Wake up, stop dreaming
“The sun is in the sky again
There’s a hole in the ocean
And water’s pouring through.
Oh, wake up stop dreaming
And wipe the sleep from your eyes.
Are you frightened of heights?
Are you falling”?
-Wang Chung song lyrics.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac . “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
I fell in love with woods, pasture and creek living on my grandparent’s farm when I was a child. After my family moved to the nearby small rural community I found my dose of ‘nature’ walking down a dirt road to the lake, where I would sit with my back against a giant cotton wood tree and look out over the water. Someone loaned me a copy of the geologic history of our community’s lake. I was fascinated to learn that it was a remnant of the last ice age; the basin formed from an iceberg that calved off the retreating ice sheet and buried in sediment where it slowly melted over decades. During a particularly bad drought in the ‘30’s the shore had retreated and farmers plowed the lake sediment. The lake had existed here for thousands of years and we often found arrow heads in the nearby land.
Wherever I moved I explored the terrain seeking to understand the history of a place. The Sonora desert of Arizona was a beautiful lonely place where only a few of the several million inhabitants of Phoenix ever ventured. People lived in a vast city centered within a ring of mountain parks yet never knew what the mountains contained. Roads are carved though the desert and mountains making it easier for us to travel rapidly from point A to point B. What about the “in-between” places along the way? Do we really notice the road we travel or only the places where we arrive? I traveled north through Utah, Colorado and Wyoming stopping along the way and camping in the desert. Monument Valley is a beautiful testament to the power of water carving away sediment leaving behind rocky pediments. This was when I fell in love with geology and decided to study earth science, wanting to become an environmental scientist.
Leopold is right, the more ecological education one has the more aware we become of the wounds humans inflict on the landscape. We don’t do so intentionally, which makes our indictment that much stronger. We live without thought or awareness of the consequences of our actions. We flinch when lectured to by the self-righteous, those whose environmental certainty has the flavor of a religious calling. We are fairly sure we don’t want to become a vegan. Can’t we eat at McDonald’s, drink our morning cappuccino from the drive up lane and still be good citizens?
Once in a while we might think about nature. We think it would be nice to visit the Grand Canyon, the Outer Banks, take a train to Alaska or some scenic place we’ve heard about. But few people think about the impact our lifestyle has on nature, we rarely understand wilderness because we have become domesticated by our lifestyle. We enjoy the convenience of a local coffee shop, a good restaurant, the grocery store, the shopping centers (more often now on line), a fast moving road and downtown parking. We don’t want weeds popping up in our lawn or in the sidewalk cracks. We like an orderly landscape and we prefer to remain ignorant of the chemicals used to keep it looking that way. We are creatures of habits long formed by cultural conditioning.
Everything about our American lifestyle requires a constant flow of energy and resources, which few of us really stop to think about or understand. How much energy does our home use? Where does our food come from and how was it produced? Who sewed our clothing or built our cars? Where do the wastes from our home and car’s tailpipe go? Finding the answers is too much to think about. Instead we go on with our daily routines believing we are happy until our doctor tells us we have a disease. Isn’t there a pill we can take to fix that? Can’t we just pretend life on earth will continue and tomorrow will be similar to today, until it isn’t? We tend to think our leaders are doing the right thing until we read in the news that someone’s drinking water was contaminated for years with lead and public officials knew. We decide to start buying bottled water just in case. Our lives are filled with misplaced trust and ignorance.
It’s easier to remain ignorant of climate change, even though the science isn’t complicated. When the temperature soars to 100 we complain about the heat from the comfort of air-conditioned space. We don’t connect climate change with the air conditioning of our homes and automobiles. The news is increasingly filled with stories of hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, and wildfires, which we’re learning to tune out. We close our eyes to the messes in the corner of the room, believing that there is nothing we can personally do to change the world or our situation. Sadly, everything we do is changing the world.
If we looked we would see the signs of decay all around us and we might question the belief that we are well. It takes a lot of denial to tune out the loud ringing of klaxons! It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the immensity of change needed. We often think turning back isn’t possible. It certainly isn’t as simple as some would like to believe. It’s doubtful that any of our current approaches—be they policy or grassroots activism—will solve our problems. To be honest, I’m not even sure we can.
Have you ever been told by your doctor “You need to eat better” but they don’t tell you how? They expect you to know how to eat better. How do we know what to change in our life if we don’t know what we’re doing that is causing the problems? We are told that we need to cut back on fossil fuels and turn to renewable energy, but few people actually have any idea how much fossil fuel energy they use. How much electricity does it take to air-condition our home or car? How much gas does it take to heat it? How many solar panels would I need to replace fossil energy I use?
Most people have their electric and gas bills paid automatically and they don’t pay attention to the money they spend on utilities. Utility bills are unavoidable! Aren’t’ they? Is it unavoidable that energy companies have a monopoly on energy? How much would it cost to invest in solar energy and make our homes energy independent? Our lifestyle is on automatic consumption mode and we’ve stopped counting the costs. We are all of us in America complicit; buyers and sellers, purveyors of our Western lifestyle. The first step in changing our life is to start counting the costs; become aware of how much energy we use and how we use it. This is the first step to changing to renewable energy.
If we are going to power our life with renewable energy we need to learn to consume less energy. We need to find meaning and happiness in a life that doesn’t hold consumption as the goal. We need to accept living with less. Can you enjoy doing more work with your hands, spend less time wasting energy driving where you don’t need to go? Can you develop a fierce commitment to paying attention to the energy you use?
Can you imagine how even a small amount of renewable energy could transform the lives of people who use much less energy than we do? Can we learn to limit what we take from the world and leave room for others, even if “others” are the weeds in our lawn? Can we want less, share more? Can we live better, not longer lives? Can we find purpose in doing what feels right, not always what feels good?
If we are going to reduce fossil fuel use we need to make the switch to renewable energy and electric cars. We don’t have much time to reduce carbon emissions. The largest sources of emissions are from coal fired electric generating stations and the oil we consume for transportation. Americans need to change how we produce electricity and how we fuel our cars. We need to consume less stuff that requires long distance transportation. Now is the time to change, not later. Solar technology is cost effective and Federal tax credits are still available for another few years. Electric cars are becoming more economical than gas powered. If we wait to act events will overtake us and we will be the victims of disaster, left waiting for help that never arrives.
The illness of American life is our ignorance of the energy we consume, the products made from it, and the luxuries we take for granted. I was thinking about energy last weekend as I stacked firewood; my back aching, my arms and legs tired. I started thinking about the term “energy slaves”. The forced air, gas furnace that heats most people’s home is an energy slave. We don’t have to do anything other than pay the bill. Renewable energy in the form of firewood requires hard physical labor; cutting, hauling, splitting, stacking, then hauling it in indoors to burn, and cleaning out the ashes from the wood stove. I thought about the higher cost of the energy efficient, low emission wood stove versus a cheaper gas fired furnace. It’s all about our choices. It’s our dependence on fossil energy that is destabilizing earth’s climate. Industrial agriculture is also part of another problem, for selling us food that is making us sick and giving rise to a healthcare industry that profits from our disease. There is no pill that can fix our lifestyle and we are in more danger than we realize.
It’s time to wake up and stop dreaming. If we must dream let it be a dream “that everyone’s children will one day live in a world where they know the value of the energy they use… where they can see the world as the wonderful gift it is and with a view to preserve this gift for their children in turn…”
Teaser photo credit: Yuval Y/Flickr