words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“Conscious evolution is occurring in our generation because we are now gaining an understanding of the processes of nature: the gene, the atom, the brain, the origin of the universe, and the whole story of creation from the big bang to us,” wrote Barbara Marx Hubbard in her 1998 book, Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of Our Social Potential. “We are now changing our understanding of how nature evolves; we are moving from unconscious evolution through natural selection to conscious evolution by choice. With this increased knowledge and the power that it gives us, we can destroy the world or we can participate in a future of immeasurable dimensions.”
Hubbard, who has just died at the age of 89, was a futurist who believed the human race to be on the brink of a massive shift in consciousness, directly linked to choice. And while her writing predated our current climate emergency, it couldn’t be more apt for the present juncture, in which we are being forced to decide whether we will destroy nature or rise to a new way of living in it. Many philosophers have argued that it is this very ability to choose consciously, to decide our future, that is at the heart of what makes our species unique.
Some are turning to technology as our saving grace. Impossible Foods, for one, is offering innovative food tech to help the food industry reduce its footprint—which, for the livestock sector, is quite high; in addition to harming wildlife by turning natural biomes into farmlands, and consuming and contaminating water supplies, it is responsible for 15% of all anthropogenic emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). Choosing a plant-based Impossible Burger over a meat-based burger saves the equivalent of 75 square feet of land, one half tub of bathwater, and 18 miles of emissions in a car. (For more on the ‘bleeding burger,’ pick up Atmos Volume 01.)
It’s not just the scientific community looking to technological advancements, either; the art world is dreaming up new ways we can exist with nature, as evidenced by a new exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan. Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial presents carbon-negative raincoats made from algae, caskets out of mushrooms, and vertical skyscraper farms for butterflies. “We are nature,” Matilda McQuaid, the museum’s deputy director of curatorial and head of textiles, explained to Earther. “We’re beginning to realize that and understand that with much greater empathy and depth.”
Others think technology is a distraction from what’s really required here: legislation. “We don’t need more technology to solve these [environmental and social] problems. What we need is willpower,” Paul Polman, Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, told the audience at last week’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “We have the solutions. We don’t have the leadership to implement them.” Highlighting that those with the largest incomes have the largest footprints (and conversely, the poorest have the smallest), the summit called for more regulation to give the fashion industry and its consumers incentive to change.
This week did see an influx in promising new policies. Mexico City, which currently generates an estimated 13,000 tonnes of waste every day, has just announced that it will ban all single-use plastics, including bags, cutlery, straws, cups, and balloons. A less extreme measure has been put forth in the U.K., where straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds with plastic stems will become outlawed starting next year. Meanwhile, The Guardian disclosed new policies relating to language in how they cover the environment, including the use of ‘climate emergency’ over ‘climate change’ to better reflect what science is telling us.
One common denominator is clear here: Whichever way forward we choose, the important part is that we do choose—that we take action, and do so consciously. As president John F. Kennedy said, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”