Where next?

Aug 08 2010

Atlas BeachWhen we think about the future, particularly in environmental work, we so often feel the “walls” closing in on us- limiting our choices and presenting ever darker scenarios that are increasingly hard to get excited about. While it absolutely true that we face monumental challenges ahead- more so than any generation in human history – we still have a wide open set of choices. We need to imagine the right answer and figure out what it would take to get there. Period.

Yesterday my five month old, junior Sea Dragon crew, Atlas gave me an insight to these alternative futures. On an early morning beach walk at the Crystal Cove State Park, he made it abundantly clear that we both needed to stop and have a play in the sand. Practicing his new “sit up” skills he began mining away in the sand- some of which we now know can pass right through his high-speed digestive track (another story)! Between his fingers I notice small, very white shell fragments looking more weathered than anything we’d seen on the tide line. Above his head and back against the cliff face there are large slabs of sedimentary rock – chock full of fossil shells. These extend a good 20-30′ above above us- and are clearly “old”. If we take their age as at least Pleistocene- i.e. greater than 10,000 years- this dates them back into a very different world. This land, Southern California, had one of the most diverse fauna imaginable across a super-Serengeti landscape that would blow away East Africa today. Two species of elephants, dire wolves, sabre tooth cats, giant sloths as big as a delivery van…fantastically rich life. Now, I also noticed that there were tar balls sticking to some of the lower down rock slabs. Despite the famed La Brea tar pits…these are clearly modern. In our case they are the signs of a industrial world degrading our habitat. Our tar is common, regular and now almost “normal” in Southern California- coming from either ship bilges or the natural seepage of the Santa Barbara Channel. Colorfully mixed into the fossil shells of Atlas’s project are plastic fragments- some perhaps even too small to see. Actually much more serious. This colored, hard petroleum is being spilled everyday by all of us around the rapidly industrializing world. So, here in the space that a 5 month old baby plays, we see the range of our futures. Behind us (and ironically above) are the fossil deposits of a rich, biologically abundant period that leaves a beautiful legacy for future life. Mixed in the fossil shells and spattered on the rocks are the clear signs of today’s path. State Park status aside, there is no indication that we are going to leave a better, more diverse and productive world for our children. What, of course, is most disturbing is that so few people on the beach even make these connections or take the time to think about where we are.

So a child sparks an adult- who is supposed to be an “expert” in these issues – to step back and see some dramatic contrasts between the fossils of the past and the debris of the future. Now what. Well, we could be grim and frustrated, taking this all as evidence of terminal decline and no hope. Or we could step back a bit farther and look at the contrast as hope itself. I take the latter- because it is the right answer and because it is the only one that will give us a way ahead. Seeing this range of potential outcomes tells us that the world (still) has enormous degrees of freedom before it. Taking a page from my business/operations background we can sketch out a compelling “future state”. This is a nuts-and-bolts schematic of some place we want to be in the next 20, 50 or 200 years. It is exciting to me to think that this can bring a rare opportunity to bring people together. ? I believe that we all embrace a healthy environment. We will align naturally on a high biodiversity, plastic free, productive ocean- for example.

The tough part comes in not where, but how to get there? And in what compromises we must embrace? There are fantastic options emerging in material science, energy, culture, art and governance that can take us there. The compromises may not be what they seem either. So much of what we do carries massive amounts of embedded waste, distractions and, in hindsight, foolishness (me too). This is exactly what you would expect from our seemingly random wander through a life with abundant resources. We come full circle. If we cannot understand the starkly contrasting options before us, and then develop a clear “future state” we will never get on with the business of a going anywhere. The stakes are too high for a random walk. We must look at the contrasts before us and resolve ourselves to consciously choose, commit to, and then put our backs into a better future. If we the people can do this, our political “leaders” and private sector organizations may actually be able to get on with the business of making it happen.

Our Sea Dragon expeditions are a very small, but to us, hopeful part of this process. The trips, team and mission takes people out of the random walk and gives them a dramatic dose of perspective. Alone in a very large ocean, yet transiting through the plastic, CO2, reef degradation and other modern contributions- you do tend to think alot about “where next.” People choosing to spend their time “working” for a better future as part of a conservation team give us real hope.

I suspect that if we could really ask all the 5-month old kids which path they would choose – rich, bio-diverse landscapes on a healthy planet, or a synthetic legacy of human creation – the alignment would be total. These perhaps simple, clear minded future leaders would quickly resolve a better path. And, when he is 80 in the year 2090 Atlas and his friends would enjoy a fantastically beautiful planet where people spend less time in grim discussions about the future. Story has it that when Jim Webb, NASA Administrator asked his lead engineers “Can we do it? Put a man on the moon in nine years?”. Their answer was simple and characteristic of all the courage of the Apollo program – “Yes, we have to.”

Time to go make this happen.

Ron