By Donella Meadows
–September 7, 1989–
On the first day of summer this year the Washington Post made a bid for the 1989 Cynicism in Media Award by running a story that began: “With summer officially debuting today, environmentalists and their allies are praying for a sizzler. A little drought wouldn’t hurt either.”
“A real cooker … will increase pressure on Congress and the Bush administration to deal aggressively with predictions that the planet is going to warm dramatically as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere…. Movement on many fronts, however, could be lost … if drought fails to settle over the corn and wheat belts.”
By the time I read that far, I was growling. Environmentalists are already accused of being prophets of doom, now they’re portrayed as cheerleaders of doom. Of the many environmentalists I know, I couldn’t think of one who would wish a major drought on the nation, or on nature. Only the feverish imagination of the American press, I thought, could come up with a “story” like this.
But the Post backed up its claim with quotes from card-carrying environmentalists.
Dan Becker of the Sierra Club: “If this summer is especially bad, a crisis mentality will take over and Congress will want to pass legislation to show that they’re on top of the situation.”
Irving Mintzer of the World Resources Institute: “If we have another hot summer, … it will galvanize political opinion around the issue.” Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The concern is that people will view cool weather as a sign that the scientists are wrong about the greenhouse effect.”
I squirmed at these heartless comments from my colleagues. But I also remembered the many years, during which they, and I, and many others talked of the greenhouse effect to an unhearing world. The basic science of global warming has been understood for 100 years. The increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been measured and widely published for thirty years. I have been attending scientific conferences about global climate change for twenty years. But the issue didn’t catch the attention of the media or the politicians until the corn dried up, barges stuck in the Mississippi, and East Coast air-conditioning bills suddenly soared.
Maybe, I thought, the Post’s article says more about our shortsighted politics than it does about the ill will of environmentalists. Maybe my colleagues are just being realistic.
I hate to think so, because, as we now know, the weather this summer was not disastrous enough to keep the political momentum going — if that’s what it takes.
Is that what it takes? We know what to do to ward off the heat trap our pollutants are creating. Anti-greenhouse measures are affordable (many of them in fact will pay off handsomely). But they will require great changes in the way human beings are used to doing things. And they will require foresight. The global warming will not be fully upon us for forty years. By that time it will be too late to do anything about it, and its costs will be incalculable. Can we human beings, addicted to instant gratification, keep our attention on a problem so great but so distant without frequent warnings from present-day mini-catastrophes?
I think we can. There is, of course, plenty of evidence that we are collectively stupid enough to march forward into an environmental disaster that we can foresee and know how to prevent. But there is also evidence that we can be much smarter than that.
In every sphere of life we do forecast, we prevent disasters, we learn from warnings, we invest in the future. We have fire departments and civil defense plans. We maintain equipment. We put our kids through school. We have just made a global agreement to repair the ozone hole, before the hole gets big enough to fry us. We require earthquake-proof construction in seismic zones, we build storm barriers, we forecast electricity demand and build plants to supply it a decade in advance.
We invest trillions of dollars of national wealth to defend the nation against external threats that are far less proven than global climate change. We look ahead to our retirement needs, we buy insurance, we set aside national parks for future generations. We lay cornerstones with messages for people to read 100 years from now. Some of us even plant trees, protect against soil erosion, and, when we build, some of us still do build for the ages.
Right, we don’t all do these things, we don’t do them perfectly, sometimes we’re astoundingly short-sighted. I’m not trying to say that we’re totally wise, just that there is wisdom in us, mixed with folly. Both the wisdom and the folly are characteristically, uniquely human.
The question is which will we draw upon in dealing with the greenhouse effect. And how many more droughts it will take before we decide.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989