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Young Man to Middle-Aged Man: "You had content but no force."
Middle-Aged Man to Young Man: "And you have force but no content."
Ivan Turgenev, from the original epigraph to Fathers and Sons (1862)
My father always told us to turn off the lights when we left a room. My brothers and I rolled our eyes at his collective wisdom, environmental and otherwise, attributing it to a depression-era mentality and middle age. We knew that the world would be different by the time we grew up.
We are living in an unusual time. It isn't unusual for the reasons one might think—the millennium, the internet, the economy—it's unusual because of us. Every generation believes that its time is somehow special, with pronouncements about "change" and "the future" so common that we tend to ignore them. But today is unusual nonetheless, and the goal of this book is to show why, to examine how these changes came to pass and what they mean for us and for our descendants.
The earth is being quietly transformed in ways and at a pace never seen before, with more people using more resources than at any time in history. This isn't alarmist sentiment; it's simply an observation. At about the same time as the passing of the recent millennium, India quietly became the second nation in the world with a billion people. That so little fuss was made of this milestone shows how quickly we lose interest in extraordinary events. When China became the first giganation in 1980, the news coverage was immense. Why was either event unusual? Until the 1800s, there weren't a billion people on earth, and my grandparents lived much of their lives in a world without two billion. In contrast, we added more than three billion people to the earth in the last generation of the twentieth century, a billion people per decade. That is truly unusual.
We in the industrialized world tend to see environmental problems through the filter of overpopulation. If we could just slow the growth of tropical nations, then the earth would be safer and the environment more stable. Today's population growth is indeed unprecedented, but this worldview conveniently absolves us of any responsibility, and improving the environment becomes someone else's job.
The times are unusual in developed nations as well, and we in the United States are the most unusual, the most "developed," of all. Whether driving our cars, heating our homes, or casually leaving the lights on, we generate a quarter of the world's fossil fuel emissions with less than five percent of its population. As a nation, we spend fifty billion dollars a year on weight loss, about two hundred dollars apiece, roughly equivalent to the annual incomes of a billion of the earth's people. That we spend as much money to lose weight as a sixth of the world spends to survive is something we rarely consider because most of us have never known anything else. Without realizing it, we have become the greatest consumers in the history of the planet.
Like population growth, growing consumption affects the earth in many unusual ways, some of which we will see in this book: the ozone hole, habitat loss, global warming, and, in consequence, rising sea level to name a few. In fact, more people on earth probably see consumption as a threat to their livelihood than overpopulation. The Maldives is a nation of more than a thousand islands in the Indian Ocean, most of it less than three feet above sea level. In the coming century, global warming is expected to raise the oceans by two feet, give or take a bit. I doubt that Maldivians see overpopulation as their greatest threat.
The changing earth—the consequences of rising population and consumption—is the subject of this book, including some evidence for why things like biodiversity loss, the ozone hole, and global warming are unusual. The list looks suspiciously depressing, but it needn't. Repairing the ozone hole is a remarkable success story that we can learn from and apply to other more difficult problems. We need to act quickly though to provide the quality of life our descendants deserve and to preserve as much of our natural heritage as possible.
This urgency to act now isn't apocalyptic. Calls for the earth's demise have come and gone throughout history, especially in recent decades. Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth sold thirty million copies in the 1970s, and its dire predictions notwithstanding, the seventies came and went quietly, as did the eighties, the nineties, and the millennium, and we're still here. It is entirely possible, of course, that this decade will be our last, but I'm betting that it won't be, that we and the earth will still be here in a hundred years and in a thousand. The stewardship and vision that we show today will therefore help determine the type of world that our descendants inherit. This book isn't about the end of the world, it's about the middle of it, the mundane middle of our daily lives and the choices that we consciously and unconsciously make.
Finally, this book is also about kinship. Who will be excluded from the circle of "haves"? How do we best provide for the needs of our descendants and for the other species on earth? How do we balance the lifestyle that we have with the needs of people in poorer regions of the world, in poorer corners of wealthy nations like our own, and in future generations? Inequities in wealth are inevitable, but they have never been larger than today. Perhaps no generation before us has had to consider so seriously that what we use, how we live, and the choices that we make might reduce our descendants' opportunities. That thought is both frightening and empowering: frightening because it's such a dramatic departure from the way we are used to thinking, empowering because it provides the ultimate motivation for change.
That change is my hope for this book.
My father was right about the lights. I can admit that now, decades later, though a small part of me begrudges him knowing it. Once you've lived long enough to do things you swore you never would, admitting your mistakes comes easier.
My father also drove a four-door, 455-cubic-inch V8, baby-blue Buick Electra 225, one of the biggest gas-guzzlers ever made. No one gets off that easy in this book.