The defining issue of the early-21st century is the environment. Widespread awareness of humanity's climate and environmental issues is growing. The global adoption of Earth Hour this past Saturday is symbolic of the dawning realization that our lifestyle is increasingly damaging the planet. People are gradually developing some mindfulness towards the issues and demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice, even in a small way, to solve the problems.
For all the good of Earth Hour, though, much remains to be done. The event was only a symbol. “Turning off lights for 60 minutes isn't going to stop the Antarctic ice sheets melting, stop thousands of Pacific Islanders losing their homes from rising sea levels or stop the Earth's temperature rising one jot.” Many didn't participate. In general, the paramount importance of climate change and other environmental issues remains understated and unappreciated in broader society. This is not accidental.
Using ethically-questionable tactics akin to those derived by the tobacco lobby, huge amounts of resources are dedicated to obfuscating the issues at hand ultimately creating confusion, delay and apathy towards the issues. Creating a desire to wait until some later time to act is a risky tactic. The motivations for such behaviour are unclear to me; I would guess extreme self-interest, a rigid ideology and/or a profit uber alles worldview. But missing from this paradigm is the awareness that we are all in this together. Money may buy a temporary refuge, but we all need the ecosystem to survive.
Unfortunately, these tactics are having an effect. The desire for delay is working. But time is running short for society to act. The window to affect positive environmental change is closing. Failure to decisively act within the next 5-10 years likely guarantees radical (irreversible) alterations to the natural environment. Indeed, such changes are already beginning to be observed – The canaries are dying, one by one. But it is apparently not enough to create the critical mass required to tackle the issues
So what will bring about the shift in worldview required to tackle this 21st century challenge? It will likely require some an event of phenomenal magnitude -- a Cataclysm – to galvanize the world into unified action. A event so large that any lingering doubts of the environmental perils we face will be obliterated.
Sadly, I suspect that we will see such an event in the coming years. The exact form remains unknown and, in fact the Cataclysm will probably be something we didn't see coming at all. The tragedy is that this is the alarm needed to shake the complacency of society. There will still be doubters after the event, just as there are still people today who believe in creationism and that the earth is flat. But we won't listen anymore; the lies and distortions will no longer have any sway. We can only hope that it is not too late for meaningful action.
A full understanding of the environment-at-large is still a way off. The feedbacks and interactions between the different spheres are subtle and difficult to discern. But we know enough to get a general idea of what will likely happen. And research from both the arts and sciences demonstrate that the outcome is likely to be bad. The consequences of our actions are potentially enormous. If we don't want to pay the price, then the best course for humanity is prompt action to stabilize anthropogenic climate change, stop polluting, reduce the population and adopt a 'bright green' lifestyle. Proaction, not the more-typical reaction, is a more sensible course to follow. But it won't come unless we demand it of ourselves and our leaders.
Image: NASA Visible Earth
Composite satellite image of 5 Atlantic TCs in 2005. Image via EurekAlert!