You know that cliché, “Live every day like it’s your last”? We are not quite down to the end of days, but with the terrifying report on climate change that the United Nations (U.N.) released on Oct. 8th, it’s a thought in everyone’s minds. It is very possible that we are among the last generations of humans to experience relative environmental stability and societal prosperity. If climate change continues at the rate we are seeing, and we make no substantial changes to our current ways of life here in the developed world, the report states that we will experience food shortages that will cause societal collapse as early as 2040.
And there’s nothing you or I can do about it.
Do you remember when you first learned about global warming? I do. I was seven years old, and the imminent degeneration of our planet stressed me out. I wrote letters to the World Wildlife Fund and my local natural history museum, telling them I wanted to help stop climate change. They told me to recycle, turn off lights when I left a room and not leave the water running when I washed my hands. I already did all these things, so the answer left me dissatisfied.
I was right to be cynical — individual actions have little to no impact on climate change. While it is environmentally responsible for the citizens of the world to eat less meat and to bike to work, the impact of these efforts is ultimately negligible. Only 100 companies around the world are responsible for over 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since the late 1980s. Massive corporations have been poisoning the earth with reckless abandon for decades, and in the face of polluting behemoths like that, nothing an individual can do is going to make a difference.
That Plastic Straw Ban craze this summer and fall? Not only did it disregard the needs of seniors and people with disabilities, the anti-single-use plastic movement put too much responsibility on consumers and citizens to solve a problem they didn’t create. As complete climatic catastrophe looms ever nearer, holding producers accountable for all the waste they manufacture should be our first priority.
Every helpful little “living green” tip you’ve ever heard is true, but they’re also propaganda designed to shift the blame from oil companies to private citizens, thereby absolving those massive, pollution spewing companies of guilt. You can live green on an individual scale all you want, but unless there are real systems of accountability put in place for the largest contributors to climate change, they aren’t going to add up to anything world-changing.
Is there anything you can do in the face of the report? Sure. Keep fighting, even knowing that it may be futile. Achieving sustainability isn’t a realistic goal for individuals, but we can vote for politicians who believe in science and will commit themselves to environmental justice. We can call their offices and write letters and march and try as desperately as possible to break through the suffocatingly slow grind of domestic and international bureaucracy.
Although we will continue the fight for environmental sustainability, it might not work. We need to limit global warming to 1.5℃, which would require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 0 by 2050. While this is possible scientifically, it probably isn’t politically. Both the current economy and the political system would need to be completely renovated to reach these goals, and a goal of this magnitude has never been achieved in such a short timeframe.
So even if we fight, chant, march and vote our hearts out, change still might not happen as fast as it needs to in order to prevent climate disaster. That is a very real possibility. Politicians might try to limit global warming and fail — but what’s worse is that they might not try at all. The only thing we can do is get them to try. If no one fights — if we remain complacent bystanders — one thing is certain: nothing will happen.
When you aren’t fighting your hardest, have some fun. Society might collapse within the decade anyway, so major in something you’re really passionate about. Blow money on a stack of new books. Stay up really late. Eat whatever you want. Send in an application to grad school and rack up some more sweet, sweet student debt. It doesn’t really matter if you achieve a fulfilling career and start saving for retirement, because the Earth as we know it today might not survive that long. It is surprisingly easy to be optimistic in the face of complete environmental and societal collapse if you remember that everything is temporary anyway.