by Monsieur le docteur Ralph (un nom de plume)
Our university has an eccentric, bow-tied math professor who is extremely fond of the quote from Piet Hein, “Problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by hitting back.” He uses the phrase to scold students who give up on a math problem simply because it seems difficult. After surviving a fair number of quantitative courses, I have felt the type of mental bruising that accompanies more worthy assignments and the satisfaction of defeating them. The realms of blackboards and quad-ruled notebooks also make fairly safe battlegrounds, but as much as I like to hide in that world, the Real World tends to find me anyway. That reality seems to be defined by its most immediate crisis – a never-ending stream of problems. These problems have always hit me, but I generally decided I was not equipped to solve them and surrendered to a ruse of apathy. Recently, my studies have exposed me to new people and ideas, and I have retreated from current issues less often. I still feel unprepared to deal with most global problems, especially those about politics or economics. They have become divisive to the point that calm discussion tends to be uncomfortable if not impossible. I have decided I am most concerned with and optimistic about environmental issues because society is already actively developing potential strategies and solutions, but I am frustrated by the collective indifference common among my peers.
Whenever I mention sustainable energy to other students, or anything related to current issues, the response varies between disbelief and apathy. I think the root of these reactions is actually fear, and it is a very understandable reaction. The knowledge that the Earth’s resources are finite is not a new revelation, and various organizations have issued a call to arms for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, many movements to incite action attempt to do so through emotional appeals to fear, anger, or guilt. Even the opening chapters of Limits to Growth seem to carry the grim message that we have sealed our fate and are facing imminent extinction.
Living in an age of communication, we are being constantly bombarded by information of all forms, and there should not be a single person in the industrial world who has not heard some form of environmental plea. I used to think flooding society with these messages was a positive phenomenon. Ensuring people are knowledgeable about an issue seems like an effective strategy to encourage proactive discussion and planning. I now believe it has had the exact opposite effect. People have grown numb to such messages, learning to selectively filter out what they don’t want to hear, like we do with so many other appeals thrown at us. The other extreme reaction to this bombardment appears to be outright denial. Nothing catastrophic has happened yet; therefore, there is no danger – a very convenient belief, as that means we do not have to change anything. Change, especially the kind that may ultimately entail sacrifice, frightens us.
The reason I give environmental issues, specifically sustainable energy, more precedence than the others is not just because I feel informed enough to discuss it. Energy and resources are more fundamental to our survival than foreign policy, or even the economy. If we are struggling to get necessities like food and water (and probably electricity with our current dependence), other issues will immediately drop several levels of global priority, and so begins our decline. Furthermore, any strategies we currently apply to address problems like sustainability or global climate change will take a significant amount of time before society sees any benefit. Waiting until these problems become a genuinely critical issue, would be a truly fatal mistake, and we would have no immediate way to mend it. To be even more negligent and pretend such problems will fix themselves, as some people will still pretend, is unthinkable.
As easy as it is to rant about the consequences, it is always more productive to discuss possible solutions. The fact that there truly are ways I can actively attack this problem is the other reason I care so much about it. I can allow myself to care because it does not strike me as being a completely hopeless cause or beyond my understanding. I spent most of this past summer in the university library, hiding as usual, among books about science, math, and logic, and I found an entire wing dedicated to the topics of environmental conservation, global climate change, and sustainable energy. This opened my eyes to the fact that an extremely large academic community is making dedicated efforts to discuss these issues. The same scientists that send out Mars rovers are developing more cost-effective solar panels for the benefit of our planet. This discovery instilled more hope in me than yet another colorful poster of giddy teenagers planting trees. I also have the added benefit of attending school in a state that prides itself in having what is left of the world’s untouched wilderness. The approach our campus has towards encouraging sustainability is honestly similar to methods proven effective with small children. Positive actions such as planting a garden or volunteering to gather recycling are positively reinforced, as opposed to emphasizing negative consequences. I believe this is producing more effective results than streams of statistics and doomsday predictions.
I clearly remember a time in my life when I would have considered this sort of optimism naïve, even a sign of delusion or ignorance. I adored the message of Voltaire’s Candide, fully believing it was stupid to think “anything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” with its flaws and pointless striving. I wanted to tend to my garden, mind my business, and work hard solving worthy problems, safely removed from the chaos beyond the world of lab coats and test tubes. I now think that view was just a way of coping with the fact that I felt powerless; there didn’t seem to be a point in caring, let alone thinking or trying. I am starting to care though – and think, and I am beginning to decide which problems I want to spend my life solving. The problems that hit hardest belong to the entire world, and these problems are also the worthiest.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of opinions and reflections of the younger generation who will inherit this world. I teach a course called Limits to Growth Revisited. This student essay was in response to the assigned questions below, adapted from Jon Cooksey’s affective video project at HowToBoilAFrog.com.
How do you FEEL about the way things are going in the world now?
What do you think are the biggest problems facing the world now?
What is your vision of the world fifty years from now?
Do you think there’s hope?
Header art: Geopoliticus Child Watching The Birth Of The New Man, Salvador Dalí (1943)