Friday, July 17, 2009

Convenience: Living Life without Consequence

I used to belong to The Planetary Society because I've always been fascinated by astronomy and space exploration. But a few years ago, I dropped my membership because I realized that people have no business reaching for other worlds when we have done such a poor job with the one we have. It is time for our thinking to come down to Earth, as it were.

Unfortunately, our space program is just one expression of the human tendency to dream of a shiny new tomorrow while ignoring the inconvenient realities of today. Don't get me wrong: I think it is good to dream. But why can't we dream up ways to solve the problems we already have?

Modern technology and services have given us an incredibly skewed view of our place in the world. It is easy to ignore a problem if you experience no consequences, and that is just what many of our modern "conveniences" do for us: they shift the consequences away from our personal experience.

Garbage collection is a simple example of what I mean. If you had to figure out what to do with all the trash you create, would you still buy all of that plastic packaging that only breaks down in a geologic time frame? Instead, you can conveniently set your trash out on the curb, perhaps make yourself feel a little better by separating out a few recyclables (which may or may not actually get recycled), and tomorrow the cans are empty waiting for you to fill them again. What happens to all that stuff? I'm sure you have absolutely no idea. You can generate as much trash as you want without consequence.

The next time you go to the grocery store, stop and think for a moment about where all that food came from. The sign above that produce item says it came from Chile. Or perhaps that cut of beef came from Brazil. How convenient! Never mind that they are tearing down the rain forests to make room for more cows to sell to Americans, and never mind the incredible amount of poverty-level labor and fossil fuels expended to get that item to your grocery store shelf at an affordable price. The consequences of getting that item into your cart are someone else's problem.

Odds are good you'll get to and from work this week in some kind of automobile. Possibly in a big, inefficient SUV that has never seen a dirt road. The consequences to our environment of producing the gas that goes into that giant metal pig, and the consequences of the noxious fumes it spews out behind you as you motor along, are conveniently out of site and out of mind. Shouldn't we be alarmed by the fact that, if we had to breathe the exhaust we produce, it would kill us? Conveniently, it just disappears into thin air. But it doesn't really disappear, does it?

I don't claim to have all the answers. After all, I make my living programming computers. Every few years I have to replace the hardware so I can run the latest Microsoft bloatware. That obsolete hardware is technically hazardous waste. But I can take it to the "refuse disposal site" and conveniently dump it. It's now someone else's problem.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that we shouldn't be surprised by long-term consequences that come about due to our short-term conveniences. Poor air and water quality, shrinking rain forests, and global warming are just our conveniences coming back to haunt us. Perhaps we would be better off thinking about ways we can reduce the environmental impact of our existence, rather than thinking up new ways to conveniently shift the consequences off to future generations.


linneatherose said...

Thank you. Now how can we make everyone, particularly Americans, do something to change the state of things?

James H. Byrd said...

Thanks for posting a comment!

You can't really "make" anyone do anything they don't want to do.

Our only hope to change the state of things is to make it more convenient or less expensive to do things that are good for the environment versus bad. For example, if the cost to recycle were lower than the cost to dispose, you'd see a lot more recycling.

But, in spite of our intellect and capacity for future thinking, most of us live moment by moment and don't really think much beyond the next spoon of food we put in our mouth or the next dollar we put in our pocket.

The inevitable disasters that occur due to that kind of short-range thinking aren't on the radar until they interfere with that next dollar or spoonful.

What is happening with global climate change is a good example. No one will give a fig until it interferes directly and incontestably with their daily life. Of course, by then it could be too late!

So is there any hope at all? Possibly. If the really bad stuff starts happening before it is too late to do anything about it, we have a chance. Otherwise, humanity will become the dinosaurs of this epoch.

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