Monday, May 23, 2011

My Thoughts About Nature and the Future, As Told By Someone Else

I just finished Brett Walker's excellent Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental history, pollution, and the intersection of nation and industry. I also want to present the second-to-last chapter in Walker's book because this better sums up my thoughts about the future than any single paragraph I've read.

Let me end on a hopeful note. No, I do not think that we, as a species, can remedy these problems immediately, perhaps not at all. No, I do not think that industrialized nations will adopt economic systems that adequately measure the social and environmental costs of capitalism. No, I do not think that Earth's carrying capacity can be doubled, let alone tripled, even with better forms of scientific agriculture. Who would want to live there anyway? No, I do not think that we will reverse global warming, nor do I think that we will find new, cleaner technologies that will allow industrialized nations to continue their wild consumer habits. No, I do not think that large carnivores such as tigers can be saved; neither can wolves. Majestic species such as these require naturally occurring space in which to hunt, roar and howl, and raise their young, which is disappearing from what David Quammen has called our "planet of weeds." Tigers and wolves are the "shy creatures that can't tolerate edges," but edges are all we will have left on engineered Earth: the edges between one engineered system and another. What will be left are black rats and house sparrows, those creatures that "play by our rules." This is a grim future, but I do think that, as we experience our environmental collapse, we will witness moments of sublime beauty, which gives me some consolation."

I can't disagree with much here. It's possible that wolves will survive to some extent, but not tigers. They are doomed, as are polar bears, emperor penguins, and so many other species. And I don't know that even I can call this a hopeful note. But it's about as hopeful as I can be--that as the world transforms around us, as it is doing right now with record droughts, floods, and tornadoes all happening at the same time, we humans can do and see wonderful things in our humanness. That's about as good as I can do.