A robot named WALL-E who is designed to clean up a waste -covered Earth far in the future. Throughout the 21st century, Earth was governed by the Buy n Large megacorporation (BnL), causing mass consumerism and covering the planet in trash by 2105. In an attempt to resolve the situation, Earth’s population was evacuated on fully automated luxury BnL spaceliners to spend five years on a cruise in space while an army of trash compactor robots named WALL-E were left behind to clean the planet. This plan failed, however, when in 2110 the planet was deemed too toxic to ever support life again, forcing humanity to remain in space indefinitely. Stanton felt the moral of the film was “Irrational love defeats life’s programming.” He continued “That’s a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines and our ruts, consciously or unconsciously to avoid living. To avoid having to do the messy part. To avoid having relationships with other people, of dealing with the person next to us. That’s why we can all get on our cell phones and not have to deal with one another.” Stanton noted many commentators placed emphasis on the environmental aspect of humanity’s complacency in the film, because “that disconnection is going to be the cause, indirectly, of anything that happens in life that’s bad for humanity of the planet”.Are we humans rendering our planet uninhabitable? I thought the idea was still controversial in polite society, but apparently it’s hit the mainstream — at least enough to form the premise of a Disney/Pixar animated blockbuster: Wall-E.

Wall-E’s setting is essentially a modernization of the tradition of 1984, Brave New World : here’s a scary and weird possible future for humanity. The presentation of this whole new genre of stories about how human society is going to evolve in the next fifty-to-a-hundred years (given climate change, diminishing fossil fuels, etc.). Albeit its humour, the scenario is all meant to be taken as something that could seriously happen in the future. Yet it’s amusing to see how much social commentary there is in it.
Everyone reading this is probably aware of the precarious position we’re in. Global warming is proceeding faster than the worst projections, and it’s not just a question of everyone feeling a little warmer. Small changes in climate can have dramatic effects on the worlds ecosystems that have already been fragilized to the breaking point by human use. Changes in weather patterns can change storm patterns, destroying not only human habitations (such as New Orleans), but also potentially devastating shallow-water ecosystems such as coral reefs that form a key component of the ocean life systems that we humans rely on for food. Similarly, as if the lungs of the Earth (the tropical rainforests) weren’t already in enough peril from direct destruction by humans, human-induced climate change may well finish the job.

But we can solve this, right?

If you look around at our modern marvels, it would appear that we humans can create anything that we can possibly imagine. Unfortunately, these miracles are built on more than just human ingenuity and the shoulders of giants — they’re also built on a gigantic trust fund of free energy that we happened to find buried in the Earth’s crust. And at the rate we’re going, we’ll have it spent within a generation or so. World peak oil production is right around the corner (if we haven’t already passed it), and worldwide demand for energy is going nowhere but up. We’re nowhere near getting ourselves weaned off of fossil fuels, and — given our society’s dependence on energy-intensive activities such as agriculture and transportation of food and people — it’s not clear the Earth minus its oil reserves will be able to support our population of six billion (and growing).

Part of the problem is increased energy consumption in the “developing world.” Naturally people want to emulate the (currently) rich countries, and unfortunately they’re doing it by making the same mistakes. Developing countries will be in a better position in the long run if they can manage to skip the dead-end step of refitting their cities to be more “car-friendly.” But moving towards sustainability will probably require widespread literacy and education, goals that can’t be accomplished simply or overnight.

Even apparently sustainable activities like agriculture and drinking fresh water aren’t as sustainable as you might hope. Irrigation-based farming can lower the (fresh) water table and affect the quality of the soil in just a few seasons. Overgrazing can harm plant life beyond its ability to recover, and the resulting erosion does the rest. Sure, with effort humans can make the desert bloom, but for how long? And what will it look like afterward? The deserts have spread and expanded over the past few millennia of human use, even without the current global warming catastrophe to speed things up. It’s true that modern industrial farming techniques have changed all the rules about how much food humans can produce per acre, but unfortunately this technological miracle (not only in terms of machinery but also in terms of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) is largely based on inexpensive petroleum. (This is why I’m wary of “biofuels” as a solution to our energy problems — a moment’s reflection should make it clear that “biofuels” are nothing more than an incredibly inefficient and environmentally costly type of solar power.)

So are we capable of re-orienting our society towards something reasonably sustainable? I think we could if every human on the planet were to make sustainability a life-or-death priority. Yet — while we humans are capable of surviving and adapting to amazing hardships when we have to — it seems we’re incapable of making even minor lifestyle changes for an intangible like “future generations.”

Even if we see that investments in energy efficiency today can save us a lot in the long run, it’s not clear we have the capacity to make any kind of real investments. People keep saying that Obama will have difficulties if the economy gets worse. I ask what do they mean “if”? Energy will become a lot more expensive, and we have no particular reason to project any respite. Meanwhile U.S.-style sprawl means that U.S. cities require several times as much energy per capita to run than their Asian and European counterparts. Then there’s the economic crisis. The U.S. economy today is largely based on debt-fueled consumer spending, with an enormous trade deficit. I don’t see how this can be viewed as a viable long-term economic strategy, yet the common wisdom still says that as long as we can keep “consumer confidence” (hence consumer spending) up, then everything will go back to normal, and the U.S. will continue to be an economic powerhouse indefinitely.

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