Sample text for Earth odyssey : around the world in search of our environmental future / Mark Hertsgaard.
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Will the human species survive the many environmental pressures crowding in on it at the end of the twentieth century?
By the time I left China in 1997, I had spent the better part of six years trying to answer that question. My quest had taken me on a trip around the world that included extended (and sometimes repeated) stops in nineteen countries and interviews with everyone from heads of state like Vàclav Havel in Prague to starving peasants in war-torn Sudan. I had left the United States in May 1991, eighteen months after the Berlin Wall fell and three months after a U.S.-led army drove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait to maintain the flow of oil that modern economies crave like lungs crave oxygen.
Leaving San Francisco and traveling west to east, I began my global tour in Europe. After two months in Holland, France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden, I went to what was still the Soviet Union for five weeks. I continued on to Czechoslovakia, Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Thailand, and Brazil, where I visited the Amazon and attended the UN Earth Summit in June 1992. I later returned to Europe and the United States before concluding my travels with six weeks in China. I financed my wanderings by traveling light, living low on the food chain, and writing occasional magazine articles from the road.
Scientists had long studied whether elephants in the wild and dolphins in the deep were heading for extinction. I wanted to shift the gaze and turn the binoculars on my fellow humans. Just as scientists compare a given animal's behavior with the dynamics of its habitat to determine whether it is endangered, I planned to analyze human behavior in relation to the earth's ecosystems to gauge the environmental prospects of Homo sapiens.
In The Naked Ape, his provocative study of the human animal, zoologist Desmond Morris observed that humans "suffer from a strange complacency that . . . we are somehow above biological control" and that our collapse as the earth's dominant species is therefore impossible. Such complacency, Morris pointed out, flies in the face of all we know about the natural world. Biologists have estimated that 99 percent of all species in the history of the planet have ended in extinction. These 99 percent have been unable to survive the ceaseless competition--against the elements, against other species--that is the biological essence of life. The best known example is the dinosaurs, which, if current scientific thinking is correct, were doomed by a dramatic shift in the earth's climate some sixty-five million years ago, perhaps brought on by an asteroid colliding with the planet. Dinosaurs flourished for one hundred million years before meeting their demise, but the average species lasts no more than one million years before expiring. That bodes well for humans if one dates the birth of our species at 200,000 years ago, as recent DNA studies suggest; it is less comforting if one begins the count with the earliest cases of stone tool creation, between 1.5 and 2.5 million years ago. In any case, Homo sapiens are part of the lucky 1 percent of species that have survived so far, as are the millions of other species currently in existence. But survival is a constant challenge. Ecosystems are forever in flux, and the scramble for life takes unexpected turns.
"The main piece of bad news at the end of the twentieth century is that we humans can now destroy ourselves, in either of two ways. We can destroy ourselves quickly, through nuclear weapons, or slowly, through environmental degradation," Hubert Reeves told me in Paris near the start of my global journey. Reeves was a cosmologist and bestselling author--a sort of French Carl Sagan. His appearance was dominated by a full gray beard that hung down to his chest and gave him the look of a wizard from the dim past who had miraculously been reincarnated and fitted out in modern garb. Yet in fact, he was the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the French government's main science institute. With the Cold War over, Reeves was optimistic that humanity could avoid nuclear self-destruction. He was less sanguine, however, about the threat posed by global warming, excessive population growth, and other more gradual forms of environmental overload. "This problem will be much more difficult to solve," Reeves said, "because it is so much more complex. You can't just have two men sit down at a table and agree to stop being stupid."
Indeed, many modern environmental hazards are rooted not in the collectively suicidal "logic" of nuclear weapons deployment but in economic activities and technological choices that bring pleasure, profits, paychecks, or simple survival to millions: the production and use of automobiles, the felling of rainforests by landless people, the relentless advertising and consumerism that boost sales figures the world over. Averting global warming, for example, could require phasing out fossil fuels altogether in favor of solar and other renewable energy sources, a shift that even solar advocates like Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., acknowledge is "inconceivable" to most people (not to mention anathema to some powerful economic interests).
Of course, human activity has always imposed burdens on the earth's ecosystem. But the scale and technological power of twentieth-century civilization are many times greater than those of earlier generations, and so are the environmental side effects. Historically, sewage disposal has been the great challenge for human societies trying to maintain clean water supplies. That challenge remains today, especially in poor nations, but modern humans also live in a world awash in man-made chemicals. Global production increased 350 times between 1940 and 1982; the U.S. alone produced 435 billion pounds of such chemicals in 1992. Dioxin and other hormone-disrupting chemicals persist in the environment for decades and can travel thousands of miles; contamination and fertility declines have been detected even among Arctic polar bears. Likewise, the explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 was arguably the most destructive accident in industrial history. The blast left the surrounding countryside uninhabitable for decades and brought death and disease to thousands of civilians. (The precise number of victims is still uncertain; see chapter 4.) The fact that different wind patterns could have sent most of the explosion's radiation across western Europe, where much of it blew in any case, attracted attention across the continent and generated new respect for environmental issues among masses and elites alike. "It was Chernobyl that caused the big change in public opinion about the environment," Antonio Cianciullo, the environmental reporter for the Italian daily La Repubblica, told me in Rome. "Our readers were more interested in these questions after the accident. This caused editors to take environmental issues more seriously and increase coverage of them."
Chernobyl made clear the irrelevance of national borders to modern environmental problems, a theme underlined by other key developments of the 1980s. Scientists had suspected since 1974 that the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects the earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation, was being damaged by man-made chemicals, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the active agent in air conditioners and refrigerators. Epidemics of skin cancer, weakened immune systems, and damage of the marine food chain were but some of the potential consequences of ozone layer destruction. But definitive proof of the problem did not come until 1985, when scientists observed a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The hole was so large that at first it was dismissed as impossible and blamed on a faulty sensor. But after subsequent observations confirmed the initial finding, and large ozone losses were also reported over much of the northern hemisphere, an international agreement ordering a phaseout of CFC production was signed in 1987. The negotiators of this so-called Montreal Protocol breathed a sigh of relief--prematurely, it soon turned out.
Another atmospheric threat making headlines in the late 1980s was global warming. Once again, the scientific community had long known about this danger; the first scholarly analysis appeared in 1896. But not until 1988 did global warming become a household term, thanks to the combination of an extremely hot summer in the United States and some remarkably frank congressional testimony by a prominent government scientist, Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Space Institute. "It's time to stop waffling," Hansen said. ". . . The greenhouse effect is here."
Svante August Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who authored the 1896 paper, had theorized correctly that the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels were burned could have a warming effect on the planet's atmosphere. Like glass in a greenhouse, carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun that otherwise would reflect off the earth and back into space. Perhaps because Arrhenius hailed from a cold weather country, he speculated that the greenhouse effect might produce "more equable and better climates." Modern scientists, however, saw trouble ahead. Higher global temperatures could melt glaciers and expand oceans, causing sea levels to rise and flooding such low-lying capitals as Amsterdam, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C. Since one-third of the world's people lived within thirty-five miles of a coastline, the potential loss of life and property was enormous.
Global warming would also likely cause more extreme weather events in general: more droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, and the like. The reasons are complex but boil down to the expectation that higher temperatures would increase water evaporation around the world. The extra evaporation would lead to more rainfall and storms for many regions even as it caused dry, inland areas like the Great Plains--the world's breadbasket--to experience more dryness. Although a warmer world might bring some benefits, most experts worried that it could disrupt global food production and price millions of the world's poor out of their daily bread. A hotter planet would likely be more disease-ridden as well, as insects and other agents of infection spread malaria and other tropical diseases to areas previously protected by their relatively cool temperatures.
To complicate matters, many of the emerging ecological threats seemed to reinforce one another. The same CFCs that widened the ozone hole also intensified the greenhouse effect. And the greenhouse effect, by raising temperatures too rapidly for plants and animals to adjust to, threatened to hasten species' extinction, another hazard attracting notice in the 1980s. According to Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, civilization was wiping out species thousands of times faster than the usual "background" rate of extinctions that had pertained over the previous ten thousand years. This did not bode well for humans, Wilson wrote, because biodiversity "supports the natural ecosystems on which human life ultimately depends [by] enriching the soil, purifying the water and creating the very air we breathe." (Earthworms, for example, help make soil fertile by loosening it enough for oxygen and water to penetrate it.) Since tropical rainforests are home to more than half of the world's organisms, species loss has been driven most powerfully by tropical deforestation, which in the late 1980s was occurring so rapidly that, if the pace was maintained, the world would have no rainforests at all by 2050. Bringing the problem full circle, deforestation also boosted global warming because it released additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere even as it deprived the planet of millions of trees that, through photosynthesis, could absorb excess carbon dioxide.
A further complication: although it is hard for humans to feel much urgency about problems far in the future, many of these problems have short fuses. The long lag time between cause and effect means that ozone depletion, climate change, and population growth could acquire so much momentum that they cannot be halted, much less reversed, quickly. The ozone layer, for example, is certain to remain depleted for decades, despite the CFC phaseout mandated by the Montreal Protocol, for the simple reason that CFCs remain in the atmosphere for decades. Not until 2050 are atmospheric concentrations of CFCs projected to return to the levels of the late 1970s, when the ozone hole first appeared. (And that assumes, naively, that everyone obeys the protocol.) Meanwhile, there will be costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1991 that some twelve million Americans would develop skin cancer over the coming fifty years.
Likewise with global warming: the world's automobile tailpipes and industrial chimneys have been spewing greenhouse gases for decades, producing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide 50 percent higher than what existed before the Industrial Revolution. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 2,500 scientists and other experts commissioned in 1988 by the United Nations to study the problem, to stabilize concentrations at even this level--which might or might not deter significant climate change--global emissions would have to be cut by 50-70 percent, taking them back to 1950s levels. Carbon emissions have instead been growing by almost 1 percent a year, a trend that will concentrate twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100 as existed during the preindustrial era, thus increasing the chances of severe climate change.
Like the captain of an oceanliner who has to turn the helm miles ahead of where he actually intends the vessel to change course, humans will have to alter their environmental behavior years in advance of seeing much positive effect. But is such farsighted behavior consistent with human nature? Millions of years of evolution have left humans capable of responding to immediate threats--the rustle of leaves or the sudden shadow overhead signaling the approach of a predator--but less inclined to react to dangers in the distant future. "We have a saying in Russia," Moscow television reporter Sergei Skvortsov told me while explaining why Russians cared more about the economic collapse and political conflicts convulsing their nation than about their disasterously polluted environment. "We say, 'Even the old grandmother does not cross herself until the lightning strikes.' Which means that people don't worry about bad things until they start to happen."
Yet the more time that passes without taking action against hazards like global warming and population growth, the harder it will be to change course. Indeed, when I left on my global trip in 1991, some prominent environmental figures were warning that humanity was nearing a point of no return--that within ten years the momentum behind major environmental problems could become too powerful ever to reverse. Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN Environmental Program, declared that the 1990s would "determine the shape of the world for centuries." Thomas Lovejoy, assistant secretary for external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., told me, "The key environmental problems are so big, and so synergistic, that at a certain point they get beyond bringing under control. You can't solve them in the 1990s, but you have to get a grip on them during that time and position yourself to bring them under control later on." Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, also endorsed the ten-year action deadline, telling me, "We're faced with the need for an enormous amount of change in a short period of time if we're going to get the world onto a sustainable path."
Skeptics smirked that environmentalists were forever crying wolf and that the approach of a new century (not to mention a new millennium) often called forth apocalyptic prophecies. Yet the voices urging action were too sober and respectable, too much a part of the status quo, to dismiss so easily. In 1989, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the least sentimental politician of her era, had taken the lead in calling for a quicker phaseout of ozone-destroying CFCs. In 1991, dozens of the world's largest corporations at least paid lip service to the need for more ecological business practices when they formed the Business Council for Sustainable Development. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London issued a joint report in 1992 warning that "if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world."
Defenders of the status quo tended to discount such warnings as overwrought and unproven. The OPEC nations and oil and coal companies, for example, launched an aggressive public relations campaign to discredit the IPCC's findings about global warming, claiming that the panel's computer models were little more than guesswork. The campaign met with success in part because there was a kernel of truth to this objection: the computer models in question, like many of the tools scientists used to analyze environmental problems, did contain elements of uncertainty. But uncertainty could cut both ways, a point often overlooked by environmental skeptics.
The Montreal Protocol, for example, has been celebrated as a momentous achievement from the moment it was signed in 1987, for it seems to demonstrate that countries could cooperate to reverse a deep-seated environmental problem. The truth is more modest. The protocol actually greatly underestimated the ozone problem, largely because of inadequate scientific knowledge. When governments realized this, in 1990, they toughened the treaty; CFCs and other ozone-destroying chemicals would instead be phased out entirely by the year 2000. But in 1992, this target too was recognized as insufficient; findings of much greater than expected ozone depletion led the United States and other countries to pledge a complete halt to CFC production by 1995. And even this dramatic step was overtaken by further events. The ozone hole detected over Antarctica in 1995 was again much larger than predicted--bigger than North America--and its size remained essentially the same in 1996 and 1997. Thus, the problem continued to fester, even as many people assumed it had been fixed.
Humans have accumulated an impressive body of knowledge about the environmental crisis, but there is no escaping the fact that our knowledge is incomplete. "In effect, we are playing the sorcerer's apprentice with the planet," Reeves told me in Paris, referring to Goethe's poem in which a wizard's assistant borrows the master's tricks, creates a deadly mess, and ends up fleeing for his life. "There are those who point to the uncertainties to argue against taking action, but this, I think, is a dangerous approach," Reeves added. "If you smell smoke, you don't wait until your house is on fire to look for the reason."
I had spent the hours prior to meeting Reeves strolling across Paris, visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, the Île de la Citè, and other favorite spots. By the time I ascended to his sixth-floor apartment near the Boulevard St. Michel, the setting sun was casting the city's pale stone facades and black window grilles into late afternoon shadow, and the light had attained that sparkling depth and clarity filmmakers revere as "magic hour." Amid such resplendent testimony to the complementary beauties of the natural and man-made worlds, Reeves's comments about the two types of self-destruction humanity was courting seemed almost blasphemous to me. But not at all, Reeves replied. For there was a third possibility: that humans would learn to live in balance with the natural systems that make their existence possible. Which path humans would take was an open question, he added, which made the late twentieth century a very exciting time to be alive. "The fact that the summit of complexity in the known universe is now threatening itself with extinction is a cosmic drama of enormous proportion!" Reeves exclaimed.
It was that drama I hoped to observe and record during my travels. To circumnavigate the globe therefore seemed essential. Library research and telephone reporting are invaluable, and there is much of each in this book, but they are no substitute for observing things firsthand. I wanted to see for myself the rainforests that were said to be disappearing at such an alarming rate from tropical regions. I wanted to talk with the people whose farmland was supposedly turning to desert or highways before their very eyes. I wanted to walk the streets of the cities whose pollutants were threatening atmospheric disaster. I wanted to interview the scientists, activists, businesspeople, and government officials who were researching these issues and fighting out their policy implications.
I especially wondered what average people around the world thought about environmental problems. How much did residents of Prague, for example, the capital of the most polluted country in Europe, know about ecological threats? In the wake of the Cold War, at a time when Czechs and Slovaks were sorting out their national identity and struggling with the transition to liberal democracy and a market economy, how much of a priority was the environment? In a world overflowing with immediate crises like the Middle East conflict and the war in Bosnia, not to mention everyday issues of governance like taxes, jobs, and crime, how much urgency did people anywhere feel for ecological threats whose worst effects might not be felt for decades, if ever?
And were things really as bad as environmentalists claimed? Even if the gloomiest scenarios of global warming, topsoil loss, or chemical poisoning were realized, would that necessarily spell the end of the human race? Or, like the Black Plague that struck fourteenth-century Europe, would it perhaps "merely" thin out the population by killing one of every three people? And what about solutions? Was the environmental story an endless litany of gloom and doom, or was there good news as well?
In short, how much of a danger did environmental hazards pose to the future well-being of the human species, and how was humanity faring in its struggle against these hazards? Would human civilization still exist one hundred years from now? Or would our species have been wiped out, partially or completely, by ecological disasters of its own making?
Of course, none of the ecological hazards in question threatened to end all life on earth--just human life. Newspaper headlines notwithstanding, it is not a question of "saving the planet." It might take thousands or even millions of years for the earth to recover from such man-made catastrophes as runaway global warming or full-scale nuclear war, but that is barely the blink of an eye in geological time. Modern humans have inhabited this planet for only the last 200,000 years of its estimated five-billion-year lifespan; the earth could obviously exist perfectly well without us. The real question is whether humans will act quickly and decisively enough to save themselves.
I trust it implies no disrespect for the rhinoceros or the aztec ant to confess that I am partial to my own species--I would like to see it survive and flourish. Yet in my travels, and in this book, I have tried not to let that bias color my views. I have sought to investigate our ecological future without being swayed by an emotional attachment to the outcome, approaching the question almost as if I were a visitor from another universe. This approach is more unusual than it might seem. Overtly or not, most environmental authors seek to persuade readers to think and act in certain ways: to recycle bottles, or to worry about population growth, or not to worry about population growth. That method is valid, but it can end up compromising truth to the vagaries of human psychology; a given situation is typically portrayed in worrisome enough tones to grab readers' attention, but not so darkly that it risks plunging them into a paralyzing despair. The aim of this book is different. It does not so much seek to promote solutions (much less guarantee happy endings) as to describe our collective behavior and ask where such behavior is likely to lead.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, many scientists, business leaders, government officials, and citizen activists see handwriting on the global wall warning of impending ecological collapse. I have done my best to examine the validity of that view, working not as a scientist but as an investigative reporter, armed with an open mind, a restless curiosity, and the freedom to explore. I freely concede that the ambitious scope of my inquiry has made omissions inevitable. I could not examine every environmental hazard in the detail it deserves, anymore than I could visit every country I would have liked. Travel is like knowledge: the more you see, the more you know you haven't seen. But I saw more of this planet's people and places than I ever dreamed possible, and I am deeply grateful for the privilege. I only hope that this account of my journey illuminates enough of our environmental predicament to help light the way forward for the people who live it.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Global environmental change, Nature Effect of human beings on, Hertsgaard, Mark, 1956- Travel