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The debate about global warming is over. There is no longer any question that human activity is causing the Earth’s climate to heat up at an increasingly rapid rate, with consequences that we are now only beginning to understand. Meanwhile, human population growth is placing unsustainable demands on everything from animal habitats to water supplies. Faced with radically different assessments of the long-term effects of global warming—from oil companies, scientists, business lobbies, and environmental groups—concerned citizens find it difficult to tell how dire the prognosis really is. Is life on Earth doomed, or is there still time to mitigate—even to reverse—the damage that has already been done?
In The Middle Path, noted geographer Eric Lambin provides a concise, readable summary of the present state of the environment and considers what must be done if environmental catastrophe is to be avoided. Finding merit in the arguments of both optimists and pessimists, Lambin argues that it is not too late to exploit the inherent tendency toward equilibrium of large-scale systems such as the earth’s environment. By relying upon a combination of remedies as global as international cap-and-trade emission treaties and as local as municipal programs promoting the use of bicycles rather than cars, it may yet be possible to rescue humanity from a potentially fatal crisis of its own making.
Based on rigorous scientific analysis, and strikingly free of ideological prejudice, The Middle Path presents a fresh view of our troubled future, brilliantly balancing tough-minded realism with humanitarian ideals of cooperation and ingenuity.
"The author uses refreshingly nontechnical prose to summarize key aspects of the debate about confronting the crisis of global environmental change. The volume reviews theories of human-environment interactions ranging from classic Malthusian arguments to contemporary ideas about resilience in linked social-ecological systems. . . . This clearly written book is targeted at nonspecialists and will be well received by those readers. It would also be appropriate for undergraduate environmental studies courses and even has something to offer those of us actively working in the human dimensions of environmental change."—Joshua E. Cinner, Quarterly Review of Biology
— Joshua E. Cinner
The Middle Path in Buddhism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but focused on understanding the mutual dependence of opposites. In his book, Lambin (geography, Univ. of Louvain, Belgium; fellow, Ctr. for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford) looks at environmental degradation from the perspectives of both the optimist and the pessimist and steers a balanced path between each. He explores the intricate relationship between human beings and their environment on a global scale and at the community level and discusses the roles of technology, institutions, environmental markets, and cultural change in solving potentially fatal environmental problems. Whether writing about the collapse of a civilization or sustainable development, Lambin employs references to history, scientific studies, theories, and data that in a less-skilled hand might prove too overwhelming to the reader. This is geography at its best. Highly recommended for university libraries and for public and specialized libraries seeking a substantive environmental work for their collections.
—Robin K. Dillow
Thus, too, the earth: constantly changing, forever far from equilibrium, adjusting by means of subtle mechanisms to every momentary reconfiguration of its physical and biogeochemical state in order to preserve its viability. The great climatic cycles, biological evolution, and the natural changes of the landscape are all part of the earth's repertoire of balancing movements that keep it on its own tightrope.
Imagine now that our planetary tightrope walker carries on his shoulder a small, boisterous monkey that fidgets and turns in every direction without having the least notion of the difficulty of the task facing its host. So long as the monkey does not weigh very much, and so long as its movements are not too abrupt, the tightrope walker easily corrects for this additional source of instability. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the monkey grew in size, until its weight was nearly equal to that of the tightrope walker himself. It acquired the ability to make sudden, highly destabilizing movements. Indeed, its impact on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, the earth's plant cover, the structure of the landscape, and the abundance of animal and vegetable species increased to the point that human activity today exerts as much influence on the planet as natural forces do.
If the monkey continues to jump around as though it were on firm ground, the fall of the tightrope walker-and of the monkey-is inevitable. In that case a worldwide environmental catastrophe will occur, with grave, if unpredictable, consequences for humanity. But if the monkey learns to coordinate its movements with those of the tightrope walker, even helping him to anticipate and correct successive moments of disequilibrium, they will continue to advance along the tightrope without accident. The future of the monkey and the tightrope walker therefore depends on the monkey's intelligence.
From the beginning, mankind has been influenced by its natural environment and has acted upon it. The process of biological evolution that led to Homo sapiens is the result of successive adaptations to environmental conditions, often difficult ones. The earliest forms of social organization and mastery of the first tools were likewise a response to the challenges posed by the environment to our ancestors. The colonization of the planet by the human race was itself possible only by means of a series of adaptations to changing climatic conditions and to resources whose supply and availability varied over time and from one region to another.
The discovery by mankind that it was capable not only of adapting to nature, but also of transforming it, represents an important stage in the history of the planet. Fire was the first tool used to modify the earth's plant cover on a large scale. The progressive domestication of animal and plant species increased the supply of food. Irrigation and drainage made it possible to control the supply of water, freeing agriculture at least to some extent from the vagaries of the weather.
Early on in human history, this new power proved to be a mixed blessing. The extinction of many species of large mammals in North America ten to twelve thousand years ago may have been caused in part by excessive hunting during the first human colonization of the New World (climatic changes at the end of the last ice age played a role as well). Similarly, some civilizations degraded the land they had placed under cultivation, either through excessive irrigation, which caused a salt layer to form that sterilized the soil (as in the case of Mesopotamia between 2400 and 1700 B.C.), or through excessive harvesting of wood for construction and cooking, which, by stripping away the plant cover, eroded the soil (as in the case of the Indus Valley around 1800 B.C., the loess plateaus of China from an even earlier period, in Ethiopia around 1000 B.C., in Greece around 600 B.C., and a few centuries later in Italy, as well as in the southwestern part of the North American continent, on the lands of the Anasazi and Hohokam societies, about 600-900 A.D. and 1100-1375 A.D., respectively).
Some civilizations, however, were able to avoid environmental degradation. Consider the extraordinary longevity-almost five thousand years-of ancient Egyptian civilization, whose agriculture was well adapted to the ecological conditions that prevailed along the Nile. The Egyptians managed to maintain an equilibrium between the seasonal rise and fall of the river, without disrupting the Nile's deposit of sediments on cultivated land in the floodplain.
The question facing mankind today is whether it will be able to go on improving its standard of living while at the same time maintaining a delicate balance between human activities and the natural world. Recent data from the natural and social sciences, supported by careful observation of current developments, furnish us with a rigorous basis for deciding whether we should be pessimists or optimists concerning the future of our planet, and therefore of humanity, without regard for ideology, blind guesswork, existential anxiety, or regret at the loss of some part of the world's original beauty. Our approach must be multidisciplinary and open to arguments on all sides, for whatever answer we finally arrive at, it cannot help but be a qualified one.
What Do the Optimists Say?
Optimists are convinced that technological progress will make it possible to go on coping indefinitely with the ecological challenges facing humanity. They base their conviction on the extraordinary success of technologies developed during the twentieth century, whose contribution to the health and welfare of mankind no one could have predicted a few centuries ago. They entertain no doubt that this progress will continue in the coming centuries, or that mankind's mastery of nature will continually increase. Optimists are convinced, for example, that biotechnological research sponsored by large private companies will solve all future problems of food supply. They predict that, thanks to new production technologies, the demand for agricultural land will decline and the area occupied by forest will grow in the course of the twenty-first century. Mankind, they confidently assert, will manage to improve the environment while at the same time raising its standard of living. They do not fear unintended or unpredictable consequences, for they conceive of the earth as a robust system within which change is gradual, linear, and uncomplicated by major disruptions.
Optimists furthermore suppose that all change is reversible. If humanity should find itself heading down a dead-end street, it has only to turn around and explore other avenues of development. Underlying this view is the conviction that humanity has the ability, if not also the duty, to dominate nature, whose purpose is to assist mankind's rise toward ever-higher levels of civilization. Natural resources are placed at our disposal, without constraint, obligation, or condition.
Optimists have unlimited faith in the mechanisms of the market, whose self-regulating power they believe is capable of correcting imbalances as they arise and of producing the most efficient possible use of resources. Each person is able to pursue his or her own personal interest, since competition for scarce resources within a market framework leads to a convergence between the individual good and the common good for both present and future generations: when a resource becomes less plentiful, its price rises, prompting users to search for substitutes before the resource is irremediably exhausted or degraded. Optimists are convinced that progress in the environmental domain is spontaneous and owes nothing to guidance by national or international bodies. They regard governmental intervention as a source of interference with the proper functioning of markets. Moreover, if a new technology poses risks for health or the environment, these risks are probably less serious than the ones that the technology makes it possible to avoid.
Optimists are fond of reminding pessimists that the population of the world today considerably exceeds the alarmist predictions of the past one hundred and fifty years, and that imminent famines (regularly forecast to occur until the 1970s) have failed to materialize: between 1960 and 1995, world food production almost doubled (197 percent) while total population increased by 188 percent. And if famines persist in certain parts of the world, they are due mainly to civil wars and the disastrous management of agriculture. Optimists find confirmation of their views in the continual decrease, for a century now, in the extraction cost and market price of many natural resources-proof, they contend, that these resources are becoming ever more abundant.
Looking back upon the extraordinary technological and economic development of the twentieth century, and its rapid diffusion from Western countries to the rest of the world, optimists are persuaded that the surest way to protect the environment in the future is to promote rapid economic growth by reducing the intervention of the state in the management of natural resources, thus freeing markets to a still greater degree. Some even advocate the privatization of resources such as water and wild fauna. Private ownership of these environmental goods, they maintain, would reveal their true value by subjecting them to market forces: if this value is high, the market will react by protecting them and by developing substitutes. Optimists note with satisfaction that every generation commits the error of underestimating the number of new ideas yet to be conceived.
The first great optimist was a Frenchman in the late eighteenth century, the Marquis de Condorcet, who firmly believed in the perfectibility of human nature. Imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment, Condorcet placed his faith in the capacity of the human mind to overcome any and all obstacles that stand in the way of the progress of mankind.
What Do the Pessimists Say?
Pessimists are persuaded that there exist inherent limits to technological progress and that, because it cannot keep on growing at its current pace indefinitely, technology will never be able to free mankind entirely from its fundamental dependence on natural resources. It is therefore necessary in their view to preserve nature's capacity to generate those goods and services that are indispensable for human development. They believe, moreover, that technological development obeys the law of diminishing returns: discovering new technologies that promise to substantially increase the supply of natural resources will become more and more difficult, with each discovery being more costly than the last, while yielding ever-smaller gains in productivity.
Pessimists are more concerned with changes in the stock of natural resources than with changes in the amount of goods produced using these resources. Whereas optimists see the continuous increase in the exploitation of natural resources as proof that these resources will go on being ever more abundant and ever less expensive, pessimists fear that an uncontrolled increase in the rate of extraction draws humanity nearer to the moment when these stocks will be exhausted, not only in the case of nonrenewable resources (such as oil) but also of renewable resources where the rate of exploitation exceeds the rate of natural regeneration.
Pessimists regard nature as a vast complex adaptive system whose evolution is not bound to follow a progressive and continuous trajectory. In their view, the possibility that surprises may occur, some with potentially catastrophic consequences, cannot be excluded. Consider, for example, the seasonal thinning of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. If bromofluorocarbons had been used, rather than chlorofluorocarbons, as refrigerant gases by industry from the 1930s onward, human health would have paid a heavy toll, for the destructive power of bromine on the ozone of the stratosphere is one hundred times greater than that of chlorine. It was only by chance-the relative properties of the two gases having been unknown when chlorofluorocarbons were first introduced for industrial purposes-that mankind escaped a major ecological catastrophe. The Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate, points out that the use of bromofluorocarbons would have led not merely to a seasonal reduction in the concentration of stratospheric ozone (which filters out the dangerous ultraviolet rays of the sun) over an uninhabited part of the earth (the Antarctic), but to a permanent and worldwide reduction, with far-reaching consequences in the form of skin cancers and cataracts. The question arises whether such luck can reasonably be expected to continue indefinitely in the future.
Pessimists consider that certain changes caused by mankind to natural systems are irreversible. Humanity, they argue, cannot allow itself the luxury of conducting possibly fatal experiments with the earth, for it is the only one we have. Poor environmental management is liable to so profoundly degrade natural resources that the earth's ability to provide services essential to human welfare would be permanently impaired. What would happen, for example, if excessive use of pesticides were to diminish insect populations to the point that the natural pollination of crops and fruit trees no longer occurred? Few countries in the world would be able to imitate the example of China, where peasants in Maoxian County pollinate every flower of every apple tree by hand. Pessimists therefore advocate what is known as the precautionary principle: if a risk of adverse effects on human health or the environment can plausibly be demonstrated, controls should be instituted even if the relevant cause-and-effect relationships are not fully understood.
Pessimists see progress as consisting not in economic growth and technological change, but rather in social development. In their view, humanity has a duty to promote cooperation among individuals, in order to maximize the common good, and to place technology in the service of humanity (rather than the other way around). It has an obligation to encourage innovation that favors development without degrading the natural environment and to regulate the behavior of the market in the interest of protecting the common good over the long term.
Pessimists point with particular alarm to the collapse of ancient civilizations that degraded their natural resources to the point that a critical threshold was irreversibly crossed, without anyone having perceived the scale or the immediacy of the danger in these societies beforehand, despite their often considerable technological sophistication.
The first great pessimist was the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who at the end of the eighteenth century predicted that famine, disease, and war would follow upon an increase in human population that outpaced the increase in food production. Pessimists are convinced that if the ecological disasters predicted over the last few centuries have not occurred, it is owing to their warnings and to advances in environmental science, which have led to better management of natural resources. The accuracy of such predictions is to be measured, then, by a society's ability to prevent them from coming true.
Questions for the Future
Must we therefore listen to Cassandra, or can we go on believing the myth of the horn of plenty? The current environmental debate, in opposing the descendants of Malthus to those of Condorcet, bears upon three distinct issues: the magnitude of the changes to which the earth has been subjected; the causes of these changes; and the vulnerability of human societies as a result of these changes.
The first question is one of measurement and requires that objective data be assembled concerning physical, biological, and chemical changes. Substantial progress has been made in this connection. Although uncertainty persists with regard to the exact extent of certain changes (desertification, for example), only a biased and intellectually dishonest interpretation of the factual record would lead one to deny the existence of major environmental changes over the past three hundred years.
The second question is whether observed changes are to be attributed to human or natural factors, or to a combination of the two. The justice of ascribing most recent environmental changes to human activity, at least in part, can no longer be seriously disputed. However, the precise mechanisms that lead a society to degrade or improve its environment are not well understood in all cases, and simplistic notions continue to enjoy currency.
Excerpted from The Middle Path by Eric Lambin Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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1 The Acceleration of Planetary Change
2 Mankind and Its Environment
3 The Mechanisms of Environmental Degradation
4 The Causes of Environmental Change
5 Ecological Degradation or Restoration
6 The Nature of Environmental Change