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Doomsday Machine

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Robert Scheer

Death Becomes Us: Based on current trends, scientists and environmentalists believe the life-carrying capacity of our planet is rapidly approaching its limits.

The author of 'Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor' examines dire environmental prophecies and America's collective denial

By Tom Athanasiou

In 1990, not so very long ago, Washington's Worldwatch Institute gave us 40 years--not 40 years until "the end," but 40 years to make the transition to an "environmentally stable society." Worldwatch's president, Lester Brown, coolly spelled out the consequences of failure : "If we have not succeeded by then, environmental deterioration and economic decline are likely to be feeding on each other, pulling us into a downward spiral of social disintegration."

Forty years. It's an odd, precise figure, just the sort usually discounted as apocalyptic excess. Brown, in fact, is high on the list of greens whom cornucopians and other assorted optimists love to deride as professional pessimists. Nevertheless, Brown's warning warrants serious consideration. It is, first, a subtle, modern one, for he attends closely to the deadly feedback between ecological deterioration and economic inflexibility. The elements of his projected catastrophe--desertification, rising population, political instability, famine, mass extinction, deforestation, pollution and global warming, just for starters--have become depressingly familiar, as has the weight and inertia of the global economy.

Worldwatch is no millennium cult. Its annual State of the World reports--like that which issued the 40-year warning--have become the planet's semi-official environmental annual reports, and are translated into dozens of languages. Further, Worldwatch's 40-year figure is based in large degree on precise quantitative measures of the earth's "vital signs"--continued loss of topsoils and forests, rising population and carbon-dioxide levels, falling per-capita agricultural productivity, eroding genetic diversity, and dying lakes, reefs and rivers. There is almost no end to the grim data.

Beyond the Limits, by the authors of 1972's eco-blockbuster The Limits to Growth, argues in precise numerical detail that, in the two decades since Limits was first published, and "in spite of the world's improved technologies, the greater awareness, the stronger environmental policies, many resource and pollution flows had grown beyond their sustainable limits."

At this point, if we hope to avoid "an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use, and industrial production," we must not only find a way of eliminating poverty, but of doing so "while the human material economy contracts." It will be a hard sell, and we do not have forever.

The World Resources Institute, also no hotbed of radical environmental pessimism, published a book titled The Crucial Decade. Anita Gorden and David Suzuki, in It's a Matter of Survival, insisted that the 1990s must be "a turning point for human civilization." They gave us 50 years, and Harvard University published their call to arms. Mostafa K. Tolba, head of the United Nations Environment Program, agreed, as did Jacques Cousteau, the dean of the oceans, who told us we only had ten years left to "get it." San Francisco's Earth Island Institute actually counts down the years remaining in the "crucial decade" on the opening page of its monthly Journal.

Prophets v. Profits

What are we to make of such rhetoric? Have greens, as a number of even sympathetic critics now eagerly charge, come to fetishize pessimism and doom-saying? Is environmentalism too often an apocalyptic cult? I do not think so, and this despite the fact that some greens have been expecting the end for a long, long time.

Fear informs everything that greens say and do. The ecological crisis is real, but it is also gradual in its evolution, and it does not find us--rich and poor, black and white--equally prepared for its depredations. Greens know they are right and can be almost crushed by that knowledge. They long for movement and resolution, and this, it seems, is a weakness. As the right wing settles into a long, dirty campaign against environmentalism, among its prominent weapons is a snide dismissal, a feigned ironic certainty that strong environmental warnings are only apocalyptic fear mongering, or, worse, a neo-Bolshevik tree-hugging hysteria. It is as if science itself--long an ally of business-as-usual, but now, as ecology, becomes inconvenient--can simply be ignored.

But it cannot be ignored. It is a matter not of opinion but of incessant and terrible fact that we are living in a time of slow biophysical cataclysm. Today's species extinction rates, hundreds or perhaps thousands of times greater than those typical of the last six hundred million years, demonstrate this well enough. What is far less obvious is that this is, finally, a crisis, a catastrophe and not just a very bad patch--that our society's manifest inability to face, let alone adequately respond to, the demands of ecological limitation threatens eventually to take us down, that this is the Big One, the one we'll not be able to muddle through, the one that adaptation and denial will not answer.

Overwhelmed with our daily lives, we find global ecological decline a prospect difficult to take seriously. Worldwatch's 40-year warning was treated as hard news by The New York Times, but of course it failed to penetrate the ruling optimism, or to displace what Worldwatch's Sandra Postel has called "denial in the decisive decade."

I don't wish to wait for "proof," nor can I believe that minor institutional reforms and tech fixes will add up to "sustainability." Forty years or 50, or 100, this is a technical matter. Any specific prediction is likely to be proven wrong. Randy Hayes, the director of the Rainforest Action Network, makes sense when he says, with his typical pragmatism, that "things drag," and "if Worldwatch says 40 years we probably have 70." It's a reasonable hedge, one that expects the unexpected, and respects the power of adaptation and denial. The difference between 40 and 100 years is, of course, no difference at all.

It is perhaps more difficult, today, to accept the full reality of the environmental crisis than it was around 1970, when books like The Population Bomb, Blueprint for Survival, The Closing Circle and The Limits to Growth caught us unaware and undefended, and were able briefly to hold environmental crisis theory at the center of the media storm. Here we are several decades later, and aren't things still basically okay?

They are not. Despite advances in isolated technical areas, significant reductions (in wealthy countries) of the most visible air and water pollutants, a new vogue for Panglossian futurism, and a striking increase in the overall level of environmental consciousness, most of the predictions of the early eco-doomsters are coming true, in outline if not always in detail.

Malignant Growth

It is almost a tradition to slam Palo Alto author Paul Ehrlich as a hysteric whose predictions have been disproved by time. But have they? In 1968, when The Population Bomb was first published, the human population was 3.5 billion. In 1995, it hit 5.7 billion. These are undisputed facts. And what of Ehrlich's 1968 prediction that as population increased life would get nastier? About 1 billion of 1968's 3.5 billion people were "doing well," but of the more than 1.8 billion people born by 1990 only a few--perhaps 200 million--were. Today, more people are starving, more trapped in the terrible purgatory that development experts call "absolute poverty."

Trends still indicate a global population of 10 billion people in 2050, rising to a peak of about 11.6 billion people between 2150 and 2200.

The Limits to Growth, too, is holding up better than its many critics predicted. From the farmlands of Africa to the fisheries of the North Atlantic, the overall pattern anticipated by Limits seems far less speculative today than when it was written. Its once inflammatory statement that, barring profound changes in "growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years," is now so strongly corroborated by empirical observation that it is well on its way to becoming the mainstream view.

Our economy is now four times as large as it was in 1950, and is projected, by 2050, to be five times as large again. Will it happen? And with what consequences?

Growth is a sloppy concept, and it is quite impossible to use such highly aggregated statistics about growth to absolutely prove that the existing economy cannot be reconciled to the limits of the physical world. Technological optimists seize upon this indeterminacy, and argue that, increasingly, economic activity will come not as "growth" proper, but as a "development" in which change and refinement yield ever more usable "goods," though the physical size and throughput of the economy does not actually expand.

It's a nice thought, but let's be clear about the current situation, as suggested by one of the most frightening scientific papers of all time, published in 1986 in Bioscience under the dry title of "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis." In it, a team of scientists estimate, as far as the data will allow, the total human impact on the planetary ecosystem, and conclude that, while humans directly consume only 3 percent of the products of the land-based ecosystem, "Nearly 40 percent of potential terrestrial net primary productivity [of the ecosystem] is used directly, co-opted, or foregone because of human activities."

If this figure is even approximately correct, we are in big trouble. What would the world be like if humans, instead of co-opting 40 percent, took 80 percent? 100 percent? Would it be like England--with "no real wilderness, the landscape under human control, many wild species extinguished, not much room for expansion or mistakes, but a livable world"--or would it be much, much worse? There are many reasons to worry, and taken together they compel the conclusion that things are going about as the early apocalyptics predicted.

All told, it is easy to see why so many greens have become so desperate. Occasionally, as in 1989, when politicians as varied as Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher tried to outdo each other in declaiming green, or at 1992's thousands of Earth Summit press conferences, it has seemed that the political elite was just about to take the environmental situation seriously.

But each time the illusion has passed, leaving always the same question--what must happen before we finally act?

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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