LIFE ON EARTH IS THREATENED
[Following is the text of a talk delivered at the Perfect Storm public meeting at SUNY New Paltz, Oct. 27, 2010, by Activist Newsletter editor Jack A. Smith, a co-chair of Peace and Social Progress Now.]
After perhaps 600 generations of human civilization, life on Earth is entering a period of extreme jeopardy. This is largely a product of the industrialization brought about during the last 10 generations. We can live with industrial society, but it must be organized far differently because its unintended consequences — climate change and ecological collapse — are leading toward disaster.
I imagine most of us here try to do something for the environment. Maybe it's turning off unneeded lights, or conserving water, or consuming local farm products, or riding our bikes for small errands, or adopting a vegetarian/vegan diet, or turning down the thermostat a few degrees at home and wearing a sweater.
Many of us are trying to leave a smaller ecological footprint. That's absolutely necessary. But we must act upon something more important — and that is insuring we have a sustainable Earth upon which to leave our smaller footprint.
The dilemma we face goes far beyond our personal actions. For instance, we try to cut down on waste, but household waste (also known as municipal solid waste) accounts for less than 3% of total accumulation of American waste. The rest derives from industries, businesses, construction and demolition. This far larger amount is the result of the production-consumption methodologies and excesses of the advanced industrialized capitalist countries.
All these countries adhere to what has become an ecologically unsustainable global free market economic structure. Driven by profit, this system is inherently compelled to expand production by inducing ever-increasing individual and societal consumption by those who can afford it while heedlessly depleting our planet's natural resources.
There are three main problems today that endanger life on Earth. We call them, in combination, a "perfect storm" because each component intensifies the others until utter chaos ensues, probably this century unless there is a demand for drastic change and restructuring by the world's peoples.
• Global warming and the potential collapse of Earth's ecological system constitute the main danger. The governments of all the wealthy industrial societies mainly responsible for the crisis must adopt bold, immediate, concerted measures to deflect this danger.
But despite melting glaciers and arctic ice packs, changes in temperature and weather patterns, desertification and chemical pollution, depleting aquifers and limited access to drinking water, the prospect of rising flood tides, reduced crop yields in poor societies, and mass extinctions of wildlife, the responsible countries are doing virtually nothing, in good part because of the stubborn inaction of the U.S. government.
• Impending wars are the second problem, particularly resource wars for energy as oil peaks and declines. The United States spends over $1 trillion a year on the Pentagon and the national security apparatus, more than the rest of the world combined, but peanuts to counteract climate change or alleviate poverty.
To justify these enormous expenses Washington points to the threat to the threat of terrorism. At most there are 50 members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and several hundred — maybe twice that — in the rest of the world. But the Bush-Obama governments have created such exaggerated fears of terrorism that few Americans question that half their tax money goes for war, or even rebel at being photographed nude and/or have their private parts groped by government employees before boarding planes at many U.S. airports.
The Pentagon maintains up to nearly 1,000 large and small military bases abroad to accommodate some 400,000 troops continuously stationed around the world to advance and protect an empire of a new type based on global hegemony. In addition to the present wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Pentagon has blueprints for future wars on land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Preventing future wars, and particularly a catastrophic world war, is nearly as important as halting environmental collapse.
• Worldwide poverty is the third problem, and it will increase as populations expand and global warming takes its toll on water, land and food supplies. Half the world's 6.8 billion people, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, live below a poverty line of less than $2.50 a day. By 2050, when the world population is over 9 billion, 70% of humankind will live in urban and rural slums.
Such poverty is as intolerable as war and climate change, but as long as war gets all the money, and the environment and the poor are shortchanged, the gathering perfect storm is more menacing every day.
American society, so wealthy and essentially secure, appears indifferent to the immense suffering of our world's poorest multitudes, and to the wars — so often our wars — that since 1812 inevitably transpire on other people's territory. But we'd best not remain indifferent to climate change because when the icecaps melt and the temperatures rise Manhattan is not much better protected than the sea-level Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the wealthy developed countries consume enough manufactured products, extract enough of nature's resources, and exude enough greenhouse gases from fossil fuels for a planet one and a half times larger than our Earth. According to the World Wildlife Fund's just released 2010 Living Planet Report:
"Humanity's ecological footprint exceeded the Earth's biocapacity — the area actually available to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 — by 50%. In other words, it would take 1.5 Earths to keep up with humanity's consumption of natural resources,... a doubling of our demands on the natural world since the 1960s." The report goes on to say that in 20 years two Earths will be required.
It can't work — and our country is largely responsible for this crisis because on a per capita basis America is by far the greatest producer of errant greenhouse gases that create global warming.
Despite the Democratic Party's large majority in Congress, the Obama Administration's environmental program —tepid to begin with — is getting nowhere except for two of its biggest, and worst initiatives: Extended offshore oil drilling and more nuclear power plants, even though there is no safe means to dispose of deadly radioactive wastes.
As a result of Washington's timid approach to the crisis, public opinion polls show that markedly fewer Americans today, compared to just a few years ago, see global warming as a serious threat.
This situation will only get worse when the Republicans dominate the House of Representatives in January. Virtually the entire Republican congressional delegation are climate change deniers who dispute the scientific verdict that human activity is mainly responsible for global warming. There will no noteworthy environmental legislation from Washington for many years, if then.
And there is little doubt — based on the performance of the major industrial nations addicted to fossil fuels — that the UN climate conference in Mexico starting the end of November will fail to produce substantial results.
The United States insists upon being universally recognized as the unrivaled world leader — the nation with the know-how and the economic, political and military strength to get things done. But on the key issues that require world leadership — to restore ecological balance, end the wars, and launch an audacious effort to overcome poverty, hunger and inequality — Washington's efforts are either nonexistent, inadequate or counterproductive.
Under the present circumstances, and within the lifetime of the students in this audience, I believe it is likely we will experience dreadful consequences from global warming and ecological degeneration, debilitating world poverty, and wars including World War III.
I said under the present circumstances. Those circumstances can change, but not of themselves, and the political system appears incapable of generating the serious countermeasures that involve restructuring the economic base of society. The two ruling parties are essentially dedicated to maintaining the profitable industrialization policies that are creating the developing catastrophe for our world.
Throughout American history, the most important vehicles for progressive social change of magnitude have been mass movements of people making strong uncompromised demands on the political structure.
Racial segregation lasted a hundred years after the Civil War. It ended because of the mass uprising of the African American people and their allies. Women struggled for the democratic right to vote for a hundred years until their mass movement finally prevailed. The large U.S. peace movement struggled for 10 years in opposition to the Vietnam War until Washington pulled all its troops and CIA agents out that poor beleaguered peasant society.
Given political, economic and ideological realities during these conservative decades, it seems inconceivable that Washington on its own will launch the process of saving life on Earth. To move forward, millions of people must band together in a nationwide movement with steadfast leadership demanding decisive action from the political system.
Ultimately, what's required will be an historic reconfiguration of society to accommodate a new Grand Compact between human society and the natural world — a condition where social needs take precedence over individual or corporate profits, and where balance is restored between society and nature.
We do not own our planet. We are its guests. We must treat it with respect. And above all, it is imperative for us to make it livable and safe for future generations.