We are responsible
As it stands today the western way of life is a threat to millions (optimistically), or perhaps billions (pessimistically), of people, within many of our lifetimes.
This threat isn’t that we will run out of resources and approach a malthusian economy where population growth matches or surpasses economic growth. The threat is that world GDP growth will continue to track the output of greenhouse gases, that the process of globalization will bring millions out of dire poverty, and that the combination will cause massive global climate change.
The costs to Americans will be great. But all things considered, we can wreck the shit out of the planet and still be pretty darn rich. We can build dykes in New York. We can pay to desalinate water and build infrastructure to move it to newly arid areas. We can rebuild homes destroyed by tornados and hurricanes and treat those that get cholera and malaria. Some Americans might starve, but all in all we’d merely be looking at a wealthy and advanced nation with a hungry and diseased underclass. People in Bangladesh, in China, in Australia, in South Africa, etc. won’t be so lucky. A 4-8c increase in global temperatures would be a death sentence to more people than those that died in WWII, possibly all the wars in the 20th century, and we are driving right at it at 70 miles per hour.
The good news is that we have most of the technology we need to solve the problem. Elevators, trains, solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal power and more. We can get most of the way there (around 10% of our current yearly carbon output) for about what we spend on our military today and a decade’s worth of work. And although this would involve many lifestyle changes on the parts of Americans, we would still be incredibly rich and the lives of our poorest would be made much better through easier access to shared resources.
I’m not asking you to change your life. I’m asking you to take responsibility for it. Please use the incredible mind you have and imagine your grown grandchildren looking at the millions or billions dead through climate change. Even if their lives are good, they will still look at you as a monster. They will read about at all the things we wasted and imagine us all alcoholics drunk on cheap energy.
On the plus side, you got to live in an area with a cost of living that prevented poor people from going to school with your children. Or you got a big house. Or a big car. Or any of the other many things we can manufacture with cheap energy. You didn’t have to change. We didn’t have to change. We just kept doing what came naturally. Taking care of our friends, our families, our loved ones. Doing what was best for us individually.
This plan worked really well when we were hunter gatherers. It also worked pretty darn well when we started building farms. Unfortunately as human society has become more complex and our technological abilities have grown, individual actions, actions that are normal and rational for a few people, become intolerable for us as a species. Nepotism, bank runs, polluted streams and trash on sidewalks, the list of bad things we do as groups goes on and on. Some of these are tragedies of the commons, others are simply panics, but they all share one thing in common: basic human instinct colliding with a world it didn’t evolve for.
Whether you like it or not, we’re gods with minds not evolved for the task at hand. We’ve harnessed nuclear fire, are modifying things at a genetic level, have created powerful AIs and we’re able to put more carbon into the atmosphere than the planet had during the Jurassic. This doesn’t come free. We don’t just get to act like we’re in a village and the only thing that matters is our kin. Our responsibilities comes from our abilities. You and I are responsible for the future of our species in a way that someone 10,000 years ago couldn’t dream of.
What I’m not suggesting here is an end of technology. Of modern life. An America with ten or twenty more Manhattans would still be America. An America powered by renewable energy would still be rich. We’d still have lots of gadgets and clothes and movies and books and food an all the things we expect out of life. But our incredible wastes of energy can and should be ended. We’d commute via a train, or a bus, or an electric motor scooter. Automated cars electric would be available, but in far fewer numbers than we have today. Your large single family house might become a multiple bedroom apartment. You likely wouldn’t be able to afford beef that wasn’t grown in a vat. You’d have less random physical stuff, and you’d likely stop flying and start riding on high speed trains. But given the ease of access and distribution of culture, of people, of ideas, of friends, you would be richer than most Americans in the 20th century.
Who knows, perhaps we’ll harness fusion power and all this will be made irrelevant. But we can’t just wait for a deus ex machina to save us. We must build a civilization that creates culture, that values truth, discovery and beauty. We have become creators. It’s time to act like it.