News & Politics

The 21st Century Blues

Our greatest security menace isn't terrorism, it's the deteriorating environment. The good news is that most of the solutions to our problems are already present.
I've got the 21st Century Blues.

Amid rumors of war, threats of terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction stalk our national security. But in fact, perhaps the greatest security menace over the coming years is going to be the deteriorating environment. Or so say CIA analysts.

They warn that the wars of the future -- the near future -- will be fought over water, not oil. Water tables are sinking faster than the stock market, and unlike oil, there's no substitute for water. They caution against the global pandemic of AIDS and other deadly infectious diseases. They see tidal waves of desperate environmental refugees on the horizon. They anticipate widespread political destabilization and cascading financial crises.

The skid marks of industrial civilization are everywhere to be seen. Let's take the scenic route.

These are biblical times indeed, but it's no longer a miracle to walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee. Its level has dropped to the lowest ever recorded. Over in Mexico City, a plummeting aquifer is making the famed National Cathedral "bend and droop like a reflection in a funhouse mirror."

Which might remind locals up in Alaska of their "drunken trees" sagging into the once-upon-a-permafrost. Alaska got ahead of the global warming curve. Roads are buckling. Rupturing sewage lines are spawning a return to the old reliable outhouse. But even citizens grateful for those oil royalties are speechless at the death of four million acres of spruce forest, the biggest loss ever of trees to insects in North America. Nobody much wants to talk about the thawing tundra beneath the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline either.

2001 was the second hottest year in 140 years of record-keeping, which might help explain why they were mowing the grass in December at the NY Botanical Garden, or those massive multi-billion-dollar floods raging across Europe. Moaned one of Prague's 50,000 evacuees, "We were prepared for a hundred-year flood, but this was a thousand-year flood." Then again, those epic forest fires sure coulda used some of that rain in the 29 US states strangled by long-term drought.

Even Rip Van Bush's EPA woke up to smell the climate change. Yup, it's for real and it's caused by fossil fuels. But hey, now that we've waited so long, there's nothing to do about it. It's inevitable; get used to it, and say adios to Rocky Mountain meadows and coral reefs. This is about economic growth.

Of course the insurance industry isn't buying it. The global giant Munich Re sets the price tag for global warming at $300 billion a year down the pike.

But for now the climate suits West Nile virus just fine. In the blink of an eye, it hitched a ride with mosquitoes up to the Northern Hemisphere and clear across the country. So we sprayed the little suckers good. Problem is, when researchers did an autopsy of dead birds in New York, they found lots more birds dying from pesticides than the virus.

And now it turns out global warming is going to blow out the ozone hole all over again, just when we thought we had it licked. Those UV rays are already mutating nasty new viruses we've never seen before; they're feeding on all that sewage and farm runoff in those algal blooms off the coasts.

But I dare you to prove the connection, because then there's also the 26 million pounds of antibiotics washing off those factory farms.

Let's not jump to conclusions. The first-ever government report on drugs in the water says those antibiotics are competing for ecological shelf space with prodigious amounts of hormones. Could be that $2.7 billion estrogen-replacement industry too. But then there's all the other meds -- anti-cholesterol, antidepressants, chemotherapy, Viagra, and caffeine (lots of caffeine) -- that are showing up in 80 percent of US streams.

Maybe this pharmaceutical pollution has something to do with all those intersex fish. Seems to be feminizing them, and I don't mean that in a Robert Bly kind of way. Alligators with shrinking penises, sperm counts dropping 50 percent, four in 10 men at risk from a new syndrome called Testicular Dysgenesis.

Same deal in water taps from the bayou to Berlin. Pretty soon those number-crunching drug companies will be inserting special charges in your water bill.

Which doesn't sound all that outlandish if you're Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who got busted by Monsanto for illegally growing its genetically engineered canola without a license. The thing is -- he didn't plant it. Must've volunteered when some seed fell off a farmer's truck, or pollen drifted over and contaminated his fields. Monsanto won the first two rounds in court, so now it's suing farmers across the Midwest and Canada after this toxic trespassing enlarged its failing market.

Which brings us to other hot potatos, the ones in the Moscow farmers' markets where Geiger-counter-toting officials are confiscating radioactive produce, being as Chernobyl's only 400 miles down the road. Or the three Japanese nuclear plants that temporarily closed after the companies admitted falsifying safety data about cracks in their aging reactors. But folks just didn't believe the government when it said there's no relationship between aging and accidents.

It's a terrible thing when trust in government breaks down. Just ask the guards at US nuclear reactors. They know why half the country's nuke plants have failed mock terrorist attacks. What do you expect with wages the same as custodians? And those floodlights management installed -- heck, they shine on the guards instead of on the terrorists! But hey, it's those whining workers again; I mean, where is Homer Simpson when you really need him?

Homer's probably gorging himself on junk food, and calling in sick with the 76 million Americans who get food poisoning every year from a food supply more dangerous than it was 50 years ago. Or maybe he's at Weight Watchers with the 60 percent of Americans who are overweight. All that super-size fat and sugar has gotta be what's behind the diabetes epidemic, too.

Unless the scientists are right who now say air pollution causes diabetes. So we'll have to study that two-mile-thick, brown cloud hovering over south Asia, which might help explain the half-million people dying from respiratory problems in India every year. Or what about that bubble-gum pink haze showering record amounts of pollutants over Hong Kong? Not great for business either. It's hurting tourism and making Honda shrink-wrap their cars so they don't all look that same weird yellow color in the showroom.

It's enough to make a government delete all this anxiety-inducing data off official web sites, and plug up the Freedom of Information Act. I mean, what if it fell into the wrong hands! Could be dangerous. Italy's Prime Minister, media magnate Sylvio Berlusconi, he's got the right idea. His company just bought up all the country's TV stations. No news is good news. He must've taken a pointer from Bush Lite who quipped: "You can fool some of the people all of the time -- those are the ones to concentrate on."

It's got to send you lunging for the Prozac. Lots of Wall Street traders did, even before that market bubble burst into a national depression. Jim Cramer, the MSNBC pundit and former hedge fund manager, knows first-hand why Wall Streeters never saw it coming. He said, "Prozac and all those other drugs banish the 'This is the end of the world' thoughts. Which means you are not as anxious as you should be about an obvious down side."

Hey, things could be worse. At least he's not one of the 3 billion people living on less than $2 a day. Let 'em eat placebos. Which are proven to work just as well anyway.

But if Prozac doesn't make you feel more secure, try war. Let's take out Iraq! More cheap oil for our national security. So what if improving fuel efficiency by 2.7 miles a gallon would eliminate the need for Gulf oil. Grab the sunscreen and relax. Relax environmental standards, that is, and get with the program. National security. Economic growth. Banish those "This is the end of the world thoughts."

Hmm. Drunken trees. Sinking cathedrals. Thousand-year floods. Intersex fish. Dysgenesis.

Welcome to the 21st century blues.

I don't know about you, but I don't feel real secure. Neither do Gregory Foster and Louise Wise from the National Defense University in Washington DC. Here's what they concluded a few years ago.

"The environment is the most transnational of all transnational issues. It respects neither national boundaries, nor traditional conceptions of sovereignty and territorial integrity."

They say we must confront two questions of fundamental strategic import: Whether humanity's role is to be nature's master, servant, or steward; and whether nature's commons, in affecting us all, demands sustained collective international attention and tending.

They envision the military becoming an environmental exemplar, turning its attention to disaster relief, ecological restoration, and the vigorous enforcement of environmental law.

They see the biggest factor in the environment's future as the universalization of democracy. The environment demands global, multilateral cooperation.

In other words, cleaning up the environment depends on cleaning up politics.

The good news is that for the most part the solutions to our problems are already present. Even where we don't know exactly what to do, we have a pretty good idea what directions to head in. The models percolate up from the deep wisdom of the natural world. Extraordinary human creativity focused on problem solving is exploding the mythology of despair. Over and over, it's the story of how an individual can make a difference.

Biomimicry master Janine Benyus observes with elegant simplicity that what life does is to create conditions conducive to life. That is perhaps the essential mission of the Bioneers. The Bioneers have peered deep into the heart of living systems to see what we can learn from four billion years of evolution. What they are unearthing is a revolution from the heart of nature, following in the footsteps of ancient indigenous traditions. There is great hope in how little we know, and in the little that we do know. The solutions residing in nature consistently surpass our concept of what's even possible.

I propose to you that the tide is already turning. Global society has begun reversing directions into an Age of Restoration. Though this movement remains relatively small today, it's growing by leaps and bounds. It's a matter of when, not if.

But we do not know how much time we have.

There was a paradigm shift this year that exploded the conventional scientific thinking that ecosystems respond slowly and steadily to degradation, that we will see the line coming before we cross it. A new study concludes that humanity's assault on the environment has left many ecosystems in such a fragile state that the slightest disturbance may push them into catastrophic collapse, causing them to shift abruptly with little or no warning. Despite appearing viable, there comes a tipping point once their resilience has been sufficiently undermined. Such changes can be irreversible.

We do not know how close we are to the tipping point. Precaution is the byword, moving from managing harm to preventing it. The Precautionary Principle being adopted around the world echoes grandma's time-tested common sense: Better safe than sorry; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; look before you leap. As Carolyn Raffensperger said last year, maybe we should call it the Duh Principle.

"What were they thinking?" future generations will ask. A recent book from Yale University Press called, "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid" suggests that stupidity is not the opposite of smartness. The opposite of stupidity is wisdom, defined as the ability to apply knowledge to achieve the common good. Duh.

The antidote to the 21st Century Blues is a Declaration of Interdependence. We have a pretty good idea how to lighten our footfall, by 90 percent or more. The enterprise of restoration promises an unparalleled economic boom and global jobs creation, starting with a Marshall Plan for clean energy.

Ecological medicine teaches us that human health security depends on restoring the health of our ecosystems.

Societal security hinges on cultural diversity and mutual aid. The Gulf war to resolve is the gulf between rich and poor.

And democracy is breaking out all over, and it's coming from the bottom up. This is where we will find sustainable security.

It's time to repair our relationship with the living world and with each other. We can take our place -- not as masters, servants, or perhaps even stewards -- but as citizens in the democracy of all life. If we let our hearts guide us, we won't go wrong.

Time is of the essence. The worst failure we could have is a failure of the imagination.

Kenny Ausubel is the founder of the Bioneers Conference.
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