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Will the human species survive the many environmental pressures crowding in on it at the end of the twentieth century?
By the time I left China in 1997, I had spent the better part of six years trying to answer that question. My quest had taken me on a trip around the world that included extended (and sometimes repeated) stops in nineteen countries and interviews with everyone from heads of state like Vàclav Havel in Prague to starving peasants in war-torn Sudan. I had left the United States in May 1991, eighteen months after the Berlin Wall fell and three months after a U.S.-led army drove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait to maintain the flow of oil that modern economies crave like lungs crave oxygen.
Leaving San Francisco and traveling west to east, I began my global tour in Europe. After two months in Holland, France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden, I went to what was still the Soviet Union for five weeks. I continued on to Czechoslovakia, Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Thailand, and Brazil, where I visited the Amazon and attended the UN Earth Summit in June 1992. I later returned to Europe and the United States before concluding my travels with six weeks in China. I financed my wanderings by traveling light, living low on the food chain, and writing occasional magazine articles from the road.
Scientists had long studied whether elephants in the wild and dolphins in the deep were heading for extinction. I wanted to shift the gaze and turn the binoculars on my fellow humans. Just as scientists compare a given animal's behavior with the dynamics of its habitat to determine whether it is endangered, I planned to analyze human behavior in relation to the earth's ecosystems to gauge the environmental prospects of Homo sapiens.
In The Naked Ape, his provocative study of the human animal, zoologist Desmond Morris observed that humans "suffer from a strange complacency that . . . we are somehow above biological control" and that our collapse as the earth's dominant species is therefore impossible. Such complacency, Morris pointed out, flies in the face of all we know about the natural world. Biologists have estimated that 99 percent of all species in the history of the planet have ended in extinction. These 99 percent have been unable to survive the ceaseless competition--against the elements, against other species--that is the biological essence of life. The best known example is the dinosaurs, which, if current scientific thinking is correct, were doomed by a dramatic shift in the earth's climate some sixty-five million years ago, perhaps brought on by an asteroid colliding with the planet. Dinosaurs flourished for one hundred million years before meeting their demise, but the average species lasts no more than one million years before expiring. That bodes well for humans if one dates the birth of our species at 200,000 years ago, as recent DNA studies suggest; it is less comforting if one begins the count with the earliest cases of stone tool creation, between 1.5 and 2.5 million years ago. In any case, Homo sapiens are part of the lucky 1 percent of species that have survived so far, as are the millions of other species currently in existence. But survival is a constant challenge. Ecosystems are forever in flux, and the scramble for life takes unexpected turns.
"The main piece of bad news at the end of the twentieth century is that we humans can now destroy ourselves, in either of two ways. We can destroy ourselves quickly, through nuclear weapons, or slowly, through environmental degradation," Hubert Reeves told me in Paris near the start of my global journey. Reeves was a cosmologist and bestselling author--a sort of French Carl Sagan. His appearance was dominated by a full gray beard that hung down to his chest and gave him the look of a wizard from the dim past who had miraculously been reincarnated and fitted out in modern garb. Yet in fact, he was the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the French government's main science institute. With the Cold War over, Reeves was optimistic that humanity could avoid nuclear self-destruction. He was less sanguine, however, about the threat posed by global warming, excessive population growth, and other more gradual forms of environmental overload. "This problem will be much more difficult to solve," Reeves said, "because it is so much more complex. You can't just have two men sit down at a table and agree to stop being stupid."
Indeed, many modern environmental hazards are rooted not in the collectively suicidal "logic" of nuclear weapons deployment but in economic activities and technological choices that bring pleasure, profits, paychecks, or simple survival to millions: the production and use of automobiles, the felling of rainforests by landless people, the relentless advertising and consumerism that boost sales figures the world over. Averting global warming, for example, could require phasing out fossil fuels altogether in favor of solar and other renewable energy sources, a shift that even solar advocates like Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., acknowledge is "inconceivable" to most people (not to mention anathema to some powerful economic interests).
Of course, human activity has always imposed burdens on the earth's ecosystem. But the scale and technological power of twentieth-century civilization are many times greater than those of earlier generations, and so are the environmental side effects. Historically, sewage disposal has been the great challenge for human societies trying to maintain clean water supplies. That challenge remains today, especially in poor nations, but modern humans also live in a world awash in man-made chemicals. Global production increased 350 times between 1940 and 1982; the U.S. alone produced 435 billion pounds of such chemicals in 1992. Dioxin and other hormone-disrupting chemicals persist in the environment for decades and can travel thousands of miles; contamination and fertility declines have been detected even among Arctic polar bears. Likewise, the explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 was arguably the most destructive accident in industrial history. The blast left the surrounding countryside uninhabitable for decades and brought death and disease to thousands of civilians. (The precise number of victims is still uncertain; see chapter 4.) The fact that different wind patterns could have sent most of the explosion's radiation across western Europe, where much of it blew in any case, attracted attention across the continent and generated new respect for environmental issues among masses and elites alike. "It was Chernobyl that caused the big change in public opinion about the environment," Antonio Cianciullo, the environmental reporter for the Italian daily La Repubblica, told me in Rome. "Our readers were more interested in these questions after the accident. This caused editors to take environmental issues more seriously and increase coverage of them."
Chernobyl made clear the irrelevance of national borders to modern environmental problems, a theme underlined by other key developments of the 1980s. Scientists had suspected since 1974 that the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects the earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation, was being damaged by man-made chemicals, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the active agent in air conditioners and refrigerators. Epidemics of skin cancer, weakened immune systems, and damage of the marine food chain were but some of the potential consequences of ozone layer destruction. But definitive proof of the problem did not come until 1985, when scientists observed a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The hole was so large that at first it was dismissed as impossible and blamed on a faulty sensor. But after subsequent observations confirmed the initial finding, and large ozone losses were also reported over much of the northern hemisphere, an international agreement ordering a phaseout of CFC production was signed in 1987. The negotiators of this so-called Montreal Protocol breathed a sigh of relief--prematurely, it soon turned out.
Another atmospheric threat making headlines in the late 1980s was global warming. Once again, the scientific community had long known about this danger; the first scholarly analysis appeared in 1896. But not until 1988 did global warming become a household term, thanks to the combination of an extremely hot summer in the United States and some remarkably frank congressional testimony by a prominent government scientist, Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Space Institute. "It's time to stop waffling," Hansen said. ". . . The greenhouse effect is here."
Svante August Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who authored the 1896 paper, had theorized correctly that the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels were burned could have a warming effect on the planet's atmosphere. Like glass in a greenhouse, carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun that otherwise would reflect off the earth and back into space. Perhaps because Arrhenius hailed from a cold weather country, he speculated that the greenhouse effect might produce "more equable and better climates." Modern scientists, however, saw trouble ahead. Higher global temperatures could melt glaciers and expand oceans, causing sea levels to rise and flooding such low-lying capitals as Amsterdam, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C. Since one-third of the world's people lived within thirty-five miles of a coastline, the potential loss of life and property was enormous.
Global warming would also likely cause more extreme weather events in general: more droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, and the like. The reasons are complex but boil down to the expectation that higher temperatures would increase water evaporation around the world. The extra evaporation would lead to more rainfall and storms for many regions even as it caused dry, inland areas like the Great Plains--the world's breadbasket--to experience more dryness. Although a warmer world might bring some benefits, most experts worried that it could disrupt global food production and price millions of the world's poor out of their daily bread. A hotter planet would likely be more disease-ridden as well, as insects and other agents of infection spread malaria and other tropical diseases to areas previously protected by their relatively cool temperatures.
To complicate matters, many of the emerging ecological threats seemed to reinforce one another. The same CFCs that widened the ozone hole also intensified the greenhouse effect. And the greenhouse effect, by raising temperatures too rapidly for plants and animals to adjust to, threatened to hasten species' extinction, another hazard attracting notice in the 1980s. According to Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, civilization was wiping out species thousands of times faster than the usual "background" rate of extinctions that had pertained over the previous ten thousand years. This did not bode well for humans, Wilson wrote, because biodiversity "supports the natural ecosystems on which human life ultimately depends [by] enriching the soil, purifying the water and creating the very air we breathe." (Earthworms, for example, help make soil fertile by loosening it enough for oxygen and water to penetrate it.) Since tropical rainforests are home to more than half of the world's organisms, species loss has been driven most powerfully by tropical deforestation, which in the late 1980s was occurring so rapidly that, if the pace was maintained, the world would have no rainforests at all by 2050. Bringing the problem full circle, deforestation also boosted global warming because it released additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere even as it deprived the planet of millions of trees that, through photosynthesis, could absorb excess carbon dioxide.
A further complication: although it is hard for humans to feel much urgency about problems far in the future, many of these problems have short fuses. The long lag time between cause and effect means that ozone depletion, climate change, and population growth could acquire so much momentum that they cannot be halted, much less reversed, quickly. The ozone layer, for example, is certain to remain depleted for decades, despite the CFC phaseout mandated by the Montreal Protocol, for the simple reason that CFCs remain in the atmosphere for decades. Not until 2050 are atmospheric concentrations of CFCs projected to return to the levels of the late 1970s, when the ozone hole first appeared. (And that assumes, naively, that everyone obeys the protocol.) Meanwhile, there will be costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1991 that some twelve million Americans would develop skin cancer over the coming fifty years.
Likewise with global warming: the world's automobile tailpipes and industrial chimneys have been spewing greenhouse gases for decades, producing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide 50 percent higher than what existed before the Industrial Revolution. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 2,500 scientists and other experts commissioned in 1988 by the United Nations to study the problem, to stabilize concentrations at even this level--which might or might not deter significant climate change--global emissions would have to be cut by 50-70 percent, taking them back to 1950s levels. Carbon emissions have instead been growing by almost 1 percent a year, a trend that will concentrate twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100 as existed during the preindustrial era, thus increasing the chances of severe climate change.
Like the captain of an oceanliner who has to turn the helm miles ahead of where he actually intends the vessel to change course, humans will have to alter their environmental behavior years in advance of seeing much positive effect. But is such farsighted behavior consistent with human nature? Millions of years of evolution have left humans capable of responding to immediate threats--the rustle of leaves or the sudden shadow overhead signaling the approach of a predator--but less inclined to react to dangers in the distant future. "We have a saying in Russia," Moscow television reporter Sergei Skvortsov told me while explaining why Russians cared more about the economic collapse and political conflicts convulsing their nation than about their disasterously polluted environment. "We say, 'Even the old grandmother does not cross herself until the lightning strikes.' Which means that people don't worry about bad things until they start to happen."". . . We Are Still Here."
The biggest problem of prejudice we face today is not black versus white . . . but rich versus poor.
Was it a dream, a trick of the night? Or the coming of dawn? Inside the hut, the darkness was total. There was only sound: the insistent keening of a great multitude of birds-not cheerful songsters but agitated complainers whose hoarse moans rose and fell, rose and fell, like a chorus of the dead jealously trying to hold back the day. The hut sat on a riverbank, and as the lamentation continued it became evident that the birds were in the trees across the river, in Ethiopia. Outside, it was still too dark to see, but the sky above the treeline was showing its first streaks of gray. By midday the sun would strike the earth so forcefully that neither man nor beast would venture far from shade, but for now the air was surprisingly cool and utterly still; not the slightest breeze grazed the skin. As the gray light advanced, the birds' cries receded, as if the approaching sun was driving the flock inexorably back to the netherworld of night. But the birds had succeeded in rousing a rooster, and its cawing began to awaken the people.
There was murmuring, coughing, rustling of limbs-the sounds of a large mass of humans emerging from slumber. They were members of the Dinka tribe, and they numbered in the tens of thousands. Their square, low huts of grass and saplings extended well into the bush; to walk from one end of the village to the other would require the better part of a morning. In the distance, far back from the river, a trumpet bleated an unsteady string of notes, reveille for the garrison of soldiers who only last month had repelled armed attackers from the settlement's southern border.
Above the trees, the gray had now turned silver, pink, and ivory. Perched on the wall of the hut by the river, a foot-long lizard cocked his head from side to side, then dashed the length of the structure in a single burst of clattering motion. This hut and six others nearby were surrounded by a high, wire fence that kept the villagers away from the supplies of food, medicine, and fresh water inside; the enclosure housed four relief workers from the International Committee for the Red Cross, as well as the occasional visitor.
As morning fires were lit, the acrid but not unpleasant smell of burning cow dung wafted past. Like a fleshy fist tapping a tabletop, the dull thump-thump-thump of a dura log announced the preparation of the day's first meal. The log stood taller than the youth who hoisted it, but he grinned with grown-up pride as he lifted the tool skyward before thrusting it point first into the hollowed-out stump before him. The kernels inside jumped and splashed against the sides. Black fingers gripping tan wood, the boy set a slow, patient rhythm. Two girls had gone to fetch water in which to boil the shelled kernels. In six hours, the dura, a tasteless gray mush, would be ready to eat.
The rising sun had now cleared the treeline, but its yellow gleam was visible for only seconds before a pale-blue cloud cover obscured it. In groups of threes and fours, Dinka now began passing by on their way to the river, which marked the border between Sudan and Ethiopia. On maps, this river, the Akobo, flows north to feed the White Nile, which merges with the Blue Nile to become the mighty tributary that irrigates Egypt. But during the dry season parts of the Akobo are little more than muddy ditches. Now, along its Sudanese bank, brilliant pink and yellow butterflies flashed among the low grasses. On the Ethiopian side, a monkey scampered down to the water's edge, then hurried back to the trees. Everything and everyone was awake now. Here in the village of Pochala, on the eastern edge of southern Sudan, deep in the continent of Africa, the daily cycle had begun anew.
It was ten minutes past seven when Garang arrived at the Red Cross compound for breakfast. Garang was serving as my translator in Pochala, but he had once been a librarian, which seemed a fitting occupation for a man with his patient manner and keen, understated intelligence. Perhaps it also explained the care with which he transcribed his name when we first met. Although he had introduced himself simply as Garang, he insisted, upon learning that I might write about him, on spelling out his full name: Daniel Garang Atiel. The written record is important.
The breakfast menu, as usual, was limited: a choice of tea or coffee colored with UHT milk, the tasteless, boxed variety that requires no refrigeration. There was no sugar, but-surprise!-there were finger bananas, squat green fruits the size of a man's thumb. Garang accepted two and munched them slowly, savoring each bite. Just under six feet tall, Garang was short for a Dinka, a tribe whose members are known for their long, stringy builds; heights of seven feet are not uncommon among adult males. I myself am six-feet-two, so back in the United States I rarely have to raise my gaze to look someone in the eye. In Pochala, I was slightly unnerved by having to look upward time and again to return smiles even from teenagers, boys and girls alike.
When I asked Garang how he had slept, he smiled and answered, "Not bad." But not good either, apparently-barking dogs kept waking him up. "The dogs sensed wild beasts in the bush," he explained, "and became agitated."
One of the things I had come to marvel at about Garang was the breadth of his vocabulary in English, which was but one of five languages he spoke. He learned English in primary school and used it in his librarian's job; he also spoke Swahili, the pantribal language used throughout eastern Africa, as well as the tribal languages of his mother and father and a workable amount of Arabic, the official language in northern Sudan. Without affectation, Garang frequently used words like "agitated" rather than the more common but less precise "excited." At the moment, though, I was less interested in his word choice than in learning exactly what kind of wild beasts had been prowling nearby last night.
"Hyena and lion," Garang said. "Perhaps also leopard."
"Weren't you afraid they would attack?" I asked.
"They would not attack in such a situation. The dogs made them uncertain, so they dared not try."
His matter-of-fact tone suggested that this was a topic of no special concern to him, but prodded by my questions he was soon calmly outlining different tactics for defending oneself in the bush, tactics that varied according to the beast at hand. When he assured me that an unarmed man could kill a leopard, I asked if he had ever done so himself. He smiled and shook his head.
"Only very brave men do this," he replied. "The leopard is the fiercest animal of all. And he is completely fearless. If a lion comes upon a large group of people in the bush, he will be uncertain and run away, unless he is almost dying from hunger. But a leopard will attack, even if he is one against a hundred. He will come straight at you. To kill him, you must wait until the very last moment, when the leopard has made his final spring toward your face. Then you throw your blanket at his head. He thinks the blanket is his prey and he grabs it with both hands and pulls it toward him. At this moment, the man must hit him across the face with a heavy stick. If he can break the leopard's nose, the leopard can die quite quickly."
"And if the man misses?"
"Then the man will die quite quickly."
Lions, on the other hand, employ subterfuge, Garang continued. "The lion moves from one side to the other, stirring up the dust with his hands so you cannot see. Then he springs." The only animal a lion would not attack is the elephant, said Garang, but "a lion can be defeated by a pair of monkeys." This astonishing assertion made me wonder if Garang was pulling my leg, a suggestion that seemed to mystify him; any child who had grown up in the bush knew these things. "Monkeys are very fast," he explained, "with strong arms, and teeth as sharp as the lion. One monkey grabs the lion's tail while the other leaps on his back and bites him. The lion becomes confused, loses blood, and they overcome him. Monkeys are feared by all the other animals because they work as a team."
Garang was in the middle of telling me about a band of monkeys that had attacked a military garrison in Sudan and left three soldiers dead when our conversation was interrupted. A young village woman had appeared at the gate of the Red Cross compound. She entered the compound timidly, as if unsure she had the right to be there. She asked to see the nurse and sat down in the shade to wait. Sunrise had been less than two hours ago, and already the freshness of dawn had given way to the heavy, blanketing heat of the tropical day. On the relief compound tape player, John Lennon was singing "Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These."
At last the nurse, a stocky German woman in her late twenties, appeared. Only then did the village woman unfold the tattered cloth she had slung from her neck. Inside was a nine-month-old baby girl, a tiny, doomed creature with a hideously large skull protruding from a wrinkled body with sagging skin and legs no thicker than a man's finger. The nurse laid the child on its back, using sacks of donated wheat from Canada as a makeshift examination table. The child opened its mouth to cry, but no sound came out. The nurse squeezed some milk into its mouth with a dropper, gave the mother a few additional packets of dried milk, and delivered a flurry of instructions in rapid-fire English. The mother nodded in polite incomprehension, smiled thank-you, and headed back to the village.
Yet the more time that passes without taking action against hazards like global warming and population growth, the harder it will be to change course. Indeed, when I left on my global trip in 1991, some prominent environmental figures were warning that humanity was nearing a point of no return--that within ten years the momentum behind major environmental problems could become too powerful ever to reverse. Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN Environmental Program, declared that the 1990s would "determine the shape of the world for centuries." Thomas Lovejoy, assistant secretary for external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., told me, "The key environmental problems are so big, and so synergistic, that at a certain point they get beyond bringing under control. You can't solve them in the 1990s, but you have to get a grip on them during that time and position yourself to bring them under control later on." Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, also endorsed the ten-year action deadline, telling me, "We're faced with the need for an enormous amount of change in a short period of time if we're going to get the world onto a sustainable path."
Skeptics smirked that environmentalists were forever crying wolf and that the approach of a new century (not to mention a new millennium) often called forth apocalyptic prophecies. Yet the voices urging action were too sober and respectable, too much a part of the status quo, to dismiss so easily. In 1989, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the least sentimental politician of her era, had taken the lead in calling for a quicker phaseout of ozone-destroying CFCs. In 1991, dozens of the world's largest corporations at least paid lip service to the need for more ecological business practices when they formed the Business Council for Sustainable Development. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London issued a joint report in 1992 warning that "if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world."
Defenders of the status quo tended to discount such warnings as overwrought and unproven. The OPEC nations and oil and coal companies, for example, launched an aggressive public relations campaign to discredit the IPCC's findings about global warming, claiming that the panel's computer models were little more than guesswork. The campaign met with success in part because there was a kernel of truth to this objection: the computer models in question, like many of the tools scientists used to analyze environmental problems, did contain elements of uncertainty. But uncertainty could cut both ways, a point often overlooked by environmental skeptics.
The Montreal Protocol, for example, has been celebrated as a momentous achievement from the moment it was signed in 1987, for it seems to demonstrate that countries could cooperate to reverse a deep-seated environmental problem. The truth is more modest. The protocol actually greatly underestimated the ozone problem, largely because of inadequate scientific knowledge. When governments realized this, in 1990, they toughened the treaty; CFCs and other ozone-destroying chemicals would instead be phased out entirely by the year 2000. But in 1992, this target too was recognized as insufficient; findings of much greater than expected ozone depletion led the United States and other countries to pledge a complete halt to CFC production by 1995. And even this dramatic step was overtaken by further events. The ozone hole detected over Antarctica in 1995 was again much larger than predicted--bigger than North America--and its size remained essentially the same in 1996 and 1997. Thus, the problem continued to fester, even as many people assumed it had been fixed.
Humans have accumulated an impressive body of knowledge about the environmental crisis, but there is no escaping the fact that our knowledge is incomplete. "In effect, we are playing the sorcerer's apprentice with the planet," Reeves told me in Paris, referring to Goethe's poem in which a wizard's assistant borrows the master's tricks, creates a deadly mess, and ends up fleeing for his life. "There are those who point to the uncertainties to argue against taking action, but this, I think, is a dangerous approach," Reeves added. "If you smell smoke, you don't wait until your house is on fire to look for the reason."
I had spent the hours prior to meeting Reeves strolling across Paris, visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, the Île de la Citè, and other favorite spots. By the time I ascended to his sixth-floor apartment near the Boulevard St. Michel, the setting sun was casting the city's pale stone facades and black window grilles into late afternoon shadow, and the light had attained that sparkling depth and clarity filmmakers revere as "magic hour." Amid such resplendent testimony to the complementary beauties of the natural and man-made worlds, Reeves's comments about the two types of self-destruction humanity was courting seemed almost blasphemous to me. But not at all, Reeves replied. For there was a third possibility: that humans would learn to live in balance with the natural systems that make their existence possible. Which path humans would take was an open question, he added, which made the late twentieth century a very exciting time to be alive. "The fact that the summit of complexity in the known universe is now threatening itself with extinction is a cosmic drama of enormous proportion!" Reeves exclaimed.
It was that drama I hoped to observe and record during my travels. To circumnavigate the globe therefore seemed essential. Library research and telephone reporting are invaluable, and there is much of each in this book, but they are no substitute for observing things firsthand. I wanted to see for myself the rainforests that were said to be disappearing at such an alarming rate from tropical regions. I wanted to talk with the people whose farmland was supposedly turning to desert or highways before their very eyes. I wanted to walk the streets of the cities whose pollutants were threatening atmospheric disaster. I wanted to interview the scientists, activists, businesspeople, and government officials who were researching these issues and fighting out their policy implications.
I especially wondered what average people around the world thought about environmental problems. How much did residents of Prague, for example, the capital of the most polluted country in Europe, know about ecological threats? In the wake of the Cold War, at a time when Czechs and Slovaks were sorting out their national identity and struggling with the transition to liberal democracy and a market economy, how much of a priority was the environment? In a world overflowing with immediate crises like the Middle East conflict and the war in Bosnia, not to mention everyday issues of governance like taxes, jobs, and crime, how much urgency did people anywhere feel for ecological threats whose worst effects might not be felt for decades, if ever?
And were things really as bad as environmentalists claimed? Even if the gloomiest scenarios of global warming, topsoil loss, or chemical poisoning were realized, would that necessarily spell the end of the human race? Or, like the Black Plague that struck fourteenth-century Europe, would it perhaps "merely" thin out the population by killing one of every three people? And what about solutions? Was the environmental story an endless litany of gloom and doom, or was there good news as well?
In short, how much of a danger did environmental hazards pose to the future well-being of the human species, and how was humanity faring in its struggle against these hazards? Would human civilization still exist one hundred years from now? Or would our species have been wiped out, partially or completely, by ecological disasters of its own making?
Of course, none of the ecological hazards in question threatened to end all life on earth--just human life. Newspaper headlines notwithstanding, it is not a question of "saving the planet." It might take thousands or even millions of years for the earth to recover from such man-made catastrophes as runaway global warming or full-scale nuclear war, but that is barely the blink of an eye in geological time. Modern humans have inhabited this planet for only the last 200,000 years of its estimated five-billion-year lifespan; the earth could obviously exist perfectly well without us. The real question is whether humans will act quickly and decisively enough to save themselves.
I trust it implies no disrespect for the rhinoceros or the aztec ant to confess that I am partial to my own species--I would like to see it survive and flourish. Yet in my travels, and in this book, I have tried not to let that bias color my views. I have sought to investigate our ecological future without being swayed by an emotional attachment to the outcome, approaching the question almost as if I were a visitor from another universe. This approach is more unusual than it might seem. Overtly or not, most environmental authors seek to persuade readers to think and act in certain ways: to recycle bottles, or to worry about population growth, or not to worry about population growth. That method is valid, but it can end up compromising truth to the vagaries of human psychology; a given situation is typically portrayed in worrisome enough tones to grab readers' attention, but not so darkly that it risks plunging them into a paralyzing despair. The aim of this book is different. It does not so much seek to promote solutions (much less guarantee happy endings) as to describe our collective behavior and ask where such behavior is likely to lead.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, many scientists, business leaders, government officials, and citizen activists see handwriting on the global wall warning of impending ecological collapse. I have done my best to examine the validity of that view, working not as a scientist but as an investigative reporter, armed with an open mind, a restless curiosity, and the freedom to explore. I freely concede that the ambitious scope of my inquiry has made omissions inevitable. I could not examine every environmental hazard in the detail it deserves, anymore than I could visit every country I would have liked. Travel is like knowledge: the more you see, the more you know you haven't seen. But I saw more of this planet's people and places than I ever dreamed possible, and I am deeply grateful for the privilege. I only hope that this account of my journey illuminates enough of our environmental predicament to help light the way forward for the people who live it.
Like one out of every eleven African children, this unfortunate youngster would not live long enough to see her first birthday. The child had a slim chance of surviving, the nurse said after the woman had left, "but it will be better for everyone if it does not. It will never develop properly now. It will always be weak, always catching diseases. The mother cannot cope with that, and neither can the family." The nurse had seen severe malnutrition too many times to be sentimental. So had Garang. "In the village we have a number of such cases," he remarked in his quiet, even way. In fact, Garang looked far from healthy himself. His clean, angular features gave his face a certain handsomeness, but their gauntness made him look a decade older than his forty-two years. Especially across his forehead and around his eye sockets, the skin was stretched so tightly that his face seemed a quarter size too small for his skull. The veins in his forearms stood out so prominently that I could silently picture him as a breathing anatomy lesson.
Six months earlier, however, Garang had been even thinner, and many of the village children were as wretchedly malnourished as the baby girl we just observed. That was in June 1991, when the Dinka had just reached Pochala after a forced march of sixty miles, compelled by Sudan's long-standing civil war.
The original homeland of these Dinka was near Bor, a town approximately two hundred miles west of Pochala, in central southern Sudan, on the White Nile. There they had lived as farmers who raised cattle, caught fish, and grew a variety of crops. They fled Bor in the mid-1980s, when the civil war swept through the area, and eventually settled in a UN relief camp in western Ethiopia called Pinyudo, where they regained a kind of life. Then, in May 1991, they again found themselves victims of political violence after the overthrow of the government of Haile Mariam Mengistu in Ethiopia. Armed attackers intent on forcing the Dinka back to Sudan drove them out of Pinyudo. A neighboring relief camp was attacked first, which gave these Dinka enough warning to escape unharmed. Or so they thought.
"People ran in fear" upon hearing of the attack against their neighbors, Garang told me. "After a few days, we reached the Gila River. Some people thought they were safe then, so they stopped to rest and collect leaves in the thick forest there. Those were the ones who got disaster." Unbeknownst to the Dinka, their assailants had pursued them. Garang allowed his wife and four young children less than a day's rest before ferrying them across the Gila in a rough-hewn raft. Saved by their speedy departure, they could only look back in horror when the second attack began. The Dinka who had waited before crossing the Gila, said Garang, "tried to join those of us already on the far side, but many did not make it. Some drowned, some were shot by gunfire. I lost two cousins that day."
By the time the Dinka reached Pochala, they were frightened and exhausted. It was the rainy season in southern Sudan, and the humidity and insects were at their worst. Recalling that time, one Red Cross worker told me, "As soon as you woke up in the morning, you were covered with sweat, before even moving a muscle! The humidity must have been 100 percent. And the daytime temperature was always over 40 degrees, sometimes 50 [that is, between 104 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit], so it made people even weaker. The dampness encouraged mosquitoes and the spread of disease. I remember thinking, 'If someone wanted to believe in hell, the literal hell they talk about in church, with fire and steam and suffering people, this is the place.' "
Most of all, the Dinka who made it to Pochala were extremely hungry. What food they had brought with them from Pinyudo had been consumed during the journey. Most families were eating only once every two days and surviving mainly on leaves and wild, poisonous fruit (which they soaked in the flood-swollen river for a couple days to purge the toxins). During the first week of July, the Red Cross managed to begin airdrops of food. Quantity was limited by the lack of an airstrip, however, and supplies fell woefully short of demand. Conditions among the Dinka deteriorated rapidly.
"The weaker children were lying on the ground, not moving, waiting for something to happen to them," the Red Cross nurse told me. "When food bundles were air-dropped, our monitors had to race to reach them before the villagers did, or the bags would be torn apart and gone. After the drops, the healthier children would crawl around the drop zone, collecting the kernels left behind." At the end of our conversation I asked the nurse what would have happened if the emergency food shipments had not arrived last July. She looked at me sharply, as though I hadn't listened to a word she had said. "There would have been many people who died from starvation, of course," she replied.
I had come to Pochala as part of my environmental journey around the world, but what did starving Africans have to do with my investigation? Some analysts drew a link between famine and the greenhouse effect, arguing that the drought punishing Sudan and the rest of the Horn of Africa was one of the many consequences of global warming. Indeed, theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that Africa would be the region hardest hit by global warming, both because of the continent's susceptibility to drought and because its farmers were too poor to rectify their dependence on rain-fed agriculture. Epidemics were also likely to increase, according to Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, because global warming would both raise temperatures and increase extreme weather events. "Since the late 1980s, the Horn of Africa has experienced very significant increases in the range in which mosquito-borne diseases like malaria are occurring, as well as a sharp increase in floods that have precipitated outbreaks of both mosquito-borne diseases and water-borne diseases like cholera," said Epstein, who added, "Both of these trends are consistent with the predicted effects of global warming. I'm afraid we're in for some dark days."
If these predictions turn out to be true, the plight of the Dinka offers a sobering preview of the punishing lives awaiting many Africans in the twenty-first century. Yet drought has plagued Africa for thousands of years, long before industrialization raised the specter of man-made climate change. The deeper relevance of the Dinka to the global ecological future, it seems to me, extends well beyond specific cause-and-effect scenarios. The Dinka are a living reminder of the enormous environmental challenges human beings have faced on this planet since our emergence as a species untold thousands of years ago. At the end of the twentieth century, the Dinka are still living the way that virtually all of us used to live-as hunter-gatherers and small-scale agriculturalists on the edge of survival. Extracting from the physical environment enough food to survive and reproduce has been a basic challenge for human beings since time immemorial. Indeed, life on the brink of starvation has been the fate of the vast majority of humans throughout history; only in the last two centuries have most people enjoyed adequate nutrition.
The Dinka do not have the luxury of worrying about the environmental dangers of the twenty-first century, even though they are likely to suffer disproportionately from them; they have enough problems simply surviving from one day to the next. And the environment is no abstraction to them, like it is to so many people in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the wealthy, industrialized world. The Dinka experience the natural world directly, unmediated by electricity, running water, refrigeration, antibiotics, motor vehicles, and other modern technological marvels. Wildlife is the leopard that attacks their cattle or children, not something seen in books or at the zoo. And weather is no mere irritant to be neutralized with raincoats or central heating; it is an omnipotent unpredictable force whose whims determine whether there is enough food to eat.
None of this imputes a morally superior "noble savage" status to the Dinka; they are people like anyone else. But their material circumstances do encourage a type of consciousness that has been largely forgotten in the world's prosperous societies, where people have gotten used to buying their way past inconvenient environmental facts by, say, simply turning up the air-conditioning. Many Americans and Europeans, especially those living in cities, have grown so distanced from the natural world that they seem to think they could live without it. But let thunderstorms knock out the electricity for their computers and televisions, or let political turbulence shut off the supply of gasoline to their cars, and those same individuals would soon be as helpless as bugs in a jar. The Dinka, by contrast, know better than to take nature for granted. Their relationship with the environment is a vital concern to them-literally a matter of life and death. In this, they differ from more affluent members of the human species only in degree-in the starkness of their situation and the immediacy of its consequences.