There’s a moment driving the morning commute over the San Francisco Bay Bridge that exemplifies who we are and where we are at as a civilization.
Driving through the tunnel on Yerba Buena Island in five lanes of traffic (the bridge is crossed by 280,000 vehicles a day) one can see opening up along the entire length of the first part of the western span…in one gulp…a little over one mile of jam-packed traffic sitting 300 ft. above the surface of the Bay. Before one’s eyes creeps a sea of steel and rubber riding on a suspension bridge of steel and concrete…powered, built, fabricated and maintained by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s something to see. And something to think about.
I just finished reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Here in the Bay Area commuters on the Bay Bridge have that word….collapse…both burned in our memories, and literally present to us in the ongoing $6 Billion construction of a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge which has resulted in a forest of cranes and towers running alongside the vulnerable, and due-to-be-replaced, old bridge. Of course, it is seismic realities that drive this new bridge, but viewing that daily sea of cars and trucks, one could just as easily think about sprawl, water use, smog, fossil fuel dependence, and the increasing atomization of our society into market-driven consumers who lack communal input into the long-term health and sustainability of our environment and economy.
You see, us morning commuters on the bridge are just getting to our jobs and making ends meet. However, as a society, we are driving into a future shaped by our current policies and assumptions. We are literally building our future out of the raw materials of our daily lives. Have we given that the thought it deserves? That’s the core question that Diamond asks. In light of the fact that today, December 3rd, marks a world-wide day of action about Global Warming, I’d like to echo Diamond, and join the ongoing discussion of how we put long term thinking and sustainability on the political table.
Collapse is a solid and highly readable book that asks critical questions. Diamond asks himself why societies, past and present, have left themselves vulnerable to failure. Why did past cultures act in what now seem to be short-sighted or ignorant ways? Malcolm Gladwell, in an excellent review of Collapse in the New Yorker summarized Diamond’s analysis of the failure of Greenland Norse society and the Polynesian settlement on Easter Island. You can get an in-depth flavor of the book in Gladwell’s analysis, I highly recommend reading it. Diamond’s book, however, covers a wide range of modern and ancient examples. His writing on strip-mining in Montana, resource-management in China, and the introduction of non-native species in Australia, while not telling anything entirely new, collectively paints a picture of the unthinking ways we have made long term impacts on our environment in the last two hundred years. Diamond’s analysis of Rwanda, and his comparative study of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, while short on positive ideas, shine the light on very real and present ways in which societal failure has occured in the present day, and what little has been done about it. (For a discussion of quibbles and critiques of the book try here)
Of course, the effect of Hurrican Katrina on the city of New Orleans…a city left vulnerable to devastation by local and national leaders…has brought this concept home here in the United States. It goes without saying that the devastation and abandonment of an entire major U.S. city represents a powerful example of how we have failed to plan for long term eventualities, and are ill-prepared to deal with the inevitable consequences of that failure. The fact that there has been so little discussion of that failure in New Orleans is utterly breathtaking. (Even mentioning the possibility that global warming had a hand in Katrina was taboo…why was that?) Predictably, models for an Eco New Orleans have been waylaid for discussions of the latest political scandal or crisis.
Diamond’s book, especially in light of Katrina, points up the ways in which we simply don’t think about long term environmental consequences much in our political and economic lives. Anyone who has read Jerome á Paris remarkable series of environmental analyses, or Michael Klare’s work on Znet understands how little of that kind of thinking gets reported in the mainstream press…if not how little of it gets addressed in the political discourse of the two main political parties in the United States. That must change.
We need to have a discussion of why our national political system has utterly failed our citizens in leading a discussion about the long term environmental consequences of our current practices. Our citizens get it. Our localities get it. But our government doesn’t. In fact, our current corrupt, scandal-plagued GOP-led Congress, exemplified by Rep. Richard Pombo is based on selling our resources and our future to the highest bidder. Environmentalists spend a great deal of energy just combatting the GOP election cycle to election cycle. In that environment, there’s not much of a chance for long term thinking to get discussed.
One of the critical points that Diamond makes is that societies that “fail” oftentimes were obessesed or distracted with other issues. They just didn’t see the impending disaster until it was too late. Our political system is supposed to provide us with “small d” democratic venues where all of these issues are put on the table…where clear-thinking individuals and leaders are given a chance to break out of short term and “crisis mode” thinking and plan in a rational way. That isn’t happening. Our system has been bought and sold. The situation now is worse than it was two decades ago.
Oftentimes, shifts away from from long term planning and sustainability happen gradually. As a student of Diamond’s asked…”What was the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island thinking?” Almost certainly, they weren’t thinking much differently than the people who cut down the earlier trees; environmental devastation happened gradually. The consequences, however, were permanent.
One of the powerful realities expressed in the morning commute over the Bay Bridge is how easy it is to simply follow the vehicle in front of you wherever it is headed. That morning commute is a clear symbol of how our individual lives plug into a much larger reality. Yes, with the rise in gas prices, car pools and bus use have gone up. (You can see that every morning on the bridge..fwiw, I carpool and BART whenever possible.) But having seen that same commute during the dotcom boom I can say…nothing substantially is different. We are making change around the edges. We aren’t facing facts.
Jared Diamond’s book may be a bit of a “best seller”…but it is, nevertheless, essential reading. The picture he paints of Easter Island and Norse Greenland…societies cut off from the rest of the world, without a fallback…is exactly the situation we find ourselves in here on our planet Earth.
We’re all living on Easter Island. Most of us just haven’t realized that yet.