Have you ever felt that way? Or a smidge of the "eco depression" despair? The "why try it's so overwhelming"? Well this post is for how I overcame and you can overcome. You can, I promise!
Despair is surprisingly common, and perhaps not so surprisingly, a thesis statement of many in the environmental field and environmental academics. Last fall at SXSW Eco I went to a speaker who titled his talk "Coping with the Cascading Crises of Our World". He's a professor who has made his profession writing books on "Arguing for Our Lives" and how we've reached the limits of every natural resource and now is the time to change our mindset to deal with the coming catastrophe. I spent time listening to the science behind his talk (it's well founded), and appreciating the extremely thoughtful approach he took to get there...but also in my head having more than a few"oh please!" moments....hope and innovation is our greatest renewable resource and we would do well to remember (write that down enviro(ish) friends!)
And even at GreenBiz Forum two weeks, a business conference for sustainability professionals, the head of that organization spent time at length over how companies aren't doing enough....how the problems are so vast and we've not moved the needle. It's not that the message is untrue....it's just perhaps the wrong message in the first place. As if preaching to the choir and demoralizing those who are in the trenches working hard inside business to solve environmental problems really gets us anywhere. To think, most of the professionals like myself who go to these things do it for the inspiration, the cross-collaboration potential....the hope (jokes on us?!)
Before I go into my favorite analogy for you to hang your hat on, steeped in actual environmental history....think on the good Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and choose the light. Amen!
Let's talk about the following philosophy that's out there:
The population is limited by how many resources we have available that people rely on to survive. The amount of land we use to make our food and support our lifestyle is directly connected to how many people the Earth can support. When we run out of land for agricultural production, we will hit a limit in the population...but this limit will only be felt after we already have too many people, so catastrophe will ensue.
Sounds pretty modern day right? Wrong! This theory is from the late 1700s. This is the theory from a man named Thomas Robert Malthus...and describes the "Malthusian catastrophe". It was the alarmist/freakout call of its day....300 years ago. What happened instead of mass casualties with people dying all over the place is that we innovated. Cause we've got grey matter and smarts and are not afraid to use 'em. We developed production techniques in agriculture that fed multiple times more people on the same amount of land....and this innovation echoed into the 1900s with the so-called Green Revolution, spreading technology in agriculture and advancing development around the world as a result.
And the Malthus line of thinking extends to a newer version of the same philosophy: the Limits to Growth, published in 1972. Limits to Growth launched a movement to rethink by identifying and calculating population and mass use of resources would reach limits and predicted civilization would therefore collapse. I'm totally with them up until the "civilization would collapse" part...and newer research shows we are tracking with their prediction, which means they are right in terms of what happens status quo with our behavior.
This conversation in society is critical...we need to confront the reality of our resource use and waste. But "big data" or "system wide views" lose a lot of insights in the noise. Insights that show we might not actually wind up with system of a down, mass casualties and gnashing and wailing of teeth in the darkness.
Remember this friends: "Necessity is the mother of invention." Which is another way to say...trigger our survival instinct, and we shall innovate our way to a solution. Does anyone out there really believe that our use of natural resources currently is efficient? (Hint: we are wildly inefficient, just look at the "rejected energy" in our grid as almost 2x our energy use in this diagram from LLNL).
We are living in an extraordinary time, with possibilities for innovative solutions that couldn't have even been dreamed of or conceptualized in 1972. To believe that the system will collapse is to believe that when push comes to shove, all people are only self-centered and selfish. Well, I'm not. And you are not. And research tells us everyone else is not either. There's an insane amount of comfort in these thoughts together....that people are inherently altruistic and good + our capacity to work together to solve problems is without limits.
But there is an action item in there....it means that you have to pay attention to the issue itself. In order for us to work together to solve problems...we all have to agree there is a problem in the first place.
So your enviro(ish) mission is that in the face of the damage we are causing the planet: do not bury your head in the sand. Stay positive and inspire others to join you in facing it. In facing the problem together, we can truly overcome.
Did this blogpost inspire you? Did it help you cope with "eco depression"? Have you ever felt that way to begin with?