I have taken to walking for exercise in a nearby neighborhood populated primarily by well-heeled professionals. There is very little car traffic (which makes up for the lack of sidewalks), and the area is both unusually quiet and aesthetically pleasing. Nearly all the houses have well-kept gardens with a variety of ornamental plants and flowers punctuated by properly-trimmed shrubs. Still, none of this exhibits the obsessiveness associated with grounds surrounding the homes of the super rich that are meant to repel outsiders by telling them that they don’t belong there. Instead, this neighborhood displays an orderliness that is both comfortable and reassuring.
But my pleasant walk through these leafy streetscapes is deceptive. For all its orderliness this neighborhood generates enormous entropy that is hidden from the viewer’s eyes. This has implications for our political life because these are the kinds of neighborhoods across the United States from which communities draw their leaders and in which turnout is heaviest during election time.
Even for those familiar with the environmental depredations wrought by this way of life, it is difficult to point to anything troubling in this neighborhood that is directly visible except perhaps the belching gas-powered lawn mower which disturbs the air with its thick exhaust. Even the Tru Green/Chemlawn truck applies its poison and fertilizer with little fanfare, leaving behind only mildly distressing miniature green and white signs that say children and pets should stay away, but only for the day. The tap…tap…tap and constant hiss of sprinklers dousing lawns produce a soothing cadence in the otherwise quiet air, signaling the delivery of a refreshing drink to living things groaning in the summer heat. (Of course, intellectually, I know that all this irrigation is a colossal waste of fresh water and of the energy to purify and pump it.)
The explanation for why this way of life creates enormous entropy and thus environmental damage is alas abstract on the one hand–global warming due to fossil fuel combustion used to create electricity is a fairly complex chain–or relatively hidden on the other–unseen oil and natural gas wells and petrochemical refineries that provide the basis for many of the chemical inputs used by the average American gardener or lawn enthusiast.
So, if the daily experience of the leaders who live in such neighborhoods is one of order and pleasant surroundings, how can we expect them to champion change? What immediate and visible incentive do they have, short of some personal philanthropic tendencies, to confront the major environmental and resource depletion problems of the day?
This is a classic problem of lag times. When it comes to climate change, for example, the rise in temperatures we are experiencing now has its origins in greenhouse gases emitted more than a generation ago. And, the feedback that would tell us how we are doing today will not arrive for another 30 years. Likewise, the deprivations that resource depletion might bring to a neighborhood like the one I describe above will not come there first. They will be felt first by the world’s marginal populations; and, those deprivations will at most be experienced by Americans remotely in the form of television appeals for humanitarian aid. Americans will make few connections between the desperation they see on the television screen and the rising prices at home for basic goods. In fact, something like this is already happening when it comes to petroleum products, metals and food. But there are no shortages here–yet!
The human mind is primarily inclined to think in concrete terms. Abstract thinking is largely an acquired talent which needs constant practice in order not to atrophy. And, yet it is abstract thinking which is required to address the perplexing, systemic challenges we face. You might be able to reduce your own carbon footprint; but the carbon footprint of humanity is not going to be reduced without determined collective effort. And, that will require complex abstract thinking.
One step toward that way of thinking may be to see through the deceptive landscape of any relatively prosperous American neighborhood. Only when we can uncover the hidden and often abstract evidence of the damage our way of life is doing to the biosphere will a genuine public inquiry into our ecological fate be possible.