We don’t know how big the universe is, or how many planets there are, or whether we’re the only intelligent life there is. What we do know is that Earth is the only place within reach that we can live on. The only habitable home.
It’s hard to wrap your head around this. We’re conditioned to think in hours, days and months. We are creatures who are obsessed with gossip about our immediate surroundings, our family and our country. That’s why porn websites are flooded with searches for a video of a former minister’s penis play. It’s why we look forward to the Christmas holidays with friends, and rage that there is still institutional racism in our schools and country.
Today. The here and now. This is how we are hard-wired. It is how our journalism works. And we shouldn’t change; we are an incredible species. From a savanna hunter and gatherer, we have gone on to work out how to travel to other planets. We have split the atom and controlled evolution. But we do need to stop and zoom out every now and again. Go back to this tiny blue blob that forms the foundation for life.
Every single thing that we do has an effect on the planet. Late for work? Hard acceleration means more gas being spat out into the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the world. Taking an extra-long shower? That water has to come from somewhere, which means something else doesn’t get to use it.
It all adds up. In the past two centuries, we have been responsible for warming the world by 1°C. We are on track to add 3°C to that this century. Our children will be around for this. Many of us will be trying to retire when the base of our economy — and our pensions — collapses.
Our go-to action as South Africans is to point to China and the United States, and the pointless nature of our doing anything to lower emissions if they don’t. But, as the United Nations’ climate change body pointed out earlier this month, every fraction of warming avoided can save lives. And we South Africans have a huge carbon footprint. Per person, we are the 12th- largest carbon emitter in the world.
This means that our actions do have an effect. To keep this world habitable, we need to keep warming down to a maximum 2°C this century. Anything above this will mean that cities in the highveld will be so hot that we will struggle to work, drought will make food unaffordable for many more than now. Along the coast, storms will eat away at the coastline and batter cities. Living will become overwhelming.
But every single thing we do can have a positive effect, from not accelerating hard to finding a pension fund that doesn’t invest in factories that pollute with little consequence, and getting politicians to do more than providing lip service to doing something about carbon emissions.
We cannot focus just on our immediate surroundings. We are living in an extraordinary age. As a species, we know we are destroying the one place that supports life. We know how we are doing it and we know how to stop doing it.
So let us do our part. It matters.