There was never a time when things could be turned around with such petty gestures. You want to effect real change? You've got to address the root of the problem: human psychology. We evolved in the moment, we evolved to recognize imminent and proximate threats: pestilence, predators, an alpha male coming at us with murder in his eyes. The site of a rotting corpse or a deformed child makes us squirm; the toothy smile of a great white freezes our blood. But we never evolved to internalize graphs and columns of statistics. They may be real; they just don't feel that way.
Watts' essay puts me in mind of an experience at Starbucks not long ago. The corporation was hawking the soundtrack for "Arctic Tale," a movie about Cute Polar Bears. The in-store advertising boasted a list of things potential "Arctic Tale" viewers could do to help Save the Planet, none of them significantly more useful than "Earth Hour" and, worse, tainted by the condescension corporations are so uncannily good at crafting when faced with the dilemma of selling overpriced crap to people who can scarcely afford it. (Especially big corporations who welcome the delusion that they're in it for the good of humanity. In Starbucks' case, it's "not about the coffee," but forging bonds within the community.)
One of Starbucks' main suggestions was to reduce electrical consumption by switching to low-power light-bulbs. So I looked up -- and realized that Starbucks uses roughly enough high-intensity lights to illuminate a modest stadium, all so that the handful of customers who actually enter the store instead of idling for fifteen minutes in the drive-thru can examine ranks of cheap plastic merchandise without having to squint.
It's not that I don't try to be optimistic. It's that I've become aware that I'm living in a society that's about to end in a most unceremonious manner. And we're not necessarily blind to the brick wall bearing down on us; on the contrary, I think we see it all too well. The gestures and symbols are intended to be useless in precisely the same way that last month's cellphones are intended to be thrown out when the fake chrome starts to chip.
If the future seems to be bullying us it's because we've forced its hand. Self-indulgent and media-blinded, we've chosen not to care. And with self-proclaimed planetary stewards like Starbucks here to show us the light, why should we?