People notice how clean the air is just after a rainstorm, but it was clean every day before the rise of air pollution. Orchards and fields of wildflowers have been replaced with crowded suburbs and freeways. Sewage spills make swimming or fishing in the bay and local rivers dangerous. The papers are full of stories of new groundwater pollution originating in the computer-related industries
Since it is people who run the system of pollution controls and standards, and the caricatures of the primitive beliefs depend heavily on comparisons, it is hard to maintain environmental standards. We all tend to compare today with yesterday much more readily than with twenty years ago.
Overpopulation contributes to the deterioration of the international economic system. It is partly responsible for increases in the prices of food, automobiles, Rembrandt sketches, and building materials. It helps to increase the risk of both regional and world wars. But it does all of these things in ways that can only be traced by careful analysis, in ways that the
Mind must be trained to see. Overpopulation causes no cracking branches, no thunderclaps, no darkening of the cave door. It leads to small annual changes in columns of numbers, hidden in reports. Curiously, the lethal threats of overpopulation are not even signaled by demographic statistics.
Those statistics—birth rates, death rates, growth rates, population age compositions, life expectancies, and the like—were all very well known to demographers a generation ago. The numbers were there, but their significance was little. Sure, the population was growing, and fast, but so what?
Even environmental scientists had to learn how to combine population statistics with other information on resource depletion and environmental deterioration. They had to find answers to such questions as, how much further down do we have to drill on average to strike oil today than in 1950? How fast is the Ogallala aquifer being drained? What proportions of Europe’s forests are dying from acid precipitation or climate change? How much fertilizer is needed to double crop yields now, as opposed to three decades ago? How to diminish the widespread death and property destruction reported every year in exposed coastal Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. And how soon will additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere raise the global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius? Looking at data on many such issues at once, a few environmental scientists, starting in the 1950s, began to see in the numbers the equivalent of a bear lumbering into the cave. It is a learning process that has barely begun for most scholars with the training required to understand the state of the planet.
Extremely serious long-term threats of continued acid precipitation, the accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the accelerating destruction of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) cannot be easily dealt with by a political system designed to maximize economic growth than socio-economic growth in order to blot out long-term trends. These trends threaten not only first world but much or the entire planet with immense disruption. Nonetheless, the call from most politicians, who now at least realize that there might be a problem, is for “more research,” not action. We must wait for “proof,” they say—which is roughly like saying you won’t worry about danger in the game of Russian roulette you’re playing until you hear a “bang” in your ear.
Great Britain is busily spending her North Sea oil revenues to support a growing population of untrained, unemployed young people who have little hope for a productive future. Gradually Britain is slipping into a situation where her main exports are antiques and soccer rioters.
India has no shortage at all of government legislation protecting the environment but unfortunately it is never enforced due to flagrant abuse of power, corruption and lack of resources. It’s staggering to note that a whopping 65% of the land in here is degraded in some way, shape or form and the endless government policies do little to curb the damage. In fact, nearly 30% of India's gross agricultural output is lost every year due to soil degradation, poor land management and counterproductive irrigation. The wetlands and lakes are also being hit hard. India's 7516 km of coastline have also come under attack from this environmental sabotage, overfishing remains a huge problem due to lack of legislation enforcement. Raw sewage from an awful lot of people is pumped endlessly into the ocean along with other industrial waste and chemicals. Hundreds of miles of coral and other sea life are slowly being destroyed due to offshore drilling.
It would seem as the world is so short of indigenous resources and so far advanced in its abuse of the environment that it may go down the drain. For example Japan is utterly dependent on the world trade system remaining functional and on maintaining her competitiveness within their system. It is important to note that the nation has already suffered many deaths and much illness from environmental disasters, such as Minimata disease and Itai-Itai (mercury and cadmium poisoning, respectively). Japan’s vulnerability is greatly increased because her government and industry are so tightly intertwined that there is essentially no chance of detecting the long-term trends that are leading that nation to disaster. Ironically, that same intertwining has contributed greatly to Japan’s temporary economic success.
In most capitalist nations “planning” is selective and caricatured. It consists of projecting future economic activities based on past performance while failing to perceive the gradual deterioration of the resource-environment “capital” that makes those activities possible. Politicians generally share with economists the view that the world will always operate by the rules that applied when they were young, although the politicians generally have a more realistic view of political interactions than economists have of the factors controlling the economic system. Unhappily, though, the politicians usually accept the judgment of the economists—a point noted long ago by
British Economist, John Maynard Keynes, who said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
Ironically, the threat of the end of births comes from one of humanity’s greatest technological triumphs, the epitome of the world we made. The most unprecedented threat of all comes not from your neighborhood Mugger, drunk driver, or drug dealer. Instead, it nestles in silos on the steppes of the U.S.S.R., in lush farmlands of the central United States, in the quiet French countryside, and under the deforested surface of China. It stares in your face through inhumane conditions of living that is offered by Politicians in India having doctored in corruption. It berths within the bomb bays of American, British, French, Soviet, and Israeli aircraft. It hides inside the launch tubes of missile submarines of five different nations and in the ammunition lockers of both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. Thermonuclear weapons and their delivery systems epitomize the enormous ingenuity and creativity of our species. They also create its worst predicament.
On the environmental front the Administration's policy focused entirely on the near term. That it did not take effective action on obvious threats such as toxic wastes and acid precipitation was symptomatic. The Administration's extreme caricature of the world and global long-term environmental problems and callous attitude towards the poor people of the world as depicted by Hodel's statement, “we should permit ozone depletion to continue and counter the resultant influx of dangerous ultraviolet radiation with suntan lotion and sunglasses!”
While the most serious problem we face, proper educational and the political systems do not have mechanisms for training people to perceive and react appropriately to long-term change. There has been a steady deterioration of the ability of governments to cope with a world that is changing ever more rapidly, and that failure has probably been most publicized (if not necessarily most extreme) in the executive branch of the Government. The perspective of a resource-short world undergoing potentially catastrophic environmental deterioration did not carry the seeds of collapse of all of civilization until recently.
Civilizations built in by biological and cultural evolution, contributes drastically the way the international political system works which is basically stable and unchanging. If civilization doesn’t end with a bang, it can still end with a whimper. It needs to be appreciated that humanity is on a slow-motion march to catastrophe is indicated by the current extinction crisis.
We cannot underestimate the fact that the Earth is ever more rapidly losing its biological riches—its stock of species and distinct populations of plants and animals. We are now entering an episode of extinctions that promises to be even more severe than the one in which the dinosaurs disappeared. It is being caused primarily by a gradual but inexorable destruction of habitat by human activities and by our escalating appropriation of the basic food supply of all animals—the green plants that grow by capturing the sun’s energy in the process of photosynthesis. Roughly 10 to 30 million species of land animals exist on earth today. One of those species, humanity, now co-opts almost 40 percent of the energy available for all—and it is “planning” to double its numbers in the next century.
Everyone should be vitally concerned about the impending loss of biological diversity because other organisms are working parts of ecosystems, and ecosystems provide society with indispensable services—services that support our economic system. If the extinction process goes too far, civilization itself will be threatened.
It is not just that the loss of organic diversity that is gradual, it is also that people have lost contact with that diversity. Cultural and biological evolution once made it necessary for all individuals to be highly knowledgeable about the natural world, with which they were in constant and intimate contact. But later, cultural evolution deleted much of that knowledge in most of the human population. Concern about cave bears, lions, and other beasts went when the threat of being killed became negligible.
No familiarity with the habitats and habits of plants and animals that can serve as food is necessary at the supermarket; that knowledge has been supplanted by understanding of the market layout, packaging, and the credit system. The properties of plant chemicals need not be considered in filling a doctor’s prescription, though knowing what a drugstore is, does count. Rare indeed is the person in a developed country who draws food, shelter, clothing, or medicine directly from other organisms.
The divorce of citizens of industrial societies from the need to interact directly with other organisms is nearly complete. Many people, perhaps responding to a half-erased genetic message as well as a portion of our culture, still maintain an interest in our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth, but they don’t connect survival of those organisms with their own. The extinction crisis is another slow-motion environmental catastrophe that is difficult for those surrounded by the easily grasped signs of Humanity’s technological triumphs to take seriously. It is signaled to birdwatchers by the decline of migrant songbirds in eastern North America, to fishermen trying to catch long-gone trout in acidic Adirondak lakes, and to viewers of TV nature specials, but it is hard for most people to grasp.
No branch cracks; no hulking form looms at the cave door.
Responding to our environmental dilemmas is discouraged by the continued efforts of industry and government to minimize their seriousness and to avoid taking action. The industries that produce and use chlorofluorocarbons insist on “proof” that the ozone layer is being harmed before those chemicals are banned. Governments have long argued that more research is needed before taking steps to clean up the sources of pollution that are causing acid precipitation. In both cases, the message basically is “don’t interfere in today’s economy just possibly to reap some future benefit.” Belief of an entire civilization to pay economic costs today; just to lessen the chance of a total collapse of the world’s economy tomorrow is needed.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the almost universal denial of the environmental implications of economic growthmanship. It is crystal clear that if civilization is to persist, the physical scale of human activities must be diminished in some way. Yet political leaders in both capitalist and socialist nations, businessmen, economists, and media analysts all pray at the altar of perpetual economic growth without regard for its ultimate consequences. Just like frogs in a pan of water, we all sit still while our “leaders” struggle to keep turning up the heat.