Here’s a puzzle: No one would profess to want to harm the environment, yet environmental harm continues apace.

Indeed, even as our avowals of greenness grow stronger and more frequent — even in automobile commercials! — destruction picks up steam. Carbon-dioxide emissions are still rising, the oceans still being fished out. And every monied force in the country seems bent on extracting the last molecules of coal, petroleum and natural gas from the earth, regardless of the damage.

The solution to the puzzle is this: While we want to save the earth, we don’t want it enough.
In other words, we depend utterly on the continued and predictable functioning of the natural world as we’ve known it since the dawn of agriculture – climatologically, hydrologically, etc. But opinion polls consistently show that “the environment” ranks pretty low on people’s list of priorities, somewhere behind jobs and price of gas.

For most people, the environment probably places ahead of what’s on cable tonight, but I wouldn’t be on it.
I don’t know whether this is a failure of education or one of will.

Maybe it’s just a failure of love.

Part of us, after all, knows that our consumption-based lifestyle – the one we’re told the billions in the developing world aspire to – is completely dependent on cheap supplies of a nonrenewable energy source. And part of us knows we can’t keep burning fossil fuels at the rate we’ve been and expect everything to turn out OK.

But that same part of us also knows that to prevent bad things from happening environmentally, we must do things a lot differently.
I’m among those who argue that a world with many fewer cars, with much less air travel, with locally based economies no longer dependent on extractive industries and industrial-scale agriculture – no longer dependent on Americans buying new shoes month, or more Chinese people buying GM sedans – would be a cleaner, healthier, saner world.

But most people see such change only in terms of losing what they value: comfort, speed, convenience, material affluence.

Whether these things are worth having, or even whether we’d actually lose them all, is beside the point. The point is, we won’t act to make a different world because we don’t want to surrender the one we’re in.

We love our cars more than the polar bears who’ll never survive climate change. We love cheap fish more than we love collapsing ocean ecosystems (which might cost us the fish anyway). We love cellphones and iPods more than the jungles and other ecosystems that are devastated by the mining for the rare-earth minerals used to make such gadgets.

There is more to this, of course, than what everyday people want. It’s also about what they’re told to want, and about the corporations who stand to lose if people want something different, and who work to keep things pretty much the way they are.

But in any case, change can’t be imposed on people who don’t want to change. And we’ll change only if we learn to love the land, air and water more than we love the lifestyle we wring from them now.

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