Recently, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels passed the 400 parts per million milestone. This might be the perfect time to ask ourselves a difficult question about our present situation on Earth: Is it too late?
Has humanity already run off the cliff without noticing it just like the lovable but foolhardy cartoon character Wile E. Coyote? Have we overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth so badly that we are doomed to a horrible crash, after oil, or fresh water, or topsoil, or fish, or many other things after one or all of them become scarce? So that no matter what we do in the meantime, it's a foregone conclusion that we're in for a fall?
No. It is not yet too late. It is physically possible to shift infrastructures, technological arrays and social systems in ways that would make them so much cleaner than what exists now, especially in carbon terms, that extinctions would not soar, food shortages would not occur, and 7 billion or even 9 billion humans could share the planet with other living creatures in a healthy way.
But that's not easy to do. We will do some things wrong. There will be human suffering, there will be suffering among the other creatures on Earth. There will be extinctions. We are going to do damage in the 21st century, possibly big damage. And unfortunately, unlike Wile E. Coyote, we won't get infinite chances to fall and try again.
So the question should be changed from the disempowering question, "Is it too late?" to, "How much damage will we let happen?" Then we could flip that revised question to its positive formulation: "How much will we save? How much of the biosphere will we save?" That's the real question.
When we ask that question, it reminds us: Life is robust. Restorations can be made. There is a reason for hope. We can think of our work as saving things that will come back stronger later. Even in the bad present, we can create inoculants and refugia for a better time.
Our science tells us we have to change infrastructures, and quickly. Changing infrastructure is not itself a bad thing. It is a major investment, however, and our current economic system is telling us that it is unaffordably expensive compared with using the dirty old infrastructure; changing out would not be profitable. Both economics and laws can change. But changing economics is not so easy, because as currently constituted it supports the present distribution of power.
Economics should be given an infusion of the scientific method, which would start to turn it into a wing of ecology and science generally, as it will include behavioral economics, biophysical economics, and more. At that point we could formulate our economic plans within the paradigm of ecological thinking, with the biosphere regarded as the bio-infrastructure, with its estimated $33 trillion a year of unpaid services, all financially accounted for in a way that properly values and preserves it. All civilization would become in effect a project composed of a collection of experiments in improved relations with the planet. What we then looked for, what we measured, what we said was happening, and how we dealt with it all that would change.
It helps to stop sometimes and take the long view. Grant that the long arc of history will keep bending, that centuries from now things will be very different, and suddenly the present too looks a little more malleable, its little changes part of that long bend. In one future, quite possible and we hope even likely, there will be a stable human population of some 7 billion to 9 billion, living cleanly and well on a healthy biosphere, sharing Earth with the rest of the creatures who rely on it, providing ourselves with energy, power, food, water, transport and infrastructure using an extremely clean and renewable suite of technologies, restoring landscapes and wildlife populations while still feeding ourselves. There is no physical or technical impediment to us creating such a rich and vibrant sustainable human civilization.
Having seen the possibility, humanity can make this permaculture its project. And things we can do now to start on this project are all around us, waiting to be taken up and lived.
Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning science fiction writer and a chapter author of the Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?"