The Ecology of Survival

by Al Gore | July 6, 2012

Theories about history are built on sand. Yet millions have died believing in their ultimate truth. It’s because we have paid such a high price tor historical theorizing that we can ill afford to lose our perspective now, or to stop thinking about where we’ve been and what it tells us about where we’re going. To paraphrase Santayana, those who cannot remember the past ought to be condemned to reread it.

Seventy-five years, the measure of one magazine, is now the measure of one human lifetime—the number of years an American child born today can expect to live. Looking back 75 years, we can accept or ignore any number of political, cultural, or strategic lessons. Looking ahead into the life of that child, however, we see two indisputable patterns. With the invention of nuclear weapons we changed the character of warfare in ways that must preclude any conflict on the scale of the one that began in 1914. That lesson is widely understood, and we have some basis for hoping that it will guide our future affairs. The second dramatic change has not yet been so widely accepted. Humankind has suddenly entered into a new relationship with the planet Earth. Our survival depends upon our capacity to grasp, and quickly, the extent to which the current pattern of world civilization threatens the ecological system that sustains life as we know it.

From this side of the Atlantic, at least, the future looked better in 1914. Back then America didn’t need a coup in Panama; that year we opened the Canal. Productivity growth in the United States was almost too fast to measure. In the fall of 1913 a Model T came off the assembly line at Henry Ford’s new Highland Park plant every 12 hours. By the spring of 1914 that plant was producing one car every hour. The world environment was as untrampled as the poppies in Flanders Fields. The biggest threat to the rain forest was Tarzan, created that year by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

From politics to art, the world was breaking loose from the old order. The acceleration of history was already well under way. Einstein’s theory of relativity had jolted science. Cubism was fracturing the way artists interpreted the world. Ancient dynasties and immense empires began to die with the Archduke Ferdinand. The World War hardly made the world safe for democracy, but it did put the foes of democracy on notice. The period since then represents a succession of struggles between democratic powers and tyranny in all its guises. In 1914, as Europe descended into carnage, by far the greater number of the world’s peoples lived tinder tyrannies. But of the major nations that went to war in Europe, only the established democracies survived with their political systems intact. The interwar years were marked by philosophical as well as geopolitical struggles on a global scale, with the ideologies of fascism, communism, and democracy in contention. In World War II. not only was fascism defeated; its exemplars underwent apparently permanent societal conversions, from which they emerged as democracies themselves. Now we appear to be experiencing the rapid dissolution of Communist tyranny. The process is advancing in Europe and perhaps gathering strength in Asia, the result of irresistible internal forces that can be set back but not permanently stopped.

In the developing worlds of Latin America. Africa, and Asia, the battle between democratic and tyrannical forms of government has been less decisive. Nevertheless, over the last decade the trend has been toward democratic forms, from Argentina and Brazil to the Philippines. Looking at this pattern, some conclude that humankind is maturing out of tutelage, throwing off submission to the arbitrary rule of those who claim legitimacy by divine right or historical “law” and embracing instead the self-rule that derives its legitimacy from the will of the electorate. Perhaps so. But experience ought to make us wary of premature declarations of victory, and we should certainly reject the idea that we have arrived at the end of political history. The human imagination is much too fertile for that, and the human capacity for inventing systems of political belief has not exhausted itself. We can expect that “isms” will continue to appear, displacing others in the hearts and minds of millions, over cycles of time that may run from decades to centuries and even to millennia.

Yet because of the events and accomplishments of the last 75 years, there are indeed critical, and permanent, new factors in the life of humanity. These relate to the physical world, whose constants are beyond the power of ideological manipulation. We have, in the course of a single life span, managed to grasp the levers of our own destruction: first, in the form of nuclear weapons; and second, in the form of the industrial destruction of the biosphere, which has begun to move ahead at geometric rates of increase. When you consider the relationship of the human species to the planet Earth, not much change is visible in a single year, in a single nation. Yet if you look at the entire pattern of that relationship from the beginning of the modern era in 1914 until today, the contrast is starkly clear.

In 422 years, from the time of Christopher Columbus, until 1914, world population tripled, to 1.6 billion. In the last 75 years it has tripled again, to 5.2 billion. We are told that in the next 75 years it will double and perhaps triple once more. Nearly every index of the impact of modern industrial society follows the same pattern of sudden, unprecedented acceleration. Americans consumed around 40 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 1914. Last year we used 60 times that much. U.S. production of synthetic organic chemicals (from PCBs to pesticides to plastics) has gone from almost nothing to 225 billion pounds per year—half a ton for every American. The world’s fossil fuel use has increased ten times over, and with it, carbon dioxide has flooded the Earth’s atmosphere. Other greenhouse gases have soared upward at similar rates: U.S. nitrogen oxide emissions are up 800 percent since 1914; methane concentrations have nearly doubled; and the world’s emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, which had not yet been invented in 1914, have increased 80 times since World War II, and are still doubling every decade, posing a deadly threat to the Earth’s protective ozone shield.

The hole in the ozone layer is only the most widely accepted manifestation of a much broader challenge to the Earth’s environment. We are destroying forest land at the rate of one acre per second; we are poisoning our rivers, lakes, groundwater, and oceans; we are causing living species to be destroyed at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any time in the last 65 millions years; we are filling the atmosphere with gaseous wastes that threaten changes to the climatic system in the next 75 years as large as those that accompanied the ice ages over hundreds of thousands of years. These dramatic changes are taking place not only because the human population is surging and our standard of living has increased, but because we tolerate environmental vandalism on a global scale.

For 75 years the price we would have to pay for our actions has seemed impossibly remote. Only now are we beginning to see, in Ivan Ilych’s phrase, “the shadow our future throws.” Whether we look forward in hopes of glimpsing what the future holds or gaze backward at the events that have dominated the world since 1914, we see something that resembles one of those artist’s depictions of relativity theory, with time and space curved like a checkerboard grid painted by Salvador Dali. Our political awareness of the world is shaped and bent by events. Vast calamities such as the world wars exert a powerful gravitational pull on every idea we have about the world around us.

And, just as in Einstein’s theory, future events can exert the same gravitational pull on our thinking as events in the past. The political will to slow down the nuclear arms race came from the feeling that we were being pulled toward a future we had never seen but didn’t want. Now, as we are being drawn toward the brink of ecological collapse, we must be willing to consider drastic ecological action.

There is no way for humanity to forget its skills for self-destruction, by war upon easy other or by war upon the environment. In an exchange of Promethean proportions, we have acquired deadly knowledge that we can never lose but must learn to keep under control forever. That is the new and permanent point of departure for political wisdom. And if we are to succeed in keeping civilization intact, it is clear that one ism must be revived and renewed: globalism—by which I mean not some kind of world order prescribed and imposed from above, but rather a sense of responsibility for the good order of the world, rising upward from all of its peoples, and ultimately manifesting itself in the behavior of their governments, both domestically and in international relations.

A new globalism cannot be based on some transformation of human nature, by which people will be endowed with new virtues of foresight and restraint. In the last 75 years we have had enough of efforts to create the New Man in one image or another. Jefferson’s educated citizenry will have to suffice. The globalism we need can develop out of roots already universally present. It will be an enlightened, informed extension of our desire to survive, and of our often even more intense desire to provide for the survival and well-being of our children and grandchildren. Globalism will be marked by the sense that if our affairs are conducted on the basis of an unlimited struggle for supremacy—whether among nations or over nature—the result will be an increasingly high risk of almost immeasurable loss for all. It will be marked also by a sense that at some level, cooperation secures for all of us that strife cannot.

Mikhail Gorbachev now speaks as an advocate of a globalist approach based on mutual consent, rather than hegemony. It is certainly a revolution of sorts to hear such things from a Soviet leader. But it is well to remember that Gorbachev has at best caught up with the doctrine of collective security as propounded by Woodrow Wilson in 1918 and again by Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.

The essence of the doctrine of collective security is that security is indivisible and mutual: it must be provided for all, by actions to which all must contribute, or it exists for no one. That is certainly the lesson we must apply as we struggle to redefine our security relationship in military terms. Reductions of strategic and conventional weapons are desirable, but not in the abstract. They must seek a result in which the residual forces are perceived by all concerned parties to be stable, in the sense of lacking the capacity for decisive surprise. And reductions must be carried out in a political context that buttresses the expectation of peace and justifies diminished preparation for war.

But the notion mutual security must now move from an exclusive concern with security as an issue of peace or war to a definition of security that includes the global environment. With that in mind, I have proposed a Strategic Environment Initiative (SEI). Let’s face it: the Strategic Defense Initiative can’t assure our survival for the next 75 years. A Strategic Environment Initiative be an admirer to recognize that it drew together previously scattered facilities and resources and that it attracted a generous share of the government’s budget for research and development. We need to approach the technological challenge of environmental protection and economic growth with at least the same intensity—and with comparable or greater levels of funding.

If we continue our current pattern of technology and production, we will be able to achieve economic growth in the near term only at the cost of massive environmental disorder in the not so distant future. For the developing world, the problems of reconciling economic growth and environmental protection are compounded by high rates of population growth and a massive debt burden. Yet the cooperation of Third World nations is crucial to controlling problems as vast as global warming. Their share of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels could grow from about 20 percent today as much as 60 percent by 2050. A Strategic Environment Initiative would promote environmentally sustainable development by identifying and spreading new technologies to developing countries, where 95 percent of world population growth will take place during the next century. Here in the United States, the Strategic Environment Initiative must modernize technologies and practices in every economic sector, from more fuel-efficient cars and energy-efficient appliances to manufacturing that relies on recycled material, to a second green revolution requiring fewer fertilizers and pesticides. The emerging consensus for environmental protection is opening the door to solutions once considered politically impossible.

It will not be enough, however, to change our laws, policies, and programs. We must also change the way we think about ourselves, our children, and our future. For a very long time, we have seen ourselves as separate from the world around us. At least since the beginning of the scientific method, and probably since Aristotle, we have seen nature as the object of our experiments, exploitation, and dominion. As scientists reflected on Einstein’s revolution, they discovered that the act of observing alters what is observed. Heisenberg established that “uncertainty principle” in 1923. But its philosophical application is not limited to the subatomic world he described. In a kind of Heisenberg Principle writ large, we have altered—without realizing it—our relationship to nature itself. We must now create a new pattern of thinking in which we once again see ourselves as a part of the ecological system in which we live. We have lost, so to speak, our eco-librium. 

How can we gain sufficient distance from ourselves to see a pattern that contains us in a larger context? My own religious faith teaches me that while we are given dominion over the Earth, we are also required to be good stewards of the Earth. If our actions cause the destruction of half the species God put on this Earth during our lifetimes, we will have failed in the responsibility of stewardship. Are those actions, because of their result, “evil”? The answer depends not upon the everyday nature of the actions, but upon our knowledge of their consequences. For the individual actions that collectively produce the world’s environmental evil are indeed banal when they are looked at one by one: the cutting of a tree, the flicking on of an air conditioner, the dumping of some inconvenient waste. 

“Evil” and “good” are terms not used frequently by politicians. Yet I do not see how this problem can be solved without reference to spiritual values found in every faith. For many scientists on the edge of new discoveries in cosmology and quantum physics, the reconciliation of science and religion sometimes now seems near at hand. It is a reconciliation not unlike the one we seek between humankind and nature. But even without defining the problem in religious terms, it is possible to conclude that the solutions we seek will be found in a new faith in the future of life on Earth after our own, a faith in the future that justifies sacrifices in the present, a new moral courage to choose higher values in the conduct of human affairs, and a new reverence for absolute principles that can serve as stars by which to map the future course of our species and our place within creation. 

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