CHAPTER 7 – Prescription for the Future

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

a) Understand our REAL place on the planet.

Our sense of time is often geared to that of our own life spans. Thus, when we examine changes in our environment, such as the weather, we are inclined to think of it as static, except for regular seasonal changes. However, long-term ecological research at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Limnology has shown that the duration of winter ice cover on Lake Mendota over a 150-year time span has dropped by 18 days (8). It turns out that this isn’t unique to Madison, Wisconsin, but is also seen at 38 other sites across the northern hemisphere. Dr. John Magnuson, leader of this research, encourages us to look beyond the “invisible present” to detect real long-term trends.

To appreciate where the human species stands at the beginning of the 21st century, let’s take a look at the global human population over the past 2 centuries and project the curve ahead.

The above figure shows that once we passed 2 billion in the 1930s, our population really took off. With improved sanitation, medical care and agricultural output, our death rates declined, especially among infants, while the birth rates didn’t decline as much.

We’re now at 6.4 billion, and headed upwards at the rate of 79 million more each year.

b) Accept with humility our global impact.

It’s all too easy to look at the human population figures and put the blame on the developing nations with their unrestrained growth. But if we’re going to solve this growing population threat to our planet, then we must think globally. It will work only if we all pull together. Even Gaylord Nelson, the great environmentalist who initiated Earth Day, encouraged strict immigration limits to curb population growth in North America. How easily we move to the suburbs to escape from the crowded cities and then become annoyed at the heavy traffic caused by others who have done the same thing! Everyone who reads this page is exhaling CO2 and consuming food, water and non-renewable sources of energy. We are all in this together. Pointing fingers at other consumers and polluters might make us feel better for a while, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

A fairer way to appreciate the human causes of environmental change is to examine the model of Paul Ehrlich and John Holden (1974). They argued that the impact (I) of any population or nation upon its environment is a product of its population (P), its level of affluence (A) and the damage done by certain technologies (T). Thus, I=P.A.T, and the impact of an individual or population can be expressed in terms of an ecological footprint, the cumulative amount of the earth’s surface area required to provide the raw materials consumed and disposed of by a person or population (1).

The figure above shows the relative sizes of the footprints of individual Americans and Canadians as compared with those from Pakistan and China. While the total populations of the latter countries are high, their individual impacts are much lower than ours (1). Note that ‘ha’ stands for hectare, or 10,000 square meters, which is roughly equal to 2.5 acres.

It’s easy for North Americans to take our high standard of living for granted. We work in air-conditioned offices where the lights are left on all night for “security” reasons, so we apply the same ethics when we go home. Former President Jimmy Carter didn’t win any popularity contests when he encouraged Americans to conserve energy during the late 1970’s, but we managed to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 77%, and we could easily have eliminated it entirely, if Ronald Reagan hadn’t reversed Carter’s policies in the early 1980’s. Carter personified humility and integrity, virtues sadly lacking in today’s leaders.

c) Reject superstition and the BAU ethic

We are told by the current administration in Washington that we should not bother to conserve energy, and to just go about our Business As Usual (BAU). This is because there is a growing fear in the minds of many administrators that any serious attempt by the public to modify our behavior in a less wasteful way would be a drag on the economy. Unfortunately, many Americans have accepted this rhetoric as an established fact. However, a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists examined the economic impact of gradually increasing our nation’s use of renewable electricity from 2.5% today to 20% by 2020. They estimate that 355,000 new jobs would be created in domestic manufacturing, construction, operations, shipping, sales, finance, etc., nearly double the number of jobs that would be created by sticking with fossil fuels (3). Huge costs could be avoided if we had cleaner air to breathe. It’s also true that the more we delay our shift away from oil, the more difficult it will be to make the change later on, when we would be forced to take more draconian measures. (11)

d) Appreciate the fragile gifts in our soil

Most of us are not aware that the soil makes up just a tiny fraction of our planet, yet we are utterly dependent on it. Ninety-eight percent of human food is produced from the land. From a global perspective, food and fiber crops are cultivated on only 12% of the land surface, while 24% is pasture for grazing livestock and 31% is covered by forest. The remaining land, less than one-third, is desert, mountains or tundra, totally unsuitable for farming. Large parts of China and Africa are changing into desert, while in U.S.A. we blithely pave over some of our best farmland for shopping malls and sprawling suburban homes.

e) Embrace the Three Musketeers’ Philosophy

Our western youth have been brought up in a very competitive environment, where an individual or team achievement is praised and the opponents must be defeated at all costs. As these youth enter the free market economy, they take great pride in their achievements and demonstrate their success by purchasing fast, powerful cars and large homes in the country. This stimulates the economy, the marketing industry encourages still more spending and consumption spirals ever higher.

If we are to have any chance of curbing our appetite for fossil fuels, we must embrace an older philosophy in which the individual is dedicated to the well-being of all planetary citizens. Many authors have described such philosophies, but one of the better known is Alexandre Dumas, whose Three Musketeers would cheer one another on with the famous phrase, “All for one and one for all.” As they struggled to correct the wrongs of 18th century France, they were determined to support one another, and they sought to improve the lot of all fellow citizens.

We now find ourselves, not as Albanians, Americans and Austrians, etc., but as fellow Earthlings on the third planet around an average, stable star. This planet has encountered climate change and CO2 accumulation before, but never (to the best of our knowledge) a change that is happening as rapidly as now. Our behavior over the past 50 years is already hastening this change, and it’s time to recognize the need for a dramatic and enthusiastic change in the way we view each other and our relationship to the Earth.

f) Get Serious about Birth Control

As we struggle with emission control agreements named after cities like Kyoto, the biggest impediment to reaching our promised goals is curbing anticipated future growth. The concept of growth has buried itself so deeply into the psyche of everyone with a retirement savings plan that it’s very difficult to even think of a stable population. Experts predict that our global human population will level off at 10 billion plus or minus 3 billion, depending on how seriously we tackle the problem.

Unfortunately our policy-makers have divided themselves into two opposing camps, those who champion the “Right to Life” (of the unborn) versus those who insist upon the “Right to Choose” (of the mother). We agonize over each choice of a new member of the Supreme Court based on their interpretation of “Roe Vs. Wade”, but as each minute ticks by our planet has 150 more people on board. Our energies are misdirected. All our efforts at converting from fossil fuel to wind energy and using more fuel-efficient vehicles will be wasted if we don’t curtail growth. We must make every effort to increase public awareness of the population-environment connection. Encouraging young people to stay in school would reduce fertility rates from ~2.5 to levels seen 30 years ago, about 1.8. The fallacy that growth is linked to prosperity must be challenged and corrected at every opportunity. When editors of major newspapers proclaim that growth is inevitable and welcome, we must remind them of the larger cost of the ills caused by growth: long commutes, overcrowded schools, water scarcity and disappearing open spaces. Just as women’s rights have come through consciousness-raising, so must we raise public awareness of population control as the key issue of our time.


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