Earth’s Wake-Up Call

by Craig Freshley

Published in the Maine Sunday Telegram, May 9, 1999


They say that if you throw a frog into a pot of hot water it will quickly jump out. But if you put a frog into a pot of cold water and slowly heat it up, the frog stays put – and cooks. By the time the frog realizes its predicament, it’s too late.

More than 3,000 people from all 50 states attended a conference in Detroit last week because they think that we, homo sapiens, may be in hot water. Actually, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the crowd that 1998 was the warmest year ever recorded and that temperatures around the world are rising faster that ever before since the beginning of man.

Others at the conference cited alarming rates of deforestation, depletion of the world’s fish stocks, diminishing purity of our air and water, and fewer and fewer acres upon which to grow our food. Not only that, global population continues to grow at a staggering pace; and in places where it’s not growing so fast, such as Maine, those of us already here are consuming ever more. 

Did you know that Americans, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, consume 34 percent of the world’s energy resources? The average American uses two and a half times as much energy as the average German, although we live in similarly developed and industrialized nations.

There are also a number of economic and social indicators that suggest things are heating up. The per capita income gap between industrial countries and developing countries is increasing. The global refugee population is skyrocketing. And here in the United States, growing numbers of people are falling below the poverty line.

The National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America was convened by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and attended by courageous people from across the country with the zeal to confront these facts and discuss solutions.

What is this movement about?

At one extreme, people argue that it’s nothing short of a crusade to save ourselves from extinction, and we had better act quickly. Two hundred and sixty million years ago, 96 percent of all life was extinguished from the face of the Earth; it was the first mass extinction. Sixty-five million years ago, 75 percent of all life was extinguished, including the dinosaurs: the second mass extinction.

Today, entire species are disappearing at well over 1,000 times the normal rate, offering evidence to many that the third mass extinction is occurring at the very moment you are reading these words.

At the other extreme are those who believe that the whole thing is based on bad science, contrived by some obscure agency of the United Nations, and promoted in this country for the purpose of justifying larger government, more taxes, and the election of Al Gore to the nation’s highest office. Sustainable development, some argue, is not an American problem; any issues we have with the ability of our environment to provide for us will be solved with technological innovation. We will invent ourselves out of this crisis, if you can even call it that.

Fortunately, the movement has a vast middle ground. It’s called smart growth, livability, healthy communities, and quality of life. Although perhaps unwilling to accept that we’re in the midst of the third mass extinction, most of us can readily accept that our lives would be better if we spent less time in our cars, interacted more with our neighbors, had parks and trails closer to our homes, had access to more locally grown food, were able to works less and spend more time with our families, had fewer poor among us, paid less of our earnings to government, and felt safer on our streets.

While the United Nations’ definition of sustainable development is “development which meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability and opportunity of future generations to meet their own needs,” a definition offered up in Detroit may be more attractive and acceptable to most Americans: “quality of life within nature’s limits.”

Given an economy traditionally pinned to nature’s bounty, and a quality of life envied by millions, this latter definition is likely to resonate deeply with most Mainers.

We are concerned about the depletion of our fisheries and its effect on coastal communities. We are nervous about having large parts of our state owned by huge corporations headquartered in distant cities. We are angry at having to jump through hoops such as CarTest and MTBE to meet air-quality standards. We are bitter at the sights of whole logs leaving for Canada and other countries. We are frustrated at government policies that encourage us to build new buildings in undeveloped areas while our main streets slide toward dormancy. We are confused as to why we can’t buy Maine-made products in our grocery stores. We are suspicious about the prospects of an economy increasingly reliant on tourism. And we are largely in denial about the impending costs of a growing population of under-privileged people in our state, the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the growing divide between the two Maines.

The principles established in lofty meetings to save ourselves from extinction can be applied in Maine dooryards and Grange halls and board rooms to improve our quality of life. Here is a very abbreviated rundown of some of the principles discussed in Detroit:

1. Know nature’s limits and monitor our activities to be sure that we are operating within them (when we’re unsure of the limits or the exact extent of our impact, err on the side of the conservative). For Maine people, this means applying self-discipline when it comes to taking fish, or trees, or shorefront property for development. It also means vastly increasing and improving our environmental monitoring efforts so that our leaders are less often asked to make extremely difficult decisions with an embarrassing lack of information about environmental impact.

2. Stretch our resources to maximum efficiency and move away from using nonrenewable resources such as oil and coal. When we burn gasoline or otherwise combust fossil fuels, we are taking carbon that was long, long ago sequestered into the Earth’s crust and releasing it into the atmosphere. Recall the second mass extinction was caused by some form (either meteor strike or volcanic activity) of mass release of carbon into the atmosphere. Also, there’s only so much crude oil in the Earth and relying on it for so much of our activities is simply not sustainable. For those resources that are renewable, like trees and vegetables and wind and water flows and sunshine, we simply need to make the very most of them. For Maine, paying heed to this principle means making energy efficiency a priority in our construction and rehabilitation of buildings and in our choice of products that we buy. It means consuming fewer products in the first place. It means developing alternative energy sources and creating disincentives for car travel.

3. Make the young ones strong. “How do you protect an endangered species?” someone said in Motown, “You make the young ones strong.” Maine lobstermen have known and practiced this for years – they throw back the small lobsters and egg-bearing females. For Maine people, this means top-notch education and the implementation of learning results. It also means aggressively combating the many forces at work against strong, supportive families: drug and alcohol abuse, violence and sexual abuse, poverty, gender discrimination, and lack of community among others.

4. Act as if the quality of the environment, the robustness of the economy, and the vitality of our communities are all inter-related, because they are. We simply cannot expect our communities to be vital and our environment to be healthy if our people don’t have good-paying jobs and if our governments don’t have strong, predictable revenue streams. We can’t expect the Maine economy to prosper into the future if we neglect our natural resources and lose our reputation as a national treasure of environmental beauty. John Muir put this simple ecological principle into the following words: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

These principles are not antigrowth. Quite the contrary; sustainable development needs economic growth to generate the wealth necessary to do the work that needs to be done.

Similarly, these principles are not un-American, or anti-capitalist, or counter-industrial. Indeed, many would argue that these principles embody the very best of American ideas: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For instance, if we do not pay heed to the warnings and apply the principles of sustainable development, our collective happiness is sure to diminish, our freedom to make choices about where and how we live is sure to be ever more limited, and our very lives, certainly our quality of life, will be threatened.

To those who would say that the people who met in Detroit are anti-capitalist or anti-industrialist, some would respond that the very solution to these problems lies in capitalism and industrialism, but new breeds. At the risk of oversimplification, the new breed of capitalism needs to operate within a framework that internalizes negative externalities. That is, consumers should have to pay for products what they really cost in terms of their impact on the Earth. If government were bold enough to set new rules for a new breed, some say, capitalism would work just fine toward sustainability.

And the new industrialism needs to move away from the “take-make-waste” model that gave birth to the industrial revolution. Paul Hawken and others are promoting a new breed of industrial ecology where, to put it bluntly, factories behave more like plants. In nature, nothing is wasted. One organism’s output is another’s input. Surely we have the technology to manufacture in circles rather than in straight lines. Those who have tried this have found it to be very profitable.

The old way of thinking is “jobs vs. the environment.” In the long run, that’s a losing proposition. The environment was here before we were and it will be here long after the third mass extinction. Mother Nature always bats last.

A more practical way to frame the issue is “jobs now vs. jobs later.”

In the groundfishing industry, we are deliberately eliminating jobs now in the hope that it will bode well for jobs in the future. If we let the cod go totally extinct, there will never, ever be another cod fisherman.

Do we have the discipline to leave some cod for the next generation? Or are we just dogs in a life raft? Here’s a joke I heard in Detroit: Why don’t dogs ever survive in a life raft? Can you imagine the top dog standing up and saying “Okay, let’s take a vote. Who thinks we should eat all the dog food right now?”

If we are to avert the third mass extinction, even if we are to protect and/or improve our Maine quality of life, we must be willing to apply “the discipline of delay of gratification,” as Scott Peck calls it, in unprecedented ways. Perhaps it comes down to a decision, as it often does, between what we want now vs. what we want most.

Maine leaders from all walks must be challenged to come together and develop a green plan for our state, a plan that maps out precisely how we are going to ensure quality jobs and quality of life for our children. Maine industrialists must be challenged to learn and apply the principles of industrial ecology. And Maine people must be challenged to buy not quite so many products, and apply energy efficiency as the leading criteria to the product choices we make.

Awareness that the Earth’s bounty has limits has only flowered in the past few decades. Is it a coincidence that we started to ascertain the Earth’s limits just about the same time that we viewed the first pictures of the Earth from space? We are the first generation able to stand back and look at the planet Earth from afar and see that it is surrounded by a chilling vastness of black. It is so obvious to us now that there’s only so much of it. This new information compels a new way of living and doing business.

When we look at pictures of the Earth from space, it’s all too easy to see it as something apart from ourselves, over there, on a wall. But in fact, I’m IN that picture, and so are you, and how it all turns out is up to us.