Is the Planet Just a Liberal Snowflake?
Having an EPA head who rejects climate science has revived a debate about an issue unworthy of debate.
Is human-caused climate change really happening? In 2017, the hottest year on record, here we are again. When those charged with both protecting us from environmental problems and championing responsible policies around the world seem to have time-traveled here from the 1950s, what do we do? Do we need to keeping dragging out Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain how science works?
At the center of this non-debate debate is not just those who trust science and those who don’t — rather, it pits two world views against one another.
One view is the Invincible Earth. Some who adhere to this idea borrow the Biblical justification of dominion, that we were placed on the planet and all the fauna, flora and minerals are here for our use. If we seem to pollute our waters or air, the Earth has endless resources to refresh and renew.
If you buy into this view, it’s easy to see any efforts to restrain industry, and by extension, commerce, as doomsday nonsense. The Earth is bigger than us, its resources endlessly abundant, and it’s rather egocentric to think we can affect it in ways that might affect our survival.
This view has a seductive appeal. It means I can drive my five Hummers, cut down the rain forest and burn trash in my backyard without worrying about consequences. The party need never end or even change. Nature’s fine. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
I want to buy into that model, but science and reason point to a different view: The Fragile Earth model.
It acknowledges that the Earth has enormous potential for natural purification. At low levels, pollution in our air gets cleaned by rain, flows into rivers and detoxifies as it dissipates and diffuses into our vast oceans. Excess CO2 in the air gets offset by the oxygen producing forests. Nature seems endlessly self regulating. But that word — “endlessly” — that’s the problem.
What if the world has limits? What if we continue to produce ever higher levels of industrial and agricultural waste, and at the same time, stress the forests and oceans? What if we compromise the very attributes of the Earth necessary to refresh and replenish while adding more toxins to the system? What if, in developing more livable space for ourselves, we eliminate bio diversity, producing narrow choices of crops and livestock necessary for human consumption while driving other species to extinction?
Scientific data suggests we’re doing just that.
In her fascinating and frightening Pulitzer-winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert makes a strong case that we’re already in the midst of a modern, human-caused, extinction and humans might well be part of it. We would be the first creatures on record to cause their own demise.
Extinction is a strong word, and it sounds more than a little Chicken Little-ish. Darwin himself had trouble with the concept. When he learned of fossils from creatures not currently seen roaming around, he at first wanted to believe those species would be found alive eventually.
But now we know that extinction is a fact of biology. The latest scientific estimate: more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are extinct. Thanks to climate change and deforestation and loss of habitat, extinction is not just a thing of the past. It’s happening right now. We are losing species at a rate the Earth hasn’t seen in 66 million years.
And what if we’re just getting started? What if the the Developing World continues to develop at an accelerated pace?
In his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, New York Times Reporter Thomas Friedman explains how global warming, rapidly growing populations, and the expansion of the world’s middle class through globalization have produced a dangerously unstable planet. We may look back in 100 years at our time and think what a quaint notion we had of environmental distress. What amateur polluters we were. In a century…
Some look for middle ground in this debate, and, in politics there’s often talk about balancing environmental concerns against economic realities. It sounds reasonable. The problem with this reasonable balance is that the Earth doesn’t give a damn about where WE think that balance lies. It has its own physical realities, its own balance, and we ignore them at our peril.
Instead of looking at the economy and ecology as opposing forces, what if they were the same exact things? What if the things that produce wealth are actually based on a healthy ecology? I believe this is true. The problem is time. You can create short-term wealth by degrading the ecology. But that’s not real sustaining ecology. In essence, economy and ecology are different ways of describing the same thing.
Climate scientists believe that the damage Trump and Pruitt can cause in four years will be negligible. Eight years becomes a bit more troublesome.
The greater threat is the trajectory of the conversation. If the Invincible Earth world view takes hold here, we sacrifice any moral high ground in preaching environmental responsibility to the growing industrial belches throughout Asia, where dreams of prosperity are tied to smokestacks.
That’s why, regardless of who our leaders are, we as citizens must speak out, with policies guided by real science, and demand that we move toward renewal energy and economies/ecology that will be sustainable beyond our lifetimes.