by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 30, 2003
THE WORLD WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If Darwin was right, then America is doomed.
In its 20th annual State of the World report, issued last January, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute concluded that the human race may have only one generation to save itself from ecological collapse.
The statistics from the report are sobering.
Capitalism is built upon the idea of never-ending growth. We have been led to believe that all consumption is good and that the more we consume, the better off we are. But the notion of limitless consumption without consequences is starting to bump up against the very real limits on our planet's natural capital.
For example, it's estimated that global consumption of oil will start outstripping supply within a decade, and that there may be only 80 years or so left of reserves of phosphates - the key ingredient in the fertilizers that have become central to growing our food as the world's topsoil gets more and more depleted. Forty percent of the world's food relies upon irrigation to grow, but water is increasingly scarce.
That's why many believe that the wars of the future will be fought over resources. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is a good example of this. The U.S. currently imports about 55 percent of its oil and that figure may rise to 75 percent by 2025. With no signs that the U.S. lifestyle is going to change - in other words, without a summoning of the national will to embark on a Manhattan Project-level program to wean the nation off fossil fuels - the U.S. will have to keep invading other oil-producing nations to maintain the current American standard of living.
That is not a sustainable strategy.
"The U.S. is in denial about what is, beyond any question, its most dangerous enemy," wrote Matthew Engel in The Guardian last week. "While millions of words have been written every day for the past two years about the threat from vengeful Islamic terrorists, the threat from a vengeful Nature has been almost wholly ignored. Yet the likelihood of multiple attacks in the future is far more certain."
Hypothesizing about why America might have this great, SUV-driven death wish, Engel reminds his readers that Europe "was developed on a coalition - uneasy but understood - between humanity and its surroundings."
Anyone familiar with the Brothers Grimm understands this uneasy coalition in their bones: Red Riding Hood and the wolf, for example.
"The settlement of the U.S. was based on conquest, not just of the indigenous peoples, but also of the terrain," Engel continues. "It appears to be, thus far, one of the great success stories of modern history."
And that's true. It appears to be a wild success. We were blessed with such a beautiful and bountiful continent that we could seemingly take, take, and take some more, without ever giving back. Then, when we ran out of things to take here, we started rampaging around the world.
"It's the American belief that with enough hard work and perseverance anything - be it a force of nature, a country or a disease - can be vanquished," Phil Clapp of the National Environmental Trust told Engel. "It's a country founded on the idea of no limits. The essence of environmentalism is that there are indeed limits.
Well, as many of us - but not President George W. Bush - have seen, there are limits. We cannot control nature and the wild, what little of it we have left; sometimes it's just a tiger in a Harlem apartment or in a Las Vegas strip show. Look at the fires ravaging southern California right now. Or the way Hurricane Isabel trashed the Outer Banks. Or the way the 11 warmest years in the last 1,000 have come in the last decade. Or the way the sea level is rising globally.
All this would be daunting enough. But in America's mad dash to cut down and pave over everything of beauty, pollute the very air it breathes and the water it drinks, eliminate the freedom of the wild and consume as much of everything as it possibly can, it is only carving out a path towards environmental destruction that others will happily follow.
In the next 10 years, China and India will be burning fossil fuels as fast as we do in their rush to join the ranks of First World nations; their billions, understandably, want to experience the consumer-mad frenzy-of-delight lifestyle that we enjoy today. The economies of China and India, by the way, are growing stronger every day with jobs, factories and technological advancement that once were ours.
How can we go to China and India and say, "Hey, we've polluted the planet and stripped it of most of its resources, so now you have to be responsible and not destroy the rest of it. And by the way, give us a cut."
In fact, if there's any ray of sunshine here, it's that in the end, America will not be the only one to blame. And I don't even want to contemplate what "the end" might look like. Do you?
So if Darwin was right about the survival of the fittest, it doesn't really help to say, "Hey, it was fun while it lasted."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.