Endgame

Robert Orban, the satirist and former presidential speech writer, once said that “there’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all.” The statement becomes an epigraph to a chapter of America’s Environmental Report Card, by Harvey Blatt, which sets out the problem of air quality and other issues in more scientific—but equally negative—prose. But really, what is the state of the environment?

In a table charting human impacts on our planet from 1961 to 2001, the 2004 edition of the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report provides a stark answer. In 1961 there were three billion people, and they were using around half of the total resources of food, water, energy, and arable land that our global ecosystem could sustainably provide. By 1986 there were five billion of us, and such was our thirst for resources that we had already reached Earth’s carrying capacity, that is, its ability to maintain its natural resources at levels that will make them available to future generations. Ever since 1986 we have been running the environmental equivalent of a budget deficit, which can only be sustained by plundering the capital made available in the natural world. That plundering takes the form of overexploiting fisheries, overusing and overfertilizing farmland, destroying forests, and polluting our oceans and atmosphere.

By 2001 the environmental deficit had ballooned to 20 percent more than Earth’s sustainable yield, and our population to over six billion. By 2050, when the population is expected to be around nine billion, human beings will be using—if they can still be found—nearly two planets’ worth of resources. The inevitable conclusion is that our species has entered a crisis that will last for much of the twenty-first century.

In his book Crimes Against Nature, Robert Kennedy Jr. argues that the Bush administration’s response to this threat is quite literally mortifying: Americans are at increasing risk from life-threatening pollution because for the first time in thirty years America’s soil, air, and water are becoming fouler rather than cleaner. How has this come to pass, and how is it that the environmental movement, which until recently seemed to be gaining strength, has failed so miserably at averting it?

Two prominent American environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, in a widely circulated essay titled “The Death of Environmentalism,” claim that the environmental movement has failed because it allowed itself to become just another special interest group. In a speech presented to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in December 2004, Adam Werbach, who at twenty-three became president of the Sierra Club, sees the movement’s failure as part of a broader social shift:

Our death is a symptom of the exhaustion of the liberal project. Having achieved its goals of basic economic rights, liberalism and its special interests now fail to speak to the modern need for fulfillment of the American …

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Letters

Some Like It Hot November 17, 2005