Brace Yourself

“By one estimate, the Caribbean has lost 80% of its coral cover over the past 50 years. And the future is even darker: the one-two punch of global warming and ocean acidification could make the seas essentially inhospitable to coral, with dire consequences for marine life…” —Bryan Walsh

palmyra atoll

Even the most remote reefs, such as this one at Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific, might not survive the Anthropocene.

Despite positive tidbits, here’s yet more news of the overall downhill slide of planet’s condition; the above quote from an article by Bryan Walsh in the current edition of Time (14 April 2014)— “Ocean View: Like a Google map of the seabed, a new survey is documenting coral reefs—before they’re gone”. Every time I read an article like this, about the incredible damage we humans are doing to the life on the planet, it really knocks me back. I feel helpless, like I’m being swirled along in a current of forces I can’t control. But we need to brace ourselves—it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Though there are positive forces in motion, the system as a whole is still headed in the wrong direction, and is doing so with quite a bit of momentum. This momentum is due to ever-increasing population numbers, rising worldwide affluence, and our unsustainable production and energy systems, none of which are easily changed. This negative momentum is going to cause more and more heartbreaking environmental failures in the years to come. Eventually, as the drumbeat of horrible news grows ever louder, the great mass of people will begin paying attention, and there will be much more pressure to change. Until then, though, the failures are likely to worsen.


Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The reefs here have been damaged by millions of visitors. The greater long-term threat, however, is ocean acidification caused by CO2.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The reefs here have been damaged by millions of visitors. The greater long-term threat, however, is ocean acidification caused by CO2.

Some people are paying attention already, and some people are visualizing how badly this could end up. I’ve seen more and more doomsday predictions lately, such as this one by William Falk, “We’re Finished, Now What?“. I try to be consistent in what I write here, but I admit to wavering myself on this topic of outlook, alternating between more pessimistic takes (“It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“) and the relatively sanguine, (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“), and then back again (last month’s “The Anthropocene and the Psychology of Alarm“). Taken as a whole, though, I can’t quite agree with William Falk just yet; I’m not sure that we’re quite “finished”. But we are clearly in danger, and these dire predictions are part of the alarm that will be a necessary part of turning ourselves around. (Note, 16 Apr 2014— Mr. X refers to the Falk article above as “hysterical melodrama”, and suggests that I remove it. My point was that I don’t agree with Falk, but perhaps I didn’t phrase it clearly enough.)

But while we need the alarm, to spur people into action, it clearly isn’t registering strongly enough yet. Last night I was at a town gathering for a school function, and I realized once again that at least 90% of us seem to be barreling along on the paths we’ve always been on, driving our huge vehicles, living our lives, buying ever more belongings, and not paying attention. Eventually, though, the environmental failures will add up, and the reality of the situation will begin to sink in. 

Everyone on the planet should watch this video…

Until we reach this sort of worldwide critical mass, however, there are things we can do. In fact, there are critical things that must be done, and done now. In short, we can start getting the new systems set up; we don’t exactly know how to do it all yet. We can be the models, the trailblazers, we can work the bugs out, we can start the transition. Then, when the great mass of humanity begins to really care, they’ll have an escape hatch ready, clearly marked. I have no doubt about what humans will be able to accomplish, and accomplish quickly, once they set their collective minds to the task. These new systems we will need are already being set up, and at rates that are encouraging. I just read an article about how new ideas are enabling net-zero houses to be constructed at the same price as conventional construction (Fine Homebuilding, “The Future of Housing in America”, by Kevin Ireton). My daughter, part of her school’s environmental club, reports that with composting and new procedures at lunch, that the cafeteria can now feed over 800 students and only produce 1/2 a bag of trash. As of last month, I can now elect to have my teacher retirement put into funds that don’t invest in fossil fuel companies. I was in Burlington yesterday, and saw four new electric vehicle chargers almost completely installed in one of the city’s parking garages. In Rutland, a huge new community solar array has just sprung up in a vacant lot. In my school, all of the bins for paper to be recycled have now been replaced with zero-sort bins, so that all recyclable materials can be recycled. I could make this list quite a bit longer, but let me just point this out—every single one of the above changes was put into place by a small group of individuals, somewhere, who were determined to make a difference. And every one of the changes listed above is a systems change, and will affect hundreds or thousands of people. In the future, when people want to live in a net-zero house, or drive an EV, or be part of community solar, or eat lunch at school without creating a pile of trash, it will be easier due to these systems. And, in an added bit of good news, try this on—as more people realize how to replicate the systems, the changes become ever-easier to implement. My school won’t have to reinvent the wheel—we’ll visit my daughter’s school and copy what they did to reduce their cafeteria trash to almost nothing. And as the systems get changed, it will become ever-easier for ordinary people to live in sustainable ways. Right now it can be difficult—I have to carry my composting home from work, or walk a distance from a car charger, or struggle to find people who can answer my questions about solar power, etc. Eventually, eventually, it will become the default, for everyone, whether they’re trying to be sustainable or not.

So, brace yourself for more bad news. But don’t lose heart, and don’t freak out (see my last post, “Keep Calm and Carry On“), and realize that the bad news, ironically, is also part of what will bring us out to the other side.

Image credit: Palmyra Atoll—Jim Maragos, USFWS-Pacific Region.
Hanuama Bay Panorama #2, by Daniel Ramirez, Flickr Creative Commons.