Apocalyptics: An Excerpt From "Divided Planet"

A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms, and it doesn't occur... Apocalypse has become an event that is happening, and not happening. It may be that some of the most feared events, like those involving the irreparable ruin of the environment, have already happened. But we don't know it yet, because the standards have changed. Or because we do not have the right indexes for measuring the catastrophe. Or simply because this is a catastrophe in slow motion.-- Susan SontagI make a distinction between optimism and pessimism on the one hand, having to do with the betting man's expectation based on evidence; and on the other hand, hope and despair, the existential/religious attitude one imposes on the situation. I think one can be hopeful and still pretty pessimistic.-- Herman Daly In 1990, not so very long ago, Washington's Worldwatch Institute gave us forty years -- not forty years until "the end," but forty years to make the transition to an "environmentally stable society." Worldwatch's president, Lester Brown, spelled out the consequences of failure in cool, unambiguous terms: "If we have not succeeded by then, environmental deterioration and economic decline are likely to be feeding on each other, pulling us into a downward spiral of social disintegration." Forty years. It's an odd, precise figure, just the sort usually discounted as apocalyptic excess. Brown, in fact, is high on the list of greens that cornucopians and other assorted optimists love to deride as professional pessimists. Nevertheless, Brown's warning warrants serious consideration. It is, first, a subtle, modern one, for he attends closely to the deadly feedback between ecological deterioration and economic inflexibility. The elements of his projected catastrophe -- desertification, rising population, political instability, famine, mass extinction, deforestation, pollution and global warming, just for starters -- have become depressingly familiar, as has the weight and inertia of the global economy.Worldwatch is no millenarian cult. It's annual State of the World reports -- like that which issued the forty-year warning -- have become the planet's semi-official environmental annual reports, and are translated into dozens of languages. Further, Worldwatch's forty-year figure is based in large degree on precise quantitative measures of the earth's "vital signs" -- continued loss of topsoils and forests, rising population and carbon-dioxide levels, falling per-capita agricultural productivity, eroding genetic diversity, dying lakes, reefs, and rivers. There is almost no end to the grim data.It gets worse. Beyond the Limits, by the authors of 1972's eco-blockbuster The Limits to Growth, argues in precise numerical detail that, in the two decades since Limits was first published, and "In spite of the world's improved technologies, the greater awareness, the stronger environmental policies, many resource and pollution flows had grown beyond their sustainable limits." At this point, if we hope to avoid "an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use, and industrial production," we must not only find a way of eliminating poverty, but of doing so "while the human material economy contracts." It will be a hard sell, and we do not have forever.Not all greens think the clock is set for 2030, but the early 1990s saw a remarkable number of environmentalists declare that the 1990s would be the pivot of future history. The World Resources Institute, no hotbed of radical environmental pessimism, published a book entitled The Crucial Decade. Anita Gorden and David Suzuki, in It's a Matter of Survival, insisted that the 1990s must be "a turning point for human civilization." They gave us fifty years, and Harvard University published their call to arms. Mostafa K. Tolba, head of the U.N. Environment Program, agreed, as did Jacques Cousteau, the dean of the oceans, who told us we only had ten years left to "get it." San Francisco's Earth Island Institute actually counts down the years remaining in the "crucial decade" on the opening page of its monthly Journal.What are we to make of such rhetoric? Have greens, as a number of even sympathetic critics now eagerly charge, come to fetishize pessimism and doomsaying? Are greens, especially radical greens, unable to tolerate good news? Is environmentalism too often an apocalyptic cult? I do not think so, and this despite the fact that some greens have been expecting the end for a long, long time. Back in 1990, Mike Roselle, a co-founder of Earth First! told me, "Hell, I thought we had ten years left in 1980." He was not alone in this fear, but neither -- and this is an important point -- was he happy about it.Fear informs everything that greens say and do. Beneath their love of wilderness, solar power and whole food, beneath their hopes for regulatory and legislative innovation, there is fear. It is fundamental to green culture, to the apocalyptic temptations that mark green culture, and to our common predicament. The ecological crisis is real, but it is also gradual in its evolution, and it does not find us -- rich and poor, black and white -- equally prepared for its depredations. Greens know they are right and can be almost crushed by that knowledge. They long for movement and resolution, and this, it seems, is a weakness. As the right-wing settles into a long, dirty campaign against environmentalism, among its prominent weapons is a snide dismissal, a feigned ironic certainty that strong environmental warnings are only apocalyptic fearmongering, or, worse, a neobolshevik tree-hugging hysteria. It is as if science itself -- long an ally of business-as-usual, but now, as ecology, becomes inconvenient -- can simply be ignored.But it cannot be ignored. It is a matter not of opinion but of incessant and terrible fact that we are living in a time of slow biophysical cataclysm. Today's species extinction rates, hundreds or perhaps thousands of times greater than those typical of the last six hundred million years, demonstrate this well enough. What is far less obvious is that this is, finally, a crisis, a catastrophe and not just a very bad patch; that our society's manifest inability to face, let alone adequately respond to, the demands of ecological limitation threatens eventually to take us down; that this is the big one, the one we'll not be able to muddle through, the one that adaptation and denial will not answer.Optimism is always possible, but consider what it means if the green apocalyptics are right. Consider what it means if local environmental crises are only visible aspects of a global ecological crisis that will not yield to piecemeal reform or half-measures, if, only two and a half decades after the first Earth Day, and just years after the West won its epochal battle against the "evil empire," we find ourselves a mere forty or fifty years from the abyss, if we are in fact facing a catastrophe that will present our children with conditions far worse than those we suffer today. Hard-core greens have imagined these possibilities in considerable detail. Is it any wonder that they see in calm deliberation and "political realism" only equivocation, complicity, and decadence?Overwhelmed with our daily lives, we find global ecological decline a prospect difficult to take seriously. Worldwatch's forty year warning was treated as hard news by The New York Times (a fact notable in its own right), but of course it failed to penetrate the ruling optimism, or to displace what Worldwatch's Sandra Postel has called "denial in the decisive decade." Despite vast libraries of terrifying fact and evidence, the consensus still judges warnings as urgent as Brown's to be misguided, almost banal, attempts to rally the troops with millenarian ravings. Everywhere, innocents and skeptics echo the same arguments. Not only will we likely muddle through, but attempts to frighten people into action, to "organize on the basis of fear," will ultimately breed despair, cynicism (when prophecy inevitably fails), and passivity.My experiences are, I think, typical of those who travel in both environmental and mainstream circles. I have been asked "what psychological needs" I thought lay behind "end time thinking" in the environmental movement, and had to force a smile when a friend, a physician and medical researcher, told me he feared the existence of a fin-de-siecle virus. Another friend, a bright, sarcastic software engineer, found the nub of the green movement's public-relations problem. He listened as I argued that "ecological crisis" is not too strong a term, then retorted that "environmental catastrophists" were like "gloom and doom economists, always predicting a crash," and "Marxist crisis theorists, always on the lookout for the final crisis of capitalism." All, he said, had "a professional relationship" to "their predictions of apocalypse."This is a good point, but it is not decisive. Maurice Strong, Secretary General of 1992's Earth Summit, certainly did have professional relationship to his prediction, delivered during the Summit's opening speeches, that, "if we continue along this path of development and destruction, we will destroy our civilization," that if we do not act, decisively and soon, "nature will, and in a much more brutal manner." But who will altogether discount this as mere professional exhortation?I should say that, with caveats and reservations, I am an apocalyptic. Watching the advance of the deterioration, I can only conclude that trouble lies on the horizon. I don't wish to wait for "proof," nor can I believe that minor institutional reforms and tech fixes will add up to "sustainability." Poverty and desperation are on the rise, and for a huge number of people (perhaps one sixth of the world's population, Brown's "downward spiral of social disintegration" has already arrived. I see the logic of crisis all around me, and though I want to be a realist, I wonder what that word can possibly mean.Forty years or fifty, or a hundred, this is a technical matter. Any specific prediction is likely to be proven wrong. Even weak half-measures have unpredictable effects. Randy Hayes, the director of the Rainforest Action Network, makes sense when he says, with his typical pragmatism, that "things drag," and "if Worldwatch says forty years we probably have seventy." It's a reasonable hedge, one that expects the unexpected, and respects the power of adaptation and denial. The difference between forty and a hundred years is, of course, no difference at all.ONCE AND FUTURE CATASTROPHESIt may be more difficult, today, to accept the full reality of the environmental crisis than it was around 1970, when books like The Population Bomb, Blueprint for Survival, The Closing Circle and The Limits to Growth caught us unaware and undefended, and were able briefly to hold environmental crisis theory at the center of the media storm. Here we are several decades later, and aren't things still basically okay?They are not. Despite advances in isolated technical areas, significant reductions (in the richer areas of the world) of the most visible air and water pollutants, a new vogue for Panglossian futurism, and a striking increase in the overall level of environmental consciousness, most -- though not all -- of the predictions of the early eco-doomsters have come, are coming, true, in outline if not always in detail. Take the grand old eco-apocalyptic Paul Ehrlich, who in a series of late 1960s appearances on The Tonight Show put "population explosion," and ecological apocalypse in general, onto the map.It is almost a tradition to slam Ehrlich as a hysteric whose predictions have been disproven by time. But have they? In 1968, when The Population Bomb was first published, the human population was 3.5 billion. In 1995, it hit 5.7 billion. These are facts and are not in dispute. And what of Ehrlich's 1968 prediction that as population increased life would get nastier? About 1 billion of 1968's 3.5 billion people were "doing well," but of the more than 1.8 billion people born by 1990 only a few -- perhaps 200 million -- were. Today, more people are starving, more trapped in the terrible purgatory that development experts call "absolute poverty."Numbers can be spun in many ways. To accept these, you need not accept the Malthusian view that "overpopulation" is the essential cause of the environmental crisis, and you certainly need not accept Ehrlich's early advocacy of both triage ("India... will be one of those we must allow to slip down the drain"), and forced sterilization. In fact, the population numbers must be separated from the old pseudo-debate between Malthusians and anti-Malthusians, for only when they are can we understand one of the most important, and most unexpected, dynamics on the planet -- the rapid drop in population growth rates in much of the South. This drop, manifest even in countries as poor as Bangladesh, is occurring without the improved conditions so long said to follow "development," and is far different from the "demographic transition" that, over the years, turned the affluent citizens of the North to smaller families. It is often called, in honor of that difference, a "reproductive revolution," and of it we will hear a great deal in the years ahead. For the moment, remember that while the reproductive revolution is good news, it has not falsified the old predictions. Trends still indicate a global population of 10 billion people in 2050, rising to a peak of about 11.6 billion people between 2150 and 2200.The Limits to Growth, too, is holding up better than its many critics predicted. From the farmlands of Africa to the fisheries of the North Atlantic, the overall pattern anticipated by Limits seems far less speculative today than when it was written. Its once inflammatory statement that, barring profound changes in "growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years," is now so strongly corroborated by empirical observation that it is well on its way to becoming the mainstream view.Take "growth," that most vague and abstract of all economic processes. In 1990, with an annual output of $20 trillion, the global economy produced in 17 days what it took an entire year to generate in 1900. The economy is, more immediately, now four times as large as it was in 1950, and is projected, by 2050, to be five times as large again. Will it happen? And what will be the consequences if it does? Sandra Postel sums up the situation with an image that almost defies denial -- the economy as a cube growing within the ecosystem's larger sphere, a cube whose points have already risen high above the planet's crust.Growth is a sloppy concept, and it is quite impossible to use highly-aggregated statistics about growth (like those above) to absolutely prove that the existing economy cannot be reconciled to the limits of the physical world. Technological optimists seize upon this indeterminacy, and argue that, increasingly, economic activity will come not as "growth" proper, but as a "development" in which change and refinement yield ever more usable "goods," though the physical size and throughput of the economy does not actually expand. It's a nice thought, but let's be clear about the current situation, as suggested by one of the most frightening scientific papers of all time, published in 1986 in Bioscience under the dry title of "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis." In it, a team of scientists try, as far as the data will allow, to estimate the total human impact on the planetary ecosystem, and conclude that, while humans directly consume only 3 percent of the products of the land-based ecosystem, "Nearly 40% of potential terrestrial net primary productivity [of the ecosystem] is used directly, co-opted, or foregone because of human activities."If this figure is even approximately correct, we are in big trouble. Poverty, or rather, the economic polarization between rich and poor, is now widely recognized as a wellspring of both political conflict and ecological destruction. Yet "realism" tells us in a thousand ways that justice, or even a more equitable distribution of wealth, is simply not in the cards, not anytime soon. "Growth is the only way out, and it is to growth that practical men and women always appeal. The authors of the famous Brundtland report -- Our Common Future -- imagined the alleviation of poverty in the expansion of the economy "by a factor of five or ten," and in their footsteps thousands of others have followed. Too bad that biological science must intrude with a harsh realism of its own. Think again about the products of photosynthesis. What would the world be like if humans, instead of co-opting 40 percent, took 80 percent?" 100 percent? Would it be like England -- "no real wilderness, the landscape under human control, many wild species extinguished, not much room for expansion or mistakes, but a livable world" -- or would it be worse? Would it be much, much worse?There are many reasons to worry, and taken together they compel the conclusion that things are going about as the early apocalyptics predicted. All told, it is easy to see why so many greens have become so desperate. Occasionally, as in 1989, when politicians as varied as Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher tried to outdo each other in declaiming green, or at 1992's thousands of Earth Summit press conferences, it has seemed that the political elite was just about to take the environmental situation seriously. But each time the illusion has passed, leaving always the same question -- what must happen before we finally act?


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