Reaching the Earth’s Capacity

December 2, 2008


Andrew Revkin has a recent post in his “Dot Earth” blog where he argues that “climate change is not the story of our time.”

Q. Obviously climate change is the biggest story on your plate right now, but looking ahead what do you see?

My coverage has evolved. Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. So how we mesh infinite aspirations of a species that’s been on this explosive trajectory — not just of population growth but of consumptive appetite — how can we make a transition to a sort of stabilized and still prosperous relationship with the Earth and each other is the story of our time.

And it’s a story about conflict. It’s a story about the fact that there are a billion teenagers on planet earth right now. A hundred thirty years ago there were only a billion people altogether — grandparents, kids. Now there are a billion teenagers and they could just as easily become child soldiers and drug dealers as innovators and the owners of small companies in favelas in Brazil. And little tweaks in their prospects, a little bit of education, a little bit of opportunity, a micro loan or something, something that gets girls into schools, those things — that’s the story of our time. And climate change is like a symptom of the story of our time, meaning our energy choices right now come with a lot of emissions of greenhouse gases and if we don’t have a lot of new [choices] we’re going to have a lot of warming.

Have we reached the earth’s capacity?   To think through that question, I recommend Bill McKibben’s 1998 Atlantic article, “A Special Moment in History.” In my view, its becoming increasingly difficult to believe that technology and human ingenuity will save us.  That said, I know that in my own life and those of most people I know in the US, UK and China, there remains plenty of room to conserve and contribute.  Moreover, in parts of the world where there is severe environmental degradation, political conflict and economic hopelessness, there remain many reasons to hope for a better future — among them, acts of heroism and generosity, educational innovation, technological advancement, social entrepreneurship, new political leaders, and a growing sense of global obligation.  Despite our mistakes, I still believe that we can work to insure that my children and their generation will have the space to flourish.


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