How To Save The World By Saving Yourself

Originally published on April 27, 2011 10:29 am

So, today, I give my last lecture of the semester. My class is an introductory astronomy class with a twist. The course is a kind of exercise in comparative planetology and I have been using our tour of the solar system to get the kids to think about what sustainability means in a planetary context. In looking at Venus, a world that is a cousin to Earth in its mass and size but whose surface temperature is hot enough to melt lead, we learn about runaway greenhouse effects. In looking at Mars, a now frigid desert world that may once have been "blue" with water running freely on the surface, we learn that habitability is not set in stone. Planets evolve through complex interactions between atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere (if you are lucky enough to have one). It's a great lesson and in the process we have also looked at Earth through the lens of climate change, resource depletion and the question of growth and its limits.

A lot of what I had to teach them was not good news. As we walk through topics like population growth and its impact on planetary systems I can see them slumping in their chairs.

"Fresh water is likely going to be a significant problem in the next 50 years." Ugh.

"Energy systems are likely to present a major challenge in the next 50 years." Sigh

"Climate is likely to become problematic in the next 50 years." Damn.

As we covered these topics I have emphasized that no one can predict the future. I told them they needed to do their own reading and discover for themselves what is sound science, what is a policy choice and how one may, or may not, affect the other. I have tried to show them that, unlike previous generations, they may not be able to assume that the invisible infrastructure supporting culture will remain invisible. It may, in fact, be called into question whether they want it to or not.

It's a harsh message to hear if you are 22 and I would like to leave them with something more than a "march off the cliff." I encounter this dilemma a lot as I travel and give talks on science and culture. So many times I talk to students who are earnest and full of energy. They look at array of challenges ahead and want to know what they are supposed to know.

How, they ask, can they save the world?

After thinking long and hard this what I have come up with. This is what I will tell my class today:

If you want to save the world, save yourself, first.

At first blush this may seem terribly self-centered and dangerous. Shouldn't these kids work on new energy technologies, solve the thorny policy issues surrounding population and resources or, at least, buy energy efficient light bulbs?

Yes, of course. But the "Long Emergency" we may be facing has been a century or more in the making. It has an inertia that is governed both by the laws of atmospheric heat transfer (among others) and the patterns of history. Given that climate, for example, is already heading toward some kind of new "solution" in the space of its possible states there are deeply personal choices that these kids are going to have to make. These choices reach far beyond and below which charity they support or what kind of light bulbs they buy.

On the long term they should, perhaps, be thinking about getting to "higher ground" both physically and metaphorically.

What I will tell my students today is that the choices they face hinge on where they live, what kind of community they choose to live in, and just as important, what kind of communities they choose to build for themselves.

If water resources are likely to become an issue then living in a region where water supply is already an issue may be a bad choice (sorry Las Vegas). If the loss of cheap energy is likely to become an issue then living in a region that can not support itself by growing the bulk of its own food within a few hundred mile radius may not be a good idea. If the loss of cheap energy is an issue then living in a place where personal automobiles are the only means of transport may not be a good idea either. Just as important, if the systems which support culture are likely to be stressed by climate, resource and energy issues then finding a town or city that has a long history of valuing community and innovation may be effort well spent.

Save the world by saving yourself first.

While it may be hard to think of picking up and moving at 45, at 25 you are just starting out and you have choices. No matter what happens over the next century, human beings will still be here building culture. The kids facing this century of change may end up becoming the heroic generation. There will be great challenges and great opportunities for them. There may very well be a new form of culture that needs to be built and they will be the ones building it. The point is, this time around, the process may very well begin not in the vast sphere of global politics but in the most intimate domains of immediate experience.

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