Friday, April 20, 2012

The Last Generation?

Earth Day is approaching and this gives us an opportunity to reflect on our planet’s condition. Unfortunately, the diagnosis is not great, and the prognosis is worse. The biggest environmental challenges we face are that our climate is rapidly changing, we are poisoning and toxifying our environment in unknowable ways, our water sources are polluted and running dry, and the biodiversity that sustains us is threatened from habitat destruction and over-harvesting of natural resources. Experts disagree about specifics, but virtually all agree that the trajectories are dire. So, that leaves us with a social question: what to do?  Regardless of your politics or religion, these issues affect us all. Further, they affect humanity’s future. We would like to ask a provocative question: are we the first human generation that would be satisfied with being the last?

Let us be clear: we are not really going to be the last generation. The question is about our attitude rather than a projection. Humanity will continue. But, it will be a different less humane civilization, for we will be the last generation living under our current conditions. The world will be very different and much less habitable. To imagine what it will look like, look no further than the sprawling urban slums in many developing countries. Many of us will struggle to make ends meet. We certainly will eat less. And, lifespan will decline. Indeed the health problems associated with poverty will be more widespread.

Whether you believe global warming is natural or human caused, what is indisputable is that global atmospheric temperatures are rising. Warming temperatures will result in a variety of problems our future generations must solve. Sea levels will rise, resulting in high frequency of flooding events like the flooding of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. Weather will be less predictable and there will be a greater frequency of ‘weather events’ like hurricanes, tornadoes, and heat waves. Moreover, drastic changes in temperatures like the one we are currently experiencing are historically associated with an increased risk of war over dwindling resources. As living conditions decline globally, violent conflict becomes inevitable.

Yet, the news on global warming is not all bad. We can still make a difference for our future generations if we quickly and resolutely reduce our use of coal, oil, and natural gas and shift to a very low carbon society. This task certainly seems daunting and possibly extreme at first. However, the point is that we believe that we must try, rather than continuing to ignore the issues or putting off solutions to ‘future technological innovations’. Stopping global warming now will be much more effective than if we procrastinate and deal with this issue further down the line.

We are currently undergoing the sixth, and possibly most severe, mass extinction in the Earth’s history, which is defined as losing at least 75% of the world’s species. There are valid ethical reasons for stopping this extinction event and preserving our natural ecosystems but a good reason is quite practical: we use the earth’s biodiversity to find cures for diseases. Antibiotics, anti-malarials, and anti-cancer drugs come from natural products. Without them, or with a much smaller palate to choose from, we are severely hindering our ability to find new cures for old and emerging diseases.

Here too, we can make a difference by stopping the overharvesting of resources and destruction of habitats that are necessary for species preservation. We can use less, lobby corporations and businesses that engage in ecologically irresponsible behavior, and vote in favor of laws that protect biodiversity and habitat preservation.

So, what’s it going to be? Will we sit by and watch while we destroy our planet? Or, will we do something that can stop this trajectory? These changes (among them drastically and immediately using less carbon, reducing rather than increasing the use of pesticides and other man-made chemicals, saving instead of developing habitat, and conserving the earth’s natural resources such as fisheries) may not, initially, be easy, but they are essential. It really is up to us. Are we really the first generation content with being the last? What will you do to prevent this?

Alvin Y. Chan is a recent graduate of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA where Daniel T. Blumstein is a Professor and Department Chair, as well as a Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and co-author of the recent book The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It).

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