A History Of Our Future


Excerpts From World Watch Institute's State Of The World 2003

Chris Bright is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute , who specializes in biodiversity issues. He is currently working on a global guide to forest restoration. This is the first in a series of five excerpts from the World Watch Institute's recent book, State of the World 2003. The first excerpt is from chapter one, entitled "A History Of Our Future." Our world is in profound geochemical flux. Certain forms of pollution are altering the global chemical cycles that "regulate" key ecosystem processes. The carbon cycle is the best known of these. A vast quantity of carbon that had been removed from circulation millions of years ago -- by being absorbed by plants, which were in turn converted to coal and oil -- is now being reinjected into the atmosphere. Annual carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached a record 6.55 billion tons in 2001, driving the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 370.9 parts per million, the highest level it has reached in at least 420,000 years, and probably in 20 million years. Because carbon dioxide traps heat, its increasing concentration is likely to provoke rapid climate change. The nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, both important regulators of plant growth, are undergoing a similar amplification. Nitrogen becomes biologically available when it is converted from its inert elemental form by being "fixed" into molecules that also contain hydrogen and oxygen. This happens naturally, through the actions of certain soil microbes and through lightning strikes. But human activities have greatly increased the rate of fixation, primarily through fertilizer production, fossil fuel combustion, and the widespread cultivation of plants in the bean family, which often have colonies of nitrogen-fixing microbes on their roots. The destruction of forests and wetlands releases a great deal of additional, already-fixed nitrogen, which had been sequestered in plants and soils. All told, human activities appear to have at least doubled the annual release of fixed nitrogen, to 350 million tons per year. The phosphorus cycle is being augmented primarily through fertilizer production. The phosphorus in fertilizer generally comes from mining -- a radical amplification of the natural process of phosphorus release, which results from the weathering of rock. The annual release of phosphorus appears to have increased from its natural rate by a factor of 3.7, to 13 million tons per year. Since both phosphorus and fixed nitrogen are plant nutrients, their presence in vastly greater than natural quantities is liable to cause pervasive ecosystem change. In aquatic ecosystems, this nutrient pollution leads to eutrophication-dense algal growth that chokes out sunlight and causes dissolved oxygen levels to crash. On land, nutrient pollution can homogenize diverse plant communities by encouraging an overgrowth of the weedy species best able to use the excess nutrient. Too much nitrogen also apparently predisposes many plant species to disease and insect attack. (Plants, like people, can "overeat.") In certain forms, excess fixed nitrogen is also a major component of acid deposition, better known as acid rain (even though much of the pollution arrives in the form of gases and dust, rather than as rain or snow). The immediate effect of acid rain is to acidify soil and water, but it also works long-term change in soil chronically subjected to it: It leaches out calcium and magnesium, essential plant nutrients, and it frees aluminum from the mineral matrix that keeps it biologically inert. Free aluminum is toxic to plants and aquatic life.... These damage assessments often have an air of unreality about them because they bear little obvious relation to life as it is ordinarily lived -- at least by the likely readers of this book. There are several reasons for this disconnect. In the first place, large economies tend to displace the ill effects of behavior from the behavior itself. Few of us ever encounter the toxic waste, soil degradation, or unsustainable mining and logging that support our collective consumption patterns. There may be a basic psychological problem at work here as well, since a great deal of environmental degradation cannot be readily seen. Human beings understand their worlds largely on the basis of sight; invisible threats, especially long-term ones, do not appear to play to our evolutionary strengths. More generally, it's conceivable that our own inherent adaptability is to some degree working against us -- preventing us from recognizing the gravity of the situation. Homo sapiens is the ultimate all-terrain animal, as is apparent from the successes of our distant ancestors. Fire and a few simple stone tools were all the equipment they needed to colonize entire continents. We are a generalist species, not a specialist species. We're not like pandas, tanagers, or orchids. We are much more like dandelions, starlings, and rats. We don't need a high state of natural integrity in order to thrive -- and apparently, we are not predisposed to react with alarm at its loss. But the biggest obstacle to reinventing ourselves may simply be a kind of paralysis of hope. It is possible to see very clearly that our current economies are toxic, destructive on a gargantuan scale, and grossly unfair -- to see all this and yet still have difficulty imagining effective reform. It's not that it is hard to envision the paths that reform would have to take; at this point, we have a fairly clear sense of where we need to go (on a technical level, at least, if not always on a cultural one). In the energy economy, for example, the path of reform leads away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. In materials production, it leads away from a primary reliance on mining and toward cycles of continual reuse. In trade, the path would presumably lead to meaningful engagement of ecological issues like bioinvasion, and social ones like the loss of local production. And in international relations, the path might begin with a recognition of the obvious: We have built a global economy that assigns one quarter of humanity to the misery of absolute poverty, while the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's people account for 86 percent of total private consumption. Even apart from the offenses to reason and ethics, it is hard to see how "secure" such a world could ever be. World Watch Institute has more information available about State of the World 2003 on its Web site.


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