The Thinker

Goodbye Planet Earth

The good news is that virtually everyone, including our president (who typically sticks his head in the sand), agrees that global warming is happening. Perhaps the movie An Inconvenient Truth was the final straw that convinced even the most diehard skeptics. A very vocal but very well moneyed minority (typically representing businesses that are profiting from the status quo) still thinks that humanity’s impact on global warming is minimal. They assert that since global warming is part of a natural trend there is no reason to give ourselves a guilt trip.

As a result, they argue, there is no reason for us to take any drastic actions since we cannot halt it. Moreover, even if we could succeed in taking drastic actions, they will not do any good. On this last point, I grudgingly have to agree with skeptics. I feel an urgency to start doing something concrete and dramatic about global warming. Yet I also get the feeling it is like trying to stop the tide. Humanity’s demographics are working against us. Even if we could enforce the Kyoto Protocols, all it would do is slow the rate of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, since no one can make us stop, humanity will doubtless continue to breed like bunnies. Those new people will put additional demands on the ecosystem. Today there are about 6.5 billion people on the planet. Al Gore in the movie An Inconvenient Truth shows a linear relationship between successive years and temperature. Each year the average global temperature creeps up at such a consistent and methodical rate, you can easily predict next year’s average global temperature.

Human population growth, on the other hand, is growing exponentially. Somewhere around 1830, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution, the total world population reached a billion people. By 1930, it was two billion. By 1960, it was three billion. By 1974: four billion. By 1987: five billion. By 2000: six billion. Here we are six years later and halfway to adding another billion.

“Choose life,” the pro-life people tell us. They should be cheering. Humanity is choosing life in record numbers. They tell us that every life is sacred. However, you have to wonder about our quality of life when every year more and more people are competing for the same resources. Naturally, those who live in third world countries are not too thrilled about their plight. Therefore, when they can they choose prosperity. They cross borders in search of better lives. Those of us in first world countries are choosing life too. And we are choosing to live a large life. In the process, we exacerbate global warming. We tear down the trees that can convert our excess carbon dioxide to oxygen. We drive vehicles that emit carbon dioxide. The infrastructure that gives us life’s many amenities exists largely because of the ready availability of petroleum, which, when burned it emits carbon dioxide that causes global warming. We are determined to have a better quality of life than our parents had, or die trying. We think micro, not macro. We think me not we. We try to ignore our interdependence.

Nature has been knocking on our doors. It has been trying to give us a wakeup call. For example, over the last few weeks California has experienced sustained record heat. These heat spells are not just a little hotter than things used to be, but much hotter. High temperatures passed 110 degrees in many places in California. It reached 99 degrees in San Francisco. Fortunately, brownouts were minimal. Yet in order to keep cool, Californians pushed the power system for all it was worth, driving record demand. Since most of that energy came from non-renewable energy forms like coal burning power plants, cooling ourselves to deal with global warming also exacerbated global warming.

Meanwhile, China is no longer content to be a country full of peasants and water buffalo. It is Great Leap Forward, Version 2 underway right now in China. In a generation, the country will go from the second world to first world. Soon its carbon dioxide production will equal that of the United States. The pollution in China has gotten so bad that it is making it all across the Pacific Ocean. It contributes not only to California’s high temperatures, but also to its poor air quality too. Other emerging economies are probably learning unwise lessons from China’s success: hang the pollution control equipment. Deforest, defile and pollute as necessary until you are first world.

Democracy is the answer, President Bush tells us. When he visits third world countries, he says that industrialization is the answer. He preaches that nations do not have to choose to be miserable. He says any nation if it works hard enough can industrialize itself into first world status. Coming with that industrialization, of course, will be new environmental problems, including more carbon dioxide and global warming. Yes, it may be a wee bit hypocritical of those of us in the first world to suggest to the third world not to industrialize for the good of the planet. Of course, what would be even better would be for us first world countries to devolve into third world countries. Since that is unlikely to happen (barring nuclear war), is it too much to expect us to stabilize our population and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? Yep, apparently it is too much. Republican or Democrat, we have these expectations. America is the land of freedom, and we can never have enough freedom. Since freedom generally translates into, “I get to do what I want to do and hang the consequences for anyone else”, it seems unlikely that we will do sensible things like petition for higher gas taxes to discourage driving.

Perhaps as these increasingly nasty effects of global warming continue to manifest themselves, we will begin meaningful changes to our behavior. Perhaps we will all drive electric cars that will run on renewable sources of energy. Perhaps as our telecommunications infrastructure improves, most of us will work from home. Perhaps we will learn to start biking to work. Perhaps, but I am not counting on it in the short term.

I feel despondent. In a way, I am glad to be mortal. I am pushing 50. With luck will be around this planet another 30 or 40 years. Nevertheless, along with my natural angst associated with growing old, I am already feeling deeply sad about the seemingly unstoppable problem of global warming. I also feel nostalgic for a time within my memory when the earth seemed in balance. Our environment, on which we all depend, is now fragile. We are the bull in the china shop, largely heedless of the carnage that we are causing and the effect it will have on this and future generations.

I am nostalgic for bone crushing cold winter days I knew in upstate New York, but which now happens much more rarely. I am nostalgic for a time when mountain snowmelts happened in May, not March or April. I am nostalgic for a time when the hottest day all year was 90 degrees. I am nostalgic for a time when I did not have to worry about the air quality index because the air quality was always fine.

I am distraught and sad at how we have raped our wonderful planet. I am angry and frustrated that we are likely to thoughtlessly keep at it. So perhaps my death will be in some way a relief, because by then the earth will no longer the place that I remember. We have remade it, and not for the better. If after death I reincarnate, I hope it is in some greener and fresher world where the citizens live in balance with nature, where glaciers do not melt, and where we treat nature with the reverence of Native Americans. I will be sorry to pass on our trashed and overcrowded planet to my daughter. I will also be angry with myself for not doing more to shake people up. Here is one more futile attempt to do so. It is likely already too late.


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