by Adam Sacks
This is a belated letter of the kind I suggested that you write (do as he says, not as he does!), a difficult letter to write indeed. Its to a group of college students with whom Ive been working on global warming for the past couple of years. They are more knowledgeable than most about climate, and they are all concerned, on a scale from alarmed to desperate. They are impressively dedicated to turning this ponderous, crawling climate boat around, but they are also confined by the cultural myths, assumptions and preconceptions that hold most of us hostage. And in some ways, I think that youth are more conservative than those of us decades closer to the nether end of life, more enticed by the siren songs of culture (even though I suspect some might disagree). That makes our mutual task no easier.
Dearest young friends,
The time has come for me to write you all a letter. Ive known some of you for almost two years now, and have joined you in welcoming many others along the way. I treasure the times we have spent together thinking, playing, discussing, organizing, arguing, cooking, eating. It has been a great pleasure being among you as one of you, a most refreshing reprise which you have generously allowed me, even though we have forty years worth of difference in our perspectives and in our lives.
And of course our worlds are indeed fundamentally different, which is the way it works in our frenetic industrialized civilization, which is the way it works when youre new as opposed to not so new any more, which is the way it works growing up in the 1950s, which was so very different from growing up in the 1990s.
That doesnt mean we dont have much to offer each other. Indeed we do. I think we learn far more from bridging gaps than by simply hanging out on our own side of the chasm. Would that we could all do this more, everywhere. From where I sit, and as a parent, I know that you have to find your own way (please forgive the clichés, Im afraid this will start to sound like a commencement speech well, in some ways, I suppose it is). You have to learn, to experiment, to make your own mistakes just as I did, as your parents did, as we all do. You have to figure out how to chart your paths, how the world works, how to improve it, how to thrive. I hope Ive contributed in some small way to the brew of your lives by tossing in a bit of what I flatter myself to think are wisdom, experience, knowledge.
But theres a problem. In the 1960s we figured we had time to figure out what was up and what was down. We desperately wanted to break from the brutal past, and we tried, and they were turbulent, difficult years, as well as exciting and world-shaking (though the fundamental changes some hoped for never came to pass witness the current state of affairs). True, the nuclear threat was ever with us then, I grew up with nightly terrors of mushroom clouds, but as it turns out that was strangely under the control of some sort of mutually assured destruction (aptly called MAD), and in fact post-World-War-II nuclear holocaust never materialized (and we continue to hope).
But today theres tragically little time left of the kind we had back then. The threat global climate disruption is much worse, madder than MAD, to date under no ones control, and it has already begun to materialize, in spades.
Your normal and rightful course of learning, experimenting, thriving, has been cut short.
It pains me terribly to say this, with the darkest of clouds in your skies, and Im only recently growing able to write such blunt words, but were approaching some sort of expiration date, and you no longer have the luxury of growing older and wiser, not in the usual way. The physical world is changing far too fast, and your elders are stuck, but good dare I say that many if not most of us are worse than useless. You will have to skip many steps, and learn immediately what we dont know, the hidden truth that civilization has forbidden:
We cannot go on living this way.
Industrialized society has been a bit of fun while it lasted, I suppose, although disconnected from the meaningfulness of a life rooted in earth, instead full of angst, doubt, terror, war. But its had its short-term advantages of sorts. In sixty-four years I have never, not for one single day, had any doubt that I would have my next meal, or water to drink, or a roof over my head. And lots of toys and trinkets along the way.
Unfortunately, in pursuit of my privilege many people and other creatures on earth have suffered terribly, without their consent, on my behalf. They have given of their labor, their bodies, their lives to me to us for little or nothing in return.
Nature will allow it no longer.
Sadly, the overwhelming thrust of climate solutions has been to maintain our endlessly growing culture of consumption, despite all arguments to the contrary. We imagine we can substitute our way out of this, with Priuses and funny-looking lightbulbs. The result is a major split in our lives, for at the same time we want to heal the world we climb on airplanes, scurry about in our cars, buy food from thousands of miles away, pay taxes for ever longer wars, elect the same people who blindly persist in futility for short-term gain, and prepare for professions detached from the soil which gives us life. We are dependent on computers, iPods, cellphones. We are part of a process that must take, exploit, ruin much of the earth, and even though now theres little left we continue anyway, hell-bent to extract the very last drop.
We are determined to exceed local and planetary carrying capacity, to overshoot our life support systems, to witness collapse before our very eyes as millions of people currently live without hope, starving worldwide, dying from thirst, watching their all their means for survival vanish.
What we fail to appreciate to date is this: We are not exempt.
So heres what to do, I will help you however I can, with all my heart, I fervently believe that you can engage and change the course of human events if you so decide. I cannot provide you with details, only a roadmap, and a poorly charted one at that. But its a start.
The most important step by far is to learn the fundamental laws of nature, the laws which inflexibly govern life on earth. We are practically all eco-illiterates, even climate activists and environmentalists. Once we understand our planetary rules and limits, we wont for a moment fall for cultural sucker plays like 150 mpg vehicles, or wind turbines, or low-carbon diets, as we will recognize impossibilities for what they are. We will learn that the only way to live on earth is by sharing equally and sustainably of the commons, with a lot less of everything but enough for everybody (assuming many fewer of everybody as well, especially us industrial resource hogs, reducing population by intelligent, peaceful and consensual means, we devoutly hope).
The next step: We learn why eco-literate behavior isnt obvious and happening as it should. This requires a deeper study and understanding of culture and history. It is a much longer discussion that weve had in small doses; I hope we can pursue it further. Suffice it to say that the culture will not tell you how to go beyond itself, it comes with no instructions for disassembly, we have to figure it out. There are many hints in our 200,000-year history of often sustainable living, and in the current movements to relocalization and eco-restoration what we dont know is how to get past the cultural brick walls to make it happen. Thats a crucial part of your job, once you embrace it.
And finally, know that government doesnt work as advertised. Most of what it recommends for redress of wrongs are simply energy sinks to ensure that nothing fundamentally changes and to keep us busy while the world burns for the benefit of a very few.
But political reality is, ultimately, irrelevant. The only reality that counts is natures reality. When we start from that premise, then we refuse to be seduced and co-opted, and start organizing in ways that move us forward ever faster.
I think we pretty much agree that the climate situation is, as the silly parody on the Fed Ex package says, Extremely Urgent. Its no longer about the wellbeing of your children or grandchildren a hundred years hence, its about you, and your parents, and even some of your younger grandparents. To everyones astonishment, its all happening that fast.
The question for you now is how to proceed. How much of your time do you devote to this daunting, unprecedented task, fraught with uncertain outcomes? What should you be doing? Can you assume that a future world is like the one youre in now and if not, should you be in college at all? What skills and knowledge are essential for navigating the brave new twenty-first century? How do you acquire them? What do you do with them? How do you thrive, or even survive?
Im afraid these are unsettling questions with no easy answers. Those are the cards we have been dealt, and they are for the most part, I am deeply sorry to say, in your hands. Yet as bleak as it may seem at times, there are many things we can do to turn this around, but only if we see clearly, beyond all comfortable assumptions, beyond the limits of current experience.
Let us have at it together.
My love to you all,