The state of the Earth from 38,000 feet


I’m sitting at about 38-and-a-half thousand feet above some stretch of western Ontario that’s nothing but a zillion lakes splashed across endless greenery. A quick back of the envelope calculation puts me in the neighbourhood of 11 kilometres up (and by ‘back of the envelope,’ I mean ‘iPhone app,’ because I don’t know a foot from shinola), and from here the clouds kind of look like a phantom terrain; prairies of rippled altocumulus stretch out one way while further on, the taller billows of cumulus are piled above smaller, pebbly white hills of vapour. I don’t know enough about clouds to name every kind, but I’d like to.

The Discovery Channel is tossing survival show after survival show at me from the seatback in front of me. Each one paints nature as a murderous bitch, while the scene below is more of a homogenised stretch of green and blue, where algae, bark beetles, raging temperature swings and all the rest are nowhere to be seen. Nope, just serene beauty. The benefits of looking down from on high are heavy.


13 August (aka Last Thursday) was Earth Overshoot Day, the date when we use up the planet’s resource ‘budget’ for the year, or the amount of resources in that year that the planet can realistically regenerate. Things are a lot more complicated, but Earth Overshoot Day packages the issue in a familiar way. It’s sort of like a bank statement, according to the Global Footprint Network—but I wonder if that’s not a dangerous way of looking at it. Grading our resource use against a ledger could make it tempting to look at where we are on a given day in say, March, and decide that we’re not doing too badly. Trust me, we’re doing badly. If you look at the timescales that climate scientists have been banging on about, you can get away with hoping that you won’t be around to pay the piper, but there are two factors that fly in the face of that view. One: we may already be hitting the tipping point, in which case, let go of the dream. Two: children exist. Mine is four years old; she doesn’t stand a chance at the same living comfort that I’ve enjoyed, and neither does any little kid you could name. If that doesn’t get you where you live, then maybe nothing will.

And yet here I am, flying to Calgary, leaving a trail of carbon footprints behind me.

So, how do you claw your impact back to a sustainable level without giving up on a half-reasonable lifestyle? How do you expand that to larger society? How do you convince developing countries to get onboard when those populations have watched the west game the system for so long? And the all-important rider clause: how the hell do you clear the fog when it comes to bona fide sustainable tech and practises versus straight-up greenwashing? I want to have the conversation because I don’t know enough to spot every little green lie, but I’d like to.

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