?As a scientist, I believe the data are clear: We have used half the world’s endowment of crude oil and we have passed a tipping point with respect to global climate change. As a teacher and unrepentant optimist, I believe we will face the near-term depletion of crude oil and the long-term warming of planet Earth with
uncommon compassion, courage, and dignity. My optimism about the future of Homo sapiens is inspired by the university honors students, the alternative high-school students, and the girls in the juvenile detention facility with whom I am fortunate to work.
Oil supply – at the level of the field, county, state, country, or world – follows a bell-shaped curve; the top of the curve is called “Peak Oil,” or “Hubbert’s Peak.” We passed Hubbert’s Peak for world oil supply and began easing down the other side in mid-2005, and we will fall off the oil-supply cliff in 2008.
Because the United States mainlines cheap oil, many experts predict a devastating economic collapse within a decade. I believe such a collapse will be profoundly beneficial for the world’s cultures and species, other than our own. After all, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, we have consumed the planet.
Passing Hubbert’s Peak is good news for species and cultures, other than our own, but it obviates technological solutions to many of our most pressing problems, including runaway greenhouse. And it leads many writers to conclude that the depletion of crude oil, hence the inability to extract any fossil fuels, will lead to chaos. But I believe we can rise above these pessimistic projections about human behavior.
The recent and accelerating warming of planet Earth indicates we have passed a tipping point. Positive feedbacks are overwhelming Earth’s climate system and we cannot stop the warming of planet Earth. Had we passed the oil
peak a decade earlier, we would have been forced to reduce CO2 emissions and therefore prevent the frying of the planet.
But Peak Oil came too late to save us. It appears there will be no planetary ice by century’s end. As a result, humanity will be
restricted to a few thousand hardy scavengers living near the poles. Shortly thereafter, Homo sapiens will join, in extinction, every other species to occupy the planet.
When I am not playing social critic, I am a conservation biologist. I admit conservation biology is a value-laden enterprise, hampered
by – and perhaps assisted by – bridges between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. From my perspective as a conservation
biologist, the greatest value of Earth is, always has been, and always will be, that it exists. Not that it is useful. But that it is. Perhaps that makes me an artist trapped in a scientific pursuit. But, at least for me, it allows hope to emerge from the tonic of wildness, thereby providing context for this most insignificant of
lives. It allows hope to flicker. And if there is a flicker of hope, I believe we must treat it like a beacon.
I view hope as the left-brain product of love, analogous to democracy as the product of freedom, or liberty. Notably, Patrick Henry did not say, “Give me democracy or give me death.” Like the rest of the founding fathers, Henry knew freedom was primary to democracy; without the guiding light of freedom, democracy breaks up on the shoals. Love keeps our left brain in check – that’s
the message of the world’s religions. But our right-brain love creates the foundation for hope: love for nature, love for our children and grandchildren, love for each other. Without love to light the way, hope breaks up on the shoals.
Hope alone does not get me through the day. Rather, hope must be joined by friendship as we face the converging catastrophes of the
21st century. Aristotle’s definition of friendship seems perfect for our time: a relationship between people working together on a project for the common good. Without the common good, we might as well restrict friendship to drinking buddies. The distinction is as clear as that between being a citizen and being a consumer.
Socrates surely would have been proud of Aristotle for the attention of his student’s student to the common good. After all, Socrates pursued a life of excellence by focusing on six questions that reflected human ideals: What is good? What is piety? What is
virtue? What is courage? What is justice? What is moderation?
Contrary to society’s general inattention to the common good, I believe the greatest measure of our humanity is found in what we do for those who cannot take care of themselves: the myriad species, cultures, and even impoverished individuals in our own country who never stood a chance in the face of American-style capitalism. I believe, in other words, that our humanity is measured in our willingness to protect the common good,
including the preservation of myriad species and cultures.
Hope, rooted in friendship, offers a way forward in these difficult times. I sincerely hope we can find the courage, compassion, and creativity to tackle peak oil and runaway greenhouse at the same time. In that hope I call on all people to focus on the common
Without the common good, and the struggle on its behalf, there can be no Aristotelian friendship. We are 5,000 generations into the human experience, and the end of humanity is in clear view; as such, our shared goal must be the common good. As friends working toward a just and sustainable society, we must reveal our differences, we must appreciate our differences, and then we must set them aside – for the common good. With hope shining like a
beacon, we must struggle together for the common good.
We have in our hands the destiny of our planet, including our own species and so many others. In the end, for finite beings such as
ourselves, the historical process is irrelevant; all we have is our legacy, but that legacy is lost to us (as individuals). Yet we are unique beings in that we are able to recognize the historical
process as something larger than ourselves. We judge that process worthy or not worthy based on our own singular experience. For me, the universe is a worthy endeavor because the lens through which I view it is colored with the relationships I have experienced; those relationships include humans and nature.
All the ideals expressed by Socrates throughout his life are born again in the love we feel: for each other, for our families and
tribes, and for the natural world. Walking a path that honors the planet and ourselves is a responsibility we share, you and I – a responsibility unlike any other in human history. And it is not just a responsibility, but also something more: It is a joy, and a privilege.
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