Events Aren't Important to the Environment
The most important environmental event of the 1980s? There's such a rich list to choose from, mostly disasters.
Chernobyl? Certainly high on the list. Its effects will live on for decades in the soils of Europe, in the cells of plants, animals, and people, and in heightened public distrust of nuclear power.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill? Visually spectacular, a desecration of one of the world's last pristine areas. But after ten years, maybe twenty, barring further spills, nature will probably bounce back from that one.
The discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica? Though it didn't immediately inconvenience anyone north of Australia, this was a profound event. It provided clear evidence that human-generated pollution can actually derange a planet-sized natural process. It catapulted environmental policy to the global level.
The Hot Summer of '88 with its drought, hurricanes, Yellowstone fires, and contaminated East Coast beaches? Significant, but not for the reasons given at the time. It may or may not have been the kickoff event of world climate change brought on by the greenhouse effect (we may never know enough to know). It was, however, a wake-up call to media, politicians, and the public, launching the second round of environmental fashionability in 20 years. This peak of the cycle will last perhaps one more year before it exhausts the attention span of late-twentieth-century industrial society.
One could nominate other disasters -- the Islip garbage barge, the African drought, the release of toxic chemicals into the Rhine by the Sandoz fire in Basel, and so on. Many environmentalists would argue that for the United States the single worst ecological event of the decade was the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency.
There was environmental good news too in the '80s. Debt-for-nature swaps. The Montreal Agreement, bringing international cooperation in cutting back the chemicals that cause the ozone hole. The civic energy now behind recycling. (So far that is going into only into the first half of the process, separating trash. Equal creativity is needed to complete the loop, to create markets for the recycled materials.)
The trouble with choosing, ranking, listing the decade's most important environmental events is that the task itself, the view of history as a series of "events" is wrong-headed. The opening of the Berlin Wall was a momentous event, but it can be seen properly -- and its implications for the future devined -- only in the context of decades of oppression, followed by first a cautious, then an ever more raucous wave of glasnost and perestroika. Environmental "events" even more than political ones are almost always attention-getting blips in underlying patterns that unfold over decades.
The garbage barge was only a trenchant symbol of the never-ceasing, ever-growing streams of garbage pouring into finite holes in the ground. The ozone hole was only a fortuitous concentration in one place of a degradation process that had been accelerating for decades. (Fortuitous because it was spectacular enough to attract attention and because it formed over the unpopulated South Pole instead of Europe or the tropics or North America.)
If we switch our attention from events to the underlying processes that cause events, I would nominate the following as the most important environmental changes of the decade -- and the ones with the greatest import for the decade to come:
- In 1980 the world population was 4.5 billion. In 1990 it will reach 5.3 billion. By the year 2000 it is expected to reach 6.3 billion. That will be an increase over the next ten years equal to the entire current populations of North America, Western Europe, and the USSR combined.
- In 1980 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 338 parts per million, already 25% above pre-industrial "normal". Now it is about 355 ppm. If our rate of emission of this greenhouse gas continues on its current path, by the year 2000, its concentration will be .
- Over the past decade over 200 million acres of tropical forest has been levelled -- an area the size of
- We don't really know how many species of life have disappeared over the past decade. Estimates range from 3,000 to 30,000. (The total number of species on earth could be anywhere between 3 million and 10 million.) The rate of extinction is expected to go up by a factor of roughly 10 over the next decade. The fact that we don't know these numbers precisely does not detract from their enormity.
The growth of the human population, human economic activity, human exploitation of the earth's resources, and human production of wastes that disturb the natural cycles of the planet -- these are steady, uneventful, but constantly accelerating processes. If we do nothing about them, they will be sure to produce even more newsworthy disasters for the 1990s than we saw in the 1980s. Each will be just a small outbreak, a signal, a symptom of a global system ever more out of balance.
We do, of course, have it within our power to create good news in the 90s. That will come if exert our intelligence, our ingenuity, our common humanity to control our own numbers, our inefficiency, and our greed. It will come if we begin to work out how to meet the important needs of all people without undercutting the environmental processes that sustain everything we do. That's a job not for a decade, but for generations -- but there's no better decade to start than the one we're just about to enter.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)