Daniel B. Botkin
Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 2007
Fifty years ago, a group of scholars and scientists --- some of America's greatest humanitarians --- published a landmark book titled Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. It was one of the twentieth century's major statements about how people and their civilizations had changed the environment. Not only did it paint the picture of what people had done that had harmed the environment, it suggested what people might do to improve the environment and at the same time improve the lot of humanity.
Nowadays we hear daily from the media and through the media about the threat of global warming and its potentially dire effects on people and the diversity of life on Earth. The general tenor of these pronouncements is negative for people. You get the sense that people, especially modern technological people, have done wrong by Mother Nature. Having thus sinned against nature, we are warned that we will suffer the consequences. There will be massive flooding and terrible storms, destroying our homes and ways of life; millions if not billions of people displaced, homeless, wandering. Fresh water will be hard to find; we will thirst and our crops will fail. Pestilences and plagues confined to tropical climates will spread, and many of us will die.
A dark picture of the future emerges that sounds like the Medieval explanation of the great plagues as mankind's punishment for its sins. The obvious implication is that we environmental sinners must pay by becoming material and energy minimalists and misers.
But if a warmer world is inevitable, is it not worth asking what is the role of human beings in that world and how could we make that world livable? Can we more than mitigate the worst effects, perhaps create a globally warmed world where there is music, art, literature, swimming, boating, hiking, picnics, trips to wilderness, views of magnificent forests, wildlife, and ocean shores.
Some biological conservationists are using formal computer models to forecast where habitats for endangered species might be in the future. Sometimes this is cast only negatively, to assure us that our present parks and preserves are doomed. But sometimes there is a glimmer of hope, that perhaps our modern scientific tools and our technology could help us help other creatures and build a world of the future that has biodiversity, life's wonderful variety, and might even be enjoyed by us.
Perhaps it is time to expand this constructive approach, to look back at the ways of thinking of scholars and scientists of the mid-twentieth century, who saw not only our dark side but also our bright side, and sought to move us and our civilizations to be better.
There are precedents for such positive approaches to dire environmental change. In the 1930s, in response in part to the Dust Bowl and in part to the Great Depression, the federal government, apparently from a conviction that writers, artists, and musicians, that human culture and creativity, were worthwhile and deserved support, set up the Works Project Administration including the Federal Writers Project, and provided things for creative people to do that would benefit them, as well as benefit creativity and society. Today, in a time when large federal agencies and projects are seen often as having serious drawbacks, there could be other paths to this goal: individual creativity, local initiatives, regional responses, actions from the private sector.
Those who don't believe in global warming will probably say that this kind of activity would be a waste of money. Those who do think global warming is happening may think that this is the worst admission of our failure to avoid it. Those who believe that a democratic society only acts in panic faced with doom and gloom will oppose this as another way to assure that the worst will happen to the environment. But those who love the best of civilization and the best of human cultures and creativity should applaud this suggestion and begin thinking of the best ways to make the globally warmed future liveable and more. Those scientists and scholars who are convinced that global warming is our most likely future have a moral obligation to take constructive actions of the kind I am suggesting. Who will stand up to the challenge?
I will be putting up a list of things you can do, both to help reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and to improve our lives in a global warming world.
It is important to point out that more than 300 cities in the US have put together climate action plans (www.iclei.org)- some began 10 years ago – and their actions have already saved money, energy, spurred new technology creation, created jobs, and some even involved writing climate theater pieces. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by hanging out with people for years who have always seen resolving this issue as an opportunity to slow down with business as usual and create new ways of living in harmony with our planet. And, yes, bring artist, scientists, educators, engineers on board. Check out http://www.capefarewell.org from an innovative approach. We will adapt, but some people will be harder hit, and are being impacted by a changing climate (Bangladesh), and need help via clean technologies and bio-engineering. Here’s to using the best of our creative minds to adapt to our climate, and see ourselves as a part of it, rather than subject to it or treating it like a subject.
Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. It was one of the twentieth century’s major statements about how people and their civilizations had changed the environment.
A FANTASTIC book that I stumbled upon myself many years ago. Far too little known. Also, the writings of George Perkins Marsh that were a very early expression of these ideas.