I get grumpy (even more than usual) when I hear young environmentalists go on about how we must “act now” before it’s too late. The truth is; all of that passion, rhetoric, and science is just a waste of everybody’s time. I know the reality. I went the serious environmentalist route and fought a battle to protect wilderness. I even attended grad school so I could get the proper initials after my name and confront the foresters, biologists, and anyone else who works for those powerful resource users. Yet, ultimately, what I learned was that it isn’t chemistry or biology or geology or hydrology or any other “ology” that defines the problem – it’s flawed humanity.

North America is home to two of the most educated and sophisticated nations on this planet – both regarded as fortresses of freedom and democracy – and we are two of the youngest. Our nations are barely a few hundred years old which means that everything that happened here has happened recently. We can’t blame ancient peoples or long lost kingdoms or historic cultural imperatives for our mistakes – and the changes we made, or are making, are “in your face” obvious. The growth in our physical impact on the land and the resulting pollution, desertification, increasing toxicity, CO2 production, holes in the ozone layer, dying oceans, it’s all ours. We own it, and if we don’t see it as a problem now than, chances are, we never will.

The only real question is; how have we managed to get away with it? How do our societies, which are so educated and free to think and make decisions, get away with consistently downplaying the fragility of this world as we close our ears and eyes to any argument against exploitation? The warnings began in the sixties and seventies, continuing into the eighties, nineties and every year since, and it has made no difference. We put a bit of wilderness aside and removed some poisonous chemicals from our air, food, and water, but even those were difficult battles, and it was little more than chipping away at the edges. The Earth is getting dirtier and sicker every day and the systems that heal it have gone beyond overload while we continually refuse to admit the seriousness of the problem.

What’s to worry? Read the paper, watch your television, the good times are still going strong. New and exciting things are happening each and every day. All of the doomsayers, like me, are just exaggerating to make headlines and, besides, even if the problems are real someone will solve them… eventually. There’s no way the entire world can be in jeopardy.

If a thousand people say it’s a problem and ten say it isn’t we will listen to the ten because we want upbeat and positive, not negativity. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance” and suggest it’s built in to our human nature. We grow up with positive expectations for the future. When these beliefs encounter contrary information the easiest and least stressful way to deal with it is to find the means for rejecting the negative… deny, deny, deny.

After all, we are God’s children. He won’t let anything really bad happen to us.

Just look at what is happening every day around us. Let’s say, for instance, you want to develop a controversial industry that involves significant changes to the environment; all you need is the promise of more money for everyone and a believable expert, or two, minimizing risk and spouting solutions to each problem and, voila, instant support. And you really need very few experts, and they don’t have to be particularly special, or even highly qualified in the field they are commenting on. They simply have to appear confident and put forth positive sounding arguments – celebrities are known to work well for this. Unless the alternative is so gross and blatant as to personally frighten or disgust people, most will want to believe them. We simply wish to keep living the life we are living and not have to change - especially if it looks like we are changing to something less.

So here's the quandary, our societies follow experts who we want to believe as they argue with experts who we don’t want to believe. Meanwhile, our leaders, the politicians, are constantly in need of support to keep running expensive campaigns and, once elected, constantly in need of money to provide services to keep voters supporting them, (and you don’t get money from the doomsayers) so how many high risk development proposals do you think will get turned down? How many do you know of that have been turned down? Get this through your head, it’s just a matter of time. Still, these noisy, young, environmental crusaders keep shouting facts and presenting data and talking about the need to change as if we had the luxury of waiting for that to happen. At most maybe a few million people on this planet really know the score. Do these young environmental activists actually believe they are going to enlighten all of those other billions in such a way they will suddenly accept how precarious this situation is?

This is a done deal and as a member of the generation that stole it all I’m not particularly proud of our accomplishment. We pillaged this earth to buy toys and entertain ourselves, and stretch our lives out beyond where they had gone before, and now as we get down to our last feeble decade or two we appear determined to keep the lies going. We managed to train the next couple of generations to think like us – maybe even more so – and that, happily, allows us to shuffle off into the great beyond smug in our delusion that we leave the world a better place. The world is certainly more constructed, more “human”, displaying tremendous creativity, diversity, and artistry… if not rationality. The knowledge base has grown tremendously, almost beyond belief, and popular science has exploded with information that reaches into every corner of the universe. It looks like progress. Just when did this aggregation of our greatness convince us we had grown too smart to totally screw things up?

This fantasy is so powerful it’s as if our species now believes we live above the surface, detached, no longer needing the Earth for our survival. So when our oxygen begins disappearing as that micro-layer of phytoplankton on the surface of the oceans dies – or the intensity of UV rays grow to dangerous levels with expanding holes in the ozone layer and, in concert with increased toxicity in our air and water, mutate viruses and bacteria to cause pandemics, will we even see a connection? (Does that sound ridiculous? Did you know that at one time scientists feared that HIV could become airborne and decimate all human life?)

If not that particular disaster, perhaps the scarcity of potable water and arable land resulting from human caused drought, and/or volatile weather, will force us to adopt even wilder genetic modifications to our food supply, thereby creating agents that begin reacting with our basic molecular structure. Mind you, it could just as easily be a calamity we have yet to imagine arising and threatening to end our reign as the dominant species on Earth. Open a newspaper, new dangers abound, are they all smoke and mirrors? Of course, some say the more plausible scenario is that our future will come down to the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction as people respond to the scarcities and injustices caused by the above.

Not that it matters to my generation. We won’t be here to see it happen. It’s not fair, I know, and I wish we had done things better, but we didn’t so the problem now belongs to the rest of you. (I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if some lab all of the sudden announced a discovery reversing the aging process so my contemporaries and I would have to actually live with our decisions? Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?)

I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my adult life and no matter what the particular title, or reason given for holding them, a large percentage surrounded the issue of short-term wealth creation vs. long-term people protection, and it would be a lie to suggest that a balanced debate ensued, or that minds were significantly changed. In retrospect, what sticks with me the most is all the times I heard someone stand up and talk emotionally about how we have to fix this for our children and our children’s children. But we didn’t fix it because we learned that it would cost us. It might have meant living in a smaller house or driving cars that didn’t have power windows or heated seats, or not taking that European vacation or the annual trip south in winter. We were warned about the consequences, but it was more fun to ignore them and, apparently, for some reason, we got it in our heads that we had a right to this good life regardless of cost. Well, we danced the dance and now the time is coming to pay the piper, and that is the legacy we are leaving to our children and our children’s children.