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The Turning Point We Miss at Our Own Peril

We have the choice of burning all the oil left and hacking down all the remaining rainforests -- or saving humanity.

Sometimes there are turning-points in history – moments when we have to choose between an exuberant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offering us a sane way out.

Usually, we can only see them when we look back from a distance.

In 1793, the great democrat Thomas Paine said the French Revolution shouldn’t betray its principles by killing the king, because it would trigger an orgy of blood-letting that would eventually drown them all.

They threw him in jail.

In 1919, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said the European powers shouldn’t humiliate Germany because it would catalyse extreme nationalism and produce another world war.

They ignored him.

In 1953, a handful of US president Dwight Eisenhower’s advisers urged him not to destroy Iranian democracy and kidnap its prime minister because it would have a reactionary ripple effect that would last decades.

He refused to listen.

Another of those seemingly small moments with a long echo is happening now. A marginalised voice is offering us a warning, and an inspiring way to save ourselves – yet this alternative seems to be passing unheard in the night.

It is coming from the people of Ecuador, led by their president, Rafael Correa, and it would begin to deal with two converging crises.

In the four billion years since life on Earth began, there have been five times when there was a sudden mass extinction of life-forms.

The last time was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were killed, probably by a meteor.

But now the world’s scientists agree that the sixth mass extinction is at hand.

Humans have accelerated the rate of species extinction by a factor of at least 100, and the great Harvard biologist EO Wilson warns that it could reach a factor of 10,000 in 20 years. We are doing this largely by stripping species of their habitats.

We are destroying the planet’s biodiversity, so making the natural chains that keep us alive much more vulnerable to collapse.

This time, we are the meteor.

At the same time, we are dramatically warming the atmosphere. I know it has become terribly passé to listen to virtually all the world’s scientists, but I remember the collapsing glaciers I saw in the Arctic, the drying-out I saw in Darfur and the rising salt water I saw in Bangladesh.

2010 was the joint-hottest year ever recorded, according to NASA.

The best scientific prediction is that we are now on course for a 1m rise in global sea levels this century.

That means goodbye London, Cairo, Bangkok, Venice and Shanghai. Doubt it if you want, but the US National Academy of Sciences – the most distinguished scientific body in the world – just found that 97 percent of scientific experts agree with the evidence.

So where does Ecuador come in?

At the tip of this South American country there lies 10,000 lush square kilometres of rainforest where the Amazon basin, the Andes mountains and the equator come together.

It is the most biodiverse place on Earth. When scientists studied a single hectare of it, they found it had more different species of tree than the whole of North America.

It holds world records for different species of amphibians, reptiles and bats. And – more important still – it is a crucial part of the planet’s lungs, inhaling huge amounts of heat-trapping gases and keeping them out of the atmosphere.

Yet almost all the pressure from the outside world today is to saw it down. Why? Because under that rainforest there are almost a billion barrels of untapped oil, containing 400 million tons of planet-cooking gases. We crave it. We howl for it. Unlike biodiversity and a safe climate, it’s tradable for cash.

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