There was a time when I could dump my trash out in the woods and nobody could ever notice.
There was a time when I could draw pure water from a river and never know or care how many outhouses—or moose—were upstream.
There was a time when I could burn my autumn leaf pile and my neighbors would only get an aromatic reminder of the season.
There was a time when I could burn coal to heat my stove and the skies remained clear.
There was a time when I could dump my smokestack effluent out into the atmosphere and the wind would dilute it before anyone could ever notice.
There was a time when I could dump all my externalities upon the rest of the world without bothering to account for the infinitesimal degradation it caused.
There was a time when I was given dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over all the earth, and my stewardship thereof preserved it for me and my seed unto all generations. And because I was small, compared to Nature, whatever I did pretty much didn’t really matter in the long run.
Then there were enough of us that I noticed your water bottles in the woods.
Then there were enough of us that your outhouse leachings gave me dysentery.
Then there were enough of us that everyone’s eyes burned in the autumn, and it wasn’t just ragweed.
Then there were enough of us that London’s and Beijing’s smog killed thousands of people.
Then there were enough of us that our combined impact on our world was no longer infinitesimal, and it mattered what we did individually and corporatively.
There were enough of us that our acid rain and ocean acidification destroyed our ponds and lakes and coral reefs, and sea level rise flooded entire cities and countries, and our CO2-driven climate change toasted marginal lands into deserts, making refugees of millions, and warming winters starved the polar bears, and nurtured Zika mosquitoes to deform our babies, and let bark beetles chew through our forests, and changed the polar winds disrupting weather worldwide. So far.
But we still didn’t bother to account for externalities—for how we degraded our world and used it up—let alone pay for them, as if any price could be high enough. We fouled our nest, shit our bed, and we knew it and yet kept on pumping up gas and oil anyway to sell it and burn it.
What happened to that stewardship, that bit about “all generations”? There is no Earth 2.0 in some R&D lab. SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, Mars and the asteroids will not save us. Some have a touching hope in geoengineering technology, in climate intervention and space mirrors, but hope is not a strategy. Mitigation measures like sea walls and flow-thru basements won’t help the Andaman Islands or Bangladesh when they are under water even at low tide. Europe cannot absorb all Syrians and Ethiopians.
They say that when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. Can’t we at least stop drilling?