SAYING IT STRAIGHT
Awhile ago I wrote a column full of solemn statements from august
scientists and other wise persons, warning that we are trashing our
planet at a
sickening pace. The august persons didn't say "trashing" or
spoke of "adverse consequences" and "significant geopolitical risk."
An Alert Reader (to steal a phrase from Dave Barry), a retired
professor of French named Chuck Ferguson, who sees this column in the Central
Maine Morning Sentinel, found it strange that folks should be yelling the
equivalent of "PLANETARY FIRE!!!" in such unemotional, academic
was "inspired ... to do some wildcat editing, in my opposition to
bureaucratese. I hope you can afford a few moments to enjoy this
at the big issues."
Here are some of the original warnings, Ferguson's edits and some even
more radical edits of my own.
World Resources Institute, 1988: "Most high-quality agricultural land
is already in production, and the environmental costs of converting remaining
forest, grassland and wetland habitats to cropland are recognized...
the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile... One analysis of
global soil erosion estimates that... topsoil is being lost 16 to 300 times
faster than it can be replaced."
Chuck Ferguson: "Farmers are already using most of the Earth's fertile
land. What's left is mainly forest, grassland, and marsh. The soil in these
places is less productive and soon wears out. Around the world topsoil is
being lost 16 to 300 times faster than it is recovering."
DHM: We are using up our land and soil.
U.N. Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World,
1997: "Water constraints and water degradation are weakening the resource
bases on which human society is built. Water shortages and pollution are
causing widespread public health problems, limiting economic and agricultural
development and harming a wide range of ecosystems. They may put global food
supplies in jeopardy and lead to economic stagnation in many parts of the
Ferguson: "Our very lives depend on water. By overusing and polluting
water we spread disease, hamper the economy, and damage the environment.
lack of clean water, much of the world faces hunger and poverty."
DHM: We are overusing and polluting our water supplies.
World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, 1999: "There
has been a clear global trend toward a massive loss of forested areas...
current trends are toward an acceleration of the loss of forested area, the
loss of residual primary forests, and progressive reduction in the internal
quality of residual forest stands... Much of the forest that remains is being
progressively impoverished, and all of it is threatened."
Ferguson: "All over the world, forests are disappearing faster and
faster. We are losing old-growth forests and the forests that remain are
becoming less healthy. Many forests are being turned into a single tree
species for industrial use, and all the forests are threatened."
DHM: We are destroying our forests.
World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, 1992: "Our massive tampering
with the world's interdependent web of life -- coupled with the environmental
damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change -- could
trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of
critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly
understand. Uncertainty over the extent of these effects cannot excuse
complacency or delay in facing the threats."
Ferguson: "People are devastating the environment. We are destroying
forests, driving species to extinction, and changing the climate. Whole plant
and animal systems may die before we understand how they function.
don't understand what we are doing, it is inexcusable for us to dismiss or
ignore signs of danger."
DHM: We are wrecking nature without understanding how it works or how
it supports us.
Colin J. Campbell & Jean H. Laherrere, oil-industry geologists, 1998:
"Our analysis of the discovery and production of oil fields around the world
suggests that within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil
unable to keep up with the demand... Global discovery peaked in the early
1960s and has been falling steadily ever since... There is only so much crude
oil in the world, and the industry has found about 90 percent of it."
Ferguson (noting that industry folks need less editing than government
folks): "We have studied oil production and prospects around the world. We
think that demand for oil will exceed supply within 10 years. Oil discovery
peaked in the early 1960s and has been falling steadily ever since...
only so much crude oil in the world, and the industry has found about 90
percent of it."
DHM: We are about to have oil shortages.
Two thousand economists (6 of them Nobelists), 1997: "The balance of
evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate. As
economists, we believe that global climate change carries with it significant
environmental, economic, social and geopolitical risks, and that preventive
steps are justified."
Ferguson: "Humans are almost certainly disturbing the climate of the
Earth. We believe that climate change is a threat to the environment, to
society, and to international relations. We recommend taking action."
DHM: We are messing up our climate.
Maybe, if the thousands of knowledgeable people who issue sober,
important warnings speak more clearly, we and our media and our leaders will
start paying attention to them. Or maybe not. What do you think?
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at
Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute.)