Irony by the Sea

Spread-McKibben

WHEN I ACTUALLY saw the setting for December’s big climate conference, I wondered if perhaps the UN — bulwark of bureaucratic earnestness — had somehow acquired a sense of irony.

If you never made it down for spring break, here’s what Cancún looks like: There’s a lagoon with a narrow strip of barrier beach, all white sand and lined with hotels. Ritzy hotels — the Ritz, for instance, where “A Tranquil Spirit Of Elegance And Enchantment Prevails. Here Guests Can Explore An Underwater Dreamland, Marvel At Nearby Mayan Ruins Or Simply Relax On the hotel’s 1,200 Feet Of White Sand Beachfront. Minutes From The Exciting Nightclubs Of Downtown Cancun, the Resort Features Such Distinctive Touches As A Five-story Atrium With An Impressive Stained-glass Dome, while also reflecting Mexico’s Rich Spanish Heritage.” (It’s not just upper class, it’s uppercase.)

I can’t testify to the actual height of the atrium, because I didn’t stay there, nor at the Hyatt, where “the trendy landscaping is highlighted by the brand new beach cots right on the side of the ocean,” nor at the official conference headquarters, the Moon Palace Resort, whose spa offers the slightly scary sounding “250 min. Therapeutic Massage.” I was with a crowd of youth organizers in the downtown hostel next to the bus station, where you can get a 10 percent discount with a membership card from Lonely Planet. Downtown means on the other side of a bunch of machine gun–toting soldiers, in a city center that’s solidly middle-class Latin America. But walk a few blocks farther and you’re in recognizable Third World — scrawny dogs lounging in front of tiny bodegas, potholed streets.

In other words, Cancún is like an economic Epcot Center, the whole socioeconomic spectrum of the globe condensed into a few square miles. You’ve got a literal peninsula of privilege, where everyone is overcosseted (250 minutes of massage!) and overfed. (You can spot the people staying at the all-inclusive resorts, because they wear little bracelets, like infants in the maternity ward, that apparently entitle them to suckle margaritas on demand.) You’ve got a small city of perfectly reasonable comfort, the kind of thing a self-respecting planet might legitimately aspire to. And you’ve got your slums with your poor people, who presumably are mixing the margaritas in the hotels. That’s how it works.

But, in fact, it’s More Ironic Than That: Five Stories of Irony. Those beach hotels weren’t there a generation ago; by most accounts the human population of what is now the Zona Hotelera was . . . three, all of them working on a coconut plantation. To make the white sand beaches more gringo-friendly, the beaches were stripped of coconut trees, and indeed of all native vegetation (and most of the sea turtles that had nested there for time immemorial). The lagoon on the inland side — scene of Jet Ski “jungle adventure tours” — is pretty badly polluted now, but that’s nothing compared to the problem of the strand itself.

For one thing, the hotels are built on sand (does no one read the Bible anymore?) and are so heavy that they’re literally pressing the peninsula into the sea, which is of course rising. That doesn’t usually matter all that much, except when storms come, which of course they do more frequently in this hot era. Consider 2005. The Atlantic had already produced Katrina and Rita, but it was saving its biggest for later in the year, when Hurricane Wilma (the first time we ever got to W in the tropical storm alphabet) became the most intense storm ever recorded in the ocean. It stalled for a good long time over Cancún, churning the seas to a frenzy; waves pounded against the hotels themselves, and when they finally receded they took the white sand beach with them.

The first answer to the problem was a quarry, which, as it turned out, was immediately adjacent to the suburban warehouse where the NGO groups at the climate conference spent their days, miles from the actual negotiating session. That $19 million hole in the ground provided sand enough to replenish the beaches, until Hurricane Dean arrived in 2007 and washed that sand away. This time, authorities contracted with a European firm, which sent a pair of boats offshore that sucked sand from the bottom and sprayed it onto the beachfront. Seventy million dollars this time, but that wasn’t the only cost — the dredging, according to a recent Associated Press story, is also hurting conches, sea cucumbers, and octopi. Meanwhile, the fine sand pumped onto the beaches is filtering back out onto the reef, where it is blocking sunlight and causing the coral to, in the reporter’s words, “secrete mucous-like substances.”

“In a year or two, another hurricane will come and the same thing will happen all over again,” one astute tourist told reporters. “This is an absurd waste of money.” Except that the beach hotels turn over about $3 billion annually — a quarter of Mexico’s tourist economy on this one stretch of beach.

Which makes the place not very ironic after all. It makes it tragic, a perfect metaphor for the planet as a whole. It clearly can’t last — but it will keep running until there’s no more money to feed it. If you were going to inhabit Cancún successfully over the long term, you’d have to do without the giant hotels; you’d have to let the beach shift with the storms; you’d have to let the vegetation grow back and anchor the beach. But that would cost you the $3 billion, most of which goes to the people who control the decisions that governments make. Similarly, if you wanted to inhabit the planet successfully, you’d need to back off some. You’d need sun and wind powering our lives, which would mean using somewhat less energy overall; we’d need to be mostly home, not jetting around in search of beachside cots. We could do it, but the transition would be wrenching, and the cost would be high. Not as high as the cost of doing nothing, but change would take money straight out of the pockets of the powers that be, and oil barons are even more powerful than hotel barons. And so we’re going to go on hoping that somehow the storms will stop coming, that somehow the present arrangements can be jury-rigged to last a little longer.

And in the meantime, the sea is undeniably beautiful — breath-mint blue as it washes up against the Mayan ruins scattered along the shore.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

Comments

  1. The hyper-rich no longer even try to hide their naked greed. They want it all and are not even mincing words about it. When billionaire-backed “grass-roots social movements” start to control the Republican party, you know the battle lines are drawn. We cannot afford to compromise any more with these earth-raping crazies, we must stop them NOW, before the US starts to use its “machine-gun toting soldiers” to stand between us and them. . . . oops, I almost forgot. . . that already happened, at Kent State University.

  2. In search of science leading to the restoration of balance and sustainability……

    Would professionals with appropriate expertise please examine the extant science regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation of Earth? How can this knowledge be used to move the human community from the dangerous and patently unsustainable ‘trajectory’ it is on now to sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises?

    http://newsecuritybeat.blogspot.com/2010/08/uk-royal-society-call-for-submissions.html#comment-form

    —–Original Message—–
    Sir John Sulston, Chair
    People and the Planet Working Group
    UK Royal Society
    March 31, 2011

    Dear Sir John Sulston:

    Your recent comments regarding the review of research on the human population and its impact on the planet we inhabit by a high level panel of experts give rise to hope for the future of children everywhere. Thanks for all you, the Planet and the People Working Group and the UK Royal Society are doing to protect biodiversity from massive extirpation, the environment from irreversible degradation and the Earth from wanton dissipation of its finite resources by the human species. I am especially appreciative for two quotes from you,

    …… “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized… as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”

    …….”what we want to do is to see the issue of population in the open, dispassionately discussed…. and then we’ll see where it goes.”

    Inasmuch as you and an esteemed group of professionals with appropriate expertise are examining scientific evidence regarding the unbridled increase of absolute global human population numbers, please note there is research that has been summarily dismissed by many too many of our colleagues regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation which I would like to bring to your attention. For the past ten years I have been unsuccessfully attempting to draw attention to certain evidence that to date remains both unchallenged and ignored by virtually every top-rank professional. They appear unable to refute the evidence and simultaneously unwilling to believe it. Their unexpected conspiracy of silence has served to conceal certain research by David Pimentel and Russell Hopfenberg. How else can it be that so many established professionals with adequate expertise act as if they are willfully blind, hysterically deaf and electively mute in the face of scientific evidence of human population dynamics and human overpopulation? The conscious denial of what could somehow be real about the growth of the human population in our time is not doing anything that can be construed as somehow right and good for future human wellbeing and environmental health, I suppose. It appears as if we could be witnesses to the most colossal failure of intellectual honesty, moral courage and nerve in human history.

    Peer-reviewed professional publications, letters to the editor, slideshow presentations et cetera can be found at the following link, http://www.panearth.org/

    Thank you for attending to this request for careful, skillful and rigorous scrutiny of research from two outstanding scientists. Please know I am holding onto a ray of hope that the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel is fundamentally flawed; that human population dynamics is different from, not essentially similar to, the population dynamics of other species; and that human population numbers are not primarily a function of an available supply of food necessary for human existence. That would be the best news.

    Sometime soon, I trust, many scientists will speak up with regard to apparently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation the way people in huge numbers in the Mid-East are calling out for democracy now.

    Respectfully yours,

    Steve Salmony

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  3. I’ve told my children, and I’ll tell my grandchildren: go for the high ground, figuratively and literally. An earth berm fortress may be where the future lies.

  4. “An earth berm fortress may be where the future lies.”
    ==============
    Earth berm and about 20 feet of reinforced concrete far below ground. The opposition will have the advantage in any confrontation, and fortifications can all be breached. I’ll use my USMC training to keep low and mobile. You just cannot win trying to go head to head with the military, the only hope is through guerilla tactics.

  5. Dear Ed and Martin,

    Human beings with feet of clay are in possession of all that is needed to change the world. All that is required is for us to speak out now here loudly, clearly and often with one voice. All that the self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us control now will change. After all, the masters of the universe are a few million in number; whereas, human beings with feet of clay number in the billions.

    Speaking out about what could somehow be true is the requirement for change. Otherwise the endless production of ideological idiocy and self-serving logical contrivances by the educated sychophants and absurdly enriched minions of the masters of the universe will continue to be streamed into the mass media… as if such specious thinking represented what is real and true.

    As things stand now here in many places, the silence of human beings with knowledge of what is somehow real could not be more deafening, nor the dark clouds gathering before us more forbidding. Elective mutism by the knowledgeable has vanquished ‘the light’ and the hope for the future that only science can provide to the human family.

    Rachel Carson was correct years ago, I suppose, when noting,

    “We stand now where two roads diverge…… The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road-the one “less traveled by”-offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

    I fear we will not choose to take ‘the other fork of the road’ until it is too late to make a difference that makes a difference for the future…

    The United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference occurs next year, 456 days from now. If circumstances are favorable, I will find a way to attend the conference just as I found a way to attend the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. I do not know why I went to South Africa then and do not know why I will go to Brazil next year. Perhaps there will be a chance to speak out.

    The human community has enormous human-induced global challenges looming before us, ones that could likely descend with a vengeance upon our unaware children, if not before, and we refuse even to talk about the “mother” of these global challenges. Ecological threats to human well being and environmental health are already visible in the offing, but we choose silence over science; ideological idiocy over evidence-based research.

    To leave the children unaware and unprepared to address and overcome global challenges because their soft, sanctimonious, silly, selfish and stupid elders refused to so much as acknowledge the best available science regarding human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth seems somehow not quite right.

    A single generation has shown itself to be quite ready, willing and able to ravage the Earth and leave the mess made in the process for the children to clean up. What are we to say, finally, about a generation that mortgages the future of its children, threatens their very existence and chooses in every present moment to willfully deny their adult responsibilities so they can keep greedily doing just as they like, come what may?

    If what is going on now in our world, the world we are blessed to inhabit, the one we are borrowing from our children, does not “ruffle some feathers” and arouse us to speak out, then what is the point of speech? We have evidently chosen to forget the words of an ancestor who reminds all of us, even now, “Speak out as if you are a million voices because your silence kills the world.”

    Thanks for speaking out.

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve

  6. Thank you for this beautifully haunting piece. Ironic indeed that humans collectively corrupt the pristine paradise we so desperately seek.

  7. Thanks to Ed T and Martin S for sharing such remarkable perspectives.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  8. Bill,

    I think that only the extremely young, naive and blindingly optimistic believe that there is any U-turn on this road, at least not one that us peeps are going to take voluntarily. I apologize in advance if I’ve pejoratively described anyone who reads that and believes I’m picking a fight, or that I think efforts to the contrary are necessarily wasted. There is nothing more uplifting to man than the struggle against the inevitable. But, I’ve gleaned through 13 millennia’s worth of pre-history/history of man in my short life and all indications are that homie don’t roll that way. I find it more useful and intriguing to wonder why that would be our nature. All that I’ve ever been able to come up with is the observation that nobody ever wants to miss a party that everyone else has been invited to. Especially if that party is in Mexico.

    Wade

  9. Dear Martin, Ed, Meredith, Wade and Bill,

    Human beings with feet of clay are in possession of all that is needed to change the world. All that is required is for us to speak out now here loudly, clearly and often with one voice. All that the self-proclaimed masters of the universe… among us control now will change. After all, the masters of the universe are a few million in number; whereas, human beings with feet of clay number in the billions.

    Speaking out about what could somehow be true is the requirement for change. Otherwise the endless production of ideological idiocy and self-serving logical contrivances by the overly educated sychophants and absurdly enriched minions of the masters of the universe will continue to be streamed into the mass media… as if such specious thinking represented what is real and true.

    As things stand now here and in many other time-spaces, the silence of human beings with knowledge of what is somehow real could not be more deafening, nor the dark clouds gathering before all of us more forbidding. Elective mutism by the knowledgeable has vanquished ‘the light’ and the hope for a sustainable future that only science can provide to the human family.

    Rachel Carson was correct years ago, I suppose, when noting,

    “We stand now where two roads diverge…. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road-the one �less traveled by-offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

    I fear we will not choose to take ‘the other fork of the road’ until it is too late to make a difference that makes a difference for the future…

    The United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference occurs next year, 455 days from now. If circumstances are favorable, I will find a way to attend the conference just as I found a way to attend the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. I do not know why I went to South Africa then and do not know why I will go to Brazil next year. Perhaps there will be a chance to speak out.

    The human community has enormous human-induced global challenges looming before us, ones that could likely descend with a vengeance upon our unaware children, if not before, and we refuse even to talk about the ‘mother’ of these global challenges. Ecological threats to human well being and environmental health are already visible in the offing, but we choose silence over science; ideological idiocy over evidence-based research.

    To leave the children unaware and unprepared to address and overcome global challenges because their soft, sanctimonious, silly, selfish and stupid elders refused to so much as acknowledge the best available science regarding human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth seems somehow not quite right.

    A single generation has shown itself to be quite ready, willing and able to ravage the Earth and leave the mess made in the process for the children to clean up. What are we to say, finally, about a generation that mortgages the future of its children, threatens their very existence and chooses in every present moment to willfully deny their adult responsibilities so they can keep greedily doing just as they like, come what may?

    If what is going on now in our world, the world we are blessed to inhabit, the one we are borrowing from our children, does not �ruffle some feathers� and arouse us to speak out, then what is the point of speech? We have evidently chosen to forget the words of an ancestor who reminds all of us, even now, “Speak out as if you are a million voices because your silence kills the world.”

  10. Dear Wade,

    I agree that the elders are not going to be able to make the necessary U-turn. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that the children will not much longer be content to blindly follow their greedy and stupid elders down the “primrose path” that leads to a confrontation with some sort of colossal global ecological wreckage, the likes of which only Ozymandias has witnessed.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  11. Well Steve, I suppose elders have always wished it to be so. Like you and I have observed here before, it will probably take the saucers landing, or some such mind-blow, to get us all off the couch.

    One of the more irksome (but no doubt evolutionarily valuable) qualities of the primate brain is the (it seems) infinite ability to adjust to the new norm, whatever it might be, good or bad. Remember how weird and electrically different your entire world felt on 9/12? And now? We just may go down as a victim of our own adaptability…the thing that made us strong will ultimately be our undoing. The first time you get plunked down inside a mega-resort on the Gulf coast, I’m sure it excites/attracts/repulses beyond your ability to comprehend. Fact is, you can’t walk around in that kind of state for very long and still have the stamina and adrenaline to evade when predators who want to get up close and personal with you come calling. You’ve got to maintain an extra, upper level of motivation for those extreme times. So, the extreme becomes the new norm. Just ask a lottery jackpot winner how long it took for them to stop noticing that their eggs and bacon ordered from room service came on the nicest china service they’d ever seen, along with a flower in a vase.

    Shoot, on second thought, I’d give us about 90 days after an alien invasion to start selling the tee-shirt.

    Wade

  12. On the abject failure of the most fortunate among us to place faith in intellectual honesty and moral courage.

    Thanks to the most arrogant, avaricious and foolhardy among us, all of humanity as well as much of life as we know it are now inhabitants of a planet that is failing fast. What really matters regarding the coming unimaginable colossal global ecological wreckage that is being induced by the leaders of the human community “on our watch” is not being openly discussed. A conspiracy of silence prevails. Within the human community there has always been a tiny minority who hold the ‘destiny’ of all in their hands. This elite group has been operating behind the scenes in ways that are soon to become patently unsustainable because Earth is not too big to fail. Their dishonesty, duplicity and greed-mongering has been socially sanctioned, legitimized as good and legalized, but their outrageous behavior is wholly bereft of moral authority. The moral thing to do has been replaced by criminogenic behavior. Imagine all of humankind are on the Titanic and a mate on board shouts out, “Iceberg ahead. Iceberg directly ahead!” In reply the captain of the Titanic, after briefly consulting with his associates on the deck shouts out, “Stay the course. Give me more speed. Stay the course. Full speed ahead.” Come what may.

  13. You know Steve, John Michael Greer had a very thought provoking essay on his blog this week. It considered what, exactly, motivated the massive shift away from the energy conservation and appropriate technology movement of the late 1970’s. His conclusion, which I share, was that it was none of the “elites” you mention.

    Wade

  14. Dear Wade,

    I like JMG but do not agree with him on this occasion. Perhaps JMG or someone else will respond to the following questions:

    Why is it so difficult to acknowledge that 7 billion human beings overconsuming, overproducing and overpopulating in our planetary home is a cause of climate destabilization? What is making it virtually impossible for many of us to see that the gigantic global scale of human-induced environmental degradation and human-forced natural resources dissipation is destroying Earth as a fit place for habitation by the children and life as we know it?

    Always,

    Steve

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