Our Fragile Planet—What of the Future?
TWO hundred years ago, American statesman Patrick Henry said: “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” In the past, man has trampled on the environment. Will he turn over a new leaf in the future? So far, the signs are not encouraging.
Although some laudable progress has been made, it has mainly been cosmetic, addressing symptoms rather than causes. If a house has dry rot, painting the woodwork will not prevent its collapse. Only a major structural reform can save it. Similarly, there must be a restructuring of the way man uses this planet. Mere damage control will not suffice.
Analyzing the results of 20 years of environmental controls in the United States, one expert concludes that “the assault on the environment cannot be effectively controlled, but must be prevented.” Obviously, preventing pollution is much better than curing its ill effects. But achieving such a goal would require nothing less than a fundamental change in human society and in the focus of big business. The book Caring for the Earth acknowledges that caring for the earth requires “values, economies and societies different from most that prevail today.” What are some of these values that need to be changed for the sake of saving the planet?
Ingrained Causes of the Crisis
Selfishness. Putting the interests of the planet before those of exploiting humans is the first necessary step toward protecting the environment. Nevertheless, few are willing to relinquish an affluent life-style, even though it may be ruining the planet for future generations. When the government of the Netherlands—one of the most polluted countries of Western Europe—tried to limit car travel as part of an antipollution campaign, widespread opposition sabotaged the plan. Although Dutch roads are the most congested in the world, motorists just weren’t willing to give up their freedom.
Self-interest affects decision makers as well as the general public. Politicians are reluctant to implement environmental policies that might cost them votes, and industrialists balk at any proposals that may threaten profits and economic growth.
Greed. When it comes down to a choice between profits and conservation, money usually talks louder. Powerful industries lobby to minimize pollution control or to avoid government regulations altogether. The damage to the ozone layer exemplifies this problem. As late as March 1988, the chairman of a major U.S. chemical company stated: “At the moment, scientific evidence does not point to the need for dramatic CFC emission reductions.”
The same company, however, recommended phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) altogether. A change of heart? “It had nothing to do with whether the environment was being damaged or not,” explained Mostafa Tolba, director-general of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “It was all [about] who was going to gain an [economic] edge over who.” Now many scientists realize that the destruction of the ozone layer is one of the worst man-made environmental catastrophes in history.
Ignorance. What we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know. “We still know relatively little about the abundance of life in tropical rain forests,” explains Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “Amazingly, we know more—much more—about the surface of the moon.” The same is true regarding the atmosphere. How much carbon dioxide can we keep on pumping into the sky without affecting the global climate? Nobody knows. But as Time magazine said, “it is reckless to subject nature to such giant experiments when the outcome is unknown and the possible consequences are too frightening to contemplate.”
According to UNEP estimates, it is possible that the ozone loss by the end of this decade will eventually cause hundreds of thousands of new cases of skin cancer every year. The effect on crops and fisheries is still unknown, but it is expected to be substantial.
Shortsighted viewpoints. Unlike other catastrophes, environmental problems creep up on us insidiously. This hampers attempts to drum up concerted action before lasting damage is done. The book Saving the Planet compares our present situation to that of the doomed passengers on the crippled Titanic in 1912: “Few are aware of the proportions of the potential tragedy.” The authors believe that the planet can only be saved if politicians and businessmen face up to reality and think in terms of long-term viability instead of short-term benefits.
Self-centered attitudes. At the Earth Summit in 1992, Spanish prime minister Felipe González pointed out that “the problem is global, and the solution cannot be other than global.” True enough, but finding solutions that are globally acceptable is a daunting task. A U.S. delegate to the Earth Summit said bluntly: “The American life-style is not up for negotiation.” Indian environmentalist Maneka Gandhi, on the other hand, complained that “one child in the West consumes as much as 125 in the East.” She claimed that “nearly all the environmental degradation in the East is due to consumption in the West.” Time and again, international attempts to improve the environment have foundered on the rocks of self-centered national interests.
Despite all these fundamental problems, there are reasons to look to the future with confidence. One of them is the resilience of our planet’s defense system.
The Healing of the Earth
Like the human body, the earth has an amazing capacity to heal itself. An outstanding example of this occurred last century. In 1883 the Indonesian volcanic island of Krakatau (Krakatoa) erupted in a gigantic explosion that was heard almost 3,000 miles [5,000 km] away. Nearly five cubic miles [21 cu km] of matter was hurled into the sky, and two thirds of the island disappeared under the sea. Nine months later the only sign of life was a microscopic spider. Today the whole island is covered by exuberant tropical vegetation, which is host to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, snakes, and insects. No doubt this recovery has been abetted by the protection the island enjoys as part of Ujung Kulon National Park.
Human damage can also be undone. Given time, the earth can heal itself. The question is, Will men give the earth the respite it needs? Probably not. But there is Someone who is determined to let our planet heal itself—the One who created it.
“Let the Earth Be Glad”
God never intended for man to ruin the earth. He told Adam to ‘cultivate and take care’ of the garden of Eden. (Genesis 2:15) Jehovah’s concern for protecting the environment was also manifest in many of the laws he gave to the Israelites. For example, they were told to let the land lie fallow once every seven years—the Sabbath year. (Exodus 23:10, 11) When the Israelites frequently ignored this and other divine commands, Jehovah finally allowed the Babylonians to depopulate the land, which then lay desolate for 70 years “until the land had paid off its sabbaths.” (2 Chronicles 36:21) In view of this historical precedent, it is not surprising that the Bible says that God will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth” so that the earth can recuperate from man’s environmental assault.—Revelation 11:18.
That action, however, will only be the first step. The planet’s survival, as biologist Barry Commoner rightly points out, “depends equally on ending the war with nature and on ending the wars among ourselves.” To achieve that goal, the people of the earth must be “taught by Jehovah” to care for one another and to care for their earthly home. As a result, their peace will be “abundant.”—Isaiah 54:13.
God assures us that there will be a renovation of the earth’s ecosystems. Instead of advancing relentlessly, the deserts will “blossom as the saffron.” (Isaiah 35:1) In place of food shortages, there will be “plenty of grain on the earth.” (Psalm 72:16) Rather than die from pollution, the earth’s rivers will “clap their hands.”—Psalm 98:8.
When will such a transformation be possible? When “Jehovah himself has become king.” (Psalm 96:10) God’s rule will guarantee a blessing for every living thing on earth. “Let the earth be glad,” says the psalmist. “Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy.”—Psalm 96:11, 12, New International Version.
An earth blessed by its Creator and ruled in righteousness has a glorious future. The Bible describes the results: “Righteousness and peace—they have kissed each other. Trueness itself will sprout out of the very earth, and righteousness itself will look down from the very heavens. Also, Jehovah, for his part, will give what is good, and our own land will give its yield.” (Psalm 85:10-12) When that day dawns, our planet will be out of danger forever.
[Picture on page 13]
Like the human body, the earth has an amazing capacity to heal itself