The end of the world as we know it
Amelie looks out the window, at the ominous cloud, the strengthening wind, the spray whipped back from the breaking surf.
“It's looking threatening,” she says.
A few minutes later the rain begins; a squall, a wild wind from the South. The last surfers scurry from the beach back to their car; a fisherman joins them, rod and bucket in hand. The beach is left to the birds, the surf, the weather, the cast-up logs and shells and kelp.
When the rain passes, moving up the coast, we cross the creek on the pontoon, pulling ourselves across the slow flow on a simple, effective contraption of empty oil drums and steel grating, and walk to the beach. Sand after rain seems like hope or the promise of forgiveness—a reminder that after we've gone, when the last human passes, the world will continue, and will begin to erase the signs of our time on Earth. Like the maze of footprints on the beach and the excavations and constructions of small children with plastic spades and buckets, the traces of our activities will be erased by weather and time and non-human lives.
When and how this will happen, I don't know. I do suspect it will happen not catastrophically and globally but gradually and patchily. Human existence, already grim in much of the world, will become grimmer, then desperate, and the expansion of regions where humans cannot live will accelerate. There, in those deserted and ruined places, the record of human life will begin to fade. Most probably, little else will replace us because those areas will be too arid.
But sun and wind can erase as effectively as rain.
It's not that no one cares. Plenty of people care. But not enough people care, and most people don't care enough. When Green Party M.P. Nandor Tanczos spoke at Massey University a couple of weeks ago, he began by playing a clip from the R.E.M. song, “It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”. It wasn't entirely in jest. Climate change, he said, is just one symptom of what he called “our abusive relationship with the planet”. Our accelerating demand for energy won't be solved by biofuels—already accused of causing famines—nor nuclear solutions, which face intransigent problems of how to dispose of the waste and of security , and, for New Zealand, the lack of infrastructure and other support for nuclear power generation and the unmanageable size of any nuclear power plant .
Pointing out that human populations face the same constraints as other animals, in particular being limited by food, he noted that the world's fisheries “are in free fall.” On current trends, he claimed, this is the last century in which wild seafood will be readily available.
Sources of easily extracted metals are also diminishing rapidly, and while the metals are not actually “used up”, the economic and environmental costs of extracting them from less convenient sources are likely to increase hugely.
The list goes on. To his credit, Nandor offered suggestions for what he described as a gradual descent rather than a crash landing. What he didn't offer—because, I believe, no one can—was the prospect of future in which we can sustain our present way of life, our standard of living. Yet where's the evidence that enough people care enough about the crisis to avert it, or even soften it? New Zealand's Green Party garners roughly 5% of the polls (give or take a few percent, and depending on which survey one chooses), and the Parliamentary election later this year will be fought on who promises the largest tax cuts, the state of the economy, and fear of a lowered, or even static, standard of living.
Buy (into the spin) now; pay (the environmental and social consequences) later.
Of course we all care about the environment. But if caring for the environment means driving our cars less, or more carefully, or—god forbid—paying a miniscule tax to mitigate the damage we do, no thanks. If I recycle my empty bottles and replace my conventional light bulbs with CFLs I'm doing my bit; I can justifiably complain about the price of petrol. In short, we all care about the environment, but too many of us care only as long as it costs us nothing.
After Nandor's speech I listened to one of my friends talking about some of the rarified research being conducted at Massey. He seemed frustrated, not by what he’d just heard, but because for him it put that rarified research into perspective—and not a particularly favourable perspective.
“We’re facing these crises; all these crucial questions we need to answer,” he said, “and they’re fluffing about investigating the mating habits of Indian ants .”
The comment reminded me of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous remark, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.”
I thought about the justification for comments like these, and my own pessimism about where we're headed; our apparent failure to convert concern into action. Should we abandon esoteric research; should I stop photographing rocks?
It's a hard one. It's tempting to think we “should” act responsibly, but how happy would we be if we insisted on acting responsibly? Sure, some of us would—and do—feel satisfied and happy knowing (or thinking) we're doing the right thing, but what about the rest of us who, if we sacrificed ourselves for the greater good, would spend our lives feeling thwarted by our sense of duty—in effect, resenting the conscience that denied us the right to pursue what we most wanted? Enough, I guess, to make the world a less happy place than it would otherwise have been.
On the other hand, if we all chased our dreams and abandoned any sense of social or environmental responsibility, the result would be an enormous increase in the number of people who, because of the agonising circumstances they'd find themselves in as a result of our self-interested inaction, would be unable to chase their dreams.
At dawn we walk the track past the monstrous new house squatting where it can watch the entire beach. Everything that happens on the beach falls, potentially, under the gaze of the house's occupants; every life on the beach can be scrutinised from the enormous glass windows. I wonder if the occupants considered this a price to pay for their vista or whether, instead, they enjoy the feeling of dominance? Maybe they never even considered it; maybe they were blinded by the prospect of the view. Sometimes we can't (or don't, or refuse to) foresee the consequences of our actions, but the consequences arise anyway. When they're no more serious than sometimes seeing what you'd rather not see, like “your” beach swarming with people, it's no big deal, but it's a different matter if your actions contribute to the extinction of species, poverty and starvation, and oil-motivated wars—to name a few examples.
So what am I doing wandering this beach, photographing gulls and waves, water and the light, when the world is going to pieces? Writing and photographing are ways I share, ways I show, ways I encourage others to look, see, and think. Is this justifiable? I trust, or at least hope sincerely, that these things make the world a better place, but to that end, am I making the best use of my abilities? The problem is that even if I were making the best use of my abilities, those abilities might not be particularly useful for making the world a better place. Maybe other things, things I'm neither good at nor enjoy, would contribute more to saving snow leopards or wild places or human lives. Logic in that form suggests I should try to get the best-paying job I can and donate all my non-essential income to organisations like the snow leopard conservancy or the snow leopard trust , the yellow-eyed penguin trust, Conservation International, Oxfam, or Amnesty International.
But, I can't say I'm happy with the idea of sacrificing my own happiness to make the world better. It feels wrong, although I don't know if that feeling arises from the universal ability of human beings to rationalise what we do. And counter-arguments have been proposed; for example, it's hard to predict whether or to what degree esoteric research will eventually lead to “practically” useful applications, and, would a world without artists and people who make us laugh really be a better world?
Further along the beach, two oystercatchers run towards the lagoon, their swift, pattering feet leaving long lines of tracks in the rain-cleaned sand. A red-billed gull sidles towards us as we rest on a driftwood log. Those gulls are ever the opportunists, always ready to exploit us. It makes a change, I suppose, but when we've gone—when all of us have gone, and the beaches remain unmarked by our footprints from one rain to the next—red-billed gulls will survive, perhaps finding life a little less easy but still managing. Should that thought be a comfort? Perhaps, but it can also be an inducement to apathy: why bother trying, when we'll be gone soon and the wildlife—what's left of it—can take over?
So, I find myself once again in that state of not knowing, of uncertainty—but not the delicious uncertainty of great possibility. It's more a feeling that time's running out; that our options are becoming more and more limited; a feeling that possibility has begun to contract, and I'm not sure how to reconcile the desire to make the most of what's left with the urge to fight to protect what I love. Perhaps, out of that tension, I'll find a way of going about my life that works, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, I'll carry on doing what I can—at least some of it—and trusting that where I'm doing better than most I'll be seen as an example, and where I'm not doing so well, I'll be treated with enough understanding and compassion to encourage me to do better. And if I treat others that way, and if enough of us do the same, we might just make a difference.
1. He also mentioned rapidly diminishing stockpiles of uranium, but there are good reasons to question whether uranium reserves really will disappear as quickly as some (including Nandor) claim. The IAEA doesn't think so.
2. Even a small plant would supply a substantial proportion of New Zealand's power, so the backup when such a plant has to switch off would have to be correspondingly large. Moreover, nuclear power production doesn't follow load (demand), meaning the non-nuclear power plants would have to compensate for the fluctuating load; this would have serious economic consequences for some of those plants. The Chair of New Zealand's Electricity Commission explains these points clearly.
3. I’ve changed the example to something hypothetical. Apologies to anyone studying the mating habits of Indian ants.
4. Dyer, Geoff 2005. The Ongoing Moment. London: Abacus. 285 pp. ISBN 0 349 11888 4. [P. 97: “'The world is going to pieces,' Cartier-Bresson chided in the 1930s, 'and people like [Ansel] Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.'”]
5. Don't ask me about the difference between these two organisations. I have no idea, nor do I know why they haven't pooled their resources.
Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1. One of those who might inherit the Earth.
2. And another: Gymnopilus junonius, commonly called "big laughing gym (or Jim)" at Farewell Spit. Identified for me by Dr Peter Buchanan, Landcare Research. Peter says, "This probably introduced species is fairly common on a range of hosts (esp. pines, eucalypts, but also pohutukawa), typically fruiting at the base of stumps, dying trees, or on pruned live trunks. Although bitter and inedible it is reported to be hallucinogenic—hence the common name above (also known as giant flame-cap)."
3. Green party M.P. Nandor Tanczos at Massey University, Palmerston North, 30 April 2008.
4. Turoa skifield, Mt Ruapehu.
5. White-faced heron, April 2008. One of a pair living on and around the beach beneath the enormous windows.
6. The common weed, woolly mullein, Verbascum thapsus. No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley, May 2008.
7. Sastrugi and Girdlestone, Mt Ruapehu; winter 2005.
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor