December 2002 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 1, Number 4

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

Walking Softly Upon the Earth

By Terri Smallwood


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Global warming, climate change, greenhouse gases, the ozone layer; the catch phrases can be recited by heart. The debate is relentless, and despite a seemingly unending list of startling statistics and studies, for many the question remains unanswered, “Have the actions of mankind doomed Mother Earth to a catastrophic fate?”

The question was first posed in 1957 when the Scripps Institution of Oceanography published one of the earliest research papers on increased levels of carbon dioxide in the environment. Noting that the oceans were not absorbing as much of the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere as the scientific community of the time assumed, they cautioned then that “a large-scale biophysical experiment” was being conducted on the Earth’s climate. That warning went largely unheeded by the mainstream, whose interests in progress, production, comfort and convenience would not be served by questioning the status quo.

Five years later, eco-pioneer Rachel Carson, a marine biologist who learned first hand about how chemical pesticides were poisoning the waterways as an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, and alerted the public to the dangers of DDT. At first, shunned by mainstream science, Silent Spring was serialized in 1962 in the New Yorker, where Carson finally found her audience. Despite vindictive personal attacks about her sanity from companies such as Monsanto and statements from the American Cyanamid Company that accused Carson of wishing to “return America to the Dark Ages where insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth,” concerned citizens groups and eminent scientists rose to defend her work. Eventually, President John F. Kennedy ordered the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study the science behind the book and their report vindicated Carson. Sadly, she died of cancer in 1964, but not before inspiring a new generation of environmentalists to take up her cry.

“Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically
important simply because we have now acquired
a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But
man is a part of nature, and his war against
nature is inevitably a war against himself…
[We are] challenged as mankind has never been
challenged before to prove our maturity and our
mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

— Rachel Carson, on an hour-long CBS documentary
about Silent Spring in 1964. Two of CBS’s corporate
sponsors withdrew their support from the show.

However, despite the eventual banning of DDT and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, governments and corporations around the world continued to run roughshod over the environment, and the public by and large, with their continued silence, supported them.

Another 15 years of inertia passed before the First World Climate Conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland, in February 1979. By that time enough scientists had begun to question the effects of the very discernable build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that the 11 days of the conference were mainly devoted to the creation of the Declaration of the World Climate Conference, which highlighted the international scientific community’s emerging recognition that humanity’s survival requires living in harmony with nature and urging governments, “to foresee and to prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.”

The declaration also identified the leading causes of global warming as increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and changes in land use. It also led to the creation, in 1988, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international panel of scientists coordinated through the United Nations. Thousands of scientists participated in the IPCC’s first dozen conferences. Using the latest technology, computer-generated models and scientific research, they generated what was to become known as the Scientific Assessment Report (SAR). The first SAR conclusively linked the dramatic and exponential increase in fossil fuel emissions during the last half of the 20th century to a corresponding increase in the Earth’s average temperature that was far greater than could be accounted for by natural cyclical phenomena. Further, the IPCC predicted that the current, wait-and-see attitude of governments around the world was putting humanity in the position of “waiting until it was too late.”

The IPCC scientists agreed to call for a drastic 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions. In the spring of 1990, just as the group was preparing the final wording of the report in Berkshire, England, the IPCC came under fire by another group of scientists whose research had been funded by American-based petroleum giant Exxon. The Exxon scientists questioned the certainty of the IPCC findings, and established the precedent of being on hand at climate change conferences to delay, filibuster and cast doubts on the findings of the IPCC. The pattern has remained consistent, and is discussed in great detail by petroleum geologist and former Greenpeace director Jeremy Leggett in his book, The Carbon Club, which describes the inner workings of what Leggett calls “the carbon club” or “the foot soldiers for the fossil-fuel industries.”

Leggett contends that working busily behind the scenes, these lobbyists have been successful in stalling and diluting every international environmental protection agreement reached to date. And in spite of the largely publicized findings of conferences such as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 or the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997, little in the way of actual changes in our fossil-fuel consumption have occurred. Leggett and other activists contend that the “carbon club” is responsible for using the power and unlimited funding of the petroleum giants to prevent the governments of industrial nations from whole-heartedly endorsing the findings of groups like the IPCC and supporting international resolutions for reductions in greenhouse gas emission.

Such a deliberate conspiracy of vast commercial interests is difficult to prove conclusively; but what is not difficult to see is the lack of public response in the face of these increased revelations that humanity stands on the brink of ecological disaster. Whether the result of deliberate distraction by the manipulative forces of the petroleum industry, or the absence of a focused message from the media, or simply a lack of will to change lives that are comfortable and easy, it’s clear that the cautionary messages of the IPCC and people like Rachel Carson are going unheeded. It’s clear by the choices consumers make every day, clear by the ever increasing number of gas guzzling SUVs on the road, clear by the crowded highways and the smog-filled cities. While environmental activists waggle their fingers at the “carbon club,” and wink when they remark on the huge political contributions of Exxon and other oil interests, while people on the fringe whisper “conspiracy” at the current plans to drill for oil in the fragile ecosystems of the far north, and while oil-demand innuendo is at the forefront of every debate regarding American Middle Eastern policy, it is the average citizens of the western world who continue to consume and consume and consume.

Two Canadians have actually developed a tool that offers a very visual and compelling image of just how much more North Americans consume compared to the rest of the world. The Ecological Footprint Tool (EF), was developed by Professor William Rees and his partner, Mathis Wackernagel, and is described as a tool that enables people to measure the amount of resources needed to sustain a particular geographic area or population. It is the sum of all the water systems, forests, croplands and natural resources in that area, divided by the sum of the waste that is discharged as a result of the consumption of the local population. It drives home the point that the Earth is a planet of finite resources, and that mankind has been overdrawing too steadily on his account. Using an average Canadian as an example, Rees and Wackernagel estimate an Ecological Footprint of 4.7 hectares per person. That’s roughly the size of three large city blocks and a staggering figure when compared to the .38 hectares that it takes to support one person in India. That means that one Canadian is using 12 times the resources and energy of one Indian. These figures are not as much alarming, as they are indicative of the huge gap between the industrialized and developing nations. However, when looking at the EF analysis of the world’s population, Rees and Wackernagel put together a series of statistics that ought to be alarming to every person on the planet. As they wrote in Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth:

“What is the present aggregate demand by people on
the ecosphere? A rough assessment based on four
major human requirements shows that current
appropriations of natural resources and services
already exceed Earth’s long-term carrying capacity.
Agriculture occupies 1.5 billion hectares of cropland
and 3.3 billion hectares of pasture. Sustainable
production of the current round wood harvest (including
firewood) would require a productive forest area of
1.7 billion hectares. To sequester the excess CO2
released by fossil fuel combustion, an additional
3.0 billion hectares of carbon sink lands would have
to be set aside. This adds up to a requirement of
9.6 billion hectares compared to the 7.4 billion
hectares of ecological productive land actually
available for such purposes. In other words, these
four functions alone exceed available carrying
capacity by over 30 percent… Thus, to accommodate
sustainably the anticipated increase in population
and economic output of the next four decades we would
need six to twelve additional planets.”

Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth
by Williams E. Rees, Phil Testemale, Mathis Wackernagel (Illustrator)
New Society Pub; ISBN: 086571312X; (November 1995)

Recent U.N. figures show that of the 6 billion people currently living on the planet, only 1 billion are living in what they term “affluence.” These people use approximately 75 percent of the resources available to the entire planet - leaving only 25 percent for the remaining 5 billion people. This is a disparity that continues to grow, and one that demonstrates quite clearly that if any great change is to happen it needs to have its genesis amongst the people of the West, who throughout the last half of the 20th century have shown themselves to be the largest resource consumers the world has ever seen.

In North America, the promise of a “chicken in every pot” seems to have been replaced by the promise of a car in every driveway, electric lights to blaze in every room of a spacious house, scalding hot water gushing into bathtubs the size of wading pools and plastic wrapped take-out containers bulging from within garbage bags shipped to more and more crowded landfill space. And those are just the excesses of the average, middle-class North American. While the “green movement” has made strides in recycling programs, in the removal of CFCs (ozone-destroying gases) from aerosol containers, and has generally raised awareness about environmental issues over the last 20 years, little in the way of long-lasting, planet-saving changes have been undertaken. There are still relatively few individuals who have accepted what science is shouting for us to hear: that the activities of mankind have placed the delicate balance of the environment into great peril; that the release of greenhouse gas from the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the already measurable change in the Earth’s surface temperature; and that this could be the beginning of a serious and cataclysmic climate disaster which, if left unchecked, would devastate the face of the Earth for thousands of years.

Worst-case scenarios based on the research of teams of international scientists like the IPCC suggest that by the year 2050 the polar ice caps will have totally melted. If that were to happen, it would indicate that the comparatively small-scale environmental degradation that we are seeing today had taken on the characteristics of a runaway freight train, and at that point would be too late to stop. Planet-wide drought and famine would be blamed on the greenhouse gases heating the atmosphere and oceans to a point where the Earth could no longer effectively regulate its temperatures, and rampant disease would be blamed on the cities of millions, forced to live in squalid and unsanitary conditions brought about by the loss of clean water for drinking and hygiene. Right now, in 2002, there is the beginning of the evidence to support this view of the future. West Nile virus, a tropical virus, has made its deadly debut in the northern latitudes of the United States and Canada. Access to clean drinking water is no longer being taken for granted by people living in Ontario, Canada, not after over 2,000 people became ill and seven died in a recent tragedy that involved the deadly e-coli bacterium infecting a small town’s water source. An ice shelf the size of Texas was reported as falling away from Antarctica. It is difficult to look at incidents like these without a growing feeling of concern.

Native American philosophy tells us that people should always make their decisions while looking at the possible ramifications, not just tomorrow, or in one’s own lifetime, but seven generations ahead. Science is now telling us that we have, at most, two generations left before we face unimaginable challenges. The third generation will be lucky to have a planet on which to be born at all. Fortunately, science also tells us that humanity, while poised at the very brink, still has the opportunity to step back from the edge. People, especially those privileged enough to be part of the “affluent” quarter of the world, need to reconsider the amount of resources consumed and the amount of fossil fuel emissions generated, on an individual basis. It would be wise then to consider another piece of Native American lore, the concept of walking softly upon the Earth. If every person were to consider the size of his or her own ecological footprint, and work to bring it down a size, then it is possible yet to stem the tide of environmental damage and give humanity the chance to show our Mother Earth that we are worthy of being her guardians.

Next Month: Walking Softly Upon the Earth continues with resources and an action plan for individuals interested in learning how to implement simple, yet effective, greenhouse gas reduction and conservation strategies into their own lives.