By Donella Meadows
–January 14, 1988–
“The accelerating overheating of the earth has already begun,” says a Toles cartoon showing a semi-alert Ordinary Guy in his armchair watching the TV news.
The announcer continues, “Leading scientists warn that the pollution-caused runaway greenhouse effect is happening faster than previously believed.”
“The earth will bake, our farmlands turn to desert, our forests die, and our coasts flood from rising seas.”
“All life on the planet could be extinguished within 500 years.”
“The administration has just announced a comprehensive 499-year study of the problem.”
That joke is too close to true to be funny. The greenhouse effect is now detectable in the warming of the atmosphere and the rising of the seas. It is a slow, insidious threat to human civilization and to all ecosystems. The global response so far has been plenty of study and no action.
It’s easy enough to blame the inaction on Ordinary Folks who sit comatose before their TV sets or on dithering governments that handle enormous problems by studying them to death. But in this case I think some of the blame must be directed to the scientists who are doing the studies.
It’s not that their science is inadequate. To the contrary, they are doing an amazing job of penetrating the complex interactions of atmospheric chemistry, global carbon flows, ocean-air interactions, historical climate patterns.
It’s not that they minimize the problem. In meetings about the greenhouse effect, the word “staggering” comes up often. The scientists describe what will happen in terms almost as dire as those of the cartoonist: “change in monsoon patterns, desertification of much arable land, sharp rises in sea level, extensive shoreline retreat, increased hurricane activity, massive saltwater intrusion into fresh water supplies, destruction of wildlife habitats, and impairment of port facilities.”
But for all their brilliant research and dramatic descriptions of the problem, the scientists are inhibiting the world’s ability to respond, because of their strangely unscientific assumption about that response. They have, essentially, written us off.
The last time I got involved in a discussion with my colleagues about the greenhouse effect, they were talking, in their usual detached way, about the flooding of low-lying coastal areas. Rising seas are now claiming 65 acres a year in Massachusetts, they were saying. Nantucket will lose 1000 acres in the next 30 years. Between flooding and salt-water infiltration of groundwater, we could eventually lose such areas as Cape Cod, Florida, and Bangladesh.
I found it hard to stay detached. Cape Cod! Florida! Bangladesh! One hundred million people live in Bangladesh. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to migrate to India? Will they resettle on what remains of America after we’ve lost Florida (and the Jersey coast and the Texas coast and Long Island)?
My colleagues tried to calm me by talking about human adaptability. People adjust to tremendous climate changes from winter to summer, they said. People move from New England to Arizona and do just fine. We’ll have at least a hundred years to move the Bangladeshis. We can get along without Long Island.
Their studies, their reports, their conversations are about adaptation. How can we breed grain crops to grow in the desertified Midwest? How can we set up gene banks to preserve the millions of wild species that will not be able to migrate? “Preparing for Climate Change” is the title of a recent conference; it is also the pervasive theme of nearly all research on this subject.
Why prepare for climate change? Why not PREVENT it? This global warming is caused by human beings burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, depleting soil humus, and otherwise disturbing the balance of gases that make up the earth’s atmosphere. Though it is too late now to avoid some warming, vast disruptions could be prevented, if we simply quit trashing the planet.
My colleagues sigh when I make this protest. People will never change, they say. Increased use of fossil fuel is inevitable. Deforestation is unstoppable.
They are assuming that we can move whole cities, nations, and agricultural economies, but we can’t use energy more efficiently, switch to renewable energy sources, or reforest the earth. We can respond to a catastrophe, but we haven’t the wisdom to prevent it.
They have no scientific basis for that assumption. And they have a moral responsibility, it seems to me, to frame their studies not around their own cynical resignation, but around the real choice between adaptation and prevention.
I’d like hear from the world’s scientists about better ways of conserving energy, of tapping solar energy sources, of reforesting the uplands instead of relocating the coastal cities. I’d like to see an objective calculation of the full costs and benefits of adapting to this climate change versus preventing it. For the price of writing off Florida, we could probably buy a lot of solar collectors.
The scientists’ job is to describe all the choices, as fully, clearly, and objectively as they can. It’s not up to them to choose. That’s the job of all of us.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988