Olaf and Humanity

Disney’s 2013 block buster still has kids singing “Let it go” and “do you want to build a snowman?” more than a year after Frozen’s release. While main characters Anna and Elsa carry an engaging and musical story line, a slew of minor characters, artfully conceptualized and integrated into the story have also captured the attention of audiences.

One such minor character is Olaf, the endlessly optimistic magical snow man, created by Elsa almost by accident.  In his theme song Olaf sings about summer time, with many plays on words that have you laughing at the irony of a snow man wishing for summer without any idea what heat does to ice.

Why is this character’s ignorance so charming?  It’s cute, but won’t Olaf die if he ever makes it to a beach?  Shouldn’t we be worried about Olaf?

We want to protect our kids from the world, and one way of doing it is keeping them innocent.  Yet, innocence has no real value.  If your goal is to control others, then information withholding can be a powerful means to get what you want.  With our kids however, we want them to learn so that they are ready for a productive, happy adult life.

Yet sometimes learning creates conflicts between the world we want, and the world that exists.  In college, I chose a business major because I had a dream of starting my own company. When I learned that US companies were responsible for tens of thousands of toxic spills, mostly intentional, all of which are currently being cleaned up by the government at a cost of $1.5 billion dollars a year, I was devastated.  This knowledge shattered my business school image of companies and awakened me to a reality where people can be devious and callous, all in the name of keeping a job or making more money.  Life Olaf, I had a limited perspective on my dream, and only later did I learn that some of my fundamental values such as sustainability and generosity would put me at a disadvantage in the business world.  You just can’t start a business by giving away your services, and you can’t be sustainable if it’s not also profitable.

So what about Olaf?  Who’s going to tell him about summer?  Fortunately, his creator, Elsa came up with a solution so that he would never melt, and the knowledge of this did not change his attitudes or behaviors.  In fact, Olaf is stronger now because of what he knows.

I can’t help but draw a parallel between Olaf and humanity.  We are endlessly optimistic about our futures, having forged massive social changes in the past few hundred years, created the most powerful tools known to mankind, and learned more about ourselves and our universe than any generation before.

Yet there is a glaring ignorance among humanity that only Olaf can relate to.  The very thing he was made of (ice) happened to be destroyed by the one thing he dreamed of, warmth.  The very thing that makes humans unique as a species (our advanced use of technologies) are destroying the environments we have come to love and dream of.  And like Olaf, most of humanity is blissfully ignorant about this fact.

Vast underground aquifers with plentiful fresh, clean water; beautiful old growth forests with trees topping 300 feet; dense, tropical jungles teeming with life; clean, crisp fresh air; all of these environments are being negatively impacted because of human technologies.

Like Olaf on a warm Maui beach, our time will be short on this planet if we fail to solve this problem.  Our aquifers are being drawn down decade after decade; our forests and jungles are being cleared, and our air and water continues to be polluted.

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Where is the awareness?  Why do we still dream of tomorrow in terms of new gadgets, places to vacation and children to raise?  None of this is possible unless we change our priorities and start protecting our environment.

This ignorance is certainly not due to lack of trying.  We’ve had big names like Al Gore put forth huge efforts to educate humanity.  The response has been very business-like; devious and callous.  We respond that climate changes are normal, happening in cycles.  We say the environment can take it, and we’ll just adapt.  We suggest that human impact cannot be reduced, so why bother changing.  How sad and ignorant.

I say we take a lesson from Olaf on this one.  He remained positive and optimistic through the end, where a solution eventually came about.  Yet we have far more than Olaf’s positivity.  We have a track record of real change; a demonstrated ability to fix environmental problems, reverse human impact, and solve massive, global problems through smart application of science and technology.  Think of the ozone problem in the 80’s.  The polio pandemic.  In the last few decades, we’ve reduced auto emissions, cleaned up entire cities, restored forests and cleaned up coastlines.  We discovered new sources of energy, learned about sustainable development and initiated global recycling programs.  There is reason for hope, and there’s need for continued action.

We can and we should take better care of our environment to ensure our children have a hospitable world they can thrive in, rather than a hostile one they must survive.

Climate Change

Yet we haven’t cleared the first hurdle to this most pressing issue of our age: awareness.

It’s time to wake up humanity.  If you think that climate change and environmental damage won’t affect you in your lifetime, or that it’s not possible to do anything about, then I wish for you an awakening.  Like Olaf on a beach with his tiny private snow cloud hovering above him, I refuse to melt; especially when the very thing that created our societies, technology, holds so many promising solutions to these problems.

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Something awesome is happening with human civilization

I often think nostalgically about our tribal past, when we lived within nature and were supported by a close knit group of family and extended family. This is the environment that we evolved out of, and perhaps the last environment to which humans were truly adapted.  Sure, it was brutal, and I wouldn’t want to return to it.  Yet there’s something we lost along the way, something from way back when.

Boise and Nature The needs of our new environment have driven us to invent institutions to accommodate ever larger communities.  Agriculture, government, police and schools are all examples of things we didn’t need before we got big.  They were created because of a numbers problem: it’s just not feasible to educate thousands of kids in one community through small group instruction and one-on-one mentoring.  While a small community where everyone knew your business could organically manage cheaters and criminals, a police department is required when most people are strangers.  And just like food production for the masses requires some manipulation of plants, so to is government a manipulation of our desire to follow leaders and maintain order.  We’ve sacrificed our individual social needs to accommodate more people.

But for the first time since we left the idyllic hunting and gathering communities, we have technologies that enable us to recapture some of what we’ve lost.

How is this possible?  For the first time ever, technology is helping us reconnect with each other, rather than focus on technical problems of urban living.

 

Technologies that connect us grow rapidly because we love to be social.  Think of the printing press, the postal service, and the telephone.  We flock to these tools because they connect us in a way similar to the connections our ancient ancestors had.  In just the past two decades we’ve seen a tremendous explosion of communication technologies unlike anything we’ve seen before.

We’ve also seen an explosion in social justice and expanding human rights.  Today we can organize and cause change more rapidly and effectively than ever before.  More and more people see the world in terms of what can be improved, and seek opportunities to change it.

I believe that it’s just the start. Yet I’m unsure of where we’re headed. But I know that there are people who share my thoughts, people who want to make the world better using our new technologies.  We need it, because there are urgent problems with our environment.  The very technologies we created to help us manage our large civilizations have been hurting the planet.

The good news is we can fix it.  It’s going to take a lot of coordination, planning and innovative thinking to do it.  We’ll need to break down existing structures and replace them simultaneously.  We’ll need to work with people who are not receptive to the change, and ensure they continue to have a voice.  It’s going to be hard.

So this is now my mission: I want to work hard to change society so we can connect with each other, live in dense populations and coexist with the life around us.  I think it’s possible. I know others agree with me and I want to find and join them.