Recap & Response: Knowingly Orchestrating Our Own Extinction

Guest Blogger: Rensi Pua, IPED ’20

On March 27, 2019, a group of experts on environmental issues convened for the Cassamarca Dinner Consultation to share their thoughts on the environment. Earlier that day, a more formal lecture was held to discuss the pressing matter of climate change. At the dinner, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Reverend John Cunningham SJ, Dr. J. Alan Clark, Dr. Marc Conte, Dr. Stephen Holler, and Mr. Paul Wilkins were present to share their thoughts. Outcomes of the day’s discussion will be forwarded to Rome to be shared at the Vatican International Conference in June 2019.

“We have become poor stewards of our home,” observes Dr. Holler, an associate professor at the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics at Fordham University. “Humans have only been on Earth for a short time but we have already had profound impacts. In the past 2000 years, communities have been displaced due to climate change, we are losing species, and we are facing the sixth mass extinction in the history of the world,” he explains. “However, despite all the evidence backing climate change, the current political and social climate is denialism,” he further notes. “We have sycophants instead of policy advisors. Science should drive policy and there is a need to stop politicizing it so we can start engaging in dialogues,” he recommends.

“Venus is a cautionary tale of what the Earth could become if we don’t address climate change,” adds Rev. Cunningham SJ, the Chair of the Physics and Engineering Physics Department at Fordham. Venus, whose atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide, is a planet where the temperature is so out of control and atmospheric pressure is so heavy that even probes blow up as soon as they enter its atmosphere. Here on Earth, the level of carbon dioxide that we have been dumping is starting to catch up to us. The level of acidity in the oceans is rising and it cannot absorb any more. We also continue to chop down forests that process carbon dioxide. The logic is simple — like Venus, if we cannot sustain our atmosphere, we cannot sustain life.

There is a “That’s not my problem – I’m dealing with the here and now” mentality that keeps climate change at a distance, observes Dr. Holler. The United States is faring well with regard to the negative effects of climate change, which conveniently distances it from the urgency of the crisis. Unfortunately, there is an asymmetry in impacts – the West will continue to fare better at the expense of the Pacific Islands and Africa. The convenient lifestyles that come with progress also come at a cost for the environment — and we are all guilty of mismanaging our own carbon footprint. Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science calls this massive loss of wildlife as a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.” Unlike past mass extinctions caused by natural events, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. At the consultation, Dr. Clark, associate professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Fordham, likened evolution to a dance. The more dancers there are, the more resilient we are. It is then important to save everyone for our survival. We need to preserve all the dancers to keep the earth thriving.

Given all these compelling arguments, I told myself to change after attending the consultation. Yet, the very next day, I promptly traded in that resolution for convenience. In a rush, I ordered my Starbucks — forgetting to bring my reusable cup and straw again. I bought my groceries — forgetting to bring my reusable bags again. I tried to buy earth-friendly household products — but they’re more expensive so I go back to my usual brands. I tried to make my coffee using the more sustainable French press — but I end up using a K-cup again. Everyday, I make all these tradeoffs at no impediment to my daily life. As for the environmental costs, they’re frankly not visible enough to impose. I take out my trash of non-recyclables every week and someone picks them up to take to who knows where. There is no incentive for me to reduce or reuse because whatever I throw out, disappears the next day. This behavior is arguably applicable not only on a personal level, but also on a business level. Bags of post-consumer waste from commercial establishments are left curbside on the streets of Manhattan, promptly disappearing the next morning. As Dr. Conte mentioned in his earlier talk, the problem is that there are no price signals when it comes to environmental decisions. If the garbage collector were to weigh my trash each week and ask me to pay for that weight in gold (just like at the laundromat’s wash and fold), then I’d be forced to care more. If I had a convenient app that could count my daily carbon footprint in the way MyFitnessPal counts my daily caloric intake, the guilt would make me care more. If Starbucks’ menu prices were all predicated on reusable containers and they would charge me a dollar for every plastic cup I use, then I’d care more. If environmental costs had a way of seriously affecting bottomlines, business would care more. The problem is in palliative ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) policies and complacent human nature. As citizens of this planet, we can challenge ourselves to do more despite the busy lives we lead. We can do more to challenge businesses and policymakers to do the same. If history has taught us anything though, we can but we likely won’t. If this is the case, then we need to be comfortable with the fact that we are knowingly orchestrating our own extinction as we sustain our daily lives. On a moral, ethical, and personal level, can we really live with that? At the rate we’re going, it seems like we can and we will. This does not give me much hope for the future of the environment.

Rensi Pua ’20 is an MA Candidate in International Political Economy and Development at Fordham University.