It’s A Small World, After All
By Malachi Sage, Guest Green Messenger at We Grow Green Tech
Apologies to any my title may have triggered by bringing to mind the Walt Disney earworm, arguably the most pernicious of all time. Those who have spent any time in one of their theme parks have likely suffered enough. Perhaps, like me, even years later you find this silly song dropping uninvited into your thoughts anywhere, anytime, apropos of nothing. Yet a kernel of truth resides there.
It is a commonplace that the world has gotten smaller in the modern age. Not so long ago, a voyage from, say, New York to Australia would have been an expensive and time-consuming adventure, with a significant chance of no return. Today, for those fortunate enough to participate in the upper third of the economy, it implies at most a week’s pay and an over-long flight, with risk similar to that of staying home and driving to the grocer’s on the weekend. It’s become a small world indeed.
Small, of course, is a relative term, and for much of human history “the world” was a convenient synonym for “all that exists.” That all ended when Buzz and Neil stood on the moon and looked back in awe at our big blue marble. Those of us paying attention now know that Earth barely registers in any honest accounting of all that exists, even as it remains the only part of infinity that is useful to us. Our world has been generous to a fault to all of the creatures who live and thrive here, but certainly none more than us. Humans are the Earth’s spoiled brats, taking what we want, when we want it, and if we choose, all of it. Humanity’s favorite word, in antiquity and now, is the favorite of brats everywhere: “Mine!”
Self-interested behavior has served as the basis for our economic thinking for as long as there has been an economy. In this view, the world exists to be exploited. Any other value it may have might be nice but is entirely beside the point. The road to success is hollering “Mine!” first and loudest, as often as possible. In fairness, this attitude may well have been the only one available to our ancient ancestors. Evolutionary survival demanded that they exploit their environment, and the addition of a bit of intelligence merely amplified their ability to do so. In the event, a bunch of enterprising apes moved out of Africa, serially claiming and exploiting every ecological niche they encountered with a vengeance.
For millennia, humanity spread and grew in numbers, yet the world remained mostly a mystery. In our limited imaginings, the world remained infinitely large. Early maps were bordered by large expanses of the Unknown, where dragons were rumored to rule.
We were mysterious even to one another. Humanity’s tribalism led to a huge diversity of cultures, and the limits of education and communication meant that a human might have a completely different lifestyle from another human living but a day’s march away. Our ignorance of our neighbors also acted to make the world seem larger than it is.
Many of these differences remain, of course, but time has diminished them. I feel their loss, the days when crossing the border from one country to another meant adventure. In today’s small world, your phone and ATM card works everywhere. Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Starbucks are always just around the corner. Convenient, certainly, but I can’t help feeling we’ve lost something there, just as surely as we are losing the Serengeti and Alaska.
I often joke to my European friends that the difference between us is that to an American, one hundred years seems a long time, while to a European, one hundred miles seems a long journey. This attitude is changing, as well, of course.
Thanks to generations of intrepid anthropologists and documentary film makers, today a kid in Oslo can fairly easily get insight into life among the indigenous peoples of the Amazonian rainforest. Few cultures remain hidden from us. There is no longer a darkest Africa, or lost horizon.
As noted, all peoples use the Earth for their own ends. One area where Europeans especially stood out was their whole-hearted embrace of the idea that the world next door was there for the taking. There came a time, a few centuries ago, when Europe especially was running out of fresh opportunities for hollering “Mine!” The situation was becoming so dire that the only way to succeed was to liberate what already belonged to someone else. Then Christopher Columbus made the most significant wrong turn in history, and opened up the other half of the planet for exploitation. Sure, there were some folks already living there, but in the European view they weren’t using it properly, so they didn’t count. The new and improved world was bigger than ever.
Fortunes large and small were made by those with the gumption and luck to be the first and loudest to holler “Mine!” For much of history since the discovery of the Americas, it seemed that there was more world than could ever be used up. Humanity persisted in behaving like children. If you’ve ever been the adult victim of an attack by a four year old, you understand. The child comes at you full on, with no conception that you can be hurt. It’s a child’s prerogative, as witnessed by the similar behavior most of us have experienced with kittens and puppies. At some point proper training is required to educate the young about the vulnerability of others. Economically, humanity has failed at this, our selfish behavior not properly tamed.
The endless horizons of the New World could only last so long, but our appetite persisted. Even when the more desirable lands had all been claimed, there were still the commons to be exploited. The onset of industrialization took full advantage of the seemingly infinite supply of world at humanity’s disposal. More air than we could smoke up. More water than we could foul. More ice than could ever be melted, more forest than we could burn. More creatures than we could ever drive to extinction. We certainly acted as if this were so, and still do.
The world continues to shrink. The “too big to fail” view of the world has proved impervious to knowledge. Once ignorance was our excuse, now denial lends us cover. The honest majority of humanity knows now that we can hurt Nature beyond repair, yet a large portion of us insist on remaining blissfully unaware, or else claiming that we are powerless to do anything about it. Issues of economic justice also play a part. In a fair world, who could blame the late comers for wanting to get in on the action? They ask, “Now that we’ve shared all of mine, when are we going to share some of yours?”
Unfortunately for us all, the world is not interested in fairness. While one can agree that relations among our fellow humans should be fair, the climate will change whether we are fair or not. Pandemics will strike with no remorse. The rain will fall, in amounts too little or too large, without a thought of justice. The chemicals and plastics will accumulate, the ice will melt, the currents shift.
To the extent that fairness aids a solution to our common problems, by all means let us be fair. What is not negotiable, the element currently missing from our economic strategy, is the recognition that on a small planet our actions affect one another. Our business cases need reform, a paradigm shift away from asking “How much can we make?” to asking “What good does it do?” The old model, placing profit above all else, leads to the ills of environmental degradation, wealth and political inequality, and exploitation of labor. A plan that placed doing what’s best for the world above satisfying the endless hunger for profit maximization could spark a green revolution, making us carbon neutral, erasing poverty, restoring the environment, and leaving us ultimately with more freedom to live well.
We have the ability, what we are lacking is a new way of relating to the world. The days of heeding wealthy conservatives when they dismiss environmentalists as naïve idealists must end. The hard truth is that it is the old way of thinking that is selfish and naïve. Our incredible shrinking planet needs to set aside childish “Mine!”, and instead embrace the adult world of sharing, getting along with others, cleaning up our mess, and taking care of our things. It is time to grow up, and be a big world.