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Hope in Our Final Hour
November 27, 2016
Here's an essay I published a year ago in Earthzine that is feeling very relevant right about now...
As the world shifts around us, we face one last chance to turn it all around. We’re uniquely suited to face this challenge; all we need now is the courage to act.
There are plenty of days when fear and disillusion take the reins, when the sightless greed dragging us toward a dark future seems simply unstoppable. Yet the qualities of human nature that brought us to this brink, that pushed so many species ahead of us into the abyss of extinction, are also our best hope for turning it all around.
Humanity’s greatest gift isn’t our dexterity or our intelligence. It is the unmatched adaptability that let us colonize the most extreme environments on Earth while tumultuous climatic shifts wiped out countless other life forms (including the highly successful but less flexible Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis). We are omnivorous, resourceful, and creative, but most importantly we are diverse; we’ve evolved as many different methods for cooperative survival as there are unique ecosystems on the Earth.
We thrive on blubber in the Arctic, fruit in the Amazon, blood in the desert, milk in the Alps. We survive as nomads, farmers, tribes, and empires. This diversity – of cultures, skills, intelligences, and perspectives – allows us to adapt not just to a broad spectrum of environments, but to the changes they inevitably undergo. We are the Swiss army knife of evolution, and with 7.3 billion original minds, newly connected by technology, our capacity for innovation is infinite.
For 200,000 years, human creativity has harnessed the raw materials of our abundant planet, and our ingenuity continues to stretch the limits of impossibility. Our efforts are bringing to an end the age of fossil fuels as research and willpower steadily cut the cost of renewable alternatives. Around the world, cultures are waking up and investing in change: Denmark sources 39 percent of its energy from wind, solar power fuels half of Germany on sunny days, and, grappling with its massive carbon footprint, China has become the world’s largest producer and buyer of photovoltaic products. We’re tapping into the inventive inventory of life’s 4-billion-year experiment, learning to bioremediate spillswith bacteria, restore rangeland with ruminants, and edit disease-causing genes with prokaryotic DNA.
Even as humanity’s breakthroughs are snowballing, Earth’s feedback loops are approaching their tipping points, creating a harrowing race for survival. Global levels of carbon dioxide passed 400 parts per million in March 2015. In 2012, massive global sea ice melt shattered records going back more than a thousand years. With dozens of species disappearing every single day, we’re driving the world’s sixth mass extinction. We are facing huge changes, unprecedentedly fast changes. Though I have no doubt we will see countless victories in science, technology, and conservation over the coming decades, the forces we’ve set into motion may not change course in the brief span of human generations. These challenges will remake the world, and our continuance hinges on something far more personal than timely innovation.
Human progress often seems alarmingly slow, but there is no more powerful impetus for evolution, adaptation, and awakening than the stress of change. Though the fossil record illustrates just how destructive global change can be, it also demonstrates the creative powers of that disturbance. Following the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, 3400 genera of dinosaur sprang from a single lineage of crocodile-like ancestors. After the asteroid-initiated K-T event, thousands of novel species of mammal emerged to fill those empty niches. In more recent history, the advent of bipedalism, meat eating, stone tools, and symbolism all coincide with periods of particularly intense climatic variability. Despite our horrific failures and heartbreaking shortcomings, I see evidence all around that humanity, once again, is evolving.
Though the near future will be crowded with billions of new people, many global communities are reining in that addiction to growth. By aggressively promoting family planning, contraception access, and gender equity, countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh cut total fertility rate by more than half since the 1970s. Japan, China, and Iran each halved fertility within a single decade. We’re also beginning to question our 10,000-year-long frenzy of resource production, valuing not just the yields extracted, but the soil, water, and animal life sustaining us. Organic food sales in the United States are growing by 20 percent each year, despite stagnant family incomes.
We’re awakening to the moral, spiritual, and intrinsic value of ecosystem services, as well as to the fact that we’re utterly dependent upon them. A conservation coalition recently restored Maine’s largest watershed by removing two dams, and another grassroots movement protected a critical Amazon tributary from the imminent Belo Monte dam project. Facing down fierce resistance, human kindness is steadily dethroning injustice and inequality: 95 years ago American women didn’t have the right to vote, but today 22 women around the world are presidents and prime ministers. And at long last, denial is losing its paralytic power. At the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, there was serious deliberation on what to do about climate change, rather than discussion of whether climate change was happening or whether we are responsible.
None of this transformation is happening fast enough, and much of humanity is still blind to the shift: that is exactly where you and I come in. The passionate message of a single, authentic life can reach millions. Who among us hasn’t been moved by the voices of Jane Goodall, Malala Yousafzai, Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King? The accomplishments of a single classroom, company, or co-op can inspire thousands more.
We don’t all have access to a global audience, but can always contribute to a community we love.
Our ancestors gave us a heavy burden, one that we cannot carry alone. Our children give us an extraordinary gift: the incentive to take on this one last chance. Our courageous brothers and sisters, fighting this same fight, give us the strength to rise, and rise again, from dusty knees to recreate the world.