I went on a cycling trip in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan last summer and I regret going.
I don’t regret going because of the stunning mountainscapes, deserts, and rivers we rode past (and through). I don’t regret going because of the steep climbs, the cold nights, or the snowstorm that hit as we pushed our bikes up and over our last 13,000’ foot pass. I don’t even regret going because of the stomach bug I had for half the trip, or the goat eyeballs I ate out of politeness to a local family.
I regret going because I’d love to go back to backcountry ski in the incredible mountains or kayak through the glacial river canyons, but I can’t justify the impact of traveling that far to see a place I’ve already been to. I can’t even justify having gone there once. Kyrgyzstan is so far from my home in British Columbia that flights take the same amount of time in each direction around the world.
Wrestling with our individual impacts on climate and other elements of the earth system is hard. In some ways, we’re all hypocrites, every one of us that lives within the modern organizational structure of humanity. We fly, we drive cars, we eat carbon-intensive food. We buy things. Lots of things, for most of us in the developed world. We emit CO2 just by breathing. But many use that systemic hypocrisy as a justification for nihilism, or, perhaps worse, as a scapegoat, pointing fingers at governments, corporations, or other countries while saying there’s no need for individual change.
The unfortunate reality is that every aspect of the human system needs to change. Yes, our governments and the legal structures surrounding humanity’s relationship with the environment need to change. And yes, we need to wrest power away from profit-motivated corporations that have captured regulatory efforts around the world, steering us towards an ever-closer catastrophe. But we also need to rethink the way we live within the earth system as individuals.
“Sustainability” is a trendy term, but its basic meaning has been lost; we need to transition to a society — and to a culture — that doesn’t deplete the resources we depend on, instead living within the earth system in a give and take that can persist indefinitely. Most immediately, we’re threatened by climate change, and we’ve identified technocratic and societal steps that have the potential to mitigate the worst consequences. But even if we implement those solutions (and we’re not doing great), we would not have a “sustainable” human civilization. We’re in the process of transgressing nearly every physical limitation the planet has and unless we learn to live within our means — and to restructure humanity as part of the environment instead of separate from it — then we are not long for this world.
A total restructuring — re-imagination, really — of human civilization is not something we can achieve solely through pragmatic top-down steps. We’re in the first phase of a social paradigm shift: the existing structure of human civilization is in crisis and we know it needs to change, but we don’t know how. To begin to answer that question, we need — on an individual level — to start internalizing the externalities of our day-to-day lives. We need culpability — like what I felt after going to Kyrgyzstan — not because Carl and I flying to Kyrgyzstan will make or break humanity’s response to climate change, but because we need to use that feeling to force us to think about our choices within the context of their environmental — and inherently human — costs. We don’t know what a sustainable culture looks like; we need to be questioning everything and reconsidering our values from the ground up. The development (or discovery) of a new human paradigm can’t come without experimentation, and motivation to experiment comes from the recognition that the status quo cannot continue: not at an individual level, at a corporate level, nor at a government level.