I never planned to be a specialist in environmental reporting. I started my career in journalism doing mostly straight science writing—articles that required the translation of scientific mumbo-jumbo into accessible language. Genetics, technology, medicine—the usual. But the bulk of my assignments quickly came to be on environmental issues. The media are devoting more space to them as the public wants to understand and deal with the mess we’ve made. A science degree came in handy for translating the importance of neurotoxins and greenhouse gases.
But lately it’s made me feel a bit like a Cassandra, cursed forever to preach grim environmental truths that no one wants to heed. Here it is: things are bad, probably much worse than you think, and the most maddening part is that I believe we could fix things—we just won’t.
I’d always cared about the environment, but until it became a professional necessity, I didn’t study it formally. When I was a student at the University of Toronto, I didn’t want to spend every day feeling bummed out about how stupid and greedy people are and what a sullied planet I’ve inherited.
Instead, I wanted to study something that would make me happy. So I studied zoology. Learning about how living things work gives me constant wonder and joy. Most people don’t think of it this way, but biology provides incredible fodder for the imagination. All you have to do is look at the spiral of your own inner ear, leopard slug sex (YouTube it, seriously), the architecture of spider silk, the development of frog embryos or the complexities of the genetic code to see that this is true. Humans might be able to put a man on the moon and memorize pi to thousands of decimal places, but we will never create something as complex as a bacterium—let alone ourselves. Every day I learned something new that blew my mind, and every day I had fun doing it.
I only started to really learn about environmental issues in earnest in the fourth year of my Bachelor of Science degree, when I took a course on climate change ecology. I was still learning something new and mind-blowing every day—but it wasn’t fun anymore.
I thought I was well-informed. I knew that things were bad, but this bad? The world’s great coral reefs might disappear by the time I’m 40? The highest concentrations of PCBs on earth are found in the breast milk of Inuit women? A third of all species might be destined for extinction (or already gone) by 2050?
These weren’t the hyperbolic ravings of unshod hippies— this was top-calibre, peer-reviewed science taught at one of our country’s top universities. This wasn’t on the fringes of academia. This was the main fare.
In my first year doing environmental journalism—and I am embarrassed to admit this—I cried constantly. Just a few months after starting out as a freelancer, I was sent by a magazine to visit Aamjiwnaang, a First Nations reserve in Ontario that is surrounded by chemical factories, after being convinced/ conned by the Crown to sell their ancestral land to Shell, Dow, Sunoco and other petro-giants. Now, fringed by industrial smokestacks, the people there are plagued by a host of health problems, including rampant asthma, far-too-frequent miscarriages and what appears to be one of the most skewed birth ratios in the world (twice as many girls are born as boys—the oil industry contends it is little more than a coincidence).
Again, as a city-bred white girl with little reason to complain: I cried. A lot. Not just because of that one unfair, stupid mess, but for all the unfair stupid messes like it all over the world. The strange tingly headaches and diffi culty breathing I suffered while I was visiting the region—neither of which I would consider psychosomatic—didn’t help.
Now it is my job to know about every shred of environmental news and research that comes through the wires. And let me tell you: things are seriously messed up. Things are so much worse than you think they are.
It’s not that I think the ice caps will melt tomorrow and we’re all going to die horribly in some kind of apocalyptic Day After Tomorrow affair. I don’t think we are going to wipe out all life on earth and the planet will become uninhabitable—life is far more resilient than that.
What I do think is that the world is going to change a lot over the next century. And I think the changes are going to be very uncomfortable. Energy, food, water and everything else will be more expensive and scarce.
But most of all—and for me this is the most heartbreaking thing—I do believe that a staggering proportion of life on earth will go extinct. No one really knows how much, but probably a third of amphibians, a quarter of mammals, and probably more than a third of all species. Period. Our world will be less diverse, less colourful and a lot less interesting. To an animal geek like me, it means a much more dull and lonely world.
But as bad as things are, I don’t cry or freak out anymore— worrying all the time and losing sleep won’t do any good, and I’ll just ruin my own health. So I just do what I can to make the world a better place, and the rest of the time, carpe diem and carpe nocte: enjoy my own life while I can, before things get much worse (because they will).
But this is the sad irony: as pessimistic as I am, I don’t believe it has to be this way.
Do I think we can avoid a slow, inexorable march toward an unrecognizable planet? Without a doubt. We can split the atom, we can peer into the structure of our own DNA, we can send satellites to bloody Mars. Our brains are—as far as we know— the most complex and sophisticated objects in the universe. Of course we can figure out how to live comfortably without making a horrible, stinky, cancerous mess everywhere. We already have every smidge of technology and know-how we need.
But do I think we will avoid catastrophe? Doubtful. Look at our track record. Look at what we spend our money, energy and hope on. Endless crap. Gargantuan McMansions we don’t need (except to fill with more endless crap we don’t need). Diamondstudded ass scratchers. And, of course, weapons. We spend more than a trillion dollars a year killing each other.
Humans can be artful, altruistic and sometimes rational, but there’s no denying it: we are a race of greedy and selfish buggers sometimes. But I don’t think that is any excuse for hedonism or despair. Humans are also endowed with at least one special gift: free will. Choice.
Choosing to be environmentally responsible isn’t about squishy sentimentality—it’s about intelligence. We need clean air, water and soil for our own sake. And it costs a lot more to clean up our mess than to prevent it in the first place. So we can choose not to be stupid. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not that difficult. Start with the easy stuff where you can (compost, take public transport, turn down the heat—you’ve heard this before). Stop buying stupid things you don’t need (a no-brainer, whether you care about your bank balance or the planet). And most of all: vote, and pressure politicians. The richest of us can put up solar panels and buy organic cosmetics all we like, but only with legislation will we see true change on a meaningful scale.
With a critical mass of public support and legislative willpower, it really wouldn’t be that hard to turn things around. Because our best estimates say it would take roughly $1 trillion—barely 1.6 percent of our global GDP last year, about what we spend annually on weapons—to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent (the minimum amount we need to prevent “catastrophic” climate change). If there’s one thing we greedy humans love, it’s a bargain. I’ve never heard of a better one. Let’s hope we aren’t too stupid to pass it up.
From the current issue of This Magazine