20th century legacy looks like environmental
by Paul VanDevelder
[The Seattle Times, Editorial &
PUBLIC bewilderment over emerging global issues
(need I name them?) seems to have my
acquaintances either scurrying for cover or
numbing out. Stern pronouncements about the
global environmental condition issued by the
world's leading scientists at the International
Botanical Congress in St. Louis this month are
only animated by the specter of a Yucca Mountain
of nuclear waste, a mountain that will be lethal
to every living thing on the planet for the next
No wonder we fork over wads of cash in pursuit of
activities that slip our brains into an alpha
state. Alpha eventually wears off. When it does,
we find that we are not so much distanced from
our vexations as we are even more deeply vexed by
solutions. Welcome to "life in the funhouse." It
is here to stay.
So. What's going on here? What do we know we
know? For sure?
We know that the world's leading authority on
greenhouse gasses, Dr. Norman Meyer, published
his book "The Sinking Ark" in the early 1980s,
and estimated that one species was going extinct
on planet Earth every two days. We know that
twenty years later, zoologists and botanists
estimate that the various activities of Homo
sapiens have accelerated the rate of extinction
to a mind-numbing, spirit-crushing (are you ready
for this?), 75 species per day.
We know that Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a zoologist
widely regarded as one of the 10 most influential
scientists in the world, delivered the plenary
address to the same International Botanical
Congress in St. Louis earlier this month, and
made history. Or were we on vacation? If you
missed it, Lubchenco announced, with chilling
clarity and stern scientific certainty, that
biological life forms on planet Earth have
entered End Game.
The following findings announced by Lubchenco
should make the blood run cold in every man and
woman alive today.
-- Infra-red satellite tomography has made it
possible for scientists to identify and map 50
zones in the oceans of the world that are now"dead." That means they are no longer
producing oxygen. The potential downstream, secondary
effects of this finding are simply catastrophic.
-- At current rates, by the second half of the
21st century, manmade events and phenomena will
have engineered the single-largest mass
extinction of species in measurable geologic
time. Processes currently in motion have put one
in eight plant species at risk.
I add a third incontrovertible equation to the
-- Six billion funerals of humans have been
scheduled for the next 70 years. The plan at
present is to turn this planet over to 8 billion
people who aren't here yet.
We ask much of them. Listen closely. Are they
trying to tell us something from a future we can
If we cannot hear their voices, consider that the
Union for Concerned Scientists speaks for them.
Topping the scientists' list is the American
romance with the horseless carriage, the single
most environmentally damaging phenomenon on the
planet. As politicians prepare to do battle over
SUV emission standards, the unborn hope that they
consider the following:
-- Dr. Norman Meyer reports that every American
produces 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide each year, a
greenhouse gas that traps heat for more than a
century in the upper atmosphere.
-- James MacKenzie, of the World Resource
Institute, estimates that from showroom to
junkyard, the average Sports Utility Vehicle will
release a minimum of 500,000 pounds of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere, per vehicle.
-- The World Resource Institute estimates the
real cost of a gallon of gasoline (not the
fantasy price we pay at the pump) at $7 to $8 per
gallon, not including long-term environmental
costs. That's extra.
-- The World Watch Institute reported that
climate-related disasters in 1998 nicked mankind
for a cool (or was that "hot"?) $87 billion, more
than all the climate-caused damage of the '80s
Eighty percent of the damage was attributable to
human activities; i.e., deforestation, greenhouse
gasses, building on flood plains, famines, etc.
According to 2,500 climatologists assembled by
the United Nations, our 20th century legacy looks
like a global exercise in environmental genocide.
To equivocate with the data on global warming is
to tell a man dying of emphysema that we cannot
establish a causal link between the tubes running
out his nose and a lifetime of smoking
cigarettes, and to keep smoking until we do.
To kill each other off is one thing. To vanquish
the beasts, the birds, and the fish and to
condemn the unborn to what biologist David
Quammen calls "a planet of weeds and unimaginable
wretchedness" - shame on us.
Most of us are hoping the bill for this orgy of
consumption will come due somewhere down the
road. The more distance we can put between our
choices and their consequences, the sounder we
sleep - with our eyes wide open.
Neither Jane Lubchenco nor Norman Meyer nor I,
can read the wind.
We can argue that we take the road that we take
knowing that we have proven ourselves brilliantly
adept at spinning wildly divergent mythologies
from the same spool of thread, as long as there's
a buck in it.
In other words, we light a cigarette for the
emphysema patient before we leave for court to
file suit against a tobacco company. Different
mirrors, same fun house.
Same end game.
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