11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Default Swaps and Denuded Swamps

While subprime lending precipitated the latest financial meltdown, credit default swaps drove us over the cliff. Greedy and unscrupulous lenders are easy to blame, and rightfully so, but pinstripe suits are in fact minor players in the crisis. The proximate villains are government deregulators working in conjunction with commercial banks to create a grand Ponzi scheme of hiding risk to bilk taxpayers out almost $1 trillion. However, even these obscene self-proclaimed masters of the universe and criminally compliant feds are not the real problem. We the American people, individual investors, families struggling to fund retirement accounts, are the ultimate cause of this crisis. We are the enemy. We allowed this to happen by pretending we could have something for nothing, that we could create wealth with no risk, that we could invest with impunity no matter how weak the underlying fundamentals. We were had, but we let ourselves be taken on the false hopes of empty promises.

The mentality and collective insanity that enabled the creation of destructive financial instruments like credit default swaps have had consequences that extend well beyond the financial sector, reaching all the way to the deepest jungles of the Amazon. Not just the obvious impact of collapsing banks, but the philosophy and herd-instincts that led us to this sad state. Much of our domestic and global environmental woes share a common cause with the implosion on Wall Street. The shared denominators are hubris, greed, wishful thinking, willful ignorance and a deep arrogance about our relationship with the material and natural worlds. The seemingly unrelated financial and ecological crises are in fact bound together by the same incredible idea that somehow humans are unaffected by the laws of nature, that we are above and separate from all other forms of life, free of earthly constraints. If we wish to avoid a bleak future in a failing economy, and conserve the resources on which we depend for our survival, we absolutely must adopt a more modest view of our rightful place on the planet.

So far our record is not enviable. The very same arrogance that allowed us to think we could defy gravity in the stock market gives us confidence to ignore the destruction of 40 million acres of tropical forests every year, be indifferent to the catastrophic loss of our coral reefs and dismiss the urgency of climate change. The hubris that encouraged us to invest with wild abandon in bundled mortgage securities with no corresponding inherent value makes us dangerously complacent in the face of mass extinction, now reaching a level of 50,000 species every year.

The implosion of our financial system is a wake up call, a warning of other impending crises caused by our conceit. If only we would listen to the blaring alarm. What we have done to our economy we are doing to our environment. Unfortunately the same characteristics that led us down this path of self-destruction have made us deaf to the ear-splitting signals all around us. Saying that the "jury is still out" on climate change is like doubling down on credit default swaps. The effect will be equally devastating.

When our banks collapsed, the government immediately stepped in to stop the slide to chaos. Yet we are not contemplating an equivalent bailout to protect our atmosphere or to save species or to conserve the ocean's resources on which we depend to feed much of humanity. We ignore the impending environmental implosion at great peril, just as we now suffer for turning a blind eye to the growing financial storm before the winds of insolvency hit with hurricane force. We had plenty of warning but were hypnotized by greed.

Chaos should not be our first call to action on the environment. The signs of impending trouble are clear, and we need to act now. Let us respond with urgency, with humility, and with an eye on Wall Street as a reminder of our errant ways. After eight years of neglect, climate change, deforestation, loss of biological diversity, depletion of ocean resources, and water and air pollution all require immediate attention, and international cooperation guided by a strong leader in Washington. Starting on November 5, following his historic landslide election, Obama and his team of advisors should put in place comprehensive action plans in each of these critical areas, ready to implement the moment Obama takes office in January.