What I’m Afraid Of

Some people – if they’re paying attention – are afraid of environmental catastrophes that will cause societal collapse. Giant storms, coastal flooding, famines, crushing energy shortages.

I fear something like the opposite: That society will simply keep going past the point where it’s possible to save anything of the long-term viability, not to mention the beauty, of nature.

Yet in darker imaginings, the latter outcomes seem much more likely. The oceans as we know them die from a combination of warming, toxins and the acidic effects of absorbing ever-greater quantities of carbon dioxide? This looks more of a certainty by the day. But we won’t respond by changing our ways, and trying to become sustainable.

Instead, we’ll respond as we always have (“always” here meaning “for the past century or so”): By finding and burning more fossil fuels to make up the deficits our insatiable appetitites create in nature.

No protein from the sea because of our industry and our industrial agriculture? We’ll make up the difference with more protein on the land, by dedicating even more (if possible) cropland to animal feed, already one of the biggest causes of deforestation, high grain prices, water pollution and carbon emissions.

At that point, what’ll there be to lose? No polar bears. No coral reefs. No tundra, no boreal forest. Just double down.

Oil’s gone? Switch to methane (also known as “natural gas”) blown from ever deeper inside the earth with ever-bigger quantities of water and chemicals. So it adds to the greenhouse-gas burden? What have we got to lose?

More coal from shattered mountains? No other animal species could live on that land, or in the warmer and warmer streams we dump the rubble into anyhow. Bombs away. What have we got to lost?

If it happens this way, it’ll be because of cultural inertia. We’ve never been able to accept less – want less, use less. We can imagine only “more.” And it’ll be because as long as they last, there’ll always be money in mining fossil fuels – but never any money in not using them, in letting them lie.

And by the time we finally decide to change our minds, there won’t be much left to save.

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