Times have changed since I came of age in the Baby Boom era. Many rules for getting along in the world have changed, too, now that we have pushed nature to its limits, and it is pushing back. Here are a few observations and rules, including some by people much wiser and more articulate than I am.
The existence of a resource is not a mandate to consume it
This insight applies to fossil fuels as well as other natural wealth. Scientists say most of the planet's coal, natural gas, and oil reserves must remain in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming. However, the oil industry would have to abandon trillions of dollars in assets. The reserves are like a box of chocolates in the pantry while we are trying to diet. Nevertheless, the value of those assets is much less than the permanent costs of lives and treasure because of unmitigated global warming.
The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones; we found a better way
This loft-quoted observation is by a former Saudi oil minister who acknowledged that carbon-free renewable resources like sunlight and wind would inevitably replace fossil fuels.
There's a difference between problem-solving and problem-switching
We tend to think in the short term and fragments rather than holistically. Unintended consequences often result. A current example regarding global warming is "solar radiation management," a collection of ideas to block sunlight from reaching the Earth's surface. But that could create new problems for generating electricity with sunlight, photosynthesis, and other functions. Our priority must be real solutions that offer multiple benefits rather than adverse consequences.
Smart technologies can only go so far to compensate for stupid behavior
Solutions to problems often require changes in us rather than changes in technology. For example, the U.S. government decided nearly a century ago to prevent flood disasters by building dams and levees rather than discouraging real estate development along rivers and shorelines. Today's result is 91,000 dams, 40,000 miles of levees, and 15,000 miles of seawalls past their retirement age and insufficient to handle today's more extreme floods and sea levels. More than 40 million Americans are now at risk of riverine floods, and $13.5 billion in commercial real estate is at risk near ocean coasts.
We need the humility to accept nature's gifts
Hubris tempts us to spend time and money to obtain services that nature offers for free. Today, the most obvious example is a nascent technology that takes carbon dioxide out of air emissions from electric power plants. Nations have spent tens of billions over the last 25 years on unsuccessful attempts to make this technology affordable for commercial use. But carbon-capture systems would add substantial cost and complexity to generating electricity, while solar and wind power already is less expensive than coal or natural gas. We are unlikely to find an affordable technology that competes with the sun. It offers a seven-billion-year supply of pollution-free energy delivered at no cost in 8.3 minutes from 93 million miles away.
We won't end our addiction to oil by subsidizing the drug
Despite the commitments nations have made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they still provided the fossil energy sector with nearly $6 trillion in subsidies in 2020, including the social and environmental impacts of oil, natural gas, and coal.
If we insist on ruining the planet, we will have to stop calling ourselves the most intelligent species
The problem with settling on the Moon and Mars is that we will carry our ignorance and bad habits with us unless we learn to live in harmony with life on Earth.
Incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy
Retail giant Sam Walton reportedly said this. He explained, "We don't want continuous improvement. We want radical change." At this late date, only constructive transformative change by civilization will prevent destructive transformative change in the biosphere.
Politics is the art of compromise. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is not negotiating
In some countries, including the United States, global warming has been purposely politicized for decades by fossil-fuel companies and their allies in government. The result is a partisan divide in Congress and among the American people about whether climate change is real, whether it requires some response, and whether it's time to retire fossil fuels from the economy. However, while these arguments go on, the laws of physics, not politics, are in charge. Those laws are non-negotiable. They have not put global warming on hold while diplomats, politicians, and captains of industry bargain about the response.
"A revolution is coming…We can affect its character, but not its inevitability"
Robert Kennedy said this before he was assassinated in 1968. He added that the revolution "will be peaceful if we are wise enough, compassionate if we are enough, successful if we are fortunate enough."
There is no high-carbon future
The complete quote by British politician Peter Mandelson is, "We are on the edge of a low carbon industrial revolution. Everything is going to change...There is no high-carbon future."
"In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy"
This is attributed to the late John Sawhill, former president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy.
"We need a little less Pluribus and a little more Unum."
American filmmaker Ken Burns.
With apologies to American humorist Bill Maher who presents "new rules" each week on his television show.