15 Apr 2007

Pathways to a Sustainable World

I attended a conference this weekend entitled “Pathways to a Sustainable World.” It was held here, at the University of Rochester, and there were sessions on both Friday and Saturday although I was only able to go on Saturday for a number of reasons. After a long day of speakers and panels and a delicious lunch of organic, locally-grown food, I emerged from the conference concerned about the fate of the human species and thoroughly worried about our home, planet Earth. At the same time, though, I was energized and excited to continue my own personal mission of trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle (note to self: suck it up and bike or carpool to work this summer). Even more importantly, I wanted to share some of the things that were discussed in hopes of inspiring others into caring about how their actions will affect the planet for generations to come.

Conference Logo

The general consensus among the speakers was that the human species is at a very low point in its existence. This may seem counter-intuitive; after all, our collective body of knowledge grows at an amazing rate each year. Humans rule the universe; technology has allowed us to conquer the moon and send probes to other planets and to the far reaches of our solar system. We know both how the world was created and how our genetic code delicately intermingles to create new and unique members of our species.

But is all this knowledge good for us? One of the speakers this morning presented an interesting analogy. Draw a circle, and inside of it put all of the things that are known about the world. Outside of the circle represents the unknown. When we learn something new, the circle grows bigger to represent increased knowledge, but so does our interface with the unknown! For example, it was discovered many years ago that CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons) made good refrigerants and cleaning solvents. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until much later, after copious damage had been done to the ozone layer, that the research came through on how much CO2 these molecules trap in the atmosphere. So many other chemical discoveries have parallel stories; their positive effects were widely hailed until studies came out years later exposing them as carcinogens or mutating agents or something else equally harmful.

The pace of technology has accelerated to a point where it is possible for science to keep up. Technology has also contributed to another one of society’s problems, one that could be viewed as a core cause of climate change. The human race has become largely “domesticated;” we have fallen out of touch with the world that we live in and on. We are a species that has neglected its habitat; choosing to destroy it and pave it over with with artificial dwellings whose conditions are carefully controlled and monitored. We are caretakers of our own zoo. Our ancestors not that long ago lived off the land. They were involved in building their own houses and growing their own food. They understood that they depended on the land for their sustenance, and that made them respect and honor it. In contrast, many people today have no idea where their food comes from, or certainly don’t think about it on a daily basis. Plenty go through life without ever making something with their own hands. My father helped to build his family’s house, but I would have no idea how to even go about making a bookshelf.

I could go on and on about the knowledge I gained today and the many themes that were discussed and brought together in interesting and startling ways. A psychologist talked about how people like to go to the mall because they think that shopping makes them happy, but his research showed that people who were outside experiencing the beauty of nature were actually the happiest. The paradox of the liberal-thinking university environment was discussed: many university communities like to debate lofty ideas for climate change, but universities are conservative organizations by nature because of the many stakeholders that must be kept happy, making it unlikely that radical change will begin at the university level.

The conference made me question many of my beliefs. I have always been a big supporter of “progress.” For me, the way to greatness always seemed to be forging ahead. I loved to hear about new buildings being constructed and new roads being built, because to me it was a sign that the species was one step closer on the road to perfection. Every scientific discovery was one step closer to what would eventually be a complete knowledge of the laws and idiosyncracies of the universe. Now, I think that maybe we ought to stop and rein in the monster that we have created. Earth was doing alright until humans, starting with the the technological advances of the industrial revolution, disrupted its natural lifecycle. We must act now to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, or there could be heavy repercussions.

Check out the April 9th, 2007 edition of Time Magazine for a list of 51 things that you can do to effect climate change.