Is planet earth doomed? Please tell me it isn't so.
April 13, 2016 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm feeling upset about the future of our planet and what we are doing to it. I'd like to know if there is hope for us as a species, for our children and grandchildren and creatures we share this planet with.

I watched a very disturbing episode of Vice last night - Meathooked and End of Water. I'm depressed that we are causing irreversible damage to our environment, our ecosystem and the natural balance that sustains life - big and small, all in an effort to make a quick buck.

The Vice episode in particular touches upon the horror that is industrialized farming and it's effect on everything from global warming to polluted ground water systems and soils. It also speaks to how the next big crisis won't be for energy sources like oil, but for a commodity that we take for granted - clean water.

That being said, I'd like to know what I can do to minimize my impact and stop helping line the pockets of corporations that are hijacking our shared natural resources. I can contribute with my time, money or intellectual capacity to help out organizations that are trying to fight this.

In order to lift my spirits, I'd like to read some success stories of what has been achieved to combat the perilous path to destruction we seem to be on. Also, please tell me why aren't more people outraged about what we are doing to our planet? What can I do to help change people's opinions?

I would like to read a lot more on the topic, so suggestions for books, articles and magazines are welcome.

NB: I eat meat (mainly white) and am already rethinking my eating habits.
posted by rippersid to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend reading anything by Alex Steffen. He used to run Worldchanging and is big on the need to think on a different scale ("planetary thinking") if we're going to meet the ecological challenges of the 21st century. A lot of his recent work has been on revamping cities to be more sustainable, as they're a major source of both economic growth and carbon emissions. That's a bit different than concern about industrialized farming, but I think you might find that his way of thinking about our future is infectious.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:12 AM on April 13, 2016

I am an artist who focuses on conservation and ecological balance and I blog about this occasionally (as well as having written my thesis on it) - here's a quick post of mine that begins to address your doom question, and the answer right now is "yes, pretty much." Luckily our own doom doesn't have to impact all the creatures we share the earth with, so that's what I hope for.

What I do: my career involves raising awareness and hopefully empathy; in my personal life, I am vegetarian and try to vote and live my values. The idea is to try to keep our planetary damage to a minimum.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:42 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think your question is inadvertently combining two different questions.

The first one is whether what we are doing is going to hurt the earth itself; and the answer, fortunately, is "probably not". To support that, I suggest reading The World Without Us; it talks about exactly what the impact would be if every human spontaneously vanished from earth all at once, and what would happen to all of the buildings, infrastructure, urban systems, etc. And as it turns out, it would take surprisingly little time (geologically and environmentally speaking) for things to bounce back.

So, the earth would be fine. But asking whether what we're doing is going to hurt our species is a different question entirely.

Also, please tell me why aren't more people outraged about what we are doing to our planet? What can I do to help change people's opinions?

I think individual outrage is probably not going to have as much of the impact as you would like, for a few reasons:

* The entities making the biggest impact on the planet are not individual people, but rather are multinational corporations. Even if everyone in your state switched to solar power and started recycling, you've still got Shell and Texaco and a shit-ton of other companies doing things that are having a much greater impact on the earth overall.

* Most of the people on the planet are in countries where the economy is starting to ramp up a bit now, and it may be hard to get them to care about the environment when they're suddenly now able to buy a house when they never thought they could.

* People have a very big lazy and selfish streak, and probably would care more if their individual impact were bigger - you know, "if I recycle ten cans it will win me something" - but since it's not, they often can't be bothered. Elsewhere on the green right now there's a question from a person who finds it too much work to rinse out a plastic dish so it can be recycled; any habit that causes people more work, without yielding an immediate reward, is something that's gonna be a hard sell.

But: all is not lost, I think. You just may have to actually get a little bit away from the environment itself as the reward. Years ago, they had this international "Live Aid" sort of concert thing called Live Earth - it was meant to address climate change, and was your usual round of rock-stars-and-activists-in-different-countries-all-simulcast kind of thing. In between each of the acts, the TV broadcast ran little short films that gave viewers tips about "how to lessen your climate impact" or "how to change your habits to have a more green lifestyle" or whatever - and they were suggesting the usual round of energy conservation, reduce your garbage, etc. My roommate and I had tuned in and were eagerly watching - and after about an hour, we both had the same realization, which was that we were already doing everything they recommended (turning off lights after we left a room, keeping the thermostat low), but we were doing it because it was saving us a lot of money on our utility bills.

And ever since, I've always wondered why the green movement doesn't use that as a motivator. It may be hard to sell people on "if everyone in the city kept their thermostat low it would reduce oil drilling in the Arctic by one hundred gallons within a decade", but it'd be way easier to sell people on "if you keep your thermostat low it'll save you about $200 on your gas bill in a single winter". Saving money on an individual basis is a much more concrete concept for people to be able to grasp.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 AM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hah! Literally two seconds after I posted that comment about using financial rewards to prompt more active recycling participation, I got an email from my electric company with a promotion offering a cash reward to anyone who recycles any old appliances instead of bringing them to the dump, and further cash rebates to anyone who springs for an energy-efficient model on new appliances. I'm taking that as proof.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:51 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

FTR I am on the "we're doomed and everything is hopeless" bus but here are some success stories that might lift your spirits.

For edification purposes, I'd recommend checking out Cowspiracy (IMDB | Netflix) and Food, Inc. (IMDB | Amazon).

Why aren't more people outraged? On a macro level, for the same reason people get mad when you raise their taxes, same reason we live in a patriarchy: Most people who are in a position to Do Something About It, or at least Be More Flexible About It, got to that position by prioritizing the continuance of their own comfort over the possibility of the betterment of humanity. On a micro level, I think selfishness is a fairly understandable (maybe even natural?) response, so it's tough to get people who are in that mindset to sit down and think about what they're willing to give up for no discernible or immediate benefit. IMO the biggest stumbling block is that not enough of us acknowledge different forms of life on this planet as parts of a greater whole; the trend is toward individualism rather than collectivism, so there's much more "what's in it for me?" than "what is this doing to all of us?"

EX: Why do people eat meat? For the overwhelming majority of people who are fortunate enough to have a choice in the first place, they eat meat because they like how it tastes. That's it, that's the only answer they need -- and that's if they even ask the question in the first place; most don't. When they're faced with the idea of being vegan (or even vegetarian) they rush to explain how they could never be veg*n for any number of reasons but for a good 95% of them, the only real reason is because they enjoy eating meat and don't want to stop. Their gustatory enjoyment of animal products is the beginning and end of the story. They don't give a shit where it comes from and they don't give a shit what kind of effect it has on anyone else, because they personally like how meat tastes, so nyah.

So what can you to do help change people's opinions, when the opinion change necessarily involves them sacrificing something they enjoy doing? I've found this to be a very, very big question without any easy answers. Most people are going to ask, "What's in it for me?" and if your answer is anything except a list of personal benefits, they're not really interested. On a person to person level, I try to feed them delicious vegan food and show them pictures of adorable animals playing together in hopes that it will eventually 'click,' but I have no real hope that it ever will.
posted by amnesia and magnets at 7:56 AM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Whenever I get pessimistic about the future, I re-read this article. I don't think it's really what you're looking for, and I suspect some of it might be BS, but it does exude optimism that, whatever the problem, humans are probably smart enough to solve it.

If you haven't already, you might want to read the Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It's kind of a good jumping off point for sustainable farming information.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2016

*shrug* On a geological scale, yes we are doomed, and no, it won't make much of a difference. There will be a die-off sure, but ten or fifty million years or so later, most of those species would have died off anyway. And eventually all we are going to be is some disturbed patterns in geological formations.

But as far as life on Earth, we won't kill the Earth. We will still have 500 million to a billion years before the sun brightening turns Earth into a second Venus. So life on Earth may be 80-90 percent of the way through our existence, but that's still far longer than our will take for the human race to be less than forgotten.
posted by happyroach at 9:00 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Two things you can do starting right now: Moving to a plant-based diet will greatly reduce your impact to the environment – like, huge. Also, animals are really cool beings. Supporting unions and buying union-made when possible will better support workers and take leverage away from corporations.
posted by homesickness at 9:24 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Well, one aspect of things I can discuss is biofuels and renewable energy, reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. Why the alternative energy sectors aren't progressing as fast as we'd hope - mainly economics and technology limitations, and takeaways.

Biofuels - to sum up, the technology and logistics of producing biofuels is complicated and expensive. Stuff tends to gum up, get sticky, and go rancid (oxidize) faster when making fuels from fresh organic materials. There's also a lot of water and complex compounds in the mix, that has to be separated out. So processing is a lot more expensive and wrought with technical difficulties than traditional oil and gas. Biodiesel product doesn't have as long a shelf-life, and gels in cold temperatures - so up north that is an issue. They're working on converting solid wastes into something that can be burned for fuel, but they haven't ramped up to large commercial-scale operations yet. But you should support their development, and the push for improvements in technology, because it could reduce a lot of landfilling and support eco-electric power generation.

Hydrogen Power - hydrogen embrittlement makes storing hydrogen a problem - the lifespan of storage vessels is pretty short, and storing it safely (in the car and in fueling stations), not to mention dispensing, is also an issue - H2 gas is quite hazardous. H2 production is also energy intensive, and you need to get power from somewhere... odds are this one isn't moving mainstream anytime soon.

Electric cars - The batteries have a limited lifespan, they use toxic chemicals, and the storage capacity is rather low - limiting the range of the vehicles. Recharging time is also an issue. Also, where is the power coming from in your area? Coal or Gas Plants? Don't pat yourself on the back for going electric in that case. But yes they are doing buttloads of battery research. Takeaway - try biking, public transit, ridesharing.

Wind Power - Those turbines are really expensive - the payback period is something like 20 years. And they require a lot of steel. Coal is a significant part of making that steel. Someone did the math and found out that the carbon emissions of producing the steel, manufacturing the turbines, and installing them... that likely surpasses the carbon savings of wind power itself per turbine. There's also a ridiculous amount of NIMBY (not in my back yard), people really take issue with wind farms being installed in their vicinity. Even the little home-sized turbines are STUPID expensive and have the same problems as the big ones. But hey, lots of government grants, and if you support it they might improve production costs and develop the tech further to make them more efficient.

Solar Power - again quite expensive at the moment, though there appears to be a ton of research into making these things more efficient, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly in production. Also lots of government grants for home use, to offset costs... do your research and invest if you can afford it.

There are others of course - geothermal heating/cooling, hydro, off-shore wave power, nuclear, etc... all again with costs, the naysayers, the technology limitations. Honestly, I am a big supporter of nuclear - in the right circumstances, like outside of earthquake zones, with the latest technology, smaller more efficient plants, etc. But it has such a bad rap, people are so afraid - the perceived extreme risk deafens people to the definite benefits.

With oil being so cheap, so easy to produce, and all the infrastructure already there... to further the renewables agenda, it does require government mandates for change, government grants to develop different infrastructure, public supporters, people willing to pay extra for the environmentally friendly energy NOW though it costs a lot more.
posted by lizbunny at 9:55 AM on April 13, 2016

I'm in the camp of those who think there's nothing we can do at this point unless we stumble upon a technological breakthrough, like the Mr. Fusion in Back to the Future II. Even then, the Holocene extinction and anthropogenic climate change will continue until the technology is widely adopted. Not eating meat and not having the children and grandchildren (or at least limiting yourself to one child) you're worried about to limit the number of resource-hungry humans on the planet are the best actions you can take to help mitigate our inevitable die-off.

But if you want hope, you could check out the r/Futurology subbreddit on, which is generally pretty optimistic about our chances of coming up with a technological breakthrough.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 11:05 AM on April 13, 2016

In the long run? We are doomed. No species lives forever (except, like, cockroaches or bacteria). In the short term? Probably still doomed. And unless you are a very wealthy lobbyist, have a C-level position in a major international corporation, or own massive swaths of commercial farmland, anything that you do personally is going to have minimal to no impact on where we are headed. Capitalism and corporate-personhood was the Doomsday device no one expected and now no one can shut off.

If you want to feel like you're at least part of the solution rather than the problem, then stop eating all animal products, especially dairy, unless you are raising the animals yourself, and recycle as much as you can. Use green energy sources. Will it buy us another century or two at our current rate of consumption if more people do this? Probably not. But it might stave off the worst for a few decades, possibly long enough for that technological breakthrough to happen.

Read Michael Pollen's 'Omnivore's Dilemma' if you want to make better food choices.
posted by ananci at 11:44 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I find that reading the news about solar power makes me quietly optimistic. For the last ~30 years, solar power has been halving its cost every ~5 years (sort of a slower version of Moore's Law). Solar used to be extremely expensive, but it has now reached the point it is as cheap as fossil fuels in many American markets (grid parity). And in another 2-3 years, it will be a cheap or cheaper in the majority of American markets. And in another 5-10 years, carbon based fuel sources will be at a huge disadvantage against solar, even with all the subsidies that carbon currently receives. Here's a nice article, but there are many more like it if you search for "grid parity" or similar.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:48 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the mid nineties I asked all of my co workers what the world would be like 100 years from now. With one exception (someone who refused to speculate), they all said that humanity would be over. This was before almost anyone was aware of global warming as an issue. Global warming, by the way, is real, and will likely be irreversible as once the ice caps melt we cross a point of no return. But it's also true we live an in apocalyptic biased culture, in the 70's pesticide was going to kill of all life on earth, in the Bible, the end of times is right around the corner. I'm not optimistic about the future, but I don't think it's the end of mankind.
posted by xammerboy at 1:48 PM on April 13, 2016

I sometimes talk about this, like in this previous Ask.

Philosophical Long View: All of us are all going to die anyway and so is the entire human race. No one lives forever. In the really, really grand scheme of things, we are all doomed, yes.

Philosophical Midterm View: Even humans fuck everything up and kill life as we know it on planet earth and our entire species, there have been mass extinctions in the past. Mother Earth will reshuffle the deck and play a new hand. It may matter a helluva lot to us, but there is no reason to believe we are all that more special than any other living thing. Life will go on, in some form.

Practical Answers: Walk more. Eat less meat. These will have a big impact with relatively little fuss. If you can manage to live life without a car, do so. If you can manage to go vegetarian, more power to you. It's all good.

Most of the time, the world does not even count the disasters we averted that "should" have happened. Y2K was supposed to be the end of the world as know it. It ended up being no big deal. We don't have ongoing headlines about how "THANK GOD WE SURVIVED Y2K AND LIFE IS NOT HORRENDOUS LIKE WE EXPECTED!!!!" We forget the big victories and continue to fret about the end of the world, no matter how we avert it.
posted by Michele in California at 2:00 PM on April 13, 2016

Yes, we are all going to die, but that's nothing new. Humanity is in for a rough time, but in the global scheme humanity is an eyeblink. And I wouldn't underestimate our ability to change the way we live surprisingly fast when the shit really starts hitting the fan. Lots of people will have a really shitty time along the way but there's nothing new about that - if anything, in a lot of ways we're in a golden age right now.

Look a bit of perspective - my generation grew up with the expectation that there could be a nuclear war any day. Never happened. Listen to this song.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:45 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

It Isn't So.
posted by telstar at 5:46 PM on April 13, 2016

In the mid nineties I asked all of my co workers what the world would be like 100 years from now. With one exception (someone who refused to speculate), they all said that humanity would be over.

In the mid 80s we used to ask each other similar questions, and got similar answers-only our was in a time scale of 15-20 years. "What's the world going to be like when you're 40?"
"We'll all be dead."
"I'm lucky, I live within ten miles of a primary target, so at least I won't die slowly."

Every year we've had since 1985 or so is gravy. If we all go extinct in the next century, that's STILL a century more then we had any right to expect.
posted by happyroach at 8:58 AM on April 14, 2016

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