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Exploring the Big Dilemmas in Susan Bauer-Wu’s A Future We Can Love

This article is a companion piece to Nachaya’s upcoming review of Susan Bauer-Wu’s new book, A Future We Can Love (2023). In this piece, Nachaya gives a glimpse of the big issues raised within Bauer-Wu’s volume, from the climate crisis to global economic trends to society.   

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing A Future We Can Love, Susan Bauer-Wu’s new book. Susan Bauer-Wu is the director of the Mind & Life Institute and has written a book expanding on a meeting that the Institute organized between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Ms. Greta Thunberg, along with leading climate scientists Susan Natali and William Moomaw. Having discussed the book with Susan, my mind was flooded with related thoughts on issues like the climate crisis, the environment, and social change. Some of these thoughts are what make up this essay.   

From upaya.org

In the early 2000s, the most radical thing I felt I could do was to move my young family out of the unhealthy environment of the French cities to a rural life in the idyllic countryside. For a long time, we lived in this 400-year-old mud (torchi) house, complete with local spring water and a setup to be off-grid and as self-sustaining as possible. Here we are, 20 years later, and I have been alive long enough to recall the waves of apocalyptic climate-related headlines over the years. I cannot shake lingering memories about those. My thoughts were also triggered by the media about actions taken by some which, however well-intentioned, seem to instigate a backlash. Negative responses to good intentions, you could say. We simply cannot afford the current inertia at this rate.

I wish to posit several challenging, concerning facts, and frustratingly conflicting opinions. I offer them to you, dear reader, to consider in your own life, and question what changes we can all make starting today.

We know that using fossil fuels is finite and disastrous to the health of both the individual and the planet. When burned, carbon from millions of years ago gets released into our atmosphere. There was great hubris within the industrial revolution with no understanding of the ensuing damage, or limited resources, and people acted as if it would be for all time. So much damage has been inflicted in so few years. 

There has been an increasing focus on electric cars and solar panels in recent decades, and I can see why. Yet there is conflicting information and varied opinions about them. For example, solar panels are loaded with toxic chemicals and increasing cash incentives to keep “upgrading” them result in a staggering amount of hazardous landfill. (Harvard Business Review) Similarly with electric cars, exhausted EV batteries not only end up leaking toxic waste if dumped, but lead, nickel, cobalt, and lithium all need mining, and these mines require an unimaginable toll on the people, many of them being children, involved—and don’t get me started on the impact of modern-day slavery and planetary abuse for our technology, including smartphones that we all hypocritically use, as well as cosmetics. A “1,000-pound EV battery equals the mining and processing of 500,000 pounds of earth.” (Manhattan Institute) But not least, the electricity to charge the batteries still needs to come from somewhere.

From economictimes.com

On the other hand, we know that we cannot keep using fossil fuels as we have.

Electric vehicles are far preferable to diesel and petrol in the long run, but are there any viable alternatives? How can you improve the way you travel?

In her essay in A Future We Can Love, Diana Beresford-Kroeger suggests that we should plant as many trees as we possibly can. It is a sentiment I absolutely agree with, and have done myself, but if trees are not possible, grow herbs on your window sill, which I also do. Yet as we know, industrial farming is a significant factor in deforestation and desertification exacerbating the albedo effect, which is a direct result of our food habits.

How can you better change your diet and food or shopping choices to lessen the impact of mass agriculture? Ought we also pay more attention to the oceans?

Algae beds contribute significantly to the effects of water vapor and “cloud-loops.” We know that our relationship with fish and seafood, even down to what our cats eat, is destroying the oceans, inevitably the result of deep-sea trawling. This is a disaster, not only for the marine life but the algal bloom, and of course there are the carbon implications. (Smithsonian Magazine) One acre of algae can remove up to 2.7 tons per day of CO2. (Parametric Press) Some companies have been combining modern technology and AI to “harness” algae and create controlled bioreactors which claim to be 400 times more efficient than trees. And with diets in mind, studies have found that a single hectare of algae pond generates 27 times as much protein as protein crops such as soybeans.

What changes can you make that will have an influence on the oceans?

President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, yet he also signed his approval for the Willow project at a cost of US$8 billion, with the drilling alone estimated to produce the same carbon emissions as 2 million fossil fuel cars driving power per year. All based on the assumption that there may be 160 billion barrels of oil and 30 per cent of the planet’s gas sitting under the Arctic’s ice. (BBC News) With no international treaty actively protecting the Arctic from economic development, the US is not the only country mining this area. Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway have been drilling for years. Clearly, this spells disaster.

Image by Reuters. From arctictoday.com

We also have evidence of Earth’s climate fluctuations throughout the Cenozoic era. Core samples since the Holocene indicate the precession of the equinoxes, Earth’s hottest periods—the Hadean, the late Neoproterozoic, the Cretaceous Hot Greenhouse, the PETM—occurred before humans existed (I have in mind the 1500-year Bond cycle, the Younger Dryas through to the 4.2 ka event).

Can President Biden, or many other world leaders, be any more trusted than those who dismiss the current climate crisis as a “normal fluctuation?” Green cities, including the likes of Nottingham here in the UK, are making enormous strides towards eradicating carbon emissions, yet emission charges on cars and squeezing those who are unable to buy a new cleaner car, for example, are being hit hard, and based on angry responses to these initiatives, it is clear that some see these “localized living” exhortations as threats to public freedom.

Yet traditionally, humans live in local communities. Anyone who lives as part of a healthy community knows how invaluable the support is, and how an extended family is vital for physical and emotional well-being. What can cities, countries, and individuals do to better make these shifts towards a sustainable future without instigating inertia, or even worse, a backlash and metastasizing opposition?

Is there a concern that too many of our youth simply don’t care enough? After all, we face several major crises in trust: a combination of misinformation, confusion, distrust in mainstream news, and the overarching vacuousness of pop culture and social media. All generations but young people especially face social and economic pressures, and these factor into calculations about material gain and a hopeful future—not to mention the question of an enduring self.

Here in the UK, protest groups like Insulate Britain blocked parts of the M25 in 2021, frustrating thousands of commuters who were simply trying to keep afloat in their own lives, resulting in Scotland Yard’s “promise” of pre-emptive arrests—a very concerning trend in my opinion—and a combination of anger and ridicule from the press and general public. This led to a “poor cry-baby” attitude as opposed to supportive and positively engaged one. We are familiar with the cynical rhetoric: “People protest, arriving by fossil fuel means, creating havoc, and return to their day jobs 24 hours later, and nothing changes.”

Protesters from Insulate Britain blocking the M25 highway. From BBC News

YouTuber and streamer Konstantin Kisin’s now infamous speech at the Oxford Union debate, “Woke Culture HAS Gone Too Far,” brought further considerations to the table, citing that the UK was responsible for 2 per cent of the global carbon emissions rendering the country’s impact virtually negligible—so why will the Brits care?—whereas the biggest contributors come from the Global South, where the driving imperative is daily survival. “One hundred and twenty million people in China do not have enough food,” he said. “They suffer from malnutrition. A third of all children who live in extreme poverty in the world, live in India.” There is not a loving parent in the world who would not put their child first, above and beyond any potential long-term factors that feel too abstract to be of immediate and individual concern. What right does the Global North have to deny the Global South this, especially from a position of power, privilege, and comfort?

He continues to state that this younger generation is being “brainwashed into believing that they are victims” and all they can do is complain, and protest instead of working, creating, and building. A possible generalization to be sure, but it is worth asking if the protests actually result in negative responses. Are we falling foul of a gallows humor response thanks to the relentless inundation of apocalyptic doom and gloom that we are constantly bombarded with? Perhaps this is what has led to apathy, and skewed opinion polls on the climate crisis.

What can we do to invest real action in people, especially the younger generation so that they don’t feel like victims?

If protesting is not the only way, how can we better excite, engage, educate, and empower the next generation to work on, create, and build a better future?

See more

The Dark Side of Solar Power (Harvard Business Review)
Mines, Minerals, and “Green” Energy: A Reality Check (Manhattan Institute)
What ‘Glacier Blood’ on the French Alps Tells Scientists About Climate Change at High Elevations (Smithsonian Magazine)
Tiny Algae and the Political Theater of Planting One Trillion Trees (Parametric Press)
Who owns the Arctic and should they drill for oil and gas? (BBC News)

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