The title of this opinion piece might suggest another liberal diatribe on the evils of the extraction industry or the dangers of our regional forest fires. Instead, I’m going to suggest that the real source of our holocaust is not our untamed forests and worldwide fossil fuel industry, but closer to home. The problem is actually within us all. We are the burning problem.
The year I was born, the global population was a third of what it is today. The putative reason our world is on fire is because there are now upwards of 8 billion people on the planet, all needing food and housing. The real cause, though, is our desire for much more than that. We want more than we need, requiring more energy and releasing more carbon dioxide than our planet can handle.
Farming is energy-intensive and consumes a third of all global energy. Plant-based diets save energy, but too many people have a fire in their guts for meat, which requires four times more energy to produce than grains. We’re burning up because we’re consumed by an all-consuming, unsustainable diet.
The residential and commercial building sector—including the production of steel, cement, and glass—consumes another third of all global energy. People need housing, but we want more than just a roof over our heads. We want larger houses, warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, with lots of windows to see the world around us. We’re so busy looking outside ourselves, though, we don’t see the inferno of greed that is consuming us from within. We see the effects of our greed but not the greed itself.
Around the world—not just in developed nations—people want what’s bigger, faster, more convenient, newer, and fancier. We want that bigger house with a huge fireplace and lots of windows. We want faster internet. The bus is not convenient, so we want a car. Not just any car. We’re dying for that new fancy car—literally dying—along with that hot, new, latest-model iPhone. Plus, all those things Amazon keeps telling us we want. The bonfire of vanity burning within us demands a sharper image, a classier lifestyle, never a dull, empty moment. We’re luminous in the glow of our flat screens, consumed by news, scorched every day by politics, fired up by our insatiable need for things and more things. We’re addicted to things, bigger things, better things. And constant entertainment. We turn on the radio every time we get into the car. Televisions blaze in every room even though no one’s paying attention to them. “I like to have some noise in the background,” she says. “I can’t fall asleep if I haven’t checked my email,” he admits. We’re on fire, and we don’t realize it because the heat has been turned up so slowly. Eight billion frogs on a boiling planet.
How discouraging this would be if there were no solution. But there is: calm down, slow down, and look around. Including a good, objective look within.
Start by establishing an ethical approach to a sustainable life that will quell the fires of greed that burn within you. Listen to your thoughts. Take what’s offered and what you need rather than everything you desire and want. Resist adding more and more things to your life. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Staunch the flames of materialism destroying the planet. Do with less as a way of leaving a little more for those who do without. Is it something you need or just something you want? What’s the cradle-to-grave cost of it: extracting the raw materials, transporting them, manufacturing it, advertising it, transacting the purchase, shipping it, using it, and disposing of it after it’s no longer useful. Those are the real costs of everything. Every thing.
Try to do just one thing at a time and focus on that. When you talk to someone, talk to them. Don’t look over their shoulder at what’s happening behind them. Focus your attention. Be mindful. Be present. Be aware of what your mind is telling you, and don’t always believe it. Your mind has a mind of its own, and too often these days our mental habit is to attempt to pack as much into every moment as humanly possible, the same way we buy everything we can or cannot afford. Less is more. And it’s sustainable.
Develop the wisdom we now all need to manage our lives while the world burns up around us. Listen carefully because your options have changed. Press 1 for a reminder that everything requires energy to make. Press 2 for a reminder that meat is expensive in more ways than we think about. Press 3 for a reminder to focus on what’s important. Press 4 to hear a reminder that this is our only planet. Press 0 to speak to a customer service representative. That representative is you.