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EXPERT STATEMENTS WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO
Lay the world's economists end to end, goes an old joke, and they'll still
point in every direction. Ask the world's scientists about the environment,
goes a modern myth, and they'll disagree.
But surprisingly large numbers of scientists and even economists have been
agreeing lately and issuing stunning public statements -- stunning because of
the extent of agreement, because of their seriousness, and because they
contradict what many politicians and corporations are telling us.
The most amazing of these manifestos was issued last winter by 2000
headed by the highly respected Kenneth Arrow, Dale Jorgenson, Paul Krugman,
William Nordhaus, and Robert Solow, two of them Nobelists, none of them known
for green leanings. But their topic was the climate, and, yes, 2000
agreed, "from the newish left to the skeptical center to the libertarian
right," as Peter Passell of the New York Times commented.
"Global climate change carries with it significant environmental, economic,
social, and geopolitical risks," the economists say. "Preventive steps are
justified.... There are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse-gas
emissions for which the total benefits outweigh the total costs."
These policies, say the economists, could slow climate change even while
raising economic productivity. They recommend carbon taxes and the auction
greenhouse gas emissions permits, the revenues from which could be used to
reduce other taxes or government deficits.
Incredible. Especially since such policies are never mentioned by either
Then in April sixty biologists did something biologists seldom do -- they got
political. They sent an open letter to the U.S. Forest Service warning
a proposal by the logging industry to abandon the "species viability rule."
That rule requires the Forest Service to keep our national forests in a
condition that supports healthy populations of fish and wildlife.
The biologists use strong language, for scientists. They say weakening the
rule would be "short-sighted and scientifically unsupportable." It would
"substantially and irreversibly contribute to an already alarming pattern of
species extinction" and make recovery of endangered species "more
crisis-driven, more expensive, more difficult, and ultimately more
Then this June the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Academy of
Sciences -- probably the most august scientific bodies in the world -- issued
statement on a subject that is almost taboo in political or commercial
"It has often been assumed that population growth is the dominant problem we
face," say the two academies. "But what matters is not only the ... number
people in the world, but also .. how much natural resource they utilize and
much pollution and waste they generate."
They give a clear definition of what they're talking about -- "consumption is
the human transformation of materials and energy" -- and why it's important
"consumption is of concern to the extent that it makes the transformed
materials or energy less available for future use, or negatively impacts
biophysical systems in such a way as to threaten human health, welfare, or
other things people value."
Consuming more than the earth can regenerate is not a problem that lies in
future, the scientists say: "We now know that many renewable and nonrenewable
resources are being drawn down."
And high consumption levels are a matter not just of sustainability, but of
fairness: "We know that a minor fraction of the world's people consume a
disproportionate amount -- and influence the aspirations of the others -- and
that the poorest people need to consume more."
Their report contains some shocking numbers. The population of Bangladesh
increases by 2.4 million a year, the population of Britain only by 100,000.
But each Briton uses 50 times as much fossil fuel as each Bangladeshi. So
year's addition to the British population raises carbon dioxide emissions by
almost twice as much as each year's addition to the Bangladesh population.
Since 1950 the richest 20 percent of the world's population has doubled its
per-person consumption of meat and timber, quadrupled its car ownership,
quintupled its use of plastic. The poorest 20 percent has increased
consumption of these things hardly at all.
"As scientists but also as citizens of the world," say the academicians, "we
must strive to see that its riches are used in such a way that our
throughout the world can continue to enjoy them."
Now just because a lot of highly educated people agree on something, that
doesn't make it right. There was a time when all the world's scientists
have said that the atom couldn't be split, that continents never move and
an adult sheep couldn't be cloned. But when people like these speak together
with urgency and clarity and lay out the reasons for what they say, we
should pay at least as much attention to them as we pay to rock stars,
crimes, self-interested corporations, or uninformed politicians. What the
scientists and now also the economists are telling us is that our planetary
life-support system is in danger -- and that it needn't be, if we take
perfectly feasible steps to protect it.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at
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