How to Reconnect to the Earth

We could solve our environmental crisis if only we could grasp how big it is


| September-October 1999



Watching the world is like closely examining a printed photograph of a human face. In a newspaper or magazine, a photo is made up of dots, or pixels, and a small piece seen close up is unrecognizable. In today's world, each of us receives vastly more bits of information than earlier generations did, but those bits are like the dots in an increasingly enormous picture. From where we normally see it, the world is incomprehensible. But stand back far enough, and the larger picture comes into focus. Multiple declines become visible as a single decline. It becomes clear that we are in a mega-crisis of our own making, and that we have a chance to escape it before it destroys us—though the window of opportunity is closing fast.

How to see through that window before it's too late? One way that human societies have long dealt with issues critical to their survival and future is to tell eye-opening stories. These myths, legends, and songs open minds by telling of unanticipated events, astonishing ordeals that serve as insights or warnings.

For such a story to work, however, the setting in which it takes place—the geography, climate, or culture—must be familiar. If you have experienced rain, for example, you can mentally extrapolate to a catastrophic flood. But if you have lived all your life in a place where no water has fallen from the sky and no sudden rivulet has run across the ground before you, the idea of a terrible flood may be impossible to grasp. Where there are no familiar conditions, there may be no galvanizing shocks. In a time of increasing disturbance and discontinuity, that perception paradox poses a growing threat to our ability to plan.

Earth's 6 billion natives are confronting a blitz of biological and physical alterations in the world that has sustained us in the past. This profound change is so completely outside our collective experience that we don't really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming.

Environmental scientists have made it emphatically clear—about as close as scientists ever come to shouting—that we are in trouble. They describe four megaphenomena: rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, rising rates of extinction, rising consumption of resources, and rising population. Yet few people see a problem. Why are we not astonished?

There are several reasons. Although we have access to vast amounts of information, its quality is increasingly questionable. Real news is buried under a landslide of prepackaged news planted by corporate PR, ideological groups, and others interested in manipulating how we act and consume. Meanwhile, much important information is hidden—by spreading privatization (secret corporate data), by incomplete accounting (economic data that doesn't include costs to other species or generations), and by the expanding global shadow economy (underground or "informal" commerce). Information explosion has become information obliteration.