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With six billion natives and an onslaught of problems, old Mother Earth has become a strange and agitated place. What's happening, and what can we do about it? God's Last Offer sorts through the jumble of rumor, hyperbole, and laziness that colors environmental coverage today, and emphasizes interdependence and connectedness as it warns and inspires us to take heed -- now.
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THE FOUR SPIKES
* * *
Four revolutionary changes are sweeping the world, and they will transform everything. Though these changes may be as momentous as our long-forgotten transition from hunter-gatherers to city-dwellers, or from animal-powered work to machines, most of us may be only vaguely aware that they are happening at all.
Of course, everyone who has dared to notice knows that we're in a time of growing turbulence: not a day goes by when there isn't more news of potentially world-changing consequence. Things are changing far faster than we can keep track of them, and there are some familiar catchphrases about how we react: we're "stressed out"; we're "overwhelmed." In the 1960s, car ads reveled in change: each new year brought dramatic unveilings of new models loaded with new features. Now, in stark contrast, a TV commercial depicts a woman being battered by the complications and stresses of everyday lifethen offers an antidote. The noise stops, her frantic motion stops, and there before her is a car. Superimposed over the image of the car are the words "Simplify. Honda Accord." The ad is highly deceptive, of course. The internal combustion-powered automobile, the extended rush hours, the poisonous air that now shrouds Mexico City, Denver, and Beijing, and the global trade that drives the production of such cars everupward, are big parts of what is overwhelming us. But the advertisers understand our stress. They also understand our confusion, and know we probably won't grasp the deep irony of such an adif, indeed, they grasp it themselves.
There are too many things happening for most of us to make sense of it all, and many people have given Up trying. It seems, sometimes, as though we've been caught in a fire storm, with flak flying in all directions, and with no way of knowing what's happening or what is causing it. But if we can put this fire storm on replay, and track back through the webs of cause and effect, we can see a comprehensibleand startlingpicture begin to emerge. On a graph of evolutionary change, four megaphenomena appear. Over a period of a thousand centuries or so, these phenomena look fairly stabletheir rates of change as slow as the shifts of continents or the evolution of species. Then, within the span of just a few yearsthe years in which we livethey spike. The most disturbing of the changes we are experiencingand will be experiencing much more profoundly in the next few yearscan be traced largely to the effects of these four spikes.
In some respects, these megaphenomena represent momentous new opportunities for humankindopportunities that may be sensed instinctively by people like the entrepreneurs of new technology who have made large fortunes in recent years. More demonstrably, though, they represent dangers of a magnitude that is hard to convey without seeming to lapse into hyperbole. The weight of scientific evidence now makes it clear that what we do now to confront and meet the challenge of these megaphenomena, will largely determine whether human civilization can survive in the long termand whether our own generation will meet its rising expectations or enter a time of deepening impoverishment and regret.
The four spikes are causally connected, each adding fuel to the others. Together, they are hurling us into a spiraling loss of capacity either to see or to control where we are going. But before we can understand how these four phenomena interact, it's essential first to get a clear view of each of them individually, as a discrete trend.
THE CARBON GAS SPIKE
Everyone in the industrialized world has heard, ad nauseam, about the problem of global warming, or of the rise in carbon dioxide emissions that contributes to it. But there is little in what most have heard to suggest that this problemor the endless wrangling over it by politicians and industriesis any different than the hundreds of other global issues that come and go in the news. Whether these issues concern global stock markets, illicit drugs, ethnic conflict, emboldened terrorists, military alliances, or the endangered environment, all seem to generate endlessly irreconcilable debate. So, we frown or shrug and move on to the next issue.
In 1997, global warming took its turn in the media (not for the first time) with the news that an international conference would be held that December in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate a global climate treaty. The gist of the story was that some climate experts were saying the high levels of carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) pumped into the air was warming the Earth dangerously, although other experts weren't so sure. Delegates of 160 countriesmost of the countries in the worldhad agreed to negotiate a treaty requiring all countries to participate in a complicated scheme to reduce the world's total emissions of [CO.sub.2] from factories, power plants, motor vehicles, wood fires, and other sources.
From what the media reported, any casual consumer of the news would likely have drawn the following conclusions:
* Scientists are divided on the issue: some believe the large quantities of [CO.sub.2] released by human activity are causing global warming, but others aren't so sure;
* Even if warming is occurring, it's not necessarily a big problem, and if restricting [CO.sub.2] would hurt the economy, then that really isn't warranted at this time;
* If warming is a problem, the climate treaty will take care of it;
* This issue is no more urgent than a long list of others clamoring for our attention.
These inferences could hardly be more mistaken. In fact, while scientists are independent-minded people who normally argue with each other endlessly about details of methodology or interpretation of their findings, by the time of the Kyoto meeting they had formed an extraordinary worldwide consensus. A task force of leading climate scientists from 98 countries, known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, had studied the problem exhaustively and had issued a 1995 report warning that this is a problem of enormous consequence. The report had been authored not by one or two leading researchers as most scientific studies are, but by 78 lead authors and 400 contributing authors from 26 countries, whose work was then reviewed by 500 additional scientists from 40 countries, and then rereviewed by a conference of 177 delegates representing every national academy of science on Earth. The IPCC had been unequivocal in its conclusions that (1) warming is happening, rapidly; (2) human activity is causing it; (3) the warming is likely to unleash devastating weather disturbances ranging from unnaturally heavy storms and floods to heat waves and droughts; and (4) it is therefore urgent that carbon emissions be cut sharply all over the world, but particularly in the industrial nations where these emissions are heaviest.
If all this got largely lost in the news surrounding Kyoto, there was one other conclusion that got completely buried: the agreement, as drafted, would actually do little to stop the world's climate from becoming dangerously disrupted. The treaty called for cutting [CO.sub.2] emissions from industrialized countries by a total of about 5 percent below 1990 levels worldwide by the year 2010 (7 percent in the heavily industrialized United States), but the IPCC scientists noted that to stabilize climate would require a cut of at least 60 to 80 percent.
It wasn't the climate scientists, however, who were to write the treaty. In a world of increasing specialization, that wasn't their job. The negotiations were done by politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats. In the end, after years of wrangling (including another global conference in Buenos Aires a year after Kyoto), the negotiators failed to come up with any credible way of averting the threat this carbon spike poses. They failed because they were acting under the guidance not of climate scientists, but of an international coalition of oil, coal, electric power, automotive, and chemical industry interests whose products are the main sources of the rising levels of [CO.sub.2]. They are the same industries that have dominated the global economy for the past century and that apparently intend to continue that domination far into the next centuryeven if doing so means waging a kind of war.
Despite such periodic spasms of publicity, most people have paid little attention to greenhouse gases, and it's not hard to see why. Carbon dioxide, after all, is a normal constituent of the atmosphere, and in that capacity it is quite harmless. In fact, it's essential to life. As most of us learned in elementary school (and were repeatedly reminded by oil and coal industry representatives during the climate treaty debate), the [CO.sub.2] exhaled by animals is as necessary to the growth of plants as the oxygen released by plants is necessary to the breathing of animals. Carbon dioxide and oxygen are inseparable partners for life.
When the concentration of [CO.sub.2] began to rise sharply about two centuries ago, no one was really aware of it. During the nineteenth century, a few scientists began speculating that increased carbon emissions (mainly from heavy burning of coal) could increase solar heat retention, but these speculations attracted little interest. In the mid-twentieth century, when the rise was accelerating sharply, our minds had been abruptly turned to a far more charismatic atmospheric worry: we'd be rained on by the fallout of nuclear bombs. Almost no one dreamed that the quiet rise in carbon dioxide could eventually induce a kind of violence that rivals even nuclear war.
Excess [CO.sub.2] prevents the Earth from radiating heat at its normal rate. It's like making someone run in a rubber suit on a hot day, which could quickly cause that person to overheat and develop disrupted patterns of breathing, sweating, and behaviorand eventually, spiraling core temperature and death. The Earth's response to overheating is a disruption of its normal patterns of wind and precipitation, and the power of that disruption can be staggering. "An average hurricane represents the energy equivalent of half a million [Nagasaki-sized] atom bombs," wrote climate researcher Lyall Watson in his 1984 book Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind.
That comparison may be theoretical, but the point is valid: our most awesome weapons still pale beside the potential powers of the living planet, and it will not serve us well to unleash those powers unwittingly. Fortunately, hurricanes typically expend most of their energy precipitating water over open ocean and rarely strike cities head-on. But that will change, at least by degrees, as cities spread out over more of the planet's surface, and as hurricanes get larger and more frequent. At the time Watson wrote his book, the largest natural disaster ever to hit the United States had been Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which produced about $1 billion worth of damage. In 1992, the damage inflicted by Hurricane Andrew amounted to $25 billion. Even allowing for inflation, Andrew was ten times as devastating as the previous record holder. Since Andrew, total annual storm damages worldwide have quadrupled. And most climate scientists agree that this may be only the beginning. Indeed, after Hurricane Mitch left much of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize in ruins in 1998, BBC News reported that the storm had "blown away the scale scientists use to measure severe storms."
That the air we exhale should have such power defies credulity. But it's easy to forget that in both plant and animal physiology, small tolerances often spell the difference between health and diseaseor life and death. Vitamin A, white wine, and sleeping pills are all benign or beneficial at the right times and doses, but lethal in excess. A one-degree rise in body temperature may be within normal range, but a seven-degree rise, if not quickly reversed, is fatal.
What's true for individual people or plants is true for the planet as a whole, which has many of the same kinds of balances found in individual organisms. The biosphere has evolved, over eons, a set of fine tolerances in the composition of its air and the temperature ranges of its ecosystems. Those tolerances shift naturally over time, and the planet's ecosystems evolve slowly with those shifts. If the fundamental planetary chemistry undergoes a large change suddenly, however, there's no time for evolutionary adaptation. The effect will be like that of a heat stroke in a rubber-suited runneror of a dangerously high fever in a child, with no known medicine available to reverse it.
For an indication of just how fine the tolerances of the living planet are, consider the density of [CO.sub.2]'s partner, oxygen. At present, oxygen constitutes a little over one-fifth of our air (the bulk of the air is nitrogen). If the concentration of oxygen were to increase by 20 percent, say physicists, all the vegetation on Earth would burst into flame and virtually all life would be destroyedmost of it within hours. (Oxygen alone wouldn't cause the fire; it would take a spark. But of course, there are billions of sparks in the air at any moment.) Carbon dioxide accounts for much less of the air than oxygen and doesn't pose that kind of risk, but in the past half-century the concentration of [CO.sub.2] has already increased by about 30 percent. Graph 1 shows how sudden that increase has been.
The concentration of [CO.sub.2] began a slow rise with the global expansion of human development, which over the past several millennia has reduced the world's forest cover by one-half. Trees store much of the planet's carbon, and when trees are burned to make space for farming or to produce heat for cooking, the carbon is released. In recent centuries, as forest storage capacity declined, more carbon remained in the airand the concentration rose. But the big surge began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the mechanization of activities once performed mainly by people's bodies, or by the bodies of other animals such as horses or oxen. Transportation, farming, mining, manufacturing, and communications had all been done by animal power, but within the span of a century they shifted largely to the power locked in fossil fuelscoal, oil, and natural gas. The concentration of [CO.sub.2], which had increased by about 1 part per million every 400 years through most of our species' expansion, began rising 100 times as fastby an average of 1 ppm every 4 years between 1800 and 1970and since then has accelerated even more, to another 1 ppm about every 8 months.
What's interesting about this Shift, from an ecological standpoint, is that as the industrialized world made its big move from animal to fossil fuel energy, the main byproduct emitted into the air didn't change. A woman working a hoe, or walking to carry yams or melons to market, exhales [CO.sub.2], and so does the diesel-powered tractor or truck that replaces her. So the difference is one of scale, and here's a great ironyand potentially a great tragedyof industrialization. What technology does for humanity is not to give us new kinds of powers, but only to magnify the powers we already had. A car, for example, gives us the same transportation services we get from legs, but vastly expanded. "Driving l0,000 miles per year is equivalent [in energy consumption] to the personal services, around the clock, of 30 servants,' wrote physiologist Henry A. Bent of North Carolina State University a few years ago. And so it goes: the tractor does the work of hundreds of arms; the telephone extends the distance a voice can reach by thousands of times; the computer expands on the powers of human memory beyond anything we thought conceivable a few years ago. These are simple cases, but all human industries are expansions of ourselves. Even something as complex as a coal-powered electric power plant and distribution grid, for example, is basically a gargantuan substitute for the legs, arms, and backs of peasant farmers gathering wood or dung for fuel.
These huge expansions of our natural powers have been cause for frequent celebration, as invention piles on invention. And as our powers have expanded so has our sense of ourselves as having unlimited powers. What's been overlooked is that the byproducts multiply just as impressively as the services do, and in fact multiply even more steeply, because the energy efficiency of oil- or coal-powered machines or electricity is far lower than that of the human-powered work we have increasingly abandoned. So, while the output of our industry is multiplied hundreds or thousands of times, the amount of waste it producesincluding [CO.sub.2] and heatis multiplied even more.
In many respects the benefits of the techno-multiplication may be unarguable, but in other cases it is completely irrational. For example, consider the man who mows his average-sized suburban lawn with a gasoline-powered riding mower, then drives a gasoline-powered car to the local gym, where he pays good money to walk on a Nordic Track machine and exercise the very muscles he'd have used to push a hand-powered mower. Is it that this man is being taken for a ride in more ways than he realizes, or is it that his ability to integrate knowledge has been severely underdeveloped or damaged? It's a critical question, because this kind of misguidance now drives our lives in uncountable ways.
If we increase the temperature of a human body by 20 percent, or the oxygen in our air by 20 percent, we know what happens. The result is quick death, whether to the individual or to the biosphere. But what happens when we encounter an even larger increase in carbon dioxide?
That was the question studied by the scientists of the IPCC. Their first report had come out in 1992, and it was that reportlittle noticed by the publicwhich alerted the world's fossil fuel industries that their domination of the global economy might be in jeopardy.
Soon after that report came outseveral years before Kyotothese industries launched a countercampaign of unprecedented sophistication. Centered in the United States but with tentacles worldwide, it played on two kinds of fears to which people were becoming increasingly vulnerable in the age of globalization: fears of economic setbacks and of cultural invasion. [This was also the period during which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the European Union (EU), and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) were coming to power, and many people were nervous about losing their jobs either to immigrants arriving or employers departing.] What made the campaign especially insidious, and hard to discredit, was that both of those threats are real. The world has entered economically precarious times, and cultures on every continent are being homogenized and diluted.
In the mid-1990s, more than a hundred major corporations in the coal, oil, utility, motor vehicle, and chemical industries, among others, assembled a formal lobbying organization, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), to conduct this campaign. All told, the GCC probably wielded more power over the global economy than even the OPEC cartel that had established an economic stranglehold in the 1970s, but the GCC was far less visibleit was made up of transnational companies, not countries. In the year preceding Kyoto, however, the GCC placed a $14 million barrage of ads in US media, warning that if governments took actions to reduce [CO.sub.2] emissions (which would mean in some way limiting sales of coal, oil, and gas), those actions would "cripple the US and global economies."
That assertion, for which no substantiation was offered, diverted attention from the question of what risk we would take by not reducing emissions. In the United States, TV commercials warned that requiring industry to reduce emissions would cause gasoline prices to rise by 40 cents a gallon. The ads did not mention the possibility that the alternative to that modest risk might be to impose a far greater riskof devastating increases in flood or hurricane damages, shrinking water supplies, or the pervasive ecological disruptions that could be triggered by rising temperatures. The possibility of higher gas prices was just annoying enough to keep those larger risks out of the debate.
The fear of cultural subversion was subtler. The essence of it was that if a global treaty were imposed, the sovereignty of individual nations would be threatened. The GCC campaigners took particular care to arouse the fears of US politicians, some of whom were known to be deeply hostile to any "globalist" developments (such as the growing influence of the United Nations) that might raise challenges to US sovereignty. The Kyoto agreement called on the industrial countries, which were producing the heaviest [CO.sub.2] emissions, to take the lead in cutting them back. In those countries, the output had reached more than three tons per person, per yearcompared with only half a ton per person in the developing world. But just before the convention, the GCC began asking, in a final blitz of newspaper and TV ads, "why should developing countries, like China, be given lesser obligations?" The ads pointed out, correctly, that rapidly industrializing China, with its huge population and vast reserves of coal (the worst of the carbon-emitting fuels) could soon produce quantities of carbon gas that would obliterate any gains made by US or European cutbacks. It was a persuasive argument, with the issue of "fairness" successfully diverting policymakers' attention from the question of how to avert the consequences the scientists had warned of.
This effectively aroused anxieties in both the developed and developing countriesinstigating rancorous arguments between them and further distracting them from the thing that threatened them both. The US politicians didn't want to get caught obligating their country to carry more than its share of the burden. The developing countries didn't like the thought that hostilities toward them were being aroused in rich countries, and that this might result in restrictions that would inhibit their future economic development. One of the most bitter responses to the US position came from Kinza Clodumar, president of the tiny Republic of Nauru, an island in the South Pacific that will be particularly vulnerable to any rise in sea level produced by global warming. (The rise is coming both from partial melting of polar ice caps and from thermal expansion of the ocean water.) The industrial countries have produced the bulk of the [CO.sub.2] so far, Kinza pointed out, and if they don't take the lead in reducing it, countries like his face "a terrifying, rising flood of biblical proportions." This would amount to "willful destruction of entire countries and cultures" and would constitute "an unspeakable crime against humanity," he told delegates to the Kyoto conference. This wasn't exactly what the GCC wanted to hear. But by provoking such rancorous rivalries among governments, its campaign effectively kept the world distracted from the real problem: that it didn't really matter who bore the brunt of a 5-percent cut if plans weren't soon made to phase out the world's coal- and oil-based energy industries altogether:
When the Kyoto treaty was signed, environmentalists cheered. The World Resources Institute called it "an historic step in the history of humanity." The Global Climate Coalition appeared to have been defeated, because it had loudly called for not signing, but the delegates had signed nonetheless. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear that the GCC had won. The treaty would still have to be ratified (Kyoto came up with the wording, but not the legally binding commitments), and the fears of economic disaster were now beginning to fester. Another convention was set for Buenos Aires, Brazil, in late 1998, to work out details of implementation. The negotiations leading up to this were voluminous enough, if fully transcribed, to fill a dump truck. But all those negotiations were over procedures that could never solve more than 5 percent of the problem and are very unlikely to end up doing even that.
Almost forgotten, in all the fuss over the climate treaty, was a far more meaningful and less compromised document that had been written five years before. In 1992, the same year the climate scientists of the IPCC issued their first report, a broader assemblage of 1,670 of the world's most accomplished scientists from all fields issued a joint statement, the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity.
The Scientist's Warning was concise, written in English as the most accessible language of international communication. At the time, much less was known about the mechanisms and magnitudes of climate change than is known now, but enough had been discovered to impel these scientists to take extraordinary action. In their introduction, they wrote:
"Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course."
The statement listed the specific kinds of human activity that are courting danger and ended with a section entitled "What We Must Do," that listed five principal declarations. The first one began: "We must ... move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions...."
The statement was signed by 104 Nobel-Prize winners in the sciencesa majority of all those still living. But though they would finally convince a few automotive and oil industry leaders that their industries really have come to a critical juncture, neither the scientists of the Warning nor those of the IPCC would be able to influence general public perceptionsor policiesthe way the GCC hard-liners would over the next few years. In the year following Kyoto, the construction of new coal-burning power plants would continue in China as though nothing had happened; hundreds of new oil wells would be drilled in the oceans; millions of new gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, vans, pickup trucks, and luxury cars would continue to be sold, most of them with even lower fuel efficiency than a decade earlier; and the spike of carbon gas would continue to rise.