The word of the day: Environment

1. n. The circumstances or conditions that surround one; surroundings.
2. n. The totality of circumstances surrounding an organism or group of organisms, especially:
3. n. The combination of external physical conditions that affect and influence the growth, development, and survival of organisms.

There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Enterprise crew discovers that by traveling at warp speed they’re destroying space itself. A race called the Hekarans demonstrate that warp drive energy can “wear out” subspace and will lead to violent subspace rifts. At first the crew is skeptical, even hostile, to the idea that warp travel is destructive but the Hekarans are right. At the end of the episode, Picard must announce that going forward all Federation ships shall be limited to–“Warp 5?”–except in cases of extreme emergency.

The episode, called A Force Of Nature, is an obvious sermon about relationship between present day Earthlings and their environment. Environment is a word I learned in the third grade, and even then there was something heavy about it. It was the buzzword of the late ’80s, when recycling was the new hotness, and there was such a thing as “going green.”

We kids had a clear enemy too: chlorofluorocarbons, the mouthful of chemicals found inside hairspray. The three Rs were recited. The globe was depicted in green and blue crayon. CFCs were banned and the ozone layer began to heal. The crew of the old Enterprise even saved a few whales.

The environment is once again at risk, but controversially so. The phenomenon of climate change (our gritty reboot of the greenhouse effect), is often juxtaposed with the word “debate.” It’s an unsettled concept, in America at least, and the belligerents are more determined and more shrill. In the battle of aerosols vs third-graders, you knew who was going to win. Now the Hekarians are gulping.

And there’s more at risk than trees and the whales and the melting ice caps. Our whole environment — “the totality of circumstances” — is changing.

The velocity of discourse and culture — like the static warp shell formed by a light-speed commuting Enterprise — is chafing away at our intellectual biome. The erstwhile backdrop for our conversations, reason, is crumbling, and the subspace rifts are starting to show. Where once was thought is now a hissing canister of memes, a cloud of non-thoughts leaching our lungs and poisoning what’s left of the atmosphere.