In the lullaby “Hush Little Baby,” a singer tries to quiet a child by promising to give her a slew of new things. “Papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird,” she croons, “And if that mocking bird don’t sing / Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.” The transaction is desperate. Rewards are offered, and rejected, in exchange for silence. It’s a moment that makes parents cringe in recognition. If the diamond ring “gets broke,” the baby is offered, depending on the version sung, a billy goat, a looking glass, a cart and bull, a dog named Rover, or a scraggily ole mutt. New gifts replace old gifts, but each one fails to console. The verses go on. The baby does not hush.
The American approach to environmentalism is, in many ways, a lot like “Hush Little Baby.” Buying green advertises itself as a solution to the inevitable catastrophe of climate change. Everything from recycled carpets to organic dish soap comes packaged in earth tones—pale greens and soft, inoffensive browns—with variations on a leaf—or a seed, perhaps, or a tree—snuck into the branding. The season is always spring and the mood is rejuvenation, which is nice for customers because it’s easy to panic when thinking in any detail about the state of our planet. Americans constitute 4 percent of the world’s population, and yet we produce 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Our nation’s carbon footprint is the second highest in the world, and, though nationally greenhouse gas emissions are dropping, globally they’re growing. The magnitude of climate change is astounding, in a way that can cause genuine brain ache. It’s painful to think about a problem that is simultaneously invisible and planetary.
One response to the inevitability of a radically altered Earth is to trust in the innovative power of the free market: salvation through shopping. Yesterday’s organic cotton towel or last Christmas’s LED lights might seem silly, but better products are coming out all the time and consumerism means faith in what tomorrow can buy. After all, we’ve already got hybrid cars and wind farms and living buildings and hydro-electric plumbing. A wicked smart couple in Idaho has even invented solar powered streets. “Some new Einstein will come along and figure out something,” friends have told me, when I express concern. “Science will find a way.”
The magnitude of climate change is astounding, in a way that can cause genuine brain ache.
The recent film Interstellar depicts just such a savior-powered, free market solution. When crop blight and dust storms make the atmosphere unbreathable, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a corn farmer and former NASA pilot, is asked to navigate a spacecraft through a wormhole to find a replacement for Earth. It’s “the loneliest journey in human history,” and there’s a good chance he’ll fail. More troubling for him is the likelihood that he’ll never see his son or daughter again. Forced to choose between his children and the slim possibility of a future for humankind, Cooper reluctantly agrees to play the hero.
The film’s premise isn’t entirely out of touch with real-life projects. Though we lack the technology for timely intergalactic travel, NASA’s Keplar project is actively hunting for “Earth-size, habitable zone worlds,” planets with the potential to house liquid water and, perhaps one day, humans. Perched atop a space observatory, a photometer astronomical telescope notes the dip in light when a planet passes in front of another sun. Astronomers use this information to determine orbit, dimensions, reflectivity, and mass. As far as potential “earth-twins” go, the candidate count is currently at 4,175.
Resources are being located extraterrestrially, too. When the European Space Agency successfully landed their rover, Rosetta, on a comet last November, entrepreneurs buzzed with the possibility of mining precious metals like nickel and platinum in space. Deep Space Industries, for instance, plans to “enable the expansion of the human race into the space frontier by developing the ability to find and harvest in-space resources.” For space pioneers more interested in the logistics of human survival, NASA’s rover Curiosity confirmed the existence of Martian water, 2 percent by weight, in the red planet’s dust. Ice is visible at the surface of the northern pole, and more is suspected beneath the carbon dioxide cap in the south. Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, notes, “If you take about a cubic foot of [Martian] dirt … and heated it up, you could get a couple pints of water.” While there are no immediate plans to slurp up this resource, the zany possibility exists that, after a robust filtering process, humans could drink the briny Martian waters. “Astronauts may someday be able to tap soil to quench their thirst,” reported CNN. Business Insider was a little more confident, declaring the discovery “good news for when we send people to Mars.”
For decades, science fiction has viewed outer space as the great, and final, hope, the wildest Wild West, a blank canvas where we can deposit our trash and refuel space crafts and expand human civilization. As far as we know, Earthlings are the only humans in the universe, so the problems that typically accompany new colonies—unequal power, cultural imperialism, and genocide—aren’t at play, at least not in any kind of familiar way. Of course, exactly what does exist out there is still to be determined. Space, as any Trekkie will confirm, is “The Final Frontier,” and we don’t even know how little we know.
We can’t replace our planet, but we can take care of the one we have.
In the meantime, back on Earth, scientists are telling us that it’s too late to stop climate change. The ice caps are melting and the sea is rising. Weather patterns have shifted, making storms mightier and less predictable. Arid climates suffer deadly droughts, which contribute to political instability. Supplies of drinking water are threatened and our food supply is at risk. A team from the University of California in Santa Barbara and Rutgers University warns of mass extinctions for oceanic life.
The road to a safer, cleaner planet is not paved in compostable cutlery. Rather than waiting for the next purchase to absolve us, we might let go of the assumption that solutions lie in accumulation. As the environmental historian Philip Wight points out, “in any single year, Americans spend more on plastic garbage bags—to throw away the excess from our disposable society—than almost half of the world’s countries spend on everything.” What we could try, instead, is living with less. Fewer plane trips. More biking. Fewer gadgets. Less electricity.
In the final verse of “Hush Little Baby,” the singer gives up on finding the perfect gift and instead tells the crying infant, “You’re still the sweetest little baby around.” At last, the song ends. The child sleeps. It’s not another thing that comforts the tot’s anxiety, but an idea, a statement of commitment, an expression of faith in who she already is. We can’t replace our planet, but we can take care of the one we have. Political will is growing, and increasingly people who can afford to have more choose to have less. It’s not what we buy that determines our future, but how we live with each other. As long as we’re waiting for a product or a hero to save us, we’ll use it as an excuse to do nothing. The Anthropocene is here, and if we want the hushed babe to awaken to a healthy planet, we’ll need more radical shifts in values. Consumerism isn’t solving planetary problems. It’s time we change tunes.