Since the first
Earth Day, the dilemma we call an "environmental crisis"
has escalated from concerns about dirty air and dirty water to the
global jeopardy of deteriorating and increasingly unstable planetary
systems. Why haven't three decades of environmental activism, more
than thirty Earth Days, and two Earth summits been able to turn
this crisis around?
The next century
stretches ahead of us like an urgent question. The problem isn't
simply that we don't have the answer. Our actions suggest the leaders
of our now global civilization don't fully grasp the dilemma confronting
We might get a better fix on our dilemma and target our efforts
more effectively if we understood this as a "humanity crisis"
rather than an environmental crisis. Whatever else is in jeopardy,
this is first and foremost a crisis for humans and our current civilization.
In my view, the environmental framework we've used to think and
talk about our situation for the past thirty years has led us to
focus too much on symptoms and to mistake the symptoms for the problem
that ails us. The response we've mounted has been a hodge podge
of efforts on many fronts that has lacked any overall coherence.
We find ourselves running faster and faster on an accelerating treadmill
it should be clear that we must stop chasing brush fires and take
on the pyromaniac.
Over the past three decades, I've written thousands of stories about
the diverse symptoms of our worsening crisis-stories about acid
rain, endocrine disruptors, ozone depletion, vanishing species,
and climate change. So how do we make sense of all of these ominous
The root problem in our humanity crisis is this: the bedrock assumptions
of our civilization are increasingly at odds with the world we now
If I had to write a headline to capture the significance of this
historical moment, it would be this: "Humans hurtle onto
planetary stage-biggest step since fire.''
In the past half-century, humanswith our growing numbers and
exploding technological prowess-have arrived as a global force
capable of disrupting the vast systems that sustain Earthly life.
As Jane Lubchenko
and other leading ecologists reported in the journal Science "no
ecosystem on Earth is free from pervasive human influence"
Humans now dominate the planet. Our power to alter its course rivals
the Ice Ages and asteroids. And human activity has become a significant
wild card in our future. As we've entered this planetary league,
the technological gifts that used to enhance our security have become
the leading source of insecurity. From now on, the game of survival
will play out in a radically altered physical and historical landscape
according to profoundly changed rules.
This new historical era has already begun. We find ourselves in
the midst of a difficult and dangerous historical transition as
we try to get a grip on this fundamentally changed situation. We're
in deep trouble because our current civilization--born a long time
ago in a world of expanding horizons-- is not only obsolete, but
even dangerous, in the face of this new era and its unprecedented
challenge. This crisis is not about some other place apart from
us called the "environment", about some natural amenity,
or simply about the growing scarcity of resources that fuel our
industries and the global economy. The human civilization we pass
on to our children and grandchildren is in profound jeopardy. If
this modern global civilization survives the next few centuries,
it will only do so through a profound transformation that will alter
all of its current operating assumptions.
The salient question is whether in the next century or two the Earth
will remain a place that sustains human life as we know it and that
supports our complex, interconnected global civilization. Our communities
and the larger human enterprise rest on the often-invisible foundation
of natural systems, a living, life-sustaining matrix which the scientist
James Lovelock christened "Gaia". What happens to this
human structure as natural systems become increasingly unstable
from the stresses of global change? Can it hang together if the
foundation suddenly shifts or begins to collapse beneath us? And
how will shocks in the natural systemlike a 20-year drought
in the Midwestripple through volatile human systems like the
From an evolutionary perspective, the process of globalization,
which has been proceeding at warp speed, is a risky strategy, indeed,
because it draws all of us every more tightly into a single global
economy and a single global human population. Guided by the economic
logic of efficiency and profit, we are putting all of our eggs in
a single basket. Ecologists even have a term for this kind of excessive
integration, which makes the whole system vulnerable to any disruption
within or in the external environment. Such systems are described
Such tight integration
may be a reasonable strategy if one can count on a stable environment
and be certain that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. But
it is an unwise way to meet a changing world. Life had endured for
3.5 billion years on a turbulent Earth through redundancy, varied
strategies, and hedging bets. As the history of life has demonstrated,
the best way to stay in the game is to spread out the risk through
diversity, to keep eggs in many baskets. The logic of survival is
NOT efficient. This ongoing process of global economic
integration will only increase human vulnerability to extreme events.
Making ourselves into what amounts to a global monoculture is the
last thing we should be doing as we enter a time of unpredictable
change. The single-minded pursuit of efficiency is fundamentally
at odds with prudent survival strategies.
By raising these concerns, I am not suggesting that we retreat to
an Edo Period solution of regional self-sufficiency. We will have
to make the human future on the global stage because our global
impact makes us a global species now bound to each by the inescapable
interconnection. I am certain, however, that there are smarter and
safer ways to be global than the current approach to "globalization".
As we face the future, we need to think about more than sustainability
in our use of resources or our agricultural systems. We need sustainable
human institutions fit for stormy weather. In a "hypercoherent"
tightly integrated global economy, a stall in the Gulf Stream that
suddenly gives Europe the climate of Greenland could be more than
a regional catastrophe. In much smaller economic crises over the
past decade, I think we have seen ample evidence that the whole
global economy could unravel. The worst of all possible futures
is one in which a climatic disaster leads to a global depression,
leaving human societies without the resources to address the causes
of rapid climate change or adapt to the consequences.
In 1992, I was one of several thousands journalists who covered
the Earth Summit in Rio, the largest gathering of heads of state
in world history. At this historic event, I spent a whole day listening
to our leaders' high-minded speeches about sustainable development
and the human future. Many spoke of the need to alter our course.
Then, they all returned home and, instead of putting on the brakes
or changing course, these same leaders put the pedal to the floor
and continued at full speed toward the abyss.
The ten years since Rio have seemed like a mad delusion as the world's
leaders cheered on the juggernaut of globalization, economic boom,
and unsustainable development. Although the limits are looming in
all directions, the human enterprise is careening onward. What do
we make of this? Is this a death wish? Is it political cynicism?
Is it denial? Or is this evidence that those who lead us don't really
comprehend our predicament and its dangers? Perhaps our incomprehension
comes from the piecemeal way we discuss this crisis, from the fact
that we view it as a laundry list of disparate problems. Perhaps
we don't recognize all of these symptoms as ominous signs all pointing
to the arrival of a new historical era.
Whatever the explanation, the world has witnessed a spectacular
failure of leadership over the past decade. Future historians
will judge this generation of leaders harshly I fear for its failure
to rise to the challenge of this unique historical moment. Our crisis
has rapidly worsened over the past decade. Our most pressing need
is for leaders equal to these times and the unprecedented challenges
of this new era as a global species.
A recognizable human future hinges on our speed and success at adapting
our civilization to this new reality-a world in which humans command
awesome powers but at the same time confront the constraints of
the biosphere looming in all directions. The plot for this next
chapter of the human story will center on how humans come to terms
with our own powers and with the inescapable finitude of Earth.
The most urgent task of our time is civilization redesign.
There are many places to begin:
our human institutions so they can withstand increasing instability
should be a high priority. Our global civilization faces a dangerous
passage over the next century or two. It will be a very bad trip
for our children and grandchildren if essential systems such as
agriculture or the economy collapse like a brick building in an
earthquake at the first major shock.
- We need to
refine and advance the Precautionary Principle and broadly apply
it to the progress of science and technology so they will enhance
human security rather than increase insecurity.
- we need to
get serious about green chemistry and begin to end the reckless
global experiment with synthetic chemicals.
- we need to
accomplish the transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as
- we need to
set the goal of sustainable trade and develop a long-term strategy
for the necessary move toward an economic system suitable for
a finite planet.
in our societies have been walking backward into this new historical
landscape with their eyes fixed on a departing era and an obsolete
way of life. We need to get on with meeting the challenge of this
new time. We need to turn and squarely face the future.