Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

After spending three days last week at the Aspen Environment Forum, it is clear that we humans are just muddling along with our treatment of the Earth. Only in recent times have we begun to even recognize the Earth as an organism that supports human life.

Today, there is nothing more challenging – or urgent – than aggregating thousands of solutions to the biggest challenge to date: climate change. When one presenter reported that climate change is deemed a “soft issue” in Washington, D.C., he underscored the disconnect between political leadership and a serious global reality.

At the Forum, a leader from Bangladesh said that if sea levels rise 1 meter, as predicted under climate forecasts, his country will lose 20 percent of its coastal areas. This will displace up to 40 million “climate refugees” who will push into India, destabilizing that part of the world and initiating the greatest human migration in history.

That’s a worst-case scenario, but in any uncertainty like climate change, risk management demands worst-case scenarios. It’s a gloomy approach, but necessary when considering the plight of 40 million human beings. That’s why some of the brightest minds in the world are so focused on climate change.

Another presenter said that if world population grows to 9 billion, as predicted, it means adding two more Chinas to the world. Two more Chinas! That’s a staggering concept when considering future needs for food, water and energy. Humans have already cleared 40 percent of the earth for agriculture. We have dammed countless river systems. We draw down the soil, wring water from stone, and puncture the earth for fossil fuels. New on the eco-horizon is the acidification of the oceans. Sylvia Earle said last week that we have just 10 years to turn the oceans around.

One presenter asked the audience how many think their lives are better now than the lives of their grandparents. Most of the audience raised their hands. When asked how many think their grandchildren’s lives will be better than theirs, only one hand went up – a man scratching his head in astonishment.

A welcome counterpoint at the Forum is given in beautiful personal stories of hope, inspiration, ambition and know-how. These testimonials come from people who give their lives to stave off environmental degradation. They aren’t enviro-celebrities like Bruce Babbitt or Kevin Costner, both of whom spoke passionately at the Forum, but rather people who fly far beneath the radar, and often on their own.

One such man is T.H. Culhane, an urban planner who, 10 years ago, moved to Cairo and, with his wife, lived in a slum for three years so that he could introduce alternative energy to people he regards as ennobled by their struggle in poverty. Here he discovered the age-old practice of recycling as these people successfully “farm the city” for what they need.

“We have entered the Anthropocene,” stated a geologist who said the sooner we acknowledge that Earth is being human-altered in the geologic sense, the sooner we can address the impacts of human agency. But how is this done when millions of Americans – the world’s biggest consumers – still don’t believe in evolution, when “Fox Christians” denounce climate change as a hoax, when the Congress is made dysfunctional by party divisions and corporate payoffs, when the world has holistic problems and leading universities divide their studies into departments?

Many at the Forum agreed that Washington is incapable of acting on climate change. Changing government should come first, were it not for apathetic, complacent, uninformed voters. Ours is a culture of yes-men: Yes to advertisers. Yes to excess. Yes to conformity. Yes to lobbyists. Yes to foreign oil. Yes to the easy pleasures that bind us to the status quo.

Perhaps the casual, informal connections made among participants were the most important measure of the Enviro Forum as e-mails were exchanged and Facebooks shared. Activists met with entrepreneurs who met with scientists who met with naturalists who met with writers who met with teachers who met with activists.

The collective intelligence, this cross-fertilization of creative, thinking, motivated people, is the prime mover for human progress. The Enviro Forum provides a vital, engaging venue for smart people who truly care about leaving the Earth a better place, even when bumping against the roadblocks of inertia in the cultural stasis of America.

“We need to redefine the human purpose on Earth,” urged an Episcopal priest. “We must go from self-willed to stewardship.” Only then, perhaps, can we give up our muddling ways and, by dint of will through a collective morality, reacquaint ourselves with the Garden of Eden.