A Drop in the Bucket
The news is just awful: Antarctica and Greenland are beginning to self-destruct, and the Northwest Passage is now open most of the summer. The interconnected web of life is in tatters, with toxins in all living flesh and blood and bone, microplastics in every rivulet of every stream, corals bleaching and dying worldwide, the forests burning worldwide. And the weather!
What's a person to do?
Shorter showers will not fix it. "Recycling" plastic is a good idea, but it's not currently practical -- like "clean coal," it's always just around the corner. Buying local, trying to eat in-season food, reusing/repurposing whatever we can, to decrease our impact on the world.... It's all just a drop in the bucket, and won't fix the problem.
No single individual can save the world by their personal actions. And so it seems impossible to make a difference. What's the point? What can little old me do?
Recently, I flew over Boston, and then Munich, and then Berlin and Washington DC. I looked down on these vast cities, and was reminded of just how much raw energy is embedded in our current habits. Countless cars, to-ing and fro-ing, millions of rooms with lights ablaze, streetlights and infrastructure all churning out a future guaranteed to make us weep.
And there I was, flying (a climate crime in itself) just to fulfill one of my mother-in-law's "bucket list" dreams -- she wanted to sleep in a castle. She's 89. I knew these travels were making the climate problem a tiny bit worse; probably we shouldn't be traveling like that at all.
But what's a good son-in-law to do?
I've been worried about the environment for more than fifty years, and have paid close attention to the science, and to the politics around the science, for nearly as long. Across a long career, I led environmental committees, and steered what I could in the right direction. I celebrated Earth Day every year. Later, my wife and I spent a decade building a sustainable farm near West Branch, Nova Scotia, and discovered exactly how hard farming is. Today, we live pretty frugally day-to-day, and minimize energy and plastic use. We try to do our part.
But the news continues to be, well, just awful.
Until the early 2000s, I had a sci-fi-like expectation that some wonderful technology would come along -- carbon capture, mirrors in space, cold fusion, who knew? -- to fix what humans were so casually degrading.
But alas, this has not happened, and it's very unlikely to happen. The system itself -- of international commerce entwined with debt obligations for oil and resource extraction revenues based on loans and bribes supporting tyrants and dictators and billionaires and transnational corporations -- this is what must change. And it is the least likely to change, because most of us accept it as background to our daily lives.
This economic system is currently structured to use up Mother Earth pretty damn quick. That makes the system self-limiting, because the choice will be out of our hands quite soon -- but it will be painful, even horrific.
So what are we to do?
I've concluded this much, so far in this life: We each must do whatever we can, to add drops to the buckets that we're throwing on the roaring fire of environmental ruin.
For many, "do whatever we can" is about making small choices -- using less plastic, installing a heat pump, replacing propane with an induction stovetop, driving less, buying local, getting less disposable crap. For others, it may be holding back on the glyphosate, slowing down on the LNG, shifting to selective forestry, or canning and sharing the fruits of our gardens. Each of these is a drop in the bucket.
For me, "do what I can" is committing to spending my retirement (while I still have my wits about me) pushing Commons Communities [see commonscommunities.com], my project to help folks living rurally to save money and CO2, by self-organizing and self-coordinating. If I can get the project to take off, it might make a drop-in-the-bucket difference -- maybe even help a lot of others save a few drops.
Each of us cannot help but sometimes do something counterproductive -- like fulfill your mother-in-law's girlhood dream. We can't live like monks, taking cold showers and eating gruel. But after the transgression, we can redouble our own efforts to add drops to the bucket.
We can't stop the awful, but we can slow it down. Like "the miracle of compound interest," our drops today can mean the worst parts of the next century could be less bad, and shorter. Our grandchildren may still curse us, but I hope to be able to say "it could have been worse."
Enough drops, and we have a bucketful to hurl on the fire burning up their future, and our own.
Sadly, I fear it's too late to stop the slow-motion catastrophe we've created.
But we can make the future much less miserable, if we each do what we can to add our drops to the bucket.