Though a few Cassandras issued warnings almost no one cared to hear, for a couple of hundred years, we were led down the merry path of "progress" fueled by coal and oil: visions of endless bounty and improving "living standards," and parents buying into the notion of children having it "better" than they did without stopping to ask what, exactly, was meant by better, or why better seemed always linked to "more" and "newest."
Our cultural narrative is a fiction based on the worst characteristics of human nature combined with an exploitive economic system only cynics (or fools) could embrace. Part of this narrative tells us "we can't go back." But what was left behind when the first oil well was drilled, and Earth's black blood sucked from its subterranean life, are the very things humans need in order to sustain meaningful life.
Among them are the knowledge and skills required to feed ourselves. Hunting, once a necessity, is now considered by some an atavistic endeavor; gathering is these days largely the purview of elites sniffing out mushrooms (or recent immigrants not hip to things déclassé), and there's not enough room on the page to discuss the transformation of farming from something Thomas Jefferson would recognize into the agro-industrial, Wall Street-driven, corporate-culture imbued, earth-poisoning monster it is today.
We've also largely lost the ability to shelter or heal ourselves. While farmhouses from Italy to Ireland built centuries ago still stand, today's construction will, left unattended for not too many years, deteriorate into a toxic stew. Once able to heal ourselves with herbs, potions and salves (and when that failed, to die with less struggle and angst than we do now) and live in community for the duration of our lives, today, avoiding death is an industry, and the sick, old and damaged are fodder for some pharmaceutical company's stock rating.
But there is good news regarding the efforts to allay some of the harm we've done. A growing number of people are defying the "you can't go back" mantra by doing just that. The locavore movement is creating a need for more small-scale farms, which in turn is generating a return to more sustainable food-production methods.
Speaking of going back: Though we've accustomed ourselves to the industry's nonsensical "plastic makes it possible" deception, San Francisco recently celebrated a year without plastic shopping bags. A number of other municipalities are following suit. Phoenix, which has already left Tucson in the dust in the area of light rail, is doing the same with plastic bags. Its pilot program is in place, and if we're lucky, the Old Pueblo may get one, too. (As this is being written, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is readying a plan that could be a first for the nation: taxing companies for their climate-change emissions.)
Karin Uhlich, Ward 3 Tucson City Council member and chair of the Environment, Planning and Resource Management Subcommittee, expects the council to address the possibility of banning plastic bags as soon as May or June. "There's less resistance than there used to be among retailers and consumers," Uhlich said in a recent interview.
Whether or not an increased sense of urgency about the necessity for action will substantially mitigate the serious harm we've already inflicted on the planet remains to be seen. Some experts believe the only way we can avert a global economic meltdown is by continuing to burn fossil fuels. Others see the end of cheap oil as an opportunity for accelerated implementation of alternatives.
As a species, we've generally behaved like barbaric marauders plundering our way to an environmental apocalypse. The good news is even if we manage to wipe ourselves out, over millennia, the planet will recover from the harm we've done.
Michael Crichton, not a favorite among environmentalists, wrote, "We haven't got the power to destroy the planet--or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves." In saving ourselves, we might also help the planet, but the idea of saving Earth is the flip side of "conquering" it--a manifestation of the hubris that led us into this mess in the first place. We can harm the planet, and we can mitigate our impact, but ultimately, it will be Earth that heals itself.