an updated 1991 op-ed by George Erickson
These two, simple words can oil troubled waters or ring bells of alarm. Sometimes they warn of Barnum's observation: "There's a sucker born every minute." Again and again, the proselytizers, the used car salesmen and the telephone solicitors strain our credulity. And when all else fails, the universal plea emerges - "Trust me."
When industry, politicians and governments make the same request, we often acquiesce. For decades, and especially during the 80s, those sirens sweet talked us with lyrics from Jesus Christ, Superstar: "Everything's alright, everything's fine... and you want to sleep well tonight...close your eyes, just relax, think of nothing tonigghhhhttttt..."
We trusted them; we went along. Led by the Reagan/Bush I and II trio, we restricted abortion and family planning both here and abroad. We reduced per capita spending on education, gutted OSHA, ignored environmental issues, and cut the taxes of the rich.
Allied with the Catholic Church, the Fundamentalists and the conservative "corps for consumption," too many administrations have endorsed a policy of "buy and breed." For a while we had a serious environmentalist Vice President, and now that environmental issues finally seem substantive, millions had finally awakened to the need. What these millions must also realize is that we will not solve our environmental problems until we address their causes, and the largest is overpopulation.
We were warned. There was Malthus, accompanied by a host of detractors. And though science has delayed his predicted crisis, we are still riding the rails he foresaw, heading towards the same destination, though on an accelerating timetable.
George Perkins, one of our first environmentalists, warned us a century ago that "by our tree cutting and swamp drainage we are breaking up the floor... and window frames of our dwelling for fuel to warm our bodies." Later came Paul Ehrlich and "The Population Bomb," the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" and the work of ZPG.
Then William McKibben wrote a very grim book titled, The End of Nature, and as the title implies, unless we change our ways, and change them soon, the "end of nature" is waiting in the wings.
"Nature," says McKibben, "takes forever." With eternity on its side, it has had all the ages past, and more to come. For eons, it has experimented, revised and remodeled at a patient, sub‑glacial pace. Things proceeded slowly until the arrival of man.
Unlike the Bristlecone pines and the lichens that cling to outcroppings of frost shattered rocks, we live but a speck of time. But in the 2000 year life span of a single sequoia, man creates one hundred generations, making tiny steps along the path of evolution. Because we are curious folks and can leave nothing alone, science develops, and with it, technology.
However, knowledge grows faster than wisdom, so we switched from adapting to nature to shaping nature to suit our "needs." We turn the earth inside out in search of wealth, spreading tailings and dross over meadows and stream. We clear cut rain forests that absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. In just thirty years we have raised atmospheric CO2 levels by 10%. Every year, our cars pump their own weight of carbon into the atmosphere and millions of Chinese, Indians and Russians are waiting - eager to hit the road. To quote Mr. McKibben, what we are doing is like "taking a one week fling, and in the process, contracting a horrible disease."
As a greenhouse gas, methane is twenty times more harmful than CO2. Our stockyards, the termites that thrive in the debris of trashed rain-forests, and the rice paddies of the world all generate methane - but they make a "light" methane. An even greater threat is the "heavy" methane that lies locked in the frozen tundra and in the mud of the continental shelves. And here, says McKibben, "the story begins to get a little scary."
Let me put it simply. The greenhouse effect, which is already intensifying, warms air, land and sea, releasing heavy methane, which accelerates the greenhouse effect. As temperatures rise, the air absorbs more water vapor, itself a potent greenhouse gas. Nature, our patient, resilient benefactor is facing an assault like none before, though it will certainly survive in altered form, although we may not. But forget, for the moment, the greenhouse gases, and consider the forests that we water with acid rain.
As temperatures rise, the tree zones (and deserts) will move north forty miles for every added degree. Whole forests will die, for our northern soils are far less fertile than southern loams. Their oxygen production and their carbon dioxide consumption will stop. When NASA's James Hansen attempted to warn Congress of the "definite dangers of future drought," the Bush White House tried to change his testimony and the Reagan administration's response to changes in the ozone layer was to recommend that we "wear caps and sunglasses."
George Will chided Senator Gore for being concerned about environmental issues "that are, in the eyes of the electorate, not even peripheral." People devoted to profit motive have laughed at those with a planet motive, and they would continue to prod nature further from its formerly providential role.
Where shall we house the displaced millions when the ice caps melt and the oceans rise? In your house? In mine? Or in the homes of those whose religions, greed and politics have pushed populations and pollution so high? Twenty percent of Bangladesh will disappear. The Nile delta, where most Egyptians reside, will submerge. Consider the Netherlands, our Gulf States and the near certainty that a hotter atmosphere and warmer oceans will produce storms that will make Hurricane Katrina routine.
Inland, as the dry Southwest expands north and east, the already endangered Ogallala aquifer, unreplenished by dwindling rains, will be sucked dry. The flow of the Colorado River, already a trickle where it enters Mexico, will drop by one third. The Great Lakes will slowly warm and green with oxygen-depleting algae. Fish will die. There are those who argue that increased rainfall near the poles will stop the warming, ushering in an early ice‑age instead. What a marvelous alternative! Crop losses would still be extreme, and their alternative scenario only emphasizes the need to adopt sensible environmental and population policies now!
Consider the ozone layer that filters out excessive ultra‑violet radiation, the layer George Bush Sr. trivialized by calling Senator Gore Mr. Ozone. Studies show that the resultant increase in UV radiation limits leaf growth, cuts crop yields and even reduces plankton, the basis of the ocean's great food chain. As plankton decrease, so do the tiny shrimp (krill) and all the higher forms: the tuna, the mackerel, the sardines, cod and whales. At this moment, about half of the world's protein needs are filled from the ocean. How shall we manage with more people and fewer fish? A miracle, perhaps?
Worse yet, a decrease in CO2-consuming plankton will accelerate the greenhouse effect. Then, in the words of George Bush's senior science advisor, Arnold Schwarzenneger, it will be "Hasta la vista, baby!" Some will claim that god will provide, that science will save us, or that more people will mean more minds to find a solution. Others take the Gaia hypothesis to the extreme, claiming that the planet is a living entity, capable of healing itself and providing for life. However, how do we know that nature will react in a way that will suit our needs. We must choose between those who urge a change in course, and those who love and profit from - the status quo.
For me, it's a simple choice. I prefer cod and crustaceans to 400 hp Corvettes. I prefer contraception to Calcutta. I would dim Las Vegas' lights and mandate a change to energy efficient bulbs. I would restrict immigration to levels that balance emigration. I would limit free trade to countries with a stable population and comparable, ENFORCED environmental laws, and I would legislate trade barriers against those without.
Consider the environmental and population changes that have already degraded our earth and the lives of so many. Isn't our planet precious enough to safeguard with TOOTHY legislation? Will we act soon and sensibly or will we heed those who would have us cancel the Sobercab. Party on, they say, with music intended to soothe: "Don't worry... Be happy... " TRUST ME! www.tundracub.com