Global Solutions: Let’s Play “Grown-Ups.”
The other evening I was at a presentation of the film “End of the Line”, a documentary about global fisheries and marine ecosystems. The situation is bad; indeed grim would be a far better description. Pretty much all commercial fisheries face total collapse, are already collapsing, or have collapsed.
This is due largely to overfishing alone. It does not include the consequences of the ocean acidification caused by rising CO2 levels; something that will be equally catastrophic to marine life even in the absence of any fishing pressure.
While we in the industrialized world tend to think first about the economic consequences of such an event, the real catastrophe is for the 1.2 billion people who depend on fish for their protein. Collapse of global fisheries means global famine.
The film presents the problem of industrialized fisheries and offers some suggested solutions. These include marine protected areas, a certification process for sustainably harvested fish, and switching from top of the food chain species like tuna to smaller, more abundant species.
Each of the proposed solutions is a good idea and would certainly help. Unfortunately even if all three were implemented it would only slow the rate of catastrophe, not stop or reverse it. As is so often the case, we have simply let things go too far. As such the organizers put out a call to the largely academic audience for other proposals, other things we might do to avoid the death of the oceans.
Given the horrific consequences for the Developing World I asked if there was any possible justification for those of us in the Industrialized World to continue consuming fish. For 90% of us fish may be a welcome part of our diet, but it is hardly necessary as it is for those in the Developing World. One the organizers immediately scoffed that people were unwilling to even consider the idea, while another asked me if I was a vegan. [Aside: note that "people" does not include those in the Developing World, whom I am pretty sure would generally be in favour of the notion]
Hello? For the former, any real change is going to be resisted and always has been, be it the suggestion that women work outside the home, universal suffrage, or the 40 hour work week. If “the solution” to a given problem was wildly popular there would be no problem because the solution would already have been implemented. Further, radical problems will not be addressed by putting window dressing on the status quo. The status quo is the problem.
As for the question about my dietary habits, that was an attempt at an ad hominem tu quoque , trying to dismiss the argument by claiming the person making it is inconsistent or hypocritical. It is a logical fallacy since a point is valid or not, regardless of the actions of the person making it. (for the record, I am largely vegan at home, vegetarian when out and about).
Understand that these organizers were knowledgeable, intelligent, committed people. I don’t fault them in particular, and certainly do not suggest that they are exceptions. I bring up their response not to pick on them, but rather to underscore that their lack of an appropriate response was seen as reasonable even by those working on the issue in question. That they failed to answer my question or offer any other solution that might address the problem did not seem to trouble them or anyone in the audience.
I immediately thought of Michael Pollan’s:
“I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart. “
I use the analogy of someone having lung cancer, a lethal disease for which the treatment is painful and expensive, and even then offers only slim hope for recovery. If someone actually has lung cancer you don’t do them any favours by pretending it’s a cold or allergic response. While these lies might cause them less anxiety at the moment, their only real hope is in understanding the harsh reality and taking the appropriate action.
You can’t solve environmental or social problems if you can’t rationally discuss realistic solutions. Any hope of finding a real solution is abandoned in favour of feeling marginally better today. Whether due to ignorance or an inner sense of hopelessness this approach advocates placebos and panaceas. Far from being a positive, empowering approach, it screams of despair as well as causing it.
Now UNEP is calling on us to adopt a vegan diet (here for the report itself) to avert global famine. No doubt this will be met with the same disbelief and derision as my question was, and Lord Stern’s earlier suggestion that vegetarianism was necessary to avert climate catastrophe.
It is not a given that any of these proposed actions are required, but at least they are realistic in that they actually address the problems in a real way. As such they deserve intelligent, fact based responses. They deserve real discussion, not casual dismissal and/or on logical fallacies. People who offer real solutions are being realistic. It is the ones who imagine that the solutions to complex, fundamental problems may be found in easy, trivial actions that are living in a world of pretense.
Further, if these particular proposals which would have a real impact are not acceptable, then it is necessary to articulate why, and to offer something as good or better. The default plan to do little or nothing entails the death and suffering of hundreds of millions to billions of people, and if that is what we are advocating then we should at least have the decency to say so out loud.
I suspect that the problem is not that we don’t know or care, we clearly do. The problem is that we know too well that if we have that honest discussion then it will be clear that only the most radical solutions have any chance of success, and then we will be morally bound to either adopt them. That, or confront our own self-indulgence and moral cowardice. That’s what really scares us; not global apocalypse, but learning who we really are.
That’s why we pretend cloth bags, hybrid cars and light bulbs are solutions. They may be part of a solution, but the real solution has to be as fundamental as the problem, and will change our lives almost as radically. The difference is that on the one hand we can manage those changes and continue to lead lives of health, dignity and well-being. The default is to simply plummet blindly into the abyss.
If we’re going to pretend anything, let’s pretend to be grown-ups. Let’s have a real grown -up discussion that looks these problems square in the face and deals with them realistically. Further, let’s be honest about the consequences of our failure to act, for ourselves and for others.
Only then can we truly begin to hope, because hope lies only in truth. The full truth, even if some aspects of it are unflattering or difficult for us. That’s hard, it takes courage, but that’s what being a real grown-up is about.