Truth or Consequences -- The Real Life Version

With gas prices sky-rocketing towards $5 a gallon, food costs going through the roof, the worst Midwest floods in decades and soaring temperatures in most of the rest of the country, life is feeling more than just a little crazy this summer. In fact, it's verging on the surreal.

Life today feels a bit like Truth or Consequences -- the popular game show that ran on radio and then TV from the 1940s until the 1970s. In the show, contestants had to answer a wacky, off-the-wall question before a buzzer sounded. If they did not respond truthfully, players had to face the consequences by performing an unexpected and embarrassing stunt. Intended as light-hearted entertainment, this show was based on a deadly serious observation -- that there are often surprising consequences when we do not tell the truth.

Today, we may be playing a real-life game of Truth or Consequences. In this version, we have to tell the truth about how we are collectively harming the environment or face the unpredictable consequences. But unlike the game show, if we are not honest the consequences will affect more than just the willing contestants.

In the real-life game, we are being challenged to tell the truth about how our industrial growth-based society already threatens the environment and our health. For example, are we prepared to be honest about how over-consumption of many natural resources is endangering the survival of other cultures and species? Are we ready to confess that widespread use of toxic chemicals is poisoning the planet and causing an epidemic of chronic disease? Are we ready to acknowledge that record greenhouse gas emissions resulted in the 2003 European heat wave which killed over 50,000 people? If not, the entire human species as well as countless others will have to face even greater unknown consequences in the future.

The consequences are unknown because no-one can precisely predict how the environment will react to the mounting stresses imposed on it by our collective way of life. The reason is simple: When ecological systems are stretched beyond their breaking point they become extremely unpredictable. For instance, increasing levels of pollutants led to the rapid and unexpected "death" of Lake Erie in the 1960s. Similarly, severe over-fishing in the Northern Atlantic caused the once-productive cod fishery to collapse completely in the 1990s with very little warning.

There is only one sensible way to cope with this uncertainty -- we need to reduce the risk of catastrophe by changing the very nature of industrial growth-based societies. To achieve social change on this massive scale more people need to speak up about how we are destroying the planet and harming our own health.

The mainstream media have a central role to play. Although TV and radio air more stories on the environment than they used to, they could go a lot further. Critically important information about the declining state of the environment is often drowned out by relatively superficial and trivial items. On one recent day, the national news headlines were dominated by stories about the posturing of presidential candidates and the alleged performance-enhancing drug use of baseball players. Although fascinating to many, these types of features do little to educate and inform people about the looming environmental crisis and what can be done about it. The mainstream media could learn a lot from the alternative media who routinely provide in-depth coverage about environmental issues.

But individuals must tell the truth too. Over the years, many have spoken up. In the early 20th century, Aldo Leopold vividly described the loss of American wilderness. And in the 1960s Rachel Carson was eloquent about the health effects of pesticides on wildlife. More recently, Al Gore has been extremely articulate about global warming. However, it isn't just leading environmentalists who can tell the truth. It's also you and me.

How can an ordinary citizen be heard? Speeches, articles, letters to the editor, and simply talking with friends and neighbors. But words alone are not enough. Living the truth in our daily lives is much more important than anything we speak or write. It's not enough to proclaim "global warming is happening"-- we need to reduce our own carbon footprint. Why would anyone listen to a sanctimonious lecture about climate change if we're preaching from the roof of a Hummer?

But at least people are beginning to discuss environmental issues with renewed interest. In fact, it's now very cool to talk about being green. Concern is at an all-time high, even higher than in 1970 when 20 million Americans took to the streets on the first Earth Day to demonstrate for a healthy environment. And some of us are doing a lot more than just talking about it. We are taking action by changing our lifestyles. Whether it's buying organic food, trading in SUVs for hybrids, taking the bus, eating vegetarian or drinking old-fashioned tap water instead of bottled water, more Americans are making environmental choices than ever before. But these choices aren't always simple or painless. They come with costs -- time, money, convenience or social status. As Kermit the Frog famously said, also in 1970, "it's not easy being green." But although it's still tough to live an entirely green lifestyle, many more are trying.

If we don't practice what we preach, we simply won't be credible. How can we tell our friends and neighbors that their choices are bad for the planet if we are not making better choices ourselves? Telling the truth through our deeds, as well as our words is essential. If we do not, the consequences will be unexpected, surprising and infinitely more serious than those of a light-hearted game show.

Kate Davies M.A., D.Phil. is Director of the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle. She has worked on sustainability for all of her career, focusing on the environment, health and social justice. Since moving to Seattle in 2002, she has served on state committees and is a member of several non-profit boards, including the Institute for Children's Environmental Health, Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation, and the Collaborative for Health and Environment Washington. Kate has received service and academic awards for her work, speaks regularly at local, regional, and national conferences, and writes on environmental health and social change. She is now working on a book provisionally titled "Making Change: Ideas, Values and Strategies for Building the New Progressive Movement."

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