Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Spill, baby, spill!"

The world has failed to meet its target to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, set under the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity, according to a report released Monday by the convention secretariat.

Based on about 120 national reports, the third edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) acknowledged the failure to meet all 21 specific goals, including "status of threatened species improved."

In grades of 1 to 5, the best score was 3 for four targets. Three targets were given 1. (Asahi Shimbun)

As the world has helplessly been watching oil spurting upwards from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at alarming rates, reactions from various quarters have been spewing into the airwaves. Some have sought to minimize the disaster—the most notorious being from Rush Limbaugh who first opined that since petroleum is a natural substance, there is no reason to be alarmed by an oil spill, and then recommended that the Sierra Club should be made to pay for the clean-up, since it was the lobbying of environmentalists that had pushed the oil companies off the land into the ocean. Others have pushed the point that oil spills are extremely rare and that the failure to continue drilling for oil wherever it is found would be, as one spokesperson put it, “to wave the white flag of surrender to countries in the Middle East that hate freedom.” Still others have said the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico is a wake-up call to Americans, a warning that we must find less environmentally damaging sources of energy; some have even offered the questionable suggestion that nuclear power is a source of energy that should enthusiastically be pursued.

As all these suggestions and counter-suggestions were being aired on radio, television and the Internet, a report was released by the Convention of Biological Diversity that not a single one of the twenty-one recommendations made eight years ago as part of a strategy for reducing the loss of biodiversity by 2010 has been met. This report prompted the producers of Science Friday on NPR to begin their May 14 program with this observation

As we sit here on this pleasant Friday afternoon — I hope you are having a pleasant afternoon — something is happening out there. Plants and animals are disappearing at an alarming rate, or some of them very close to disappearing.

Researchers say that about one-third of the world's species are now threatened with extinction. Nearly half of all bird and amphibian populations are declining, wildlife habitats are being overrun, and the march of invasive species is increasing on all continents in all kinds of ecosystems.

The rapid and massive loss of biodiversity cannot be attributed to a single simple cause, but the scientific consensus is that human activity is a root cause. The human population nearly quadrupled in the twentieth century, growing from approximately 1,600 million in 1900 to approximately 6,000 million in 2000. That alone has been sufficient to push many species out of habitats they had occupied for thousands of years into less hospitable environments. But the population growth has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the amount of energy that the human race uses to make itself more comfortable. As a result of increased population using more energy per capita, the International Energy Agency reports, global consumption of energy rose from around 1000 million tons of oil equivalent in 1900 to around 10,000 million tons in 2000. (See Janet L. Sawin's PowerPoint presentation entitled Making Better Energy Choices.) In other words, as the human population quadrupled, human beings collectively consumed ten times as much energy. The side effects of that energy consumption have been disastrous to the other species that share this planet with the human race and to the human race itself.

It is regrettable that it takes disasters to make people think of changing their habits; it is even more regrettable that often even the worst disasters are insufficient to make people think of changing their habits. Economist Paul Krugman has written that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could be just what it takes to reverse America's backsliding in environmental policies. One can only hope he is right. On the other hand, the fierce opposition to sanity on the part of those who stand to make profits from collective insanity should never be underestimated. Also not to be underestimated is the willingness of human beings to be comfortable and to be spared the pains and fatigue of hard labor. Few of the people who spend their days surfing the web in air-conditioned or heated buildings would voluntarily give that up to make a livelihood hunting and gathering food and warming themselves on a cold winter evening by huddling with others around a fire made of burning buffalo dung. In short, given a choice between unsustainable comfort in an impoverished ecosystem and sustainable hardship in an ecologically healthy system of rich biological diversity, not many would hesitate to opt the former. After all, there are fewer mosquitoes hovering around one's laptop in Starbucks than around one's unwashed body in a mountain forest.

The Chinese Daoist satirist Zhuangzi asked more than two thousand years ago why people kept building bridges over rivers and spoiling the serenity of the waterways with rowboats. Why can't people be content to stay where they are? Why do they build machines to save them from having to work with their own bodies? When we build machines, he observed, our hearts and minds become mechanical, and when our hearts and minds become more like machines, we lose our ability to enjoy the beauties of nature and of loving relationships with one another.

As I sit in my living room staring stupidly at a television set showing numbing pictures of plumes of crude petroleum rising into the ocean like columns of smoke blackening the blue summer sky, my old friend Zhuangzi makes more and more sense. Why, I wonder, am I not listening?