The last time I called my parents, we engaged in a conversation in which they lamented the “obnoxiousness” of my fairly new–found vegetarianism (I stopped eating meat in April). My retort, which also functions as my rationale for becoming said vegetarian, consisted of a reference to the simple fact that becoming a vegetarian is a relatively low–stakes lifestyle change that yields the greatest reduction in one’s carbon footprint (for the record, I do not think adjusting one’s lifestyle to take the future into account is obnoxious. But more on that later). Ok, said my dad, you know what other lifestyle adjustments result in a lower carbon footprint? I knew what he was going to say. But I let him say it, smugly, like he was dropping some sort of breaking news story on me: forgoing air travel and not having children. Yeah, I read the United Nations report on climate change, too.
If I were to identify one overarching theme of my entire trip to India, it would be the constant awareness of climate change. There is simply no escaping the reality of global warming and its daily effects here, as is often possible in the United States. These effects range from acute and local, like walking down the street and breathing in bucket loads of exhaust (just imagine living or working on the street and breathing in this polluted air on a daily basis), to long–term and community–altering, like the increasing uncertainty of rainfall, drought, and heat. As Thomas Friedman put it, the world is undeniably hot, flat, and crowded: average temperatures are rapidly increasing, technological advances are allowing burgeoning populations to consume at American–level rates, and there are frankly a scary amount of people now living on this earth. More people than our current system is going to be able to support, much less permit to live like consumption–crazed Americans. Like I said, we can tune that reality out in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I grew up and my parents currently live, or even in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I go to school. But there is a hot, flat, and crowded future lurking dangerously close to our American “reality” that the rest of the world will increasingly no longer be able, nor willing, to buffer for us.
So, this is what I told my parents (sorry for putting you on blast, guys, but this is urgent stuff here, “Code Green”, if you will); I have been thinking very critically about my frequent use of air travel. Googling how much fuel a Boeing 747 burns over the course of an international flight is as painful as WebMDing your random, freaky health issues, except in this case it’s impossible to look away and decide that you are a hypochondriac. To continue this metaphor, no, this is not a case of overreacting because you have some weird freckle on your elbow, this is a full fledged case of melanoma. Airplanes wreck havoc on our ecosystems. A 747 burns a gallon of gasoline every second it is in the air. Then Google how many airplanes, on average, are flying right now: probably close to 200,000, but most likely exceeding that figure. Let that sink in.
For the sake of argument, say I do relinquish air travel. So now I’m a land–dwelling vegetarian. Well, if I someday choose to have children, all those uneaten hamburgers and forgone airplanes are basically for naught because the number one gas–guzzling, environment–decimating, carbon–producing action a human can take is to reproduce. Being here, in India, has really lead me to reconsider my lifelong assumption that I would have children…do we really need more people on this planet? I cannot say with certainty that we do.
Which prompted my mom, in her tired, exasperated, and truly privileged voice, to say, well Emma, we can’t just go back to living in the Stone Age. Here’s the thing, though: I really, profusely do not want to go back to living in the Stone Age, and if worldwide levels of consumption are any indication, neither does the rest of the world. Families in China want cars, farmers in India want air conditioners, people across the Middle East each want a television set and an iPhone and everyone wants to be able to hopscotch from continent to continent, not only to visit family and work, but to see the Eiffel Tower and take a picture in front of the Taj Mahal. We, Americans, have been living on the forefront of all the privileges of the world’s technological advances, and here, I can see out of my office building window, that the rest of the world desperately desires to catch up with us. And they will. It’s only a matter of time.
So, now that we’ve established that nobody wants to go back to the Stone Age, we have a few issues to consider. First, the world just can’t take us anymore. It’s groaning under our weight. It’s fatigued from our irresponsible antics. The natural ecological systems that sustain the very facets of human life are receding at alarming rates, for example, in Brazil, where the Bolsonaro administration is jumping to develop land in the Amazon rainforest and at home, where the Trump administration is beginning to forage into the Arctic, seeking to drill for oil and gas. All of this environmental degradation is no matter, though: we’ve modeled a society, at least in the States, meant to disconnect us from the rhythms of the natural world. Kids play on iPads instead of in the dirt and grass, the television brings a family together more often than the simple pleasure of watching the sunset, and instead of walking to work, like we were evolutionarily designed to do, we get into a car and drive our butts into chairs where we will sit on these butts all day until we drag those same butts up again to go get back into the car and drive home. Ultimately, then it should be no biggie that the Amazon is completely deforested and the Arctic melts…as long as we’ve got gas to put into our cars and drive to work and are able to hop on a plane over to some tourist destination just to cue up to take a picture to post on Instagram, right?
Wrong. So very, utterly, completely, wrong. This is the point in the conversation where my mom calls me an alarmist. I wish I was being alarmist, I really, really do. I wish this was just some radical college–age fad that I will someday grow out of. Unfortunately, it’s quite the contrary: this world I am describing, this hot, flat, and crowded world, is where I am going to be living when I reach the prime years of my life. It is the world that my theoretical children, who I forgive in advance for negating my efforts to avoid meat, will inherit. It is the world that evokes a fear so profound that I can blatantly see it in the eyes of both the man from the Environmental Defense Fund and the auto executive who came to Araku to look into investing in carbon credits when I asked them if there is any avoiding the suicidal trajectory that our planet is on. There is a much easier way to get back to the Stone Age, guys, and it’s continuing on the “business as usual” route. Even if you were to ignore what the chief of the United Nations deems the “ear-splitting wake-up call” of warnings pouring heavily from the mouths of every reputable scientist across the globe, and continue at your current rate of consumption, and continue to vote in representatives who will continue to ignore the very real threats to our way of life, there is no hiding. One day in the near future you are going to look up and it’s going to be like the opening scene from WALL-E. In all seriousness, the consequences are severe and far–reaching: geopolitical relations will worsen, resources will become scarce (avocados in your local Whole Foods will be the first to go), and you hate all the people lining up at the border now? Wait until the weight of our poor decision–making prompts an all–out refugee crisis that spans much further than Tijuana. It is precisely because I do not want to return to the Stone Age that I fight for change: change that should not be deemed radical by definition of its very necessity.
Being abroad always prompts me to reflect on my American-ness. I just want to get one thing straight: despite my lambasting of grotesque American consumerism, I am not an America-hater. In fact, I love America and everything about it. I love its diversity, its values, its opportunity, its history. I love the freedom we have (and must unabashedly protect) to question and challenge the status quo. I love how the very nature of change is written into the fabric of our society. We ask questions, we demand answers, we lead. Climate change and its effects are issues that we, as a country and a society, can not afford to ignore. I think, years down the line, this era will be seen as a watershed moment, just as World War II and its fallout completely changed the structure of normalcy back in the 1940s. To preserve our way of life, we must fight for it. We have become lazy because we are so blinded by the privilege that our technology, resources, and societal structure offer us. So, yes, I am a vegetarian and will continue to be, but there is a fight out there for our future, steadily brewing, that will require much more than choosing to cook zucchini instead of chicken for dinner (although, it starts there). It will require compromise, innovation, and a small bit of sacrifice. To ignore the call to lead the world into a future that we now, fleetingly, have the power to construct and protect is the most un–American thing I could possibly think of.
I’ve bought a scarf or two to bring home to commemorate this trip, but the most meaningful souvenir I possess is the perspective that living in India has given me and, by consequence, the invigorating energy I now have to fight for what I believe in.