Earth In The Balance: Ecology And The Human Spirit
Reader Part III Striking The Balance
A New Common Purpose
The world is once again at a critical juncture. A relentless advance is again claiming victims throughout the world, and again courageous men and women are standing in the path of destruction and calling upon the rest of the world to help stop the invasion. But this time we are invading ourselves and attacking the ecological system of which we are a part. As a result, we now face the prospect of a kind of global civil war between those who refuse to consider the consequences of civilization’s relentless advance and those who refuse to be silent partners in the destruction. More and more people of conscience are joining the effort to resist, but the time has come to make this struggle the central organizing principle of world civilization. We have had a warning of the fate that awaits if we “bow before the accomplished fact.” God and history will remember our judgement.
-- A New Common Purpose, page 294
Global Marshall Plan
Human civilization is now so complex and diverse, so sprawling and massive, that it is difficult to see how we can respond in a coordinated, collective way to the global environmental crisis. But circumstances are forcing just such a response; if we cannot embrace the preservation of the earth as our new organizing principle, the very survival of our civilization will be in doubt.
That much is clear. But how should we proceed? How can we create practical working relationships that bring together people who live in dramatically different circumstances? How can we focus the energies of a disparate group of nations into a sustained effort, lasting many years, that will translate the organizing principle into concrete changes -- changes that will affect almost every aspect of our lives together on this planet?
We find it difficult to imagine a realistic basis for hope that the environment can be saved, not only because we still lack widespread agreement on the need for this task, but also because we have never worked together globally on any problem even approaching this one in degree of difficulty. Even so, we must find a way to join this common cause, because the crisis we face is, in the final analysis, a global problem and can only be solved on a global basis. Merely addressing one dimension or another or trying to implement solutions in only one region of the world or another will, in the end, guarantee frustrating, failure, and a weakening of the resolve needed to address the whole of the problem.
While it is true that there are no real precedents for the kind of global response now required, history does provide us with at least one powerful model of cooperative effort: the Marshall Plan. In a brilliant collaboration that was itself unprecedented, several relatively wealthy nations and several relatively poor nations -- empowered by a common purpose -- joined to reorganize an entire region of the world and change its way of life. The Marshall Plan shows how a large vision can be translated into effective action.
A Global Marshall Plan, if you will -- is now urgently needed. The scope and complexity of this plan will far exceed those of the original; what's required now is a plan that combines large-scale, long term, carefully targeted financial aid to developing nations, massive efforts to design and then transfer to poor nations the new technologies needed for sustained economic progress, a worldwide program to stabilize world population, and binding commitments by industrial nations to accelerate their own transition to an environmentally responsible pattern of life.
But despite the fundamental difference between the late 1940s and today, the model of the Marshall Plan can be of great help as we begin to grapple with the enormous challenge we now face. For example, a Global Marshall Plan must, like the original, focus on strategic goals and emphasize actions and programs that are likely to remove the bottlenecks presently inhibiting the healthy functioning of the global economy. The new global economy must be an inclusive system that does not leave entire regions behind -- as our present system leaves out most of Africa and much of Latin America. In an inclusive economy, for instance, wealthy nations can no longer insist that Third World countries pay huge sums of interest on old debts even when the sacrifices necessary to pay them increase the pressure on their suffering populations so much that revolutionary tensions build uncontrollably. The Marshall Plan took the broadest possible view of Europe's problems and developed strategies to serve human needs and promote sustained economic progress; we must now do the same on a global scale.
The new plan will require the wealthy nations to allocate money for transferring environmentally helpful technologies to the Third World and to help impoverished nations achieve a stable population and a new pattern of sustainable economic progress. To work, however, any such effort will also require wealthy nations to make a transition themselves that will be in some ways more wrenching than that of the Third World, simply because powerful established patterns will be disrupted. Opposition to change is therefore strong, but this transition can and must occur -- both in the developed and developing world. and when it does, it will likely be within a framework of global agreements that obligates all nations to act in concert. To succeed, these arrangements must be part of an overall design focused on devising a healthier and more balanced pattern in world civilization that integrates the Third World into be willing to lead by example; otherwise, the Third World is not likely to consider making the required changes -- even in return for substantial assistance. Finally, just as the Marshall Plan scrupulously respected the sovereignty of each nation while requiring all of -- in the different regions of the world and globally -- while carefully respecting the integrity of individual nation-states.
But if world governments is neither feasible nor desirable, how then can we establish a successful cooperative global effort to save the environment? There is only one answer: we must negotiate international agreements that establish global constraints on acceptable behavior but that are entered into voluntarily -- albeit with the understanding that they will contain both incentives and legally valid penalties for noncompliance.
The world's most important supranational organization -- the United Nations -- does have a role to play, though I am skeptical about its ability to do very much. Specifically, to help monitor the evolution of a global agreement, the United Nations might consider the idea of establishing a Stewardship Council to deal with matters relating to the global environment -- just as the Security Council now deals with matters of war and peace. Such a forum could be increasingly useful and even necessary as the full extent of the environmental crisis unfolds.
In any global agreement of the kind I am proposing, the single most difficult relationship is the one between wealthy and poor nations; there must be a careful balance between the burdens and obligations imposed on both groups of nations.
The design of a Global Marshall Plan must also recognize that many countries are in different stages of development, and each new agreement has to be sensitive to the gulf between the countries involved, not only in terms of their relative affluence but also their various stages of political, culture, and economic development.
In my view, five strategic goals must direct and inform our efforts to save the global environment. Let me outline each of them briefly before considering each in depth.
» The Stabilizing of World Population
» The Rapid Creation and Development of Environmentally Appropriate Technologies
» A Comprehensive and Ubiquitous Change in the Economic "Rules of the Road" by Which We Measure the Impact of Our Decisions on the Environment
» The Negotiation and Approval of a New Generation of International Agreements
» The Establishment of a Cooperative Plan for Educating the World's Citizens About our Global Environment, the Establishment, especially in the Developing World -- of the Social and Political Conditions Most Conducive to the Emergence of Sustainable Societies
The Stabilizing of World Population
1. Allocate resources to fund carefully targeted functional literacy programs keyed to every society where the demographic transition has yet to occur.
2. Develop effective programs to reduce infant mortality and ensure the survival and excellent health of children. Several decades ago, the African leader Julius Nyerere said, "The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive."
3. Ensure that birth control devices and techniques are made ubiquitously available along with culturally appropriate instruction. The U.S. Role
And it is time for the United States to take the leading role -- because no one else can or will. But in the face of this clear challenge, the United States is -- unbelievably -- reducing its commitment to world population programs, essentially because President Bush depends upon political coalition that includes a tiny minority within a minority who strongly oppose contraception and object to government funds being used to purchase any birth control technology.
The argument over abortion, on the other hand, is not likely to end anytime soon. Personally, I favor the right of a woman to choose whether to conceive and have a child; I am deeply troubled by the reports from China of coerced abortions and the extension of totalitarianism to the workplace, where supervisors sometimes monitor each woman's menstrual cycle. I am also troubled by evidence that in some industrial countries where birth control is not readily available, abortion rates are astronomical.
The United States should restore full funding of its share of the cost of integration population stabilization programs and increase the effort to make birth control available throughout the world -- but it should do much more as well. It should also take the lead in organizing worldwide efforts to promote the use of birth control will be for naught.
The Rapid Creation and Development of Environmentally Appropriate Technologies
Unless we come to a better understanding of both the potential and the danger of technology, the addition of more technological power simply ensures further degradation of the environment, and no matter what new technologies we discover, no matter how cleverly and efficiently we manage to get them into the hands of people throughout the world, the underlying crisis will worsen unless, at the same time, we redefine our relationship to the environment, stabilize human population, and use every possible means to bring the earth back into balance.
SEI (Strategic Environment Initiative)
I propose the worldwide development of a Strategic Environment Instigative (SEI), a program that would discourage and phase out these older, inappropriate technologies and at the same time develop and disseminate a new generation of sophisticated and environmentally benign substitutes.
1. Tax incentives for the new technologies and disincentives for the old.
2. Research and development funding for new technologies and prospective bans on the old ones.
3. Government purchasing programs for early marketable versions of the new.
4. The establishment of rigorous and sophisticated technology assessment procedures, paying close attention to all of the costs and benefits -- both monetary and ecological -- of the new proposed substitute technologies.
5. The establishment of a network of training centers around the world, thus creating a core of environmentally educated planners and technicians and ensuring that the developing nations will be ready to accept environmentally attractive technologies and practices.
6. The imposition of export controls in developed countries that assess a technology's ecological effect.
7. Significant improvements in the current patchwork of laws, especially in those countries that now effectively fail to safeguard the rights of inventors and developers of new technology.
8. Better protection for patents and copyrights, improved licensing agreements, joint ventures, franchises, distributorships, and a variety of similar legal concepts.
The new Green Revolution, whose components should be not only scientific but financial, social, and political as well, may hold the key to satisfying the land hunger of tens of millions of poor and dispossessed people who are now being driven to activity that destroys their fragile environments.
A strategic initiative to plan billions of trees throughout the world, especially on degraded lands, is one of the most easily understandable, potentially popular, and ecologically intelligent efforts on which the Global Marshall Plan should concentrate. The symbolism -- and the substantive significance -- of planting a tree has universal power in every culture and every society on earth, and it is a way for individual men, women, and children to participate in creating solutions for the environmental crisis.
The energy component of an SEI should there focus on developing energy technologies that do not produce large amounts of CO2 and other pollutants.
Much larger energy savings, of course, and CO2 reductions as well, can be accomplished when the industrial world develops more efficient internal combustion engines. And here the automobile deserves special attention.
Though it is technically possible to build high-mileage cars and trucks, we are told that mandating a more rapid transition to more efficient vehicles will cause an unacceptable disruption in the current structure of the automobile industry. Industry officials contend that is unfair to single out their industry while ignoring others that also contribute to the problem; I agree, but their point only illustrates further the need for a truly global, comprehensive, and strategic approach to the energy problem. I support new laws to mandate improvements in automobile fleet mileages, but much more is needed. Within the context of the SEI, it ought to be possible to establish a coordinated global program to accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine, over, say, a twenty-five year period.
We should be emphasizing attractive and efficient forms of mass transportation. ... we can also replace conventional commuting wherever possible, with what is now known a telecommuting. .. for a dozen years, I have been the principal author and advocate of a proposal to build a national network of "information superhighways" that would link supercomputers, work stations, and "digital libraries" to create "co-laboratories" and make it possible for people to work together despite being in different locations.
But telecommuting is not feasible in nations that lack elaborate electronic communication and power grids. And power grids are themselves no longer necessarily desirable: the economics of decentralized electricity generation are gradually becoming competitive with older technologies that generate massive amounts of electricity at a single large power plant and distribute it over transmission lines crossing the countryside. The most promising of these decentralized techniques is the generation of electrical current from the rays of the sun through photovoltaic cells, small flat panels of silicon or similar materials that are designed to produce currents of electricity. But this technology is still in its infancy, and what is required -- as part of the proposed SEI -- is a global effort to accelerate the development of cost-effective photovoltaic cells. The technical obstacles to developing them are becoming less important than the political and institutional barriers. And the SEI would have to address this. If, indeed, cost-effective forms of photovoltaic technology can be demonstrated, public demand may quickly sweep away the political and organizational roadblocks and in the process create the prospect of enormous profits for those entrepreneurs who quickly adapt photovoltaic technology to new uses.
In any event, the proportion of world energy use that could practically be derived from nuclear power is fairly small and is likely to remain so. It is a mistake, therefore, to argue that nuclear power holds the key to solving global warming. Nevertheless, research and development should continue vigorously, especially in technologies like fusion power, which offer the prospect, however distant, of somewhat safer and more abundant sources of electricity. Meanwhile, the emphasis in the short term should be on conservation and efficiency, and the SEI would encourage the aggressive exploration of a number of other options.
» Building Technology
Existing buildings can be modified to consume far less energy. Moreover, when new buildings are designed and constructed with concern for energy use, the results can be quite startling. ... The redesign of devices that use energy inside of the building can also have a dramatic effect.
» Waste Reduction and Recycling
Conservation and efficiency are not just techniques; they represent a way of thinking about human activity that is fundamentally different from the wasteful approach embodied by our current preoccupation with short-term results despite longer-term costs. As it happens, the same new technologies that make it possible to reduce energy consumption typically lead to reductions in the amount of waste produced.
The U.S. Role
The urgent need for environmentally appropriate technology raises a crucial question: How can we better translate our superior talent in research and development into better applied research and finally to commercially profitable products and processes?
This problem has sparked a divisive debate in recent years over the appropriate role for government in coordinating a national approach to technological development, sometimes called an industrial policy. Opponents of a coordinated approach -- the Bush administration, for one -- believe that government coordination would distort the marketplace and lead to inefficient decisions about allocation of effort, capital, and resources. It is interesting to note, however, that in another area involving our national interest, these same opponents of industrial policy are the most vigorous advocates of an aggressive role for government -- namely, in matters concerning the Strategic Defense Initiative and other expensive programs to develop new military technologies.
The Establishment, especially in the Developing World -- of the Social and Political Conditions Most Conducive to the Emergence of Sustainable Societies
Such as social justice (including equitable patterns of land ownership); a commitment to human rights; adequate nutrition, health care, and shelter; high literacy rates, and greater political freedom, participation, and accountability.
A Comprehensive and Ubiquitous Change in the Economic "Rules of the Road" by Which We Measure the Impact of Our Decisions on the Environment
By excluding most environmental costs and benefits from our methods of assessing the productive potential of changes in policy, we severely distort our assessments. To remedy this ecological blindness, we should work with the appropriate professional communities (e.g., accountants, actuaries, auditors, corporate counsels, statisticians, economists of all stripes, city planners, investment bankers, and so on) and encourage them to change their formulations.
Yet we still calculate the effects of our actions in essentially the same way we did at the beginning of the industrial revolution: we still assume that whatever we do now will have little impact on the future. If it was ever valid, that assumption is not patently dishonest, and the formulas that embody it must be changed. But again, the actual work of changing them requires a strategic plan and a systematic program.
To accomplish the transition to a new economics of sustainability, we must begin to quantify the effects of our decisions on the future generations who will live with them. In this, we have much to learn from the Iroquois nation, which requires its tribal councils to formally consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation into the future, approximately 150 years later. Of course, it is sometimes genuinely difficult to project the future, but even where it is not, we have obstinately refused to even consider it. That must change -- again, not just in theory but in practice, with the sustainability of economic choices factored into decision-making at every level of commerce.
A number of specific steps can be taken to accelerate the shift toward economic rules that promote sustainability. The first and most obvious changes involve the elimination of those public expenditures -- both national and international -- that encourage and subsidize environmentally destructive economic activity. For example, the World Bank should halt the funds that subsidize the building of roads through the Amazon rain forest as long as there are no credible safeguards to stop what has been until now the primary use of such roads: providing direct access to the heart of the forest for chain saws and torches.
Returning to the difficult issue of foreign economic development, I have reluctantly concluded that several of the international financing institutions established for the worthy purpose of "developing" the Third World are -- by ignoring the ecological consequences of large-scale projects -- often doing more harm than good. While they have made some progress in integrating environmental concerns into their loan criteria, they are still falling far short of responsibility. As a result, several of us in the Senate have begun looking for ways to hold their feet to the fire.
For example, a great deal of land traditionally used to grow indigenous food crops is routinely plowed up for other crops that can be sold into the export market; the latter brings hard currency and the former brings soft currency. In a sad irony, the hard currency is often used to buy nonindigenous food from importers to feed populations who can no longer grow their own food. The entire arrangement makes very little sense.
One of the most serious but least recognized problems is capital flight, the process by which wealthy elites in the developing countries siphon large sums of money out of their national economies and into private bank accounts in the West. In fact, in many Third World nations, the amount of capital flight goes up and down in almost direct proportion to the amount of foreign aid. A more equitable distribution of political power, wealth, and land is a prerequisite in many of these countries for any successful effort to rescue their environments and societies.
One of the best development ideas of the last ten years is one first proposed by the biologist Tom Lovejoy of the Smithsonian, the so-called debt-for-nature swaps. Under this plan, a version of which was finally agreed to by Brazil in the summer of 1991, debts owed by developing countries to the industrial nations are forgiven in return for enforceable agreements to protect vulnerable parts of the environment in the debtor nation.
The insanity of our current bizarre financial arrangements with the Third World is even more apparent when one realizes that fully half of all Third World debt has been accumulated in order to purchase weapons with which to wage wars among themselves -- with consequent murder and mayhem sometimes unleashed on entire societies and often with horrendous environmental destruction in the process. This is what occurred in Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait. Stopping these wars (partly by choking off the obscene flow of advanced weaponry from the industrial world) is one of the single most important steps toward environmental protection the world can take.
I favor an international treaty limiting the amounts of CO2 individual nations are entitled to produce each year, and it should incorporate a mechanism for establishing these emission credits. Once the treaty is complete, those nations that have more success in reducing their emissions could then sell their emission rights to others who need more time to make the adjustment.
Following is a summary of those I have proposed:
1. The definition of GNP should be changed to include environmental costs and benefits.
2. The definition of productivity should be changed to reflect calculations of environmental improvement or decline.
3. Governments should agree to eliminate the use of inappropriate discount rates and adopt better ways to quantify the effects of our decisions on future generations.
4. Governments should improve the amount and accuracy of information on the environmental impacts of products and provide it to consumers.
5. Governments should adopt measures to encourage full disclosure of compaines' responsibility for environmental damage.
6. Governments should adopt programs to assist companies in the study of the costs and benefits of environmental efficiency.
7. Nations should revise their antitrust laws to encompass environmental harm.
8. Governments should require the incorporation of standards to protect the environment in treaties and international agreements, including trade agreements.
9. Environmental concerns should be integrated into the criteria used by international finance institutions for the evaluation of all proposed grants of development funds.
10. Governments should make accelerated use of debt-for-nature swaps to encourage environmental stewardship in return for debt relief.
11. Governments should develop an international treaty establishing limits on CO2 emissions by country and a market for the trading of emission rights among countries that need more and countries that have an excess amount.
The U.S. Role
As the world's leading exemplar of free market economics, the United States has a special obligation to discover effective ways of using power of market forces to help save the global environment. Yet even as we correctly point out the dismal failures of communism, and even as we push the underdeveloped world -- appropriately, in my view -- to adopt a market-based approach to economics, we have been reluctant to admit our failure to bring environmental values into our economic decisions. Further, the Bush administration has shown little interest in changing the government policies that presently distort the principles of market economics in ways that encourage the destruction of the environment.
Many U.S. policy makers seem content to leave the environmental consequences of our economic choices in the large waste-basket of economic theory labeled externalities. As I stated in Chapter 10, anything that economists wish to forget about is called an externality and then banished from serious thought. For example, consider this analysis of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers of the impact of global warming on agriculture: "The costs of today's agricultural policies are estimated to be more important in economic terms than even pessimistic estimates of the effects of global warming, largely because the former must be borne in the present and the latter may occur, if at all, in the relatively distant future."
That's it. As far as the council is concerned, global warming need be given no further thought. Since it has been discounted into insignificance, they figure we can just forget about it.
There is an economic rule of thumb: whatever we tax, we tend to get less of; whatever we subsidize, we tend to get more of. Currently, we tax work and we subsidize the depletion of natural resources -- and both policies have contributed to high unemployment and the waste of natural resources.
Accordingly, I propose:
1. That we create an Environmental Security Trust Fund, with payments into the Fund based on the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere.
2. That a Virgin Materials Fee be imposed on products at the point of manufacture or importation based on the quantity of nonrenewable, virgin materials built into the product.
3. The government should adopt a policy of purchasing environmentally appropriate substitutes wherever they are competitive -- taking into account full life-cycle costs -- with older, less responsible technology.
4. The government must establish higher mileage requirements for all cars and trucks sold in the United States
5. Efficiency standards throughout the economy -- for buildings, for industrial motors and engines, and for appliances -- must also be strengthened. The Bush administration -- inexplicable -- has fought hard against such standards.
6. Utility rate reform must encourage full use of conservation and efficiency measures.
7. Tree planting programs -- with carefully selected seedlings appropriate to the areas being planted and careful follow-up to ensure tree survival -- should be part of the workfare programs in communities where work requirements are attached to welfare payments.
8. Accelerated phaseout of all ozone-destroying chemicals.
We need to pay careful attention to the deep social and attitudinal causes of America's relative economic decline, some of which also contribute to the environmental crisis:
» The neglect of our human resources and falling levels of proficiency in literacy, numeracy, geography, and basic reasoning skills.
» Our unwillingness to make decisions with an eye to their long-term effects, coupled with our insistence on basing strategy on short-term horizons: for example, the practice of rewarding business leaders on the basis of quarterly earnings, the willingness of investors to allocate capital on the basis of short-term profits instead of the quality of the goods produced, jobs provided, and long-term market share gained; the tendency of political leaders to base important decisions on the perception of their impact on the next election or even on the next public opinion polls.
» One complacent pursuit of outdated strategies that used to work in the postwar markets, when we were the only strong economy left in the free world, but that have log since been surpassed by more streamlined and effective strategies.
» Our tolerance of government and industry working a cross purposes and failing to plan together or find ways to resolve persistent conflicts, not according to the Japanese model, but according to an original and innovative American model of a kind that existed in past national efforts such as the Apollo Program.
» Our inability to translate new discoveries in the laboratory into new advantages for American companies and workers.
All of these problems are deeply interrelated and all, I believe, can be solved with the same shift in thinking and a focused national effort represented by the Strategic Environment Initiative and the Global Marshall Plan.
The Negotiation and Approval of a New Generation of International Agreements
The fourth strategic goal of the Global Marshall Plan should be the successful negotiation and resolution of an entirely new generation of international treaties and agreements aimed at protecting the environment.
The U.S. Role
And if the world is to have any chance at all of successfully negotiating the excruciatingly difficult treaties that are now necessary, the United States will simply have to take a leadership role. After the Antarctica fiasco (the Bush administration reluctantly signing the treaty to protect Antarctica from drilling), there seemed little chance that the Bush administration was prepared to do so. Yet it also seemed clear that this administration will change if it sense a change in the political winds that is significant enough to force it to reassess its policy.
So with time running out, the real source of hope still lies in the prospect of a change in the way people at the grass roots think about the global environment.
The Establishment of a Cooperative Plan for Educating the World's Citizens About our Global Environment
The fifth major goal of the Global Marshall Plan should be to seek fundamental changes in how we gather information about what is happening to the environment and to organize a worldwide education program to promote a more complete understanding of the crisis. In the process, we should actively search for ways to promote a new way of thinking about the current relationship between human civilization and the earth.
This is perhaps the most difficult and yet the most important challenge we face. If a new way of thinking about the natural world emerges, all of the other necessary actions will become instantly more feasible.
As chairman of the Space Subcommittee in the Senate, I have strongly urged the establishment of the new program that NASA calls Mission to Planet Earth.
Even more important than gathering new information, though, we must start to take action now -- and the information collection system should enhance that goal. This conclusion carries with it two implications: first, the information should be collected as quickly as possible; and second, it should -- wherever feasible -- be collected in a manner that facilitates public education and fosters a greater understanding of what the new information means withing the larger context of rapid global change.
In other words, the Mission to Planet Earth should be a Mission by the people of Planet Earth. Specifically, I propose a program involving as many countries as possible that will use schoolteachers and their students to monitor the entire earth daily, or at least those portions of land area that can bed covered by the participating nations.
The virtue of involving children from all over the world in a truly global Mission to Planet Earth is, then, threefold. First, the information is greatly needed (and the quality of the data could be assured by regular sampling). Second, the goals actually involving students in the process of collecting the data. And, third, the program might build a commitment to rescue the global environment among the young people involved.
The current plan is to bring all the data to a few large centers where they will be processed; somehow the results will then be translated into policy changes that are in turn shared around the world. The hope is that this mission will eventually help change thinking and behavior worldwide to the extent necessary to save the global environment.
The alternative approach -- or architecture -- that I am recommending here is to distribute the information collecting and processing capability in a "massively parallel" way throughout the world by involving students and teachers in every nation. This way, some of the essential work may well be accomplished much faster and much more efficiently -- and we can then work to upgrade and improve the information handling capacity in each location. Furthermore, we ought to be establishing environmental training of the world (especially the Third World) where major environmental remediation efforts are needed and where major technology transfers from the West are expected.
In discussing information and its value, it is also worth remembering that some self-interested cynics are seeking to cloud the underlying issue of the environment with disinformation. The coal industry, for one, has been raising money in order to mount a nationwide television, radio, and magazine advertising campaign aimed at convincing Americans that global warming is not a problem.
In order to counter entrenched interests like this one, we will have to rely on the ability of an educated citizenry to recognize propaganda for what it is. And the economic and political stakes in this battle are so high, there will be a relentless onslaught of propaganda.
The key, again, will be a new public awareness of how serious is the threat to the global environment. Those who have a vested interest in the status quo will probably continue to be able to stifle any meaningful change until enough citizens who are concerned about the ecological system are willing to speak out and urge their leaders to bring the earth back into balance.
Life is always motion and change. Fueled by the fruits of sun and soil, water and air, we are constantly growing and creating, destroying an dying, nurturing and organizing. And as we change, the world changes with us. The human community grows ever larger and more complex, and in doing so demands ever more from the natural world. Every day, we reach deeper into the storehouse of the earth's resources, put more of these resources to use, and generate more waste of every kind of the process. Change begets change, then feeds on its own momentum until finally the entire globe seems to be accelerating toward some king of profound transformation.
Much earlier, I described two kinds of change: the slow and gradual change that is typical of our daily lives and the rapid, systemic change that occurs when a patterns shifts from one state of equilibrium to another, a shift that comes as a surprise. But there is yet a third kind of change, which combines elements of the first two; one version of it is described in a new theory called self-organized criticality put forward by Par Bak and Kan Chen, physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory. It may at first sound a bit complicated, but I think it sheds much light on the dynamics of change -- both in our lives and in the world at large.
Bak and Chen begin by studying something profoundly simple: sandpiles. They watch very carefully as sand is poured -- grain by grain -- on a table, first to form a pile and then to build it higher. With slow-motion videotapes and computer simulations, they count exactly how many grains of sand are dislodge as each new grain falls on top of the pile. Sometimes, as the pile grows, a single grain of sand triggers a little avalanche. Less frequently, bigger avalanches occur -- again, they are triggered by a single grain of sand. But the potential for each avalanche, regardless of its size, is built up slowly as a result of the accumulated impacts of all the grains of sand. Small changes reconfigure the sandpile and ultimately render it vulnerable to later changes.
As common sense would have it, most of the falling grains of sand dislodge only a few other grains and have little apparent impact on the pile as a whole. Yet even the grains in this large majority have a profound influence on what happens later. Indeed, they create the potential for future changes, both small and large. Amazingly, there is a precise mathematical relationship between the number of grains of sand dislodged by each new grain and the frequency with which sand avalanches of various magnitudes occur.
It's important to note, however, that this predictable response of the sandpile to each falling grain cannot occur until the pile reaches what is known as a critical state in which every single grain is in direct or indirect physical contact with the rest of the sandpile. (These sandpiles never reach equilibrium.) But once enough sand is poured to form a single sandpile, and once there is physical contact between all the grains of sand, each new grain sends "forces echoes" of its impact cascading -- however faintly -- down through the pile, in effect communicating its impact on the rest of the sandpile, causing some grains to shift in position and in the process shifting or reconfiguring the entire sandpile. In that sense, the sandpile "remembers" the impact of each grain that is dropped and stores that memory holistically (or holographically) in the physical position of all the grains in relation to one another and in the full three-dimensional shape of the pile itself.
The sandpile theory -- self-organized criticality -- is irresistible as a metaphor; one can begin by applying it to the developmental stages of human life. The formation of identity is akin to the formation of the sandpile, with each person being unique and thus affected by events differently. A personality reaches the critical state once the basic contours of its distinctive shape are revealed; then the impact of each new experience reverberates throughout the whole person, both directly, at the time it occurs, and indirectly, by setting the stage for future change. Having reached this mature configuration, a person continues to pile up grains of experience, building on the existing base. But sometimes, at midlife, the grains start to stack up as if the entire pile is still pushing upward, still searching for it mature shape. The unstable configuration that results makes one vulnerable to a cascade of change. In psychological terms, this phenomenon is sometimes called a midlife change, an emotional avalanche releasing the combined force of many small and subtle changes accumulated over time. When it comes -- and it can be touched by a single traumatic event -- this large change can cause a consolidation of the personality, leaving its mature configuration essentially unchanged but with thicker sides and a larger mass.
One reason I am drawn to this theory is that is has helped me understand change in my own life. Most important, it has helped me come to terms with my son's terrible accident and its aftermath. After his near death, and after several other accumulated changes immediately before the accident, I felt as if my life had grown in Bak and Chan's term, supercritical; a number of painful experiences had piled on top of one another. But change came cascading down the slopes of my life, and I settled back into what had felt like maturity before but was not fuller and deeper. I know look forward to the future with both a clearer sense of myself and of the work I hope to do in the world.
Can these two metaphors help us understand the current stage of humankind's relationship to the earth? Perhaps it can be said that civilization has passed the subcritical or formative stage and has recently reached a mature configuration, a worldwide community or global village. But is our species now on the verge of a kind of midlife crisis? Increasingly, people feel anxious about the accumulation of dramatic changes that portend ever-larger "avalanches" cascading down the slopes of culture and society, uprooting institutions like the family and burying values like those that have always nurtured our concern for the future. The actions of any isolated group now reverberate throughout the entire world, but we seem unable to bridge the chasms that divide us from one another. Is our civilization stuck in conflict between isolated nations, religions, tribes, and political systems -- divided by gender and race and language? And now that we have developed the capacity to affect the environment on a global scale, can we also be mature enough to care for the earth as a whole? Or are we still like adolescents with new powers who don't know their own strength and aren't capable of deferring instant gratification? Are we instead on the verge of a new era of generativity in civilization, one in which we all will focus on the future of all generations to come? The current debate about sustainable development is, after all, a debate about generativity. But are we really ready to shift our short-term thinking to long-term thinking?
The ozone hole is a case in point, since it represents an unpredictable consequence of global pattern by which civilization has accumulated dangerous chemical gases in the atmosphere. The general phenomenon of ozone depletion was anticipated, but the sudden "avalanche of nearly total depletion above Antarctica came as a complete surprise. Since we are continuing to pile up larger quantities of the same gases, more such changes are certain to take place, although we won't necessarily be able to predict when. Of course, the same problem of global warming: as we send increasing quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it will become more and more difficult to believe that the only consequence is the well-understood phenomenon of warming. "Avalanches" of change in climate patterns are certain to occur and persist if we keep making this sandpile steeper and larger; moreover, the combination of several significant changes occurring almost simultaneously increases the risk of catastrophe significantly.
Apart from our growing threat to the integrity of the global ecological system, the dramatic changes now taking place withing civilization are also likely to pose serious threats of their own to the integrity and stability of civilization itself. The accumulation of another billion people every ten years is creating a whole range of difficult problems, and all by itself the exploding population is liable to push world civilization into a supercritical state, leaving it vulnerable to very large "avalanches" of unpredictable change. To cope with this dangerous turn of events, we must somehow find a way to accelerate our movement to a new stage of development, one that embraces a mature understanding of our ability to shape our own future. As Erikson once wrote, "The possibility of species-wide destruction creates for the first time the necessity of a species-wide ethic."
When considering a problem as large as the degradation of the global environment, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, utterly helpless to affect any change whatsoever. But we must resist that response, because this crisis will be resolved only if individuals take some responsibility for it. By educating ourselves and others, by doing our part to minimize our use and waste of resources, by becoming more active politically and demanding change -- in these ways and many others, we each need to assess our own relationship to the natural world and renew, at the deepest level of personal integrity, a connection to it. And that can only happen if we renew what is authentic and true in every aspect of our lives.
The twentieth century has not been kind to the constant human striving for a sense of purpose in life. Two world wars, Holocaust, the invention of nuclear weapons, and now the global environmental crisis have led many many of us to wonder if survival -- much less enlightened, joyous, and hopeful living -- is possible. We retreat into the seductive tools and technologies of industrial civilization, but that only creates new problems as we become increasingly isolated from one another and disconnected from our roots. Concern with self -- narrowly defined as completely separate from others and from the rest of the world -- is further reinforced as the primary motivation behind all social interactions and civilization as a whole. We begin to value powerful images instead of tested truths. We begin to believe that in the face of possible destruction, only those images that reflect and enlarge the self matter. But that only those images that reflect and enlarge the self matter. But that response cannot last, and ultimately it gives way to a sense that what is real and right in our lives is slipping away from us. To me, this response has become so pervasive that it suggests a kind of collective identity crisis. I have for several years now been engaged in an intensive search for truths about myself and my life; many other people I know are doing the same. More people than ever before are asking, "Who are we? What is our purpose?" The resurgence of fundamentalism in every world religion, from Islam to Judaism to Hinduism to Christianity; the proliferation of new spiritual movements, ideologies, and cults of all shapes and descriptions; the popularity of New Age doctrines and the current fascination with explanatory myths and stories from cultures the world over -- all serve as evidence for the conclusion that there is indeed a spiritual crisis in modern civilization that seems to be based on an emptiness at its center and the absence of a larger spiritual purpose.
Perhaps because I have ended up searching simultaneously for a better understanding of my own life and of what can be cone to rescue the global environment, I have dome to believe in the value of a kind of inner ecology that relies on the same principles of balance and holism that characterize a healthy environment. For example, too much of a focus within seems to lead to a certain isolation from the world that deprives us of the spiritual nourishment that can be found in relating to others; at the same time, too much attention to others -- to the exclusion of what is best understood quietly within one's heart -- seems to make people strangers to themselves. The key is indeed balance -- balance between contemplation and action, individual concerns and commitment to the community, love for the natural world and love for our wondrous civilization. This is the balance I seek in my own life. I hope and trust we will all find a way to resist the accumulated momentum of all the habits, patterns, and distractions that divert us from what is true and honest, spinning us first this way, then that, whirling us like a carnival ride until our very souls are dizzy and confused.
If it is possible to steer one's own course -- and I do believe it is -- then I am convinced that the place to start is with faith, which for me is akin to a kind of spiritual gyroscope that spins in its own circumference in a stabilizing harmony with what is inside and what is out. Of course, faith is just a world unless it is invested with personal meaning; my own faith is rooted in the unshakeable belief in God as creator and sustainer, a deeply personal interpretation of and relationship with Christ, and an awareness of a constant and holy spiritual presence in a all people, all life, and all things. But I also want to affirm what people of faith from long ago apparently knew and that our civilization has obscured: that there is revelatory power in the world. This is the essence of faith: to make a surrendering decision to invest belief in a spiritual reality larger than ourselves. And I believe that faith is the primary force that enables us to choose meaning and direction and then hold to it despite all the buffering chaos in life.
I believe also that -- for all of us -- there is an often poorly understood link between ethical choices that seem quite small in scale and those whose apparent consequences are very large, and that of a conscious effort to adhere to just principles in all our choices -- however small -- is a choice in favor of justice in the world. By the same token, a willingness to succumb to distraction, and in the process fail to notice the consequences of a small choice made carelessly or unethically, makes one more likely to do the same when confronted with a large choice. Both in our personal lives and in our political decisions, we have an ethical duty to pay attention, resist distraction, be hones with one another and accept responsibility for what we do -- whether as individuals or together. It's the same gyroscope; either it provides balance or it doesn't. In the words of Aristotle: "virtue is one thing."
For civilization as a whole, the faith that is so essential to restore the balance now missing in our relationship to the earth is the faith that we do have a future. We can believe in that future and work to achieve it and preserve it, or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance.