Center for American Progress

Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment

Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment

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I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
–Dr. Seuss

Crisis 1. Med. That change in a disease
that indicates whether the result is to be
recovery or death. 2. The decisive moment;
turning point. 3. A crucial time.

We live in the twenty-first century, but we live with the twentieth century. The expansion of the human enterprise in the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, was phenomenal. It was in this century that human society truly left the moorings of its past and launched itself upon the planet in an unprecedented way.

Most familiar is the population explosion. It took all of human history for global population to expand by 1900 to a billion and a half people. But over the past century that many more people were added, on average, every thirty-three years. In the past twenty-five years, global population increased by 50 percent from four to six billion, with virtually all of this growth occurring in the developing world.1

Population may have increased fourfold in the past century, but world economic output increased twentyfold. From the dawn of history to 1950 the world economy grew to six trillion dollars. It now grows by this amount every five to ten years. Since 1960 the size of the world economy has doubled and then doubled again.2 Energy use moved in close step with economic expansion, rising at least sixteenfold in the twentieth century. One calculation suggests that more energy was consumed in those hundred years than in all of previous history.3

The twentieth century was thus a remarkable period of prodigious expansion in human populations and their production and consumption. Four consequences of these developments are important to note. First, while twentieth-century growth has brought enormous benefits in terms of health, education, and overall standards of living, these gains have been purchased at a huge cost to the environment. The enormous environmental deterioration is partly due to the greater scale of established insults: traditional pollution like soot, sulfur oxides, and sewage grew from modest quantities to huge ones. What were once strictly local impacts not only intensified locally but became regional and even global in scope.

Many previously unknown environmental risks also surfaced in the twentieth century. After World War II, the chemical and nuclear industries emerged, giving rise to a vast armada of new chemicals and radioactive substances, many highly biocidal in even the most minute quantities and some with the potential to accumulate in biological systems or in the atmosphere. Between 1950 and 1985 the U.S. chemical industry expanded its output tenfold. By 1985 the number of hazardous waste sites in the United States requiring clean-up was estimated to be between two thousand and ten thousand. The use of pesticides also skyrocketed during this period.4 Today about six hundred pesticides are registered for use around the world, and five to six billion pounds of pesticides are released into the global environment each year.5

Turning from pollution to the world’s natural resource base we find severe losses. From a third to a half of the world’s forests are now gone, as are about half the mangroves and other wetlands.6 Agricultural productivity of a fourth of all usable land has been significantly degraded due to overuse and mismanagement.7 In 1960, 5 percent of marine fisheries were either fished to capacity or overfished; today 75 percent of marine fisheries are in this condition.8 A crisis in the loss of biodiversity is fast upon us. A fourth of bird species are extinct, and another 12 percent are listed as threatened. Also threatened are 24 percent of mammals, 25 percent of reptiles, and 30 percent of fish species.9 The rate of species extinction today is estimated to be a hundred to a thousand times the normal rate at which species disappear.10

Environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”11 As is clear, there is a lot of bad news in the world of environmental affairs. Since Leopold wrote those words, alas, scientists have begun to study damage that he could not. Our world now suffers wounds beyond imagining at his death in 1948.

That said, in recent decades industrial countries have invested heavily in reducing a variety of well-known pollutants and in banning a number of severely risky substances such as leaded gasoline, DDT, and PCBs. Similarly, advances in agricultural productivity have reduced pressures to expand crop and grazing land into additional natural areas.

Second, the twentieth-century expansion is significant because it has pushed the human enterprise and its effects to planetary scale. This is the globalization of environmental impacts as well as economic activity. Human influences in the environment are everywhere, affecting all natural systems and cycles. Environmental writer Bill McKibben wrote in 1989 about what he called “the end of nature,” by which he meant the end of the millennia in which humanity could view nature as a force independent of human beings.12 Previously it was possible to think of nature as a place free of human control, an external and complex system sustaining life on earth, but the twentieth century brought us across a threshold to a new reality.

There are many measures of this new reality. Human activities have significantly depleted the earth’s stratospheric ozone layer, thereby increasing the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the earth’s surface and damaging both human health and ecosystems. Our use of fossil fuels–coal, oil, and natural gas–together with deforestation have increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping “greenhouse” gas, by about 32 percent and thus begun the process of man-made climate change.13 Spring is arriving earlier, and species’ ranges are shifting toward the poles.14 Industrial processes such as the manufacture of fertilizers and other human activities now double the amount of nitrogen transferred from the atmosphere into biologically active forms,15 with consequences that include the creation of at least fifty dead zones in the oceans, one the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.16 Each year human societies are appropriating, wasting or destroying about 40 percent of nature’s net photosynthetic product.17 This output is the basic food supply for all organisms, so we are not leaving much for other species. Appropriation of freshwater supplies is similarly extensive, with widespread devastation of freshwater habitats.18 More than 40 percent of the world’s people live in river basins that suffer water stress.19 By the mid-1990s, eighty countries with 40 percent of the world’s population were experiencing serious water shortages.20

In terms of humans commandeering natural systems, our impact on the global climate machine is the most risky. In part because of fossil fuel use in the twentieth century, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest level in 420,000 years. While the public in the United States and especially abroad is increasingly aware of this issue, few Americans appreciate how close at hand is the widespread loss of the American landscape. The best current estimate is that, unless there is a major world correction, climate change projected for late this century will make it impossible for about half the American land to sustain the types of plants and animals now on that land.21 A huge portion of America’s protected areas–everything from wooded lands held by community conservancies to our national parks, forests, and wilderness–is threatened. In one projection, the much-loved maple-beech-birch forests of New England simply disappear off the U.S. map.22 In another, the Southeast becomes a huge grassland savanna unable to support forests because it is too hot and dry.23

Ecologist Jane Lubchenco, in her 1998 address as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, made the following observation: “The conclusions . . . are inescapable: during the last few decades, humans have emerged as a new force of nature. We are modifying physical, chemical, and biological systems in new ways, at faster rates, and over larger spatial scales than ever recorded on Earth. Humans have unwittingly embarked upon a grand experiment with our planet. The outcome of this experiment is unknown, but has profound implications for all of life on Earth.”24

A similar point was made in an eloquent plea released a decade ago by fifteen hundred of the world’s top scientists, including a majority of Nobel scientists: “The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluents is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.

“We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.”25

Third, the world economy’s forward momentum is large. Economic growth will continue to expand dramatically in this century. With population poised to grow by 25 percent over the next twenty years, with people everywhere striving to better themselves, and with governments willing to go to extraordinary measures to sustain high levels of economic expansion, there is no reason to think that the world economy will not double and perhaps double again within the lifetimes of today’s young people.

The next doubling of world economic activity will surely differ in some respects from the growth of the past. But there are good reasons to believe that that doubling could, from an environmental perspective, look a lot like the last. The pressures to persist with environmentally problematic technologies and practices are enormous. The U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that global emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal climate-altering gas, will increase by 60 percent between 2001 and 2025.26 The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that its members’ carbon dioxide emissions will go up by roughly a third between 1995 and 2020 if there is not major policy intervention,27 while OECD motor vehicle use could rise by almost 40 percent.28 During this same period, emissions of carbon dioxide outside the OECD are projected to go up 100 percent. Growing food demand is expected to increase the area under cultivation in Africa and Latin America, extending agriculture further into once-forested areas and onto fragile lands in semiarid zones. For this reason and others, countries outside the OECD are projected to lose another 15 percent of their forests by 2020.29

One area where growing populations and growing demands will come together to challenge us enormously is water–the supply of clean, fresh water. The United Nations’ 2003 World Water Development Report concludes that twenty-five years of international conferences have yielded few solutions. A fifth of the world’s people lack clean drinking water; 40 percent lack sanitary services. Between 1970 and 1990 water supplies per person decreased by a third globally and are likely to drop by a further third over the next twenty years absent a concerted international response.30 Peter Aldhous, the chief news editor at Nature, puts the situation with water in perspective: “The water crisis is real. If action isn’t taken, millions of people will be condemned to a premature death. . . . [P]opulation growth, pollution and climate change are conspiring to exacerbate the situation. Over the next two decades, the average supply of water per person will drop by a third. Heightened hunger and disease will follow. Humanity’s demands for water also threaten natural ecosystems, and may bring nations into conflicts that–although they may not lead to war–will test diplomats’ skills to the limit.”31 The U.N. report notes that to meet internationally agreed water supply and sanitation targets, 342,000 additional people will have to be provided with sanitation every day until 2015.32

Of course, economic growth can generate benefits for the environment, and has done so in many contexts. As people become wealthier, public support for a healthy environment and leisure activities based on nature increases. The press of the poor on the resource base can diminish as people live less close to the land. Governments of well-to-do countries tend to be more capable regulators and managers and can have more revenue for environmental, family planning, and other programs. There is no doubt that some important environmental indicators, such as sanitation, improve with rising incomes. But it is extraordinarily misguided to conclude from such considerations, as some do, that the world can simply grow out of its environmental problems. Were that true, the rich countries would have long ago solved their environmental challenges, and we would not have projections such as those just cited from the OECD and the United Nations. In developing countries undergoing rapid industrialization, new environmental problems (such as truly terrible urban air pollution and acid rain and smog over large regions) are replacing old ones. Collectively the environmental impacts of rich and poor have mounted as the world economy has grown, and we have not yet deployed the means to reduce the human footprint on the planet faster than the economy expands.33

The fourth and final observation about the economic expansion of the twentieth century follows from the preceding three: human society is in a radically new ethical position because it is now at the planetary controls. Scientist Peter Vitousek and his coauthors stated the matter forcefully in a 1997 article in Science: “Humanity’s dominance of Earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet. Our activities are causing rapid, novel, and substantial changes to Earth’s ecosystems. Maintaining populations, species, and ecosystems in the face of those changes, and maintaining the flow of goods and services they provide humanity, will require active management for the foreseeable future.”34

Scientists are a cautious lot, by and large, so when the most respected issue a plea for “active management of the planet,” we should take careful notice. I do not think Vitousek and others who call for “planetary management” are suggesting that the uncontrolled planetary experiment we are now running can be made safe through flawless planning, more sophisticated human interventions, or large-scale engineering feats such as seeding the oceans with iron to draw more carbon dioxide out of the air. Rather, our responsibility is to manage ourselves and our impacts on nature in a way that minimizes our interference with the great life-support systems of the planet.

We know what is driving these global trends. The much-used “IPAT equation” sees environmental Impact as a product of the size of human Populations, our Affluence and consumption patterns, and the Technology we deploy to meet our perceived needs.35 Each of these is an important driver of deterioration. However, what this useful IPAT formulation can obscure, in addition to the effects of poverty, is the vast and rapidly growing scale of the human enterprise.

Regarding this growth, here is what happened in just the past twenty years:36
Global population up 35 percent.
World economic output up 75 percent.
Global energy use up 40 percent.
Global meat consumption up 70 percent.
World auto production up 45 percent.
Global paper use up 90 percent.
Advertising globally up 100 percent.

Today, the world economy is poised to quadruple in size again by midcentury, just as it did in the last half-century, perhaps reaching a staggering $140 trillion in annual global output. We probably could not stop this growth if we wanted to, and most of us would not stop it if we could. Close to half the world’s people live on less than two dollars per day. They both need and deserve something better. Economic expansion at least offers the potential for better lives, though its benefits in recent decades have disproportionately favored the already well-to-do. Remember also that while growth is a serious complicating factor, even if we immediately stopped all growth in both population and economic activity, we would still bring about an appalling deterioration of our planetary habitat merely by continuing to do exactly what we are doing today.

The implications of all this are profound. We have entered the endgame in our traditional, historical relationship with the natural world. The current Nature Conservancy campaign has an appropriate name: they are seeking to protect the Last Great Places. We are in a race to the finish. Soon, metaphorically speaking, whatever is not protected will be paved. For biologists Pimm and Raven, the past loss of half the tropical forests will likely cost us 15 percent of the species there. Comparable rates of deforestation in the future would lead to much greater loss.37 More generally, attacks on the environment of many types will likely be increasingly consequential. Whatever slack nature once cut us is gone.

Humans dominate the planet today as never before. We now live in a full world. An unprecedented responsibility for planetary management is now thrust upon us, whether we like it or not. This huge new burden, for which there is no precedent and little preparation, is the price of our economic success. We brought it upon ourselves, and we must turn to it with urgency and with even greater determination and political attention than has been brought to liberalizing trade and making the world safe for market capitalism. The risks of inaction extend beyond unprecedented environmental deterioration. Following closely in its wake would be widespread loss of livelihoods, social tensions and conflict, and huge economic costs.

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