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To solve our environmental problems, climate change being by far the largest, we need to think about both smaller bites of the problem and the long term. The small bites won’t be baby steps but bold and far-reaching initiatives that each tackle an aspect of the larger problem. And many of our boldest but necessary steps may not bear fruit within our lifetimes.
Climate change and some of the largest environmental problems seem so overwhelming, complicated and long term that they aren’t easily seen as real threats but rather slip into the realm of the abstract, the “not real.” Climate change doesn’t have the immediacy of a mountain lion eyeing you hungrily or the kitchen in flames. Nevertheless, it is happening; its dire consequences are well established.
So, how do we solve it? There are no quick fixes, no silver bullets. There are, however, a number of pathways to the ultimate solution in what must be a multi-pronged approach to a huge problem. None of the pathways is an immediate fix but some may provide some short term benefit.
With an eye to the future, we must begin implementing the various solutions that are available to us now, such as requiring energy-conserving building practices, demanding and driving fuel-efficient vehicles, using renewable fuels, and promoting reforestation. Along the way toward the longer term goal of living sustainably, we may reap some immediate benefits such as vehicles and buildings that are less costly to operate and maintain.
We have to break out of the short-term mindset that, in large measure, has contributed to the problem we now face. We must again think in the multi-generational time scales that contributed human-made wonders of the world, such as the great cathedrals of Europe or the Great Wall of China. All were grandiose projects that took generations to complete. The people who initially started these projects knew they wouldn’t see the finished product, but were committed to the greater good – the benefits that would be reaped by their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Are we now somehow less capable?
There is a phenomenon when dealing with long term planning and consequences called “the principal-agent problem.” Essentially, it’s the situation when one person or group makes a decision, but the following person or group feels the effects of the decision. I’m sure everyone has seen the quote from the Great Law of the Iroquois: “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
These two concepts describe the situation we are facing at the moment; decisions we make now will affect future generations, our grandchildren and great grandchildren. We often give a lot of thought to what we want to leave our children and grandchildren in terms of financial security or heirlooms. But what better bequest could we leave our children than a sustainable world?
Over the past 250 years or so, we’ve created quite an environmental mess. That was done in large part because of ignorance; we simply didn’t know the consequences of our actions. But now we do, and, to quote Al Gore, “Knowledge carries an imperative.” We now have the imperative to take problem solving actions. Support initiatives that help solve the climate change crisis even if you’ll see no immediate benefit. Future generations may regard us more leniently if we acknowledge the problems that have been created and begin the process of fixing them.