Our Canary In the Mine Is Dead

Well, we’re fucked.

I could just write that and be done with it, on first thought, but after some introspection, it becomes apparent that more is needed, and not just a meager recap of vague “solutions,” as is the norm in the canon of nature writing (always end on a high note, they say), but rather a further investigation of the problem. We must face this apocalypse with eyes open, or simply perish in it.

Above the chalk board in my tenth-grade classroom (we had chalk boards back then), my teacher had tacked up a long strip of paper that read: for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. I found out years later, while punctuating a long bike ride on a sweltering summer day with a nice read in the cool, dark rooms of the main Enoch Pratt library in Baltimore, that this quote is one of several similar variations of something written by H.L. Mencken.

But we can unravel this quote even further, and say that for every complex problem, there are other complex problems related and connected to it, and so understanding the many long chains of problems is the first task, never mind solutions. In fact, we could also re-write the quote for time-saving purposes: for most complex problems, there are no solutions.

There is no solution to climate change. No solution to soil loss. No solution to the aforementioned massive die-off of honey bees. Or at least, no solution that humans will ever voluntarily put into action. It’s enough to make one chronically depressed, sure–but maybe it’s also the first step towards preventing paralysis and getting down to work. First things first: let’s discuss the nature of the problem. Then, realizing there are no solutions, let’s decide what is the most valuable use of our time.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem,” Einstein supposedly said, “I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” While it’s certainly true that we may not have that much time left, as Einstein also supposedly said that if honey bees were wiped off the face of the Earth, humans would have only a few years before joining in their fate, we have no choice but operate with the premise that solutions are not attainable. Instead of seeking them (and waxing ad nauseam about the true definition of “eco friendly”), we should be highlighting and mitigating the nature of the problem. The best we can do at this point is soften the crash. But that’s quite a Herculean, worthwhile task itself, isn’t it?

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