Sunday, June 24, 2012

Consequence Free Living

It must be so nice to live without considering any long-term consequences. To make decisions based purely on the here and now, without worrying about your long-term future, or that of future generations. When it comes to many modern conservative governments and the voters that support them, that is the way I think they must feel given their complete disregard for the reality of the environment they live in.

Most species live this way. Most species do not plan ahead to ensure that there are enough resources left for the long-term future. Most species, in fact, aren't even aware that we live in an ecosystem that needs some balance. We humans are unique in that knowledge, but we don't seem very good at applying that knowledge. Biological organisms require an ecosystem. Whether we are talking about the bacteria that live in your gut, penguins in the antarctic, or humans, all life requires an ecosystem which provides the resources upon which that life survives. There is simply no question that humans need water, oxygen, and food for survival, and we also require those things to be relatively clean (i.e. free of heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, high levels of acidity, or other pollutants) in order to have a long, healthy life. That is not in question. What some people have a hard time understanding is that our actions as a species have profound effects on the cleanliness of food, air, and water. When you shrink down your environment small enough, everyone is an environmentalist. Within the confines of their own home, everyone understands the need to keep sewage and drinking water separate, to not run their car exhaust into their bedroom, etc. Yet, for some reason, when we expand that environment to a global scale, many people seem to think that something magical happens: the earth just deals with all our pollutants and they somehow disappear. They don't.

There are consequences to all human activity, especially on the massive industrial scale that we have been engaged in for the past couple hundred years. We are slowly starting to see the effects of these consequences. In the past few decades, "environmentalism" (really just a term to denote the expansion of everyone's understanding of their local environment to a global one) has become an important issue. But, we have genearlly ploughed ahead with almost no concern. Success stories when it comes to preventing environmental destruction are few and far between (e.g. the reduction of ozone-depleting substances in aerosol accelerants). For the most part, we have simply accelerated pollution, carbon emmisions, water contamination, and industrial farming in the past 30 years. This is not consequence free by any means. And yet, many modern governments (and particularly the ones that claim to be conservative) seem to think that our actions are consequence free.

I have read that the estimated global costs of environmental destruction are approximately $50 - $60 trillion annually. This is roughly equal to the entire world's annual GDP. Another way of putting this is that, we are only paying roughly half the cost for everything we do and everything we buy. You might think gas prices are high right now, but the true cost is actually double whatever you pay at the pump. If you go to the movies and pay $30 for a night out, you would actually be paying $60 if the system was set up so as to have no long-term consequence on the environment. Lately, much has been made of carbon taxes and the like. Conservative voters seem to invariably protest them as a leftist sneaky way of socialism, or a United Nations conspiracy to grab even more money for no reason. The reality is, if there were a carbon tax of 5% on everything you buy, we would still be 95% short on the actual amount required to ensure long-term sustainabilty for future generations.

The real dire picture comes when you look at the cumulative effects. If we doubled the price of everything (which in itself would grind the economy to a halt having catstrophic results), we would only be making the change required for one year. We would not even begin to be chipping away at the environmental debt that we've accumulated over the past 200 years. If you're an American and you feel that your country will never be able to balance the budget, let alone pay off the federal debt (and you are probably right on this), then that is absolutely minor in comparison to the long-term issue of environmental debt. To put it bluntly, our grandparents and parents have lived cheap on our future. They have mortgaged the environment, our necessary ecosystem, so that they could have cheap cars, gas, clothing, and food in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and so on. And, we're doing so on an even more massive scale today.

I look at children and I always feel that they should inherit a neutral earth that they can make their own opportunities with. Not an earth in which drinking water is scarce, air pollution is rampant, and food is generally carcinogenic. I will never understand how so many people seem to think those consequences are non-existent. It must be nice living without that burden. Just worrying about when you can buy that next huge-ass screen TV, without worrying about how the half-price discount you paid was an act of direct theft perpetrated against your grandchildren.

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