Rainforest Crunch — an exercise in fair trade marketing.
Let’s imagine an extremely optimistic scenario. Using the rosiest of three likely United Nations population outcomes, family planning measures are widely adopted, birth rates drop in the developing world, and there are only seven billion people sharing the planet in 2050. There would still be considerably more development pressure on the world’s remaining wild places than there is today. Urban sprawl will likely have filled in the spaces between our cities, turning our coasts into giant megalopoli. A lack of fresh water, which threatens to cut the food supply by 10 percent, will grow more acute.
And that’s under the best set of circumstances. Much more likely is a teeming, shoulder-to-shoulder world of 10 billion. Asked to look forward 100 years, Gar Smith, editor of Earth Island Journal, sees “a completely new and chronically overcrowded planet, one with less land mass because of rising sea levels, more dirty air, more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and more refugees. And a lot of the biotic choir will be silent—the last tigers and hippos will likely have gone. The 1990s were the decade of decision for our species, and we didn’t take the steps necessary to ensure our survival.”
Some environmentalists decry a focus on population numbers, pointing out that consumption matters far more. Who can argue that the U.S., which consumes 19 percent of the world’s resources with four percent of its people, has a disproportionate effect on the planet? Our 270 million people use a quarter of the world’s oil, and 20 percent of its metals. We win the consumer goods sweepstakes year after year. Ask teenage girls in the U.S. about their favorite pastime, and 90 percent will say shopping. “It is not poor people—the major subject of population control programs—who are responsible for environmental degradation; it is the consumers of the rich countries,” argues SUNY Professor Richard Robbins in a recent letter to E.
But high consumption rates are no longer the exclusive playground of the West. Fueled on a diet of American television and its acquisitional value system, the developing world is going on a buying binge. China is leading the ominous Third World rush to “modernize,” which means television and other consumerist trappings in all but the poorest homes. Another symbol of wealth is the private car. Although almost 80 percent of its travel is now either on foot or by bicycle, the world’s most populous and rapidly industrializing country projects
auto sales of 1.6 million a year by 2000, and could have 100 million cars by 2015. Bicycle use there is being discouraged. According to the journal Geophysical Research Letters, if 400 million Chinese drivers hit the road in cars over the next 50 years, the plume of tailpipe exhaust would “bathe the entire western Pacific in ozone,” extending all the way to the United States.
Buy Nothing Day is a chance to reflect on consumer culture.Courtesy of Adbusters
But even if technology has in many ways gotten us into this mess, can it also save us, as conservative technocrats like Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute and Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute insist? By increasing crop yields and producing ever-more efficient extraction techniques, science has been able to confound the doomsayers who were saying that the turn of the century would see widespread famine and universal deprivation. We’ve made huge advances in agricultural mechanization, in fertilization, in soil science. And green technology has flowered, too, with new efficiencies in source reduction, recycling, solid waste management, mobile source pollution, organic agriculture and building construction.
You want a good example of benevolent technology? Talk to Nancy Todd, vice president of the nonprofit Ocean Arks International. She’ll point to the northern California town of Arcata, where water purification is achieved not through budget-busting high-tech machinery, but completely naturally through a large manmade marsh. One recent E story described how a Massachusetts company had built a self-sustaining, self-contained biosystem using fast-growing fish, sprouts and filtered water. Canadian biologist Wolfgang Amelung designs “living walls” that clean the air in the heart of downtown. “If we can tap into the organizational ability of the natural world by, say, studying the extraordinary efficiency of a plant’s root system, and apply that efficiency to human problems on a sufficient scale, then we can reduce the footprint on the Earth by 90 percent,” says Todd. “It could be an extraordinary turnaround.”
Ocean Arks is now helping introduce bioremediation technology around the world. “The once-radical ideas we had about creating a sustainable future are now considered mainstream,” Todd says. “It’s moving much faster than we can keep up with.” Complementing Ocean Arks’ work are efforts to save the seeds of crop plants that would otherwise pass out of existence; remove dams from once-wild rivers to restore historic fish populations; reclaim land that erosion has turned into desert; and replace chemical-intensive farming with equally productive high-yield organic methods. Wind energy enjoyed its best year ever in 1999, adding $1 billion in new generating equipment. But is this progressive tide moving fast enough?
Looking at the future, Todd calls herself “intellectually pessimistic, but a glandular optimist.” We’re trying to maintain that stance, too, in the face of mounting bad news about the planet’s prospects. Unfortunately, the many positive programs underway around the world are dwarfed in scale by the ruinous effects of both large-scale and subsistence agriculture (particularly when it involves raising livestock), by population-fueled land-clearing, and by massively destructive “development” projects like China’s Three Gorges Dam, funded in part by the techno-friendly World Bank. (For another example of the Bank’s baleful global reach, see the “Currents” section this issue.)
The spotted owl was a catalyst for the forest debate.© Greg Vaughn / Tom Stack & Associates
Sandra Steingraber, the scientist/author who was interviewed in last issue’s E, does a brilliant job in her book Living Downstream of personalizing the toxic fallout from our technological society. Herself a cancer survivor, she shows the dark side of the dream. Lives that were supposed to have been lived better through chemistry, caught up in a worldwide “green revolution,” are instead foreshortened by it.
McDonald© Richard B. Levine
In April, we’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, again with Denis Hayes at the helm. There is indeed much to celebrate, and much to get done. We should turn the event into a clarion call for action, a redoubling of efforts to motivate the American people to support green initiatives. And it should be an occasion to focus on our lack of political leadership, from either party. (The jury’s still out on the Reform Party, but most of the visible indicators are negative.)
There’s something fundamentally wrong when eight years of an environmentally friendly administration in Washington can produce such limited results. Obviously, Congress is getting the message that the voters fundamentally don’t care about the issues. The chilling Senate vote against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, surely a bedrock environmental goal, is just one example. In a warmer climate, Clinton’s protective action on national forests would have come much earlier in his administration. Al Gore, with all the trappings of a genuine environmentalist, has simply been absent from the debate.
What is E‘s role in all this? It’s certainly not to simply accentuate the positive, though we’ve had people tell us they can’t read the magazine because of all the bad environmental news. But we think most of our readers want to get their medicine straight, not coated in a sugar pill. There are plenty of uplifting stories to report, though, and you’ll often read them here first.
Like the twin towers of Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez became a symbol of corporate hubris.© Ken Graham Agency
As environmentalists, a title most of our readers share, I think we can go into the 21st century with a sense of renewed purpose, knowing that our work is more important than ever. And for those of you sitting on the fence, wondering which way to jump on these issues, there’s never been a more crucial time to paint yourself green.