When our eldest child was two years old, a friend of ours built a caterpillar home from some window screens we found in the dumpster. Our neighbor gave us milkweed, and we raised some monarchs.
In recent decades, increased use of pesticides and the decreased abundance of milkweed along monarch migratory routes have caused butterfly populations to plummet. And so many suburban homeowners began to cultivate milkweek in their yards. Exceptionally dedicated butterfly conservationists began to raise caterpillars inside, keeping them safe from predation, and checking to make sure that the butterflies were free of parasitic protozoans before release.
The hope is that, with enough concerned citizens pitching in to help, monarch populations might rebound. Within the span of a single lifetime, insect populations around the world have fallen precipitously, in many regions by 90% or more, a travesty described eloquently in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm:
It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else.
South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet.
That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.
Our kid loved watching the butterflies hatch. Metamorphosis is an incredible process, especially for a little human undergoing her own transition out of a helpless pupal stage. Ensuring that our yard is a safe stopover for the monarchs’ journey helps the species survive.
But the monarchs overwinter at a select few sites, such as the mountains of Michoacan. This state has been ravaged by the drug war. A huge percentage of the population is mired in poverty, which abets illegal foresting, including cutting down many of the evergreens that the visiting monarchs roost on. Worse, a large mining company hopes to begin extraction in the butterflies’ overwintering site. If this project is approved, the monarchs will die, no matter how much milkweed Midwestern homeowners plant in their backyards.
The people of Michoacan should not be expected to cheerfully endure poverty so that others can look at butterflies. A major argument in favor of a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income is that it would alleviate some of the incentive to destroy our shared environment for private gains.
We all inhabit a single planet – as far as we’ve determined, the only habitable world in the known universe. And, although our world is very large, we’ve learned recently that individual decisions can have a hugely destructive impact on us all.
In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells spends two hundred pages describing what life might be like for our children if we allow our planet to warm by two degrees.
The emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment – collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.
After all, we know what’s happening. We know why it’s happening. And we know what we, as individuals, can do to help. Even comic books published by DC Comics in the 1980s were offering kids advice on what to do:
The solution to our problems is obvious – but I am writing as a wealthy, well-loved, well-educated individual. I own a home where milkweed can be planted. My days are happy enough that I don’t feel the need to buy as much stuff as other people.
The world has treated me pretty well.
But why should somebody who has been treated like garbage feel compelled to pitch in?
In Brazil, under-served people voted Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency. Bolsonaro hopes to extract value from the country now, which means destroying the Amazon rain forest. Which means – because this expanse of forest acts akin to a set of lungs for our whole planet – destroying the world.
An interesting comeuppance – as a citizen of the United States, usually it’s the autocratic decrees of my own president that send the world teetering toward destruction. Indeed, even though 45 has less influence over our planet’s climate than Bolsonaro, he too has been promoting environmental devastation for the sake of extractive industries.
The economics of extraction are interesting. Because the things we pull from the Earth are all limited resources, their value will presumably rise over time. People who have money now, like citizens of the U.S., should choose to wait. Even if we wanted to burn every last bit of the world’s oil and release all that carbon into the atmosphere, we in the U.S. would be better off waiting to pull up our own oil, buying it cheaply from other people now, and then selling ours at a massive profit later on once it’s more scarce.
Instead, oil companies have been operating under an addiction model. They continue to increase production even when prices are low, as though fearful that an unsteady supply would lead people to kick the habit. Their future revenue stream would dry up.
Renewable energy has been getting cheaper, so maybe they’re right. In the meantime, global consumption has been rising every year, even though we know it’s killing us. Both because our own homes will become less habitable, and because the world will descend into chaotic violence. From Molly Crabapple’s “Where Else Can They Go,”
… the world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a country. Mostly, governments propose quarantine. Internment camps grow in Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer resources. If the wealthy West worries about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees?
Wealthy nations pillaged the world in the past. Huge amounts of capital were accrued in the meantime, because human productivity was supercharged by the stored fuel of hundreds of thousands of years of extra energy, all that sunlight captured by ancient plants and compressed into oil.
And now, if other nations repeat that process, the world will be destroyed.
The solutions aren’t so hard to come by. A global wealth tax. Guaranteed basic income. These would ameliorate a lot of the world’s problems. But they require the people who are in power now to willingly accept less. And the little voice whispering in our ears has quite a bit of practice chanting more.
More. More. MORE.
Header image by Marco Verch on Flickr.