For Earth Day, lessons from a fable

Published Tuesday, April 16, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

One of my favourite stories is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.  It is about a fashion-loving emperor who is duped by two phony tailors.  In return for a hefty fee, they promise to weave him a splendid outfit with magical properties: the outfit is visible only to the wise and competent. 

As the tailors work, the emperor’s attendants and even the vain emperor himself see no clothes taking shape – but they dare not say anything for fear of appearing stupid or incompetent.  A procession is organized so the emperor can show off his new ‘clothes’ to the townspeople.  They too say nothing for fear of appearing stupid or incompetent.

All, that is, except a little boy who cries out, “But he has nothing on!”  Somehow, it seems, a child has the clarity to see reality that everyone else has become conditioned to ignore. 

Perhaps the lesson of the Emperor’s New Clothes is as relevant today as it was years ago: we humans can become so used to status quos that we become blind to larger, overarching realities.  If, instead of observing a king’s parade, the same little boy were to view today’s world, perhaps he’d have a few things to say.

“You’ll ruin your planet if you burn all you’ve got”
Not so long ago, it was widely believed that we would run out of oil, coal and natural gas before emissions from their consumption turned up the planet’s thermostat to dangerous levels.  Alas, we now know otherwise.  Improved methods for discovering and extracting fossil fuels – including hydraulic fracturing – mean that dangerous warming will happen if we burn just one fifth of the planet’s known reserves.  One fifth!

Fossil fuels may be jobs and money from the depths but they are poison to the climate, and a poisoned climate will be around long after the jobs and money run out.  Even the conservative International Energy Agency agrees with the little boy that we have a choice to make: if we want a liveable planet, we need to leave at least four-fifths of our known reserves in the ground.  That means a significant rethink of the way our economy operates.

“You need price signals”
It’s nice to imagine that moral arguments alone would be enough to motivate the changes needed to ensure our planet will remain liveable for the generations to come.  But unfortunately, that’s probably a faint hope: most people are guided far less by their moral compasses than they are by their pocketbooks.

So price signals are the obvious way to get everyone’s attention: if dirty products became expensive, we’d stop buying them.  If sustainable products were cheapest, we switch over to them instantly. 

I’m guessing the little boy would add that, as much as we might not want to admit it, putting a price on carbon would be the obvious way to kickstart such a market transformation.

“There are too many of you, and you’re using everything up”
Perhaps this is the harshest of the little boy’s pronouncements.  It reflects the uncomfortable reality that more and more people consuming more and more stuff on a planet that’s not getting any bigger is bound not to work out well.  Our global population will grow by 200,000 once again today, as it does every day.  That’s like adding another New Brunswick every three days or another Canada every six months.  And today’s average human consumes much more than the human of 100 years ago did.

In “Radical Simplicity,” author Jim Merkel reminds us that Reduce is still the most virtuous of the three Rs, and suggests that a global one-child policy could gently bring human population to a sustainable level by 2100.  Perhaps we’d do well to contemplate both in response to the little boy’s reality alert.

In today’s world, life marches by at a dizzying pace, and it’s easy to become so numb to the status quo that we become blind to naked realities.  For Earth Day 2013, maybe we’d we wise to press the reset button and view things with the perspective of the little boy.