Today is Blog Action Day, an annual event whereby bloggers around the world are encouraged to write about a single topic. 2009’s choice is climate change.
I want to write something about the topic, particularly since this is a topic I feel passionately about. I believe we have a responsibility to, as best as we can, leave the world in a better place than we found it. Stewardship of the natural environment is a major part of this. Anthropogenic climate change threatens to transform the natural environment in ways that man never has through history before. Additionally, it brings great threats to our economic system and our social fabric – millions of citizens could be uprooted, industries dependent on the land could be devastated if the worse case predicted scenarios come to be.
I spend a lot of time thinking about why sustainability and the environment, despite polling high as an important issue to citizens, hasn’t seemed to spur a major shift in people’s behaviour. Some of it is practical – our society is geared towards consumption and fossil fuel use, and alternatives can be hard to access. Some of it is social – sustainable lifestyles, particularly in terms of transportation, haven’t been normalized in most of the world. And to be fair, the smug self-righteousness that some transit/cycling advocates approach their cause with is off-putting to some people (as much as I support public transit and cycling, I recognize some advocates are as obnoxious as the worst neo-conservatives in pushing their agenda). Some of it is the lack of imminence – global warming doesn’t just happen overnight, making the threat seem abstract. Some of it, I believe, is also the scope of the issue. If it seems so large, so impossible to tackle, why even try? The fatalistic reaction, I fear, is going to become more common.
I think there’s also a larger dynamic at play. Our world is in transition, even putting aside global warming. We are transitioning to what I will call the era of post-modernism.
You’ve probably heard the term postmodernism before, likely applied to the arts. Wikipedia runs down all the various definitions and uses, most of which figure as a reaction to modernism (from the late 19th century on).
I think you can apply the general principles of modernism and post-modernism to society, at least as far as the west goes.
For most of history, humanity faced significant limits. Technology and social norms and systems limited our capacity to communicate, to migrate, to prosper. Beginning with the Enlightenment period and accelerating with the Industrial Revolution, these traditional barriers began to break down. The printing press and eventually radio and television altered the way we communicate. The discovery and settlement of the new world discovered new resources and opened up a continuing stream of land (at the expense of indigenous peoples), to settlers. Old feudal and hierarchical systems began to reform or break down; that, combined with technological innovation, allowed people to achieve greater prosperity. We kept innovating, using up land and resources, and prospering. Run out of space? Why, there’s a new suburb being built just down the road. Oilfields run dry? Head west to the vast untapped terrain.
The modern world, for all intensive purposes, has been an age of abundance. There was always more land, more natural resources, more consumer products.
So if the modern world is an age of abundance, what is the post-modern world? Is it a world of scarcity? Not necessarily. It is, however, a world of limits. We must recognize that we can’t continue to grow and consume without regard for the resources we are consuming.
Fundamentally, post-modernism will be about doing more with less. It’s about responsibility – the responsible stewardship of natural resources and land, the responsible use of public resources.
Certainly, technology has a role to play, whether it’s in creating and making practical the use of renewable and clean energy sources, and in finding new ways to reduce emissions. But there are no magic technological fixes on the horizon at the moment, and hoping for a deus ex machina ending to our predicament is foolish at best, ignorant at worst.
Until such time as technology catches up to our demand, we may have to make sacrifices, doing without at times or doing with less. This is the last thing that people want to hear, but as Jimmy Carter said, “a policy which does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy.” In any case, the sooner we start to stress stewardship, not consumption, the less likely it is we will have to make major sacrifices. Smart use now increases the likelihood of continued use later.
This ties into another paradigm – modernism often stressed the individual. Post-modernism may have to stress the needs of the community – we see signs of this already through things like the Me to We movement. People seek out community and connections, and the presence of these can have powerful effects on one’s motives and beliefs.
I have a lot of optimism in the future, and in mankind’s ability to overcome problems. A necessary precondition, though, is understanding the circumstances and challenges we face. The dynamics of the past few centuries are on their way out; embracing a new paradigm to face new challenges is the first step to success. Responsible stewardship, coupled with continued innovation, can ensure that the post-modern era is more prosperous than the modern one.
Are we up to it? I think so.