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Day After Tomorrow

Opinion | May 9, 2011

If everyone in the world lived exactly the way I do, it would take four Earths to support us all. Sound bad? My carbon footprint here at Tufts is actually well below the national average; my carbon footprint at home in LA (where heating in the winter is a non-issue) is even lower. Still, four Earths. What does this mean for the world, and for our future? Well, first of all, since we have only one Earth, and we’re giving it a rough time as is, the majority of the world can’t be living the way most of us do. For every one of us who takes an extensive online carbon footprint quiz (on our laptops, plugged into the outlet of the wall of our house, which we got to in a car or a plane, etc., etc.), there is someone who, if they took this quiz, would have practically no carbon footprint at all. For everyone whose lifestyle would require four Earths to support the entire population, there must be someone whose lifestyle requires one quarter of an earth. There must be a balance.

There is no doubt that the world is changing. Just look at this past winter in Boston, or the mass deaths of animals all over the world. The Earth is in a state of near-crisis (and that’s being optimistic), and things won’t be getting easier anytime soon. Healthcare improvements mean that people can live longer—the global population is growing and growing, and the earth doesn’t have the means to support it. A quick Google search will tell you what environmentalists have to say about how this will impact us: how the world will look, how the climate will change, and what that means for us and the many species with which we share our planet. But with everyone living the way most of us do now, how could anyone live the way we do in 50 years?

In 1961, the population was 3.08 billion. The mid-year statistics for 2010 estimate the population at about 6.9 billion, nearly four billion and 45% more than it was 50 years ago. If the population continues to grow, even by only one to three billion people (as is predicted by most researchers), there won’t be communities and neighborhoods like the ones most of us grew up in or the one we live in here at Tufts—there just won’t be enough space. This means that the idea of community, the concept of a neighborhood that most of us recognize, is in for some radical changes in coming decades. Does this mean that we’ll be sacrificing shared spaces? Parks and wilderness could be the first things to go—but any city-planner worth their salt should recognize that paving over the green parts of our communities would only be counterproductive in the fight against global warming. Alternatives? Building up, building down, consolidating private properties into larger buildings.

Any solution we can imagine now comes from our understanding of how we organize life in this day in age. We have developed expectations based on the way that we have always been able to liberally take up and utilize space. We have to start accepting that the world in which our descendants live may not even resemble the one that we know now. Natural processes will shape the Earth’s new landscape and conditions.

Although experts uphold that the past year’s earthquakes have occurred with normal frequency, it seems as though our daily lives are constantly interrupted by more news of devastation caused by natural disasters. Is the Earth trying to tell us something? Our planet follows its own trajectory of change and reinvention that does not pertain to our social existence as humans. The theory of continental drift suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago, the Earth’s distinct continents, on which we have come to base notions of ethnic and cultural identity, comprised a single landmass. Catastrophic events such as earthquakes and floods decomposed this landmass, gradually creating the continental configuration with which we are familiar today. Our lifetimes are insignificant in terms of the timeframe of this process. Even so, the catastrophic events that we witness may be indicators of a dramatic global renovation whose end result we can’t even imagine.

Over generations, our offspring will build their lives around the globe that they inherit. However, it’s safe to say that they will be forced to compensate for the damage we’ve engendered through our lifestyles. We keep running this tab, and sooner or later, someone is going to have to pay for it.

Using one Earth to pay the debts of four Earths is going to require some serious sacrifice of comfort and convenience, plus the reallocation and reinvention of resources that are already becoming scarcer. It’s hard to say what life will be like even 100 years from now, but preserving our way of life for our descendents just doesn’t seem to be an option. The question is, how will this moment in time be remembered, and how can we memorialize it? Will magazines like the Observer become a mere vestige of an archaic existence in which people organized within a ‘campus’ that corresponded to a set of routines and possibly some shared values? If we’ve lost control of the path our planet is on, it seems that we still have control of is creating the image of our world that will outlast us. Our words, images, blog posts, etc., may need to function more like hieroglyphics or dispatches from the moon. In other words, we may need to start actively documenting  our world and preserving the memory of what we care about because our way of life could be completely alien to coming generations.