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April 22, 1997

Shared Earth Day Thoughts

by David Underhill

The missiles tipped with instant death for entire cities still stand in their silos and cruise the sea in submarines. But who even thinks of them now, except their attendants? Not many years ago these nuclear monsters haunted the dreams of the world. Then the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union put those fears to sleep.

It takes effort to remember the crazed cries (often couched as rational academic analysis) for a massive first- strike to wreck the enemy, who then would only be able to partly destroy us in return. Sanity prevailed and the world evaded an explosive prelude to a radiation poison doom (for the moment anyway). The recognition that nuclear weapons are a unique menace -- for possessor and target -- prevented the adoption of a first-strike strategy that might have made military sense before they existed.

Many other offspring of wanton technology have provoked a similar recognition. Most recently the cloning of a sheep in Scotland sparked a furor about the prospect of xeroxing humans from mere cells. Although somebody may plunge ahead and do it, the outcome of this debate (for the moment anyway) is that a long pause ought to ensue for reflection on the ethical and practical consequences of duplicating people in this manner.

So it's puzzling -- and ominous -- that the increasing volume of products and waste cranked out to feed the consumer appetites of an expanding world population has not aroused equally acute concern about the hazards of unchecked technology.

Some worry does persist, as the arrival of another Earth Day reminds. Maintaining a quarter century of tradition, events with themes of care and preservation dotted the landscape during the weekend just passed. Despite writing days in advance, little risk of error arises from asserting that these sites were not mobbed with agitated crowds demanding plans and action to save our one global home from ourselves. Typically, Earth Day observances are relaxed affairs organized by a sparse network of the devoted and attended by the regulars, few enough that many recognize each other from the year before. The masses are elsewhere, apparently untroubled or trusting that some authority will tend to the problem -- if, indeed, there is one.

We've been subject to nature's whims for so long that the idea of us turning the earth into our victim ranks as pure fantasy for many. Others may suspect we've acquired the capacity to spoil our nest (and perhaps eradicate ourselves in the process), but they have personal or commercial agendas that regulation and restraint would impede. So they submerge their suspicions. Seeming science can reinforce this impulse since credentialed experts surface to defend almost any side of almost any issue: global warming, ozone hole, resource depletion, whatever.

And environmental anxieties have no single, arresting image that compels sobering attention. There is no Hiroshima evaporating in a fiery second, no sheep emerging unsired from a laboratory flask. Instead, our surroundings have undergone a long, slow alteration, accelerated in recent centuries by the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, and lately sped to a frantic pace by techniques of change hardly imagined before in both the micro and macro realms.

Whether this amounts to a threat or benefit remains debatable. Even well-informed folks with no self-serving agenda can honestly disagree over it or subside into bafflement. Only in the future (if any) will people (if any) be able to look back and supply the answer. Meanwhile, judgments about the peril of our current course will rest on an unstable mix of fact, observation, feeling, foresight, and prophesy.

Nothing less than the environmental version of Hiroshima would shake the belief of those who think nothing is seriously amiss. Keepers of the Earth Day faith too have decided: the danger is great and it's upon us -- right now. Although they seem small in number and lonely, like any vanguard they are watched closely by many others who share some measure of the same anxiety but haven't resolved to do anything, yet.

While the pang of accumulating injury to the planet spreads slowly through the people, here and abroad, official leaders remain mostly numb. When the Republicans nabbed control of Congress in 1994, they launched an immediate assault on the budgets and powers of federal environmental agencies. To their surprise, supporters who backed all other parts of the aggressive new majority's legislative intentions refused to follow the leadership down this path, and the assault faltered.

One campaign consultant later attributed this tactical error to faulty perception. The environment is scarcely anyone's first concern, he explained, but it's almost everyone's second or third concern.

Yet the Republican leadership learned little from this experience, except perhaps not to march off, trumpets blaring, in a direction most of your followers won't go. Democrats smirked and gloated over their opponents' blunder but also learned little.

Whatever differences these two parties (or one masquerading as two) may have about maneuvering their pet projects into law, they are as united as Siamese twins on the main issue: they don't give a spotted owl's hoot about the environment.

The proof is their unthinking, servile parroting of the very beliefs that have romped unbridled for a couple centuries and that now raise doubts about whether the resulting way of life can sustain itself -- or survive at all. Name almost any problem politicians might need to grapple with, and the solutions favored by Democrats or Republicans will usually reduce to one simple notion: MORE!

Is the budget in deficit and does the national debt continue to soar every year? The solution is the production of more stuff. Then incomes will rise, so will tax revenues, and the budget will balance. Democrats and Republicans may differ about how to do this: prod the economy upward by government policy versus get the government out of businesses' way and let them run loose. But both approaches have more stuff as the common element.

Is the chasm between rich and poor widening? Are two paychecks becoming routine to keep an ordinary household from sinking in red ink? Are factories exporting more jobs than finished products? Are the poor losing the ability to afford health insurance or even rent? The solution is to rev up the economy -- by one method or another -- and crank out more stuff.

The same mania rules local governments and their avid love affairs with whatever commercial interests are begging favors in exchange for promises of growth and development. Nothing draws a happier pack of government and business dignitaries puffed with civic pride than a ceremony announcing some new facility they've decided to build. And the glad tidings beamed from these rituals always are that this project is wonderful because it means more jobs cranking out more stuff.

Nobody seems exempt from this urge. Not, at least, in those parts of the world where industry and technology -- rather than subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing -- structure daily life. Russia appears to be coming unstitched monthly, but the learned predict it will hold together, provided industrial production revives to full capacity. China, still largely a society of peasants, displays every sign of yearning to become what many of its neighbors already are: Asian versions of the vigorous but extravagantly wasteful mass production and consumption systems already established in North America and Europe.

If a billion Chinese achieve this way of life, can the ruin of the earth lag far behind? The answer is unknown -- and probably unknowable except by watching what happens if China accomplishes such a transformation.

At that point if the answer is ruin, it's too late for a remedy. Shortly after World War II Albert Einstein remarked that if World War III is fought with nuclear weapons, then World War IV would be fought with rocks and sticks. Similarly, if technology grants us the power to squander the planet's bounty by turning it into ever more consumer stuff and toxic trash, then the scattered survivors will revert to subsistence scratching at the rocky earth with sticks.

But it's arrogant and futile for those now cradled in abundance to instruct the Chinese or the poor elsewhere -- including within their own countries -- to exercise restraint that the instructors themselves don't practice. The plain message beaming from Earth Day events needs to repudiate the lust for acquisition and consumption. Instead, the message should I say, by word and example: SHARE.

Only when it does this will the crowds swell to a size and fervor that can't be ignored. And only then will our alleged leaders abandon their enchantment with the mindless and ruinous incantation of MORE, MORE, MORE!

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