Our Roof Is Caving in
By Carl Pope
The global environmental dilemma teems with both risks and opportunities. The world is at considerable peril, yet solutions to the problems we face are at our fingertips. We have been loading the Earth's atmosphere with mercury from burning coal, chemical plants, and mining for centuries. As a result, the fish caught in our oceans are now a health risk for young women. Yet we have, and can afford, the necessary technology to stop pumping mercury into the environment. The trick is finding the will and prudence to pursue such solutions. Currently, the world -- and the United States in particular -- lacks the leadership to link the two.
Let me show you what I mean. Thirteen–hundred scientists from 95 countries just issued a report called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which notes that 15 of the 24 ecosystems vital for life on Earth are in a degraded or overdrawn state. That's like a doctor telling you that 60 percent of your organs are failing. Yet we cannot summon the courage to tackle simple solutions. Keeping tires on American automobiles properly inflated, for instance, would save as much oil as will be found by drilling (and destroying) the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
If you don't believe a report from 1,300 scientists, consider that the CIA believes that more than 3 billion people will be living in water–stressed regions -- from North Africa to China -- by 2015. The water tables of major grain–producing areas in northern China are dropping at a rate of 5 feet per year, and per capita water availability in India is expected to drop by 50 to 75 percent over the next decade. The number of chronically malnourished people in sub–Saharan Africa will increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years.
That is scary stuff. It's also unnecessary. Do these alarming trends mean that the sky is falling? No. If the sky were falling, we couldn't do much except hide. But these trends do mean that the roof over our house will cave in -- unless it gets some much–needed repairs. Consider the United States' energy policy. Americans consume 25 percent of the world's oil. Why? Because consumers lack choices. Even though engineering has made car engines 25 percent more efficient, increased bulk has made fuel economy worse. In some U.S. cities, the waiting list for a hybrid car is longer than the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Instead of pursuing new solutions such as hybrid cars, the United States invades Iraq, bullies Venezuela, and rattles its sabers at Iran. Similarly, China is eagerly building dams that will destroy villages and impoverish thousands while low–technology solutions to increase energy efficiency lie fallow.
This global leadership vacuum is dangerous. Anger at the chasm between better energy solutions and our scarcity of leadership is not confined to tree–hugging environmentalists. Listen to former President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, George Schultz: "How many more times must we be hit on the head by a two–by–four before we do something about this acute problem. ... New ultralight–but–safe materials can nearly redouble fuel economy at little or no extra cost."
The world has a choice. We can let go of the archaic technologies and reckless practices of the past, recognize that solutions are better than anxieties, and watch science pleasantly surprise us. Or we can remain in denial, insist that modest change now is more painful than eventual catastrophe, and reap the whirlwind.