or the fact someone’s grandchildren will inherit this mess. I do these things because they make sense to me as a person who wants to live a healthy and community-centered life. Because to walk or take the bus to work reduces my stress (driving and parking downtown being some kindof nightmare I can’t imagine taking on every day). Because I hate eating with plastic cutlery out of styrofoam when I get carry-out at lunchtime. Because compost makes for great fertilizer for my summer lettuces and radishes. I minimize waste in my home because not having to take the garbage out is one less task for me. I use biodegradable dish soap to clean my bathtub because I don’t have to rinse it as much before I know it’s safe to bathe in. In fact there are many instances where living a simpler and ecologically cleaner life is easier and more enjoyable than their consumer alternatives (not to mention cheaper).
Is the world ending? I’m not sure there’s much I can do about that. But I can be a good worker, lover, friend, stepmother, writer, artist, and community-builder. Feelings of guilt, shame, and fear, however, are counter-productive and hamper the me who wants to be positive and productive. It’s that angsting about what can’t be changed (or worse, buying into useless strategies benefitting corporations) is a waste of time. On the other hand, living cleanly, and enjoyably is a means to its own end. Which is why I’m not reading apocalypse articles these days, and I’m not going to beat myself up anymore about the end being nigh. If it is then it is. And until we govern against profit and for people there’s probably not much any of us can individually do anyways.