The Only World We've Got
A new study on the state of the environment was released this week, and the news is not good. The Millennium Assessment study concludes that we are degrading or using unsustainably "60 percent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth – such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests."
Translation -- the life support systems of this planet we call home are being used up, killed off, chopped up, or otherwise altered so they can support life less and less effectively. No matter how advanced our technology, the complex living systems of the planet are what make Earth different than a dead planet like Mars.
This four-year assessment by a partnership of UN agencies, international scientific organizations, and development agencies is sobering news, although not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the science (not the politics).
The report, prepared over four years by 1,300 experts from 95 countries, leaves little doubt that we will have to make some major changes if we are to shift this deadly trajectory.
But the authors believe it can be done:
“It lies within the power of human societies to ease the strains we are putting on the nature services of the planet, while continuing to use them to bring better living standards to all,” say the Millennium Assessment board of directors in a statement entitled “Living beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being.”
“Achieving this, however, will require radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision-making," they say. "The future now lies in our hands.”
So, do we have it in us? Can we make the "radical" changes in time?
There is a mixed history of civilizations coming to terms with their own ecological limits. Some have crashed, as Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, shows in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed. (You can find a review of the book in the summer issue of YES!). But others have broken the grip of empire-building and the false god of materialism long enough to come to terms with the impending crisis -- and act.
If there's any good news in this, it is that many people today are likewise ready to act, and the solutions are readily available and often have multiple benefits. For example, there is huge public support for the Apollo Project, which would invest billions of dollars in developing renewable energy resources, creating stable and well-paying jobs, cutting climate-changing pollution, reducing our dependence on oil from regions that do not want a major U.S. presence and thus reducing our need to go to war.
Why don't our national business and government leaders get behind a project that is patriotic, job-producing, and good for the environment?
Evidently, the mammoth entrenched interests -- the oil companies and the military-industrial complex -- are not interested. There has been no sign of awareness in the Bush administration and little in Congress.
But there is leadership elsewhere. In the Fall 2004 issue of YES! Can We Live Without Oil?, we feature stories of state and local governments, non-profits, farmers, and entrepreneurs finding ways to wean our society off of oil.
But it's not only energy that's at issue. In the Summer 2004 issue of YES!, What is the Good Life? you can find evidence that happiness is not tied to how much of the planet we use up, but rather to such non-consumptive activities as spending time with friends and pursuing a spiritual life.
YES! has been covering environmentally friendly approaches to food, education, community planning, transportation, and much more since our founding in 1996, and I can tell you the solutions are out there.
If we wait for the failed leadership of the past to step forward, we may be in serious trouble. This report makes clear, we need to take action now to keep our planet's living systems alive.