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Human Community Needs to Come to Grips With Slow-Motion Crises

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<i> Paul R. Ehrlich teaches biology at Stanford University. His latest book is "New World/New Mind," co-authored with psychologist Robert Ornstein (Doubleday, 1989)</i>

There is, at the moment, a great deal of justified concern about the global “greenhouse” warming. All the evidence points to an increase in the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere unprecedented since the dawn of civilization. The consequences of that warning are not entirely predictable, but are almost certain to be deleterious. They are likely to include serious disruptions of agriculture, changes in the distribution of rainfall (with all that this implies for the politics of water) and rises in sea level that will be destructiveof property and, by intensifying the effect of storms, human life.

Humanity can take a series of steps to ameliorate the effect of the warming by slowing its pace and providing more time for agricultural and other systems to adjust. The most important short-term measure would be to dramatically increase the efficiency of energy use. To the greatest extent possible, energy from natural gas and solar cells should be substituted for that now obtained from coal and oil. The destruction of forests should be halted as rapidly as possible, and replanting begun right away.

The most important long-term measure that should be started immediately is to institute a serious worldwide program of population control. The connection between the Earth’s increasing overpopulation and the injection of greenhouse gases (especially methane) into the atmosphere is quite direct, and attempts to address the global warming problem have little chance of success unless growth in human numbers can be stopped.

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Bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress to initiate action to deal with the greenhouse effect. Both are excellent pieces of legislation, recognizing the key elements of the problem. But what are their chances of passage in their original form?

Unfortunately, that may depend on whether another drought occurs next summer. Interest in the greenhouse warming was clearly stimulated by the weather of the summer of ’88 in the United States, even though scientists have been warning about the warming for decades (it was, for example, discussed in “The Population Bomb” in 1968).

Oddly enough, we’ll never know whether last summer’s weather had anything to do with the greenhouse warming. It could well have been simply a manifestation of “normal” climatic variability. But it was the sort of event that sophisticated computer models predict will become more frequent as the climate warms, just as an increase in the frequency and strength of hurricanes is predicted (hurricanes can be viewed as devices for transporting heat away from the tropics toward the poles). Climatologists are certain that the planet is warming because of the increase in greenhouse gases, but they can’t with certainty trace any given weather event to that warming.

Even if the 1988 drought could be tied to the greenhouse effect, one should not be surprised if the summers of 1989 and 1990 turn out to be cool and wet. The prediction is for droughts to become more frequent, not (at this stage) continuous. Warming the atmosphere does not automatically translate into the uniform warming of all places on the Earth’s surface. And therein lies the rub. People have great difficulty paying attention to trends that grow more threatening over decades. Our ancestors had no reason to; if the climate had been changing, australopithecines (or, for that matter, ancient Greeks) weren’t causing it, nor could they have done anything about it.

Natural selection and cultural evolution have prepared human beings well to deal with sudden crises like the appearance of a bear in the cave entrance. But people have a great deal of trouble coming to grips with “slow-motion” crises like the human population explosion, the gradual accumulation of nuclear weapons, the inexorable loss of topsoil essential for maintaining agriculture or the greenhouse warming. It’s especially difficult to focus on trends that can be perceived only by studying squiggly lines on graphs or generating computer models. That’s why some environmentally knowledgeable politicians are hoping for a repeat drought next year so that action to prevent an unprecedented climatic disaster will be pursued.

Of course, it is not wise for a species that had the hubris to name itself Homo sapiens to depend on chance events to keep its civilization going. It is high time that top priority be given to training children to perceive and respond to gradual trends that threaten their future. People have become accustomed to seeing economic trends displayed numerically in the media,to interpret them and to make decisions on the basis of them. There’s no reason why environmental trends couldn’t be presented by the media in the same way. Why not have a box on the front page of every newspaper to give updates on such matters as the global warming, the growth of the human population, the status of tropical forests and global food security? Why can’t each Sunday paper contain a section devoted to detailed statistics on population, resources and the environment? Those statistics are much more critical to our children’s futures than the Dow Jones stock average, the value of the dollar or the index of leading economic indicators. Why shouldn’t a few minutes of each network news broadcast be devoted to the clouds slowly gathering over the human future?

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Similarly, why couldn’t there be a President’s Council of Environmental Advisers with stature equal to that of the Council of Economic Advisers? The only barrier to doing any of these things is that most decision-makers and most of the public are still unaware that ecology must go hand-in-hand with economics. Without healthy ecosystems, there will be no economic system to worry about.

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