I don't wish to go backwards, but I do wish we would slow down and design our brave new world with more care.
To my dear children in the year 2050,
As always, the world roils with disagreement and conflict, mostly parochial and reactionary. Above this clamor looms ecological carnage on this pale blue dot, our only home. Technological advances doubled our lifespan and connected us globally, but are also causing a 6th mass extinction and a new geologic age.
During my education, I was most motivated by reducing social conflict and discrimination against disadvantaged groups. In graduate school, my friendships with environmental scientists revealed that complex ecologies and natural resources are increasingly fragile and their ability to sustain human flourishing is seriously threatened. It seemed unthinkable, but we released so many greenhouse gases that the entire world was warming. Quickly. Compared to racial conflict, climate change was a superordinate problem: without resolving it, conflict between groups could only intensify.
I’ve since discovered that we’ve known about human-caused climate change for more than 100 years, and recently we’ve uncovered horrifying projections of global temperature and sea level rise. Tipping points like the melting of the Arctic ice and the release of tundra methane may make it impossible to go back to the benign pre-industrial climate. As always, the most vulnerable among us will suffer the worst.
Fortunately, we know what societies must do: transition to renewable energy, reduce emissions, and consume less. Research shows that we could accomplish these and even improve our quality of life. As individuals, we also know how to accomplish those goals: get politically involved and change our own habits. We have the knowledge and the tools.
And as you learned in school, we utterly failed you. The disconnect yawns between what we know is necessary and what we’re actually doing. Humans were always short-sighted and rapacious, but never in such numbers and with such powerful tools as today. Technology has not brought us happiness, and in our unquenchable drive for consumption we do ever greater harm to other species. I don’t wish to go backwards, but I do wish we would slow down and design our brave new world with more care. We foul our own bed.
In response to this crisis, I refocused my career on society-level problems like climate change. I become more politically active: writing letters, marching, and promoting discussion. I changed my diet, transportation, and consumption of energy and water. It is not enough. I am falling short of my aspirations for service to vulnerable others and future generations. I am weak, like the other apes of my kind: desiring comfort, travel, and luxury. Even as the world burns, I fly great distances for fun. I don’t know how you’ll judge me. If most people are focusing on the present, on their families and jobs, does that make it right? The history of genocide reveals that philosophy as bankrupt. And yet, we shun activists and resist social and behavioral change.
I offer no excuses. We are frail, myopic primates and we failed you. I am so sorry. I don’t ask forgiveness. The horror we caused your world is done. From the present, please think of future generations: how can you serve stable systems of ecology, land, air, and water that will sustain your children and their children? I wish you more bravery than we had.