Deep in conversation, cellphone pressed to her ear, the lady walks along staring at the ground ahead of her, oblivious to her surroundings. A common sight these days, you say. Yes, but this lady is walking in one of the most beautiful wildlife refuges in North America. She has no interest, however, in the gorgeous plants and birds around her. She lives in a modern electronic world.
Many local people know that my latest book – “Finding Your Wings in the Peterson Field Guide Series” – is a workbook about getting started in the fascinating pastime of bird-watching (birding). Some of my Audubon Society friends use it to teach elementary birding classes. I also go around doing workshops for beginners. You might think, therefore, that I’m a hotshot birder. I’m not. With a life-list of only about 550 species for North America, I’m not an expert who can identify every American bird in every plumage instantaneously. I don’t go out every weekend seeking more birds. My enthusiasm, rather, is for getting other people out into the natural world: enjoying it, learning about it, and most of all becoming enthusiastic about saving what’s left of it.
Because the sad fact, my friends, is that the world is dying, and it needs every bit of support we can muster. Much of it is already dead, and much of the rest is headed that way. Why? First, because there are far too many people on Earth—now more than 7 billion. The need for population control seems to be beyond the understanding of most people, for various reasons. Second, too many of those 7 billion are still pursuing a fantasy of the market economy: owning oodles and gobs of stuff and getting rich by selling stuff to others.
To seek those riches and to produce those tons of necessary stuff, people ravage Earth for materials and energy. But Earth’s resources cannot possibly provide 7 billion or more people with the food and material goods that average Americans supposedly require for happiness. The World Resources Institute reports that 47 percent of the world’s forests are lost and only 21 percent are intact. Two-thirds of our fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. Idiots have released pythons into the Everglades that are decimating the mammal populations. Greedy idiots are digging up the Amazon to extract its gold. And the sad stories go on.
The world’s scientists have tried for decades to explain these simple facts of life, to warn the world that our ways of living must change drastically. Hardly anyone listens. A new generation of economists – Costanza, Cumberland, Daly, Norgard and others – have tried to explain that our current economic system is unsustainable and that we must adopt an ecological economic system. Hardly anyone listens. Meanwhile, at least a billion people go hungry every day, and that number will just keep increasing under current conditions. It is mere fantasy to think that continued growth – which would violate the principles of physics and ecology – could possibly make the situation better. Furthermore, all our economic activity is destroying our atmosphere and oceans, making life ever more difficult.
The electronic world is not the real world, folks. We are killing the real world, the world in which future generations of plants and animals – including our own grandchildren – will be trying to live. It won’t last much longer. Does that concern you, or are you more concerned about which Hollywood celebs are having an affair this week?
The sound you’re hearing is coming from the future: the collective voices of our descendants damning us for our thickheadedness.
Burt Guttman, a professor of biology emeritus at The Evergreen State College, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.