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20th century legacy looks like environmental genocide

by Paul VanDevelder

[The Seattle Times, Editorial & Opinion]

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 2,000 generations.

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.

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 mix.

-- 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 scarcely imagine?

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 combined.

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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