When truth is unbelievable
As a college junior I frequented a website (www.dieoff.org) where prognosticators observed that with accelerating rates of environmental destruction, overpopulation and fossil fuel depletion, modern civilization was on the verge of collapse.
Despite the alarmist tone, these writings were not pseudo-scientific rants, but well-researched articles by eminent authors spelling doom. And there were books on these subjects, too, such as Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. I kept my new-found realization that life as we knew it was coming an end to myself, for fear of being labeled a “Cassandra.”
Only that’s exactly what I would soon become.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was gifted with the ability to see the future and cursed so that no one would believe her predictions. My own “prophecy” came in the form of J-curves, trend projections and grim statistics compiled by bright, trained minds, and also an intuitive sense of what would come of humankind befouling its own nest.
Despite fear of a similar curse, I tried my best over the next seven years to share my “vision” of the error of our ways.
More specifically, my message was that peaking global petroleum supplies were threatening the suburban American lifestyle and worse yet, that habitat loss, soil depletion and toxic pollution were beginning to threaten the human species.
Far from feeling hopeless, I shared my vision with others that by driving less, spending less, wasting less and wanting less—and by growing more food, making more friends and living lighter on the earth—we could survive and thrive, as well as make sure we left a habitable planet to the coming generations.
From Rotary Clubs to college classrooms, my presentations mostly received dull stares and polite questions from audiences who hopped back in their cars at the evening’s end and probably never thought about the subject again. But there was the occasional sentiment of entitlement—“Nobody can take my Hummer away from me,” murmured one attendee. And a boy in a middle school classroom worried out loud following my talk that the oil age would end before he could get his driver’s license.
Ambivalence prevailed among audience members who felt guilty for the planet’s plight while they cherished their energy addictions—their private car, big house, trips to Europe. The mainstream media, though, was decidedly unbelieving of my Cassandra-esque prophecies.
In 2005 Harper’s Magazine did a cover story on a conference I organized on peak oil, calling the movement a “liberal apocalypse” and likening its adherents to Christians preaching Armageddon. Not long after that I appeared on MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” where I was ridiculed for the notion of composting toilets, criticized by media personality John Stossel and had my “talking head” intermixed with scenes from the apocalyptic movie Mad Max.
I was reminded of a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi—“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
If the axiom is correct, then I was somewhere between being humiliated and attacked, with the prospect of victory not far off.
But seven years after I began a crusade to educate and mobilize my fellow citizens, I find the environmental movement seems largely ineffective, the culture more distracted and people more ambivalent than ever. Climate change is seen as a hoax perpetuated by grant-greedy scientists, peak oil remains the territory of kooks and pessimists and the next iPad version is more important to the public and media than the next version of Earth we are creating by radically altering the atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere.
When millions of gallons of crude oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after a drilling rig exploded, I heard the familiar corporate blame game with BP lambasted for its negligence. But calls to boycott BP won’t save the Gulf, or the planet. BP and every other energy company is merely doing what we consumers are asking them to do when we demand cheap energy.
Most upsetting to this Cassandra is that the poisoning of the Gulf could have been the wake-up call we need to change our ways. Instead, the leaking may be stopped or the oil captured for production, BP may financially recover, and we will be content to continue consuming happily—if only for a little while.
Or we could see the BP Gulf disaster for what it is—a depleting of our finite, fast-diminishing resources, a degradation of our habitat and an escalating poisoning of ourselves, our waterways, soils and air.
But of course, no one will believe me.