In his NPR interview, Mr. Ehrlich eloquently explains that we as humans have “genetic hangovers”: patterns of behavior which are no longer useful, and are sometimes harmful to us, yet are so genetically ingrained that we have trouble changing them. He cites our overt consumption of sugar and fats as an example. We used to value sugars and fats in our diets, because they used to be rare, now that they can be found in abundance, mostly due to our economical and technological advantages, we still value them, but needlessly. In this case, our genetic predisposition to valuing and enjoying fats and sugars is now harming us because in abundance these foods cause problems in our bodies. Another example is that we have been programmed to see our environments as a backdrop in order to see the more immediate danger, usually in the form of a predator (Ehrlich uses the example of a leopard). Now, however, our enemies are the CO2 in the atmosphere, the pollution in our oceans, the holes in our ozone, in other words: parts of our backdrop. This poses a huge evolutionary challenge for us, we need to change our entire focus. Genetically, changing our perception so drastically is almost impossible, science shows us that it takes millions of years to evolve genetically. A cultural evolution, on the other hand, is much more feasible. There are countless examples of cultural evo- and revolutions, starting with the first presence of art and burial in our culture and repeating and revamping all the way up to our present state of technology, art, language and general culture.
Still, though , it remains that we have virtually no concept of the world around us, and what we are using. For example, “in 1900 the world’s coal consumption was equivalent to destroying and transporting a forest three times the size of Britain every year” (A Green History of the world). Ehrlich compares humans to the prodigal son, who has been given this vast inheritance and every year proudly writes out a larger check, without ever looking at the balance (Ehrlich). This reckless use of our resources had led to our energy crisis. And the worst part is that it is our own silly fault.
Our use of coal (right around the time of the Industrial Revolution) was the first sign of our cultural short -sightedness and lack of regard for our environment. The fact that we “mined” forests “without sufficient replanting or other conservation techniques meant that this energy crisis was self inflicted - the result of a short- sighted approach repeated over the centuries.” (A Green History). And this problem, “ultimately the move to an industrialized society depend[ing] on the consumption of nonrenewable energy resources” (A Green History) has only gotten worse, especially in the United States: “right now, the United States uses 25 percent of the world’s oil production even though it has only 4 percent of the worlds populations and 3 percent of its reserves”(NY times). We have some options about how to keep some flow into our bank of resources, but these will only take us so far. Still, the emphasis is placed “once again on making more energy available rather than using it efficiently” (A Green History). Car engines are only one example of our gross and unnecessary use of energy.
The problem, then, is that we need to stop thinking in the short term, and stop perceiving our sources of energy as though they were inexaustable. Since both of these parts of “human nature” are presumable genetic, we must take steps to change our cultural practices to override our genetic tendancies. Although it may be hard not to eat that chocolate cake, it is not healthy to consume so much sugar, just as it is hard not to buy that SUV but healthier for our backdrop and for us to consume more efficently and sustainably.