A Special Moment in History

                          by Bill McKibben

  The fate of the planet will be determined in the next few decades, through
          our technological, lifestyle and population choices

    Beware of people preaching that we live in special times. People have
    preached that message before, and those who listened sold their
    furniture and climbed up on rooftops to await ascension, or built boats
    to float out the coming flood, or laced up their Nikes and poisoned
    themselves in some California subdivision. These prophets are the ones
    with visions of the seven-headed beast, with a taste for the hair shirt
    and the scourge, with twirling eyes.

     One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the
    earth abides forever....that which has been is what will be, that which
    is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
    Is there anything of which it may be said "See, this is new"? It has
    already been in ancient times before us.

     And yet, for all that, we may live in a special time. We may live in
    the strangest, most thoroughly different moment since human beings took
    up farming, 10,000 years ago, and time more or less commenced. Since
    then time has flowed in one direction-toward _more_, which we have
    taken to be progress. At first the momentum was gradual, almost
    imperceptible, checked by wars and the Dark Ages and plagues and
    taboos; but in recent centuries it has accelerated, the curve of every
    graph steepening like the Himalayas rising from the Asian steppe. We
    have climbed quite high. Of course, fifty years ago one could have said
    the same thing, and fifty years before that, and fifty years before
    _that_. But in each case it would have been premature. We've increased
    the population fourfold in that 150 years; the amount of food we grow
    has gone up faster still; the size of our economy has quite simply
     But now-now may be the special time. So special that in the Western
    world we might each of us consider, among many things, having only one
    child-that is, reproducing at a rate as low as that at which human
    beings have ever voluntarily reproduced. Is this really necessary? Are
    we finally running up against some limits?
     To try to answer this question, we need to ask another: _How many of
    us will there be in the near future_? Here is a piece of news that may
    alter the way we see the planet-an indication that we live in a special
    moment. At least at first blush the news is hopeful. _New demographic
    evidence shows that it is at least possible that a child born today
    will live long enough to see the peak of human population_.
     Around the world people are choosing to have fewer and fewer children
    -not just in China, where the government forces it on them, but in
    almost every nation outside the poorest parts of Africa. Population
    growth rates are lower than they have been at any time since the Second
    World War. In the past three decades the average woman in the
    developing world, excluding China, has gone from bearing six children
    to bearing four. Even in Bangladesh the average has fallen from six to
    fewer than four; even in the mulahs' Iran it has dropped by four
    children. If this keeps up, the population of the world will not quite
    double again; United Nations analysts off as their mid-range projection
    that it will top out at about 10-11 billion, up from just under six
    billion at the moment. The world is still growing, at nearly a record
    pace-we add a New York City every month, almost a Mexico every year,
    almost an India every decade. But the rate of growth is slowing; it is
    no longer "exponential", "unstoppable", "inexorable", "unchecked",
    "cancerous". If current trends hold, the world's population will all
    but stop growing before the twenty-first century is out.
     And that will be none too soon. There is no way we could keep going
    the way we have been. The _increase_ in human population in the 1990s
    has exceeded the _total_ population in 1600. The population has grown
    more since 1950 than it did during the previous four million years. The
    reasons for our recent rapid growth have been pretty clear. Although
    the Industrial Revolution speeded historical growth rates considerably,
    it was really the public-health revolution, and its spread to the Third
    World at the end of the Second World War, that set us galloping.
    Vaccines and antibiotics came all at once, and right behind came
    population. In Sri Lanka in the late 1940s life expectancy was rising
    at least a year every twelve months. How much difference did this make?
    Consider the United States: if people died throughout this century at
    the same rate as they did at its beginning, America's population would
    be 140 million, not 270 million.
     If it is relatively easy to explain why populations grew so fast after
    the Second World War, it is much harder to explain why the growth is
    now slowing. Experts confidently supply answers, some of them
    contradictory: "Development is the best contraceptive"-or education, or
    the empowerment of women, or hard times that force families to postpone
    having children. For each example there is a counterexample. Ninety-
    seven percent of women in the Arab sheikdom of Oman know about
    contraception, and yet they average more than six children apiece.
    Turks have used contraceptives at about the same rate as the Japanese,
    but their birth rate is twice as high. And so on. It is not Aids that
    will slow population growth, except in a few African countries. It is
    not horrors like the civil war in Rwanda, which claimed half a million
    lives - a loss the planet can make up for in two days. All that matters
    is how often individual men and women decide that they want to
     Will the drop continue? It had better. UN mid-range projections assume
    that women in the developing world will soon average two children
    apiece - the rate at which population growth stabilizes. If fertility
    remained at current levels, the population would reach the absurd
    figure of 296 billion in just 150 years. Even if it dropped to 2.5
    children per woman and then stopped falling, the population would still
    reach 28 billion.
     But let's trust that this time the demographers have got it right.
    Let's trust that we have rounded the turn and we're in the home
    stretch. Let's trust that the planet's population really will double
    only one more time. Even so, this is a case of good news, bad news. The
    good news is that we won't grow forever. The bad news is that there are
    six billion of us already, a number the world strains to support. One
    more near-doubling - four or five billion more people - will nearly
    double that strain. Will these be the five billion straws that break
    the camel's back?

                            Big Questions

     We've answered the question _How many of us will there be_? But to
    figure out how near we are to any limits, we need to ask something
    else: _How big are we_? This is not so simple. Not only do we vary
    greatly in how much food and energy and water and minerals we consume,
    but each of us varies over time. William Catton, who was a sociologist
    at Washington State University before his retirement, once tried to
    calculate the amount of energy human beings use each day. In hunter
    gatherer times it was about 2,500 calories, all of it food. That is the
    daily energy intake of a common dolphin. A modern human being uses
    31,000 calories a day, most of it in the form of fossil fuel. That is
    the intake of a pilot whale. And the average American uses six times
    that - as much as a sperm whale. We have become, in other words,
    different from the people we used to be. Not kinder or unkinder, not
    deeper or stupider - our nature seems to have changed little since
    Homer. We've just gotten bigger. We appear to be the same species, with
    stomachs of the same size, but we aren't. It's as if each of us were
    trailing a big Macy's-parade balloon around, feeding it constantly.
     So it doesn't do much good to stare idly out the window of your 737 as
    you fly from New York to Los Angeles and see that there's _plenty_ of
    empty space down there. Sure enough, you could crowd lots more people
    into the nation or onto the planet. The entire world population could
    fit into Texas, and each person could have an area equal to the floor
    space of a typical U.S. home. If people were willing to stand, every
    one on earth could fit comfortably into half of Rhode Island. Holland
    is crowded and is doing just fine.
     But this ignores the the balloons above our heads, our hungry shadow
    selves, our sperm-whale appetites. As soon as we started farming, we
    started setting aside extra land to support ourselves. Now each of us
    needs not only a little plot of cropland and a little pasture for the
    meat we eat but also a little forest for timber and paper, a little
    mine, a little oil well. Giants have big feet. Some scientists in
    Vancouver tried to calculate one such "footprint" and found that
    although 1.7 million people lived on a million acres surrounding their
    city, those people required 21.5 million acres of land to support
    them - wheat fields in Alberta, oil fields in Saudi Arabia, tomato
    fields in California. People in manhattan are as dependant on faraway
    resources as people on the Mir space station.
     Those balloons above our heads can shrink or grow, depeding on how we
    choose to live. All over the earth people who were once tiny are
    suddenly growing like alice when she at the cake. In china per capita
    income has doubled since the early 1980s. People there, though still
    Liliputian in comparison with us, are twice their former size. The eat
    much higher on the food chain, understandably than they used to: China
    slaughters more pigs than any other nation, and it takes four pounds of
    grain to produce one pound of pork. When, a decade ago, the United
    Nations examined sustainable development, it issued a report saying
    that the economies of developing countries needed to be five to ten
    times as large to move poor people to an acceptable standard of
    living - with all that this means in terms of demands on oil wells and
     That sounds almost impossible. For the moment, though, let's not pass
    judgment. We're still just doing math. There are going to be lots of
    us. We're going to be big. But lots of us in relation to what? Big in
    relation to what? It could be that compared with the world we inhabit
    we're still scarce and small. Or not. So now we need to consider a
    third question: _How big is the earth_?
     Any state wildlife biologist can tell you how many deer a given area
    can support - how much browse there is for the deer to eat before they
    begin to suppress the reproduction of trees, before they begin to
    starve int he winter. He can calculate how many wolves a given area can
    support too, in part by counting the number of deer. And so on, up and
    down the food chain. It's not an exact science, but it comes pretty
    close - at least compared with figuring out the carrying capacity of
    the earth for human beings, which is an art so dark that anyone with
    any sense stays away from it.
     Consider the difficulties. Human beings, unlike deer, can eat almost
    anything and live at almost any level they choose. Hunter-gatherers
    used 2,500 calories of energy a day, whereas modern Americans use
    seventy-five times that. Human beings, unlike deer can import what they
    need from thousands of miles away. And human beings, unlike deer, can
    figure out new ways to do old things. If, like deer, we needed to
    browse on conifers to survive, we could cross-breed lush new strains,
    chop down competing trees, irrigate forests, spray a thousand
    chemicals, freeze or dry the tender buds at the peak of harvest,
    genetically engineer new strains - and advertise the merits of maple
    buds until everyone was ready to switch. The variables are so great
    that professional demographers rarely even bother trying to figure out
    carrying capacity. The demographer Joel Cohen, in his potent book _How
    Many People Can the Earth Support_? (1995), reports that at two recent
    meetings of the Population Association of America exactly none of the
    more than 200 symposia dealt with carrying capacity.
     But the difficulty hasn't stopped other thinkers. This is, after all,
    as big a question as the world offers. Plato, Euripides, and Polybius
    all worried that we would run out of food if the population kept
    growing: for centuries a steady stream of economists,
    environmentalists, and zealots and cranks of all sorts have made it
    their business to issue estimates either dire or benign. The most
    famous, of course, came from the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Writing in
    1798, he proposed that the growth of population, being "geometric",
    would soon outstrip the supply of food. Though he changed his mind and
    rewrote his famous essay, it's the original version that people have
    remembered - and lambasted ever since. Few others have found critics in
    as many corners. Not only have conservatives made Malthus' name a
    byword for ludicrous alarmism, but Karl Marx called his essay "a libel
    on the human race," Friedrich Engels believed that "we are forever
    secure from the fear of overpopulation," and even Mao Zedong attacked
    Malthus by name, adding, "Of all things in the world people are the
    most precious."
     Each new generation of Malthusians has made new predictions that the
    end was near, and has been proved wrong.  The late 1960s saw an
    upsurge of Malthusian panic.  In 1967 William and Paul Paddock
    published a book called Famine-1975!, which contained a triage list:
    "Egypt: Can't-be-saved...Tunisia: Should Receive Food...India: Can't-
    be-saved."  Almost simultaneously Paul Ehrlich wrote, in his best-
    selling The Population Bomb(1968), "The battle to feed all humanity is
    over.  In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines-hundreds of
    millions of people will starve to death."  It all seemed so certain,
    so firmly in keeping with a world soon to be darkened by the first oil
     But that's how it worked out.  India fed herself.  The United States
    still ships surplus grain around the world.  As the astute harvard
    social scientist Amartya Sen points out, "Not only is food generally
    much cheaper to buy today, in consatnt dollars, than it was in
    Malthus's time, but it also has become cheaper during recent decades."
    So far, in other words, the world has more or less supported us.  Too
    many people starve (60 percent of children in South Asia are stunted by
    malnutrition), but both the total number and the percentage have
    dropped in recent decades, thanks mainly to the successes of the Green
    Revolution. Food production has tripled since the Second World War,
    outpacing even population growth.  We may be giants, but we are clever
     So Malthus was wrong.  Over and over again he was wrong.  No other
    prophet has been proved worng so many times.  At the moment, his stock
    is especially low.  One group of technological optimists now believes
    that people will continue to improve their standard of living precisely
    _because_ they increase their numbers.  This group's intellectual
    fountainhead is brilliant Danish economist named Ester Boserup-a sort
    of anti-Malthus, who in 1965 argued that the gloomy cleric had it
    backward.  The more people, Boserup saidm the more progress.  Take
    agriculture as an example: the first farmers, she pointed out, were
    slash-and-burn cultivators, who might farm a plot for a year or two
    and then move on, not returning for maybe a few decades.  As the
    population grew, however, they had to return more frequently to the
    same plot.  That meant problems: compacted, depleted, weedy soils.
    But those new problems meant new solutions: hoes, manure, compost,
    crop rotation, irrigation.  Even in this century, Boserup said,
    necessity-induced invention has meant that "intensive systems of
    agriculture replaced extensive systems," accelerating the rate of
    food production.
     Boserup's closely argued examples have inspired a less cautious
    group of popularizers, who point out that standards of living have
    risen all over the world even as population has grown.  The most
    important benefit, in fact, that population growth bestows on an
    economy is to increase the stock of useful knowledge, insisted Julian
    Simon, the best known of the so-called cornucopians, who died earlier
    this year.  We might run out of copper, but who cares?  The mere
    fact of shortage will lead someone to invent a substitute.  "The
    main fuel to speed our progress is our stock of knowledge, and the
    break is our lack of imagination," Simon wrote.  "The ultimate
    resource is people-skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will
    exert their wills and their imaginations for their own benefit, and so,
    inevitably for the benefit of us all."
     Simon and his ilke owe their success to this: they have been right so
    far.  The world has behaved as they predicted.  India hasn't starved,
    Food is cheap.  But Malthus never goes away.  The idea that we can grow
    grow too big can be disproved only for the moment-never for good.
    We might always be on the threshold of a special time, when the
    machanisms described by Boserup and Simon stop working.  It is true that
    Malthus was wrong when population doubled from 750 million to 1.5
    billion.  It is true that Malthus was wrong when the population
    doubled from 1.5 billion to three billlion.  It is true that Malthus
    was wrong when the population doubled from three billion to six billion.
    Will  Malthus still be wrong fifty years from now?

                           Looking at Limits

     The case that the next doubling, the one we're now experiencing,
    might be the difficult one can begin as readily with the Stanford
    biologist Peter Vitousek as with anyone else.  In 1986 Vitousek decided
    to calculate how much of the earth's "primary productivity" went to
    support humans.  He added together the grain we ate, the corn we fed our
    cows, and the forests w cut for timber and paper; he added the losses
    in food as we overgrazed grassland and turned it into desert.  And
    when he was finished adding, the number he came up with was 38.8
    percent.  We use 38.8 percent of everything the world's plants don't
    need to keep themselves alive; directly or indirectly, we consume
    38.8 percent of what it is possible to eat.  "That's a relatively
    large number," Vitousek says.  "It should give pause to people who
    think we are far from any limits."  Though he never drops the measured
    tone of an academic, Vitousek speaks with considerable emphasis:
    "There's a sense among some economists that we're _so_ far from any
    biophysical limits.  I think that's not supported by the evidence."
     For another antidote to the good cheer of someone like Julian 
    Simon,sit down with the Cornell bilologist David Pimentel. He believes 
    that we're in big trouble. Odd facts stud his conversation--for 
    example, a nice head of iceberg lettuce is 95 percent water and 
    contains just fifty calories of energy, but it takes 400 calories of 
    energy to grow that head of lettuce in California's Central Valley, and 
    another 1,800 to ship it east. ("There's practially no nutrition in the 
    damn stuff anyway," Pimentel says. "Cabbage is a lot better, and we can 
    grow it in upstate New York.") Pimentel has devoted the past three 
    decades to tracking the planet's capacity, and it believes that we're 
    already too crowded--that the earth can support only two billion people 
    over the long run at a middle-class standard of living, and that trying 
    to support more is doing great damage. He has spent considerable time 
    studying soil erosion, for instance. Every raindrop that hits exposed 
    ground is like a tiny explosion, launching soil particles into the air. 
    On a slope, more than half of the soil contained in those explosions is 
    carried downhill. If crop residue--cornstalks say--is left in the field 
    after harvest, it helps to shield the soil: the raindrop doesn't hit as 
    hard. But in the developing world, where firewood is scarce, peasants 
    burn those cornstalks for cooking fuel. About 60 percent of crop 
    residues in China and 90 percent in Bangladesh are removed and burned, 
    Pimentel says. When planting season comes, dry soils simply blow away. 
    "Our measuring stations pick up Chinese soil in the Hawaiian air when 
    ploughing time comes," he says. "Every year in Florida we pick up 
    African soils in the wind when they start to plough."
     The very things that made the Green Revolution so stunning--that made 
    the last doubling possible--now cause trouble. Irrigation ditches, for 
    instance, water 17 percent of all arable land and help to produce a 
    third of all crops. But when flooded soils are baked by the sun, the 
    water evaporates and the minerals in the irrigation water are deposited 
    on the land. A hectare (2.47 acres) can accumulate two to five tons of 
    salt annually, and even plants won't grow there. Maybe 10 percent of 
    all irrigated land is affected.
     Or think about fresh water for human use. Plenty of rain falls on the 
    earth's surface, but most of it evaporates or roars down to the ocean 
    in spring floods. According to Sandra Postel, the director of the 
    Global Water Policy Project, we're left with about 12,500 cubic 
    kilometers of accessible runoff, which would be enough for current 
    demand except that it's not very well distributed around the globe. And 
    we're not exactly conservationists--we use nearly seven times as much 
    water as we used in 1900. Already 20 percent of the world's population 
    lacks access to potable water, and fights over water divide many 
    regions. Already the Colorado River usually dries out in the desert 
    before it reaches the Sea of Cortez, making what the mid-century 
    conservationist Aldo Leopold called a "milk and honey wilderness" into 
    some of the nastiest country in North America. Already the Yellow River 
    can run dry for as much as a third of the year. Already only two 
    percent of the Nile's freshwater flow makes it to the ocean. And we 
    need more water all the time. Producing a ton of grain consumes a 
    thousand tons of water--that's out much the wheat plant breathes out as 
    it grows. "We estimated that biotechnology might cut the amount of 
    water a plant uses by ten percent", Pimentel says. "But plant 
    physiologists tell us that's optimistic--they remind us that water's a 
    pretty important part of photosynthesis. Maybe we can get five 
     What these scientists are saying is simple: human ingenuity can turn 
    sand into silicon chips, allowing the creation of millions of home 
    pages on the utterly fascinating World Wide Web, but human ingenuity 
    cannot forever turn dry sand into soil that will grow food. And there 
    are signs that these skeptics are right--that we are approaching 
    certain physical limits.
     I said earlier that food production grew even faster than population 
    after the Second World War. Year after year the yield of wheat and corn 
    and rice rocketed up about three percent annually. It's a favorite 
    statistic of the eternal optimists. In Julian Simon's book _The 
    Ultimate Resource_ (1981) the charts show just how fast the growth was, 
    and how it continually cut the cost of food. Simon wrote, "The obvious 
    implication of this historical trend toward cheaper food--a trend that 
    probably extends back to the beginning of agriculture--is that real 
    prices for food will continue to drop...It is a fact that portends more 
    drops in price and even less scarcity in the future."
     A few years after Simon's book was published, however, the data curve 
    began to change. The rocketing growth in grain production ceased; now 
    the gains were coming in tiny increments, too small to keep pace with 
    population growth. The world reaped its largest harvest of grain per 
    capita in 1984; since then the amount of corn and wheat and rice per 
    person has fallen by six percent. Grain stockpiles have shrunk to less 
    than two month's supply. No one knows quite why. The collapse of the 
    Soviet Union contributed to the trend--cooperative farms suddenly found 
    the fertilizer supply shut off and spare parts for the tractor hard to 
    come by. But there were other causes, too, all around the world--the 
    salinization of irrigated fields, the erosion of topsoil, the 
    conversion of prime farmland into residential areas, and all the other 
    things that environmentalists had been warning about for years. It's 
    possible that we'll still turn production around and start it rocketing 
    again. Charles C. Mann, writing in _Science_ , quotes experts who 
    believe that in the future a "gigantic, multi-year, multi-billion- 
    dollar scientific effort, a kind of agricultural 'person-on-the-moon 
    project," might do the trick. The next great hope of the optimists is 
    genetic engineering, and scientists have indeed managed to induce 
    resistance to pests and disease in some plants. To get more yield, 
    though, a cornstalk must be able to put out another ear, and 
    conventional breeding may have exhausted the possibilities. There's a 
    sense that we're running into walls.
     We won't start producing _less_ food. Wheat is not like oil, whose 
    flow from the spigot will simply slow to a trickle one day. But we may 
    be getting to the point where grains will be small and hard to come by. 
    The spectacular increases may be behind us. One researcher told Mann, 
    "Producing higher yields will no longer be like unveiling a new model 
    of a car. We won't be pulling off the sheet and there is a two-fold 
    increase." Instead the process will be "incrmental, torturous, and 
    slow." And there are five billion more of us to come.
     So far we're still fed; gas is cheap at the pump; the supermarket 
    grows even larger. We've been warned again and again about approaching 
    limits, and we've never quite reached them. So maybe--how tempting to 
    believe it!--they don't really exist. For every Paul Ehrlich there's a 
    man like Lawrence Summers, the former World Band chief economist and 
    current deputy secretary of the Treasury, who writes, "There are 
    no...limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to 
    bind at any time in the forseeable future." And we are talking about 
    the future--nothing can be _proved_.
     But we can calculate risks, figure the odds that each side may be 
    right. Joel Cohen made the most thorough attempt to do so in _How Many 
    People Can the Earth Support? Cohen collected and examined every 
    estimate of carrying capacity made in recent decades, from that of a 
    Harvard oceanographer who thought in 1976 that we might have food 
    enough for 40 billion people to that of a Brown University researcher 
    who calculated in 1991 that we might be able to sustain 5.9 billion 
    (our present population), but only if we were principally vegetarians. 
    One study  proposed that if photosynthesis was the limiting factor, the 
    earth might support a trillion people; an Australian economist proved, 
    in calculations a decade apart, that we could manage populations of 28 
    billion and 157 billion. None of the studies is wise enough to examine 
    every variable, to reach by itself the "right" number. When Cohen 
    compared the dozens of studies, however, he uncovered something pretty 
    interesting: the median low value for the planet's capacity was 7.7 
    billion people, and the median high value was 12 billion. That, of 
    course, is just the range that the UN predicts we will inhabit by the 
    middle of the next century. Cohen wrote,

              The human population of the Earth now travels in 
              the zone where a substantial fraction of 
              scholars have estimated upper limits on human 
              population size....The possiblity must be 
              considered seriously that the number of people 
              on Earth has reached, or will reach within half 
              a century, the maximum number the Earth can 
              support in modes of life that we and our 
              children and their children will choose to want.


     Throughout the 10,000 years of recorded human history the planet--the 
    physical planet--has been a stable place. In every single year of those 
    10,000 there have been earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, cyclones, 
    typhoons, floods, forest fires, sandstorms, hailstorms, plagues, crop 
    failures, heat waves, cold spells, blizzards, and droughts. But these 
    have never shaken the that basic predictability of the planet as a 
    whole. Some of the earth's land areas--the Mediterranean rim, for 
    instance--have been deforested beyond recovery, but so far these shifts 
    have always been local.
     Among other things, this stability has made possible the insurance 
    industry--has underwritten the underwriters. Insurers can analyze the 
    risk in any venture because they know the ground rules. If you want to 
    build a house on the coast of Florida, they can calculate with 
    reasonable accuracy the chance that it will be hit by a hurricane and 
    the speed of the winds circling the hurricane's eye. If they couldn't, 
    they would have no way to set your premium--they'd just be gambling. 
    They're always gambling a little, of course: they don't know if that 
    hurricane is coming next year or next century. But the earth's physical 
    stability is the house edge in this casino. As Julian Simon pointed 
    out, "A prediction based on past data can be sound if it is sensible to 
    assume that the past and the future belong to the same statistical 
     So what does it mean that alone among the earth's great pools of money 
    and power, insurance companies are beginning to take the idea of global 
    climate change quite seriously? What does it mean that the payout for 
    weather-related damage climbed from $16 billion during the entire 1980s 
    to $48 billion in the years 1990-1994? What does it mean that top 
    European insurance executives have begun consulting with Greenpeace 
    about global warming? What does it mean that the insurance giant Swiss 
    Re, which paid out $291.5 million in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, ran 
    an ad in the _Financial Times_ showing its corporate logo bent sideways 
    by a storm?
     These things mean, I think, that the possibility that we live on a new 
    earth cannot be discounted entirely as a fever dream. Above, I showed 
    attempts to calculate carrying capacity for the world as we have always 
    known it, the world we were born into. But what if, all of a sudden, we 
    live on some other planet? On Earth2?
     In 1995 Princeton University held an international symposium on "Man's 
    Role in Changing the Face of the Earth." By  this time anthropogenic 
    carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen were pouring into the atmosphere, 
    deforestation was already widespread, and the population was nearing 
    three billion. Still, by comparison with the present, we remained a 
    puny race. Cars were as yet novelties in many places. Tropical forests 
    were still intact, as were much of the ancient woods of the West Coast, 
    Canada, and Siberia. The world's economy was a quarter it's present 
    size. By most calculations we have used more natural resources since 
    1955 than in all of human history to that time.
     Another symposium was organized in 1987 by Clark University, in 
    Massachusetts. This time even the title made clear what was happening-- 
    not "Man and Nature," not "Man's Role in Changing the Face of the 
    Earth," but "The Earth as transformed by human actions." Attendees
    were no longer talking about local changes or what would take place in
    the future. "In our judgement", they said "the biosphere has
    accumulated, or is soon on it's way to accumulating, such a magnitude
    and variety of changes that it may be said to have been transformed."
     Many of these changes come from a direction that Malthus didn't 
    consider. He and most of his successors were transfixed by _sources_
    --by figuring out whether and how we could find enough trees or corn or 
    oil. We're good at finding more stuff; as the price rises, we look 
    harder. The lights never did go out, despite many predictions to the 
    contrary on the first Earth Day. We found more oil, and we still have 
    lots and lots of coal. Meanwhile, we're driving big cars again, and why 
    not? As of this writing, the price of gas has dropped below a dollar a 
    gallon across much of the nation. Who can believe in limits while 
    driving a Suburban? But perhaps, like an audience watching a magician 
    wave his wand, we've been distracted from the real story.

     That real story was told in the most recent attempt to calculate our 
    size--a special section in _Science_ published last summer. The authors 
    spoke bluntly in the lead article. Forget man "transforming" nature--we 
    live, they concluded, on "a human dominated planet", where "no ecosystem
    on Earth's surface is free of pervasive human influence." It's not that 
    we're runnin out of stuff. What we're running out of is what the  
    scientists call "sinks"--places to put the by products of our large 
    appetites. Not garbage dumps (we could go on using pampers till the end 
    of time and still have empty space left to toss them away) but the 
    atmospheric equivalent of garbage dumps.
     It wasn't hard to figure out that there were limits on how much coal 
    smoke we could pour into the air of a single city. It took a while 
    longer to figure out that building ever higher smokestacks merely 
    lofted the haze farther afield, raining down acid on whatever mountain 
    range lay to the east. Even that, however, we are slowly fixing, with 
    scrubbers and different mixtures of fuel. We can't so easily repair the 
    new kinds of pollution. These do not come from something going wrong-- 
    some engine without a catalytic converter, some waste-water pipe 
    without a filter, some smokestack without a scrubber. New kinds of 
    pollution come instead from things going how as they're supposed to 
    go--but at such a high volume that they overwhelm the planet. They come 
    from normal human life--but there are so many of us living those normal
    lives that something abnormal is happening. And that something is 
    different from the old forms of pollution that it confuses the issue 
    even to use the word.
     Consider nitrogen, for instance. Almost 80 percent of the atmosphere 
    is nitrogen gas. But before plants can absorb it, it must become 
    "fixed"--bonded with carbon, hydrogen or oxygen. Nature does this trick 
    with certain kinds of algae and soil bacteria, and with lightning. 
    Before human beings began to alter the nitrogen cycle, these mechanisms 
    provided 90-150 million metric tons of nitrogen a year. Now human 
    activity adds 130-150 million more tons. Nitrogen isn't pollution--it's 
    essential. And we are using more of it all the time. Half the 
    industrial nitrogen fertilizer used in human history has been applied 
    since 1984. As a result, coastal waters and estuaries bloom with toxic 
    algae while oxygen concentrations dwindle, killing fish; as a result, 
    nitrous oxide traps solar heat. And once the gas is in the air, it 
    stays there for a century or more.
     Or consider methane, which comes out of the back of a cow or the top 
    of a termite mound or the bottom of a rice paddy. As a result of our 
    determination to raise more cattle, cut down more tropical forest 
    (thereby causing termite populations to explode), and grow more rice, 
    methane concentrations in the atmosphere are more than twice as high as 
    they have been for most of the past 160,000 years. And methane traps 
    heat--very efficiently.
     Or consider the carbon dioxide. In fact, concentrate on the carbon 
    dioxide. If we had to pick one problem to obsess about over the next 
    fifty years, we'd do well to make_it CO2--which is not pollution 
    either. Carbon _monoxide_ is pollution; it kills you if you breathe 
    enough of it. But carbon _dioxide_, carbon with two oxygen atoms, can't 
    do a blessed thing to you. If you're reading this indoors you're 
    breathing more C02 than you'll ever get outside. For generations, in 
    fact, engineers said that an engine burned clean if the it produced 
    only water vapor and carbon dioxide.
     Here's the catch: that engine produces a _lot_ of C02. A gallone of 
    gas weighs about eight pounds. When it's burned in a car, about five 
    and a half pounds of carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide come spewing 
    out the back. It doesn't matter if the car is a 1958 Chevy or a 1998 
    Saab. And no filter can reduce that flow--it's an inevitable by-- 
    product of fossil fuel combustion, which is why C02 has been piling up 
    in the atmosphere ever since the Industrial Revolution. Before we 
    started burning oil and coal and gas, the atmosphere contained about 
    280 parts C02 per million. Now the figure is about 360. Unless we do 
    everything we can think of to eliminate fossil fuels from our diet, the 
    air will test out at more than 500 parts per million fifty or sixty 
    years from now, whether is sampled in the South Bronx or the South 
    Pole. This matters because, as we all know by now, the molecular 
    structure of this clean, natural, common element that we are adding to 
    every cubic foot of the atmosphere surrounding us traps heat that would 
    otherwise radiate back out to space. Far more than even methane and 
    nitrous oxide, C02 causes global warming--the greenhouse effect--and 
    climate change. Far more than any other single factor, it is turning 
    the earth we were born on into a new planet.
     Remember, this is not pollution as we have known it. In the spring of 
    last year the Environmental Protection Agency issued its "Ten-Year Air 
    Quality and Emissions Trends" report. Carbon monoxide was down by 37 
    percent since 1986, lead was down by 78 percent, and particulate matter 
    had dropped by nearly a quarter. If you lived in the San Fernando 
    Valley, you saw the mountains more often than you had a decade before. 
    The air was _cleaner_, but it was also _different_--richer with C02. 
    And its new composition may change almost everything.
     Ten years ago I wrote a book called _The End of Nature_, which was the 
    first volume for a general audience about carbon dioxide and climate 
    change, an early attempt to show that human beings now dominate the 
    earth. Even then global warming was only a hypothesis--strong and 
    gaining credibility all the time, but a hypothesis nonetheless. By the 
    late 1990s it has become a fact. For ten years, with heavy funding from 
    governments around the world, scientists launched satellites, monitored 
    weather balloons, studied clouds. Their work culminated in a long- 
    awaited report from the UN's Panel on Climate Change, released in the 
    fall of 1995. The panel's 2000 scientists, from every corner of the 
    globe, summed up their findings in this dry but historic bit of 
    understatement: "The balance of evidence suggests that there is a 
    discernible human influence on global climate." That is to say, we are 
    heating up the planet--substantially. If we don't reduce emissions of 
    carbon dioxide and other gases, the panel warned, temperatures will 
    probably rise 3.6 Farenheit by 2100, and perhaps as much as 6.3
     You may think you've already heard a lot about global warming. But 
    most of our sense of the problem is behind the curve. Here's the 
    current news: the changes are already well under way. When politicians 
    and businessmen talk about "future risks," their rhetoric is outdated. 
    This is not a problem for the distant future, or even for the near 
    future. The planet has already heated up by a degree or more. We are 
    perhaps a quarter of the way into the greenhouse era, and the effects 
    are already being felt. From a new heaven, filled with nitrogen, 
    methane, and carbon, a new earth is being born. If some alien 
    astronomer is watching us, she's doubtless puzzled. This is the most 
    obvious effect of our numbers and our appetites, and the key to 
    understanding why the size of our population poses such a risk.

                             Stormy and Warm

     What does this new world feel like? For one thing, it's stormier than 
    the old one. Data analyzed last year by Thomas Karl, of the National 
    Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showed that total winter 
    precipitation in the United States had increased by 10 percent since 
    1900 and that "extreme precipitation events"--rainstorms that dumped 
    more than two inches of water in 24 hours and blizzards--had increased 
    by 20 percent. That's because warmer air holds more water vapor than 
    the colder atmosphere of the old earth; more water evaporates from the 
    ocean, meaning more clouds, more rain, more snow. Engineers designing 
    storm sewers, bridges, and culverts used to plan for what they called 
    the "hundred year storm." That is, they built to withstand the worst 
    flooding or wind that history led them to expect in the course of a 
    century. Since that history no longer applies, Karl says, "there isn't 
    really a hundred-year event anymore...we seem to be getting these 
    storms of the century every couple of years." When Grand Forks, North 
    Dakota, disappeared beneath the Red River in the spring of last year, 
    some meteorologists referred to it as "500-year flood"--meaning,
    essentially, that all bets are off. Meaning that these aren't acts of 
    God. "If you look out your window, part of what you see in terms of the 
    weather is produced by ourselves," Karl says. "If you look out the 
    window fifty years from now, we're going to be responsible for more of 
     Twenty percent more bad storms, 10 percent more winter precipitation-- 
    these are enormous numbers. It's like opening the newspaper to read 
    that the average American is smarter by 30 IQ points. And the same data 
    showed increases in drought, too. With more water in the atmosphere, 
    there's less in the soil, according to Kevin Trenberth, of the National 
    Center for Atmospheric Research. Those parts of the continent that are 
    normally dry--the eastern sides of mountains, the plains and deserts-- 
    are even drier, as the higher average temperatures evaporate more of 
    what rain does fall. "You get wilting plants and eventually drought 
    faster than you would otherwise," Trenberth says. And when the rain 
    does come, it's often so intense that much of it runs off before it can 
    soak into the soil.
     So--wetter and drier. _Different_.
     In 1958 Charles Keeling, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 
    set up the world's single most significant scientific instrument in a 
    small hut on the slope of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. Forty years later 
    it continues without fail to track the amount of carbon dioxide in the 
    atmosphere. The graphs that it produces show that this most important 
    greenhouse gas has steadily increased for forty years. That's the main 
    news. It has also shown something else of interest in recent years--a 
    sign that this new atmosphere is changing the planet. Every year C02 
    levels dip in the spring, when plants across the Northern Hemishpere 
    begin to grow, soaking up carbon dioxide. And every year in the fall 
    the decaying plants and soils release C02 back into the atmosphere. So 
    along with the steady upward trend, there's an annual seesaw, an 
    oscillation that is suddenly growing more pronounced. The size of that 
    yearly tooth on the graph is 20 percent greater than it was in the 
    early 1960s, as Keeling reported in the journal _Nature_, in July of 
    1996. Or, in the words of Rhys Roth, writing in a newsletter of the 
    Atmospheric Alliance, the earth is "breathing deeper". More vegetation 
    must be growing, stimulated by higher temperatures. And the earth is 
    breathing earlier too. Spring is starting about a week earlier in the 
    1990s than it was in the 1970s, Keeling said.
     Other scientists had a hard time crediting Keeling's study--the effect 
    seemed so sweeping. But the following April, a research team led by 
    R.B. Myeni, of Boston University, and including Keeling, reached much 
    the same conclusion by means of a completely different technique. These 
    researchers used satellites to measure the color of sunlight reflected 
    by the earth: light bouncing off green leaves is a different color from 
    light bouncing off bare ground. Their data were even more alarming, 
    because they showed the increase was happening with almost lightning 
    speed. By 1991 spring above the 45th parallel--a line that runs from 
    Portland, Oregon, to Boston to Milan to Vladivostok--was coming eight 
    days earlier than it had just a decade before. And that was despite 
    increased snowfall from the wetter atmosphere; the snow was simply 
    melting earlier. The earlier spring led to increase plant growth, which 
    sounds like a benefit. The area above the 45th parallel is, after all, 
    the North American and Russian wheat belt. But as Cynthia Rosenzweig, 
    of NASA's Godard Institute for Space Studies, told _The New York 
    Times_, any such gains may be illusory. For one thing, the satellites 
    were measuring biomass, not yields; tall and leafy plants often produce 
    less grain. Other scientists, the _Times_ reported, said that "more 
    rapid plant growth can make for less nutritious crops if there are not 
    enough nutrients available in the soil." And it's not clear that the 
    grain belt will have the water it needs as the climate warms. In 1998, 
    a summer of record heat across the grain belt, harvests plummeted, 
    because the very heat that produces more storms also causes extra 
    evaporation. What _is_ clear is that fundamental shifts are under way 
    in the operation of the planet. And we are very early yet in the 
    greenhouse era.
     The changes are basic. The freezing level in the atmosphere--the 
    height at which the air temperature reaches 32 F--has been gaining 
    altitude since 1970 at the rate of nearly fifteen feet a year. Not 
    surprisingly, tropical and subtropical glaciers are melting at what a 
    team of Ohio State researchers termed "striking" rates. Speaking at a 
    press conference last spring, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a member of the 
    Ohio State team, was asked if she was sure of her results. She replied, 
    "I don't know quite what to say. I've presented the evidence. I gave 
    you the example of the Quelccaya ice cap. It just comes back to the 
    compilation of what's happening at high elevations: the Lewis glacier 
    on Mount Kenya has lost forty percent of its mass; in the Ruwenzori 
    range all the glaciers are in massive retreat. Everything, virtually, 
    in Patagonia, except for just a few glaciers, is retreating....We've 
    seen...that plants are moving up the mountains....I frankly don't know 
    what additional evidence you need."
     As the glaciers retreat, a crucial source of fresh water in many 
    tropical countries disappears. These areas are "already water- 
    stressed," Mosley-Thompson told the Association of American Geographers 
    last year. Now they may be really desperate.
     As with the tropics, so with the poles. According to every computer 
    model, in fact, the polar effects are even more pronounced, because the 
    Arctic and the Antarctic will warm much faster than the Equator as 
    carbon dioxide bulids up. Scientists manning a research station at 
    Toolik Lake, Alaska, 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle, have watched 
    average summer temperatures rise by about seven degrees in the past two 
    decades. "Those who remember wearing down-lined summer parkas in the 
    1970s--before the term "global warming" existed--have peeled down to T- 
    shirts in recent summers," according to the reporter Wendy Hower, 
    writing in the _Fairbanks Daily News-Miner_. It rained briefly at the 
    American base in McMurdo Sound, in Antarctica, during the southern 
    summer of 1997--as strange as if it had snowed in Saudi Arabia. None of 
    this necessarily means that the ice caps will soon slide into the sea, 
    turning Tennessee into beachfront. It simply demonstrates a radical 
    instability in places that have been stable for many thousands of 
    years. One researcher watched as emporer penguins tried to cope with 
    the early breakup of ice: their chicks had to jump into the water two 
    weeks ahead of schedule, probably guaranteeing an early death. They 
    (like us) evolved on the old earth.
     You don't have to go to exotic places to watch the process. Migrating 
    red-winged blackbirds now arrive three weeks earlier in Michigan than 
    they did in 1960. A symposium of scientists reported in 1996 that the 
    Pacific Northwest was warming at four times the world rate. "That the 
    Northwest is warming up fast is not a theory," Richard Gammon, a 
    University of Washington oceanographer says. "It's a known fact, based 
    on simple temperature readings."
     The effects of warming can be found in the largest phenomena. The 
    oceans that cover most of the planet's surface are clearly rising, both 
    because of melting of glaciers and because water expands as it warms. 
    As a result, low-lying Pacific islands already report surges of water 
    washing across the atolls. "It's nice weather and all of a sudden water 
    is pouring into your living room," one Marshall Islands resident told a 
    newspaper reporter. "It's very clear that something is happening in the 
    Pacific, and these islands are feeling it." Global warming will be like 
    a much more powerful El Nio that covers the entire globe and lasts 
    forever, or at least until the next big asteroid strikes.
     If you want to scare yourself with guesses about what might happen in 
    the near future, there's no shortage of possibilities. Scientists have 
    already observed large shifts in the duration of the El Nio ocean 
    warming, for instance. The Arctic tundra has warmed so much that in 
    some places it now gives off more carbon dioxide than it absorbs--a 
    switch that could trigger a potent feedback loop, making warming even 
    worse. And researches studying glacial cores from the Greenland Ice 
    Sheet recently concluded that local climate shifts have occurred with 
    incredible rapidity in the past--18 in one three-year stretch. Other 
    scientists worry that such a shift might be enough to flood the oceans 
    with fresh water and reroute or shut off currents like the Gulf Stream 
    and the North Atlantic, which keep Europe far warmer than it would 
    otherwise be. (See "The Great Climate Flip-flop," bye William H. 
    Calvin, January _Atlantic_ .) In the words of Wallace Broecker, of 
    Columbia University, a pioneer in the field, "Climate is an angry 
    beast, and we are poking it with sticks."

     But we don't need worst-case scenarios: best case scenarios make the 
    point. The population of the earth is going to nearly double one more 
    time. That will bring it to a level that even the reliable old earth we 
    were born on would be hard pressed to support. Just at the moment when 
    we need everything to be working as smoothly as possible, we find 
    ourselves inhabiting a new planet, whose carrying capacity we cannot 
    conceivably estimate. We have no idea how much wheat this planet can 
    grow. We don't know what its politics will be like: not if there are 
    going to be heat waves like the one that killed more than 700 
    Chicagoans in 1995; not if rising sea levels and other effects of 
    climate change create tens of millions more environmental refugees; not 
    if a 1.5 jump in India's temperature could reduce the country's wheat 
    crop by 10 percent or divert its monsoons.
     The arguments put forth by cornucopians like Julian Simon--that human 
    intelligence will get us out of any scrape, that human beings are "the 
    ultimate resource," that Malthusian models "simply do not comprehend 
    key elements of people"--all rest on the same premise: that human 
    beings change the world mainly for the better.
     If we live at a special time, the single most special thing about it 
    may be that we are now apparently degrading the most basic functions of 
    the planet. It's not that we've never altered our surroundings before. 
    Like the beavers at work in my back yard, we have rearranged things 
    wherever we've lived. We've leveled the spots where we built our homes, 
    cleared forests for our fields, often fouled nearby waters with our 
    waste. That's just life. But this is different. In the past ten or 
    twenty or thirty years our impact has grown so much that we're changing 
    even those places we don't inhabit--changing the way the weather works, 
    changing the plants and animals that live at the poles or deep in the 
    jungle. This is total. Of all the remarkable and unexpected things 
    we've ever done as a species, this may be the biggest. Our new storms 
    and new oceans and new glaciers and new springtimes--these are the 
    eighth and ninth and tenth and eleventh wonders of the modern world, 
    and we have lots more where those came from.
     We have gotten large and very powerful, and for the forseeable future 
    we're stuck with the results. The glaciers won't grow back again 
    anytime soon: the oceans won't drop. We've already done deep and 
    systemic damage. To use a human analogy, we've already said the angry 
    and unforgivable words that will haunt our marriage till its end. And 
    yet we can't simply walk out the door. There's no place to go. We have 
    to salvage what we can of our relationship with the earth, to keep 
    things from getting any worse than they have to be.
     If we can bring our various emissions quickly and sharply under 
    control, we _can_ limit the damage, reduce dramatically the chance of 
    horrible surprises, preserve more of the biology we were born into. But 
    do not underestimate the task. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on 
    Climate Change projects that an immediate 60 percent reduction in 
    fossil-fuel use is necessary just to stabilize climate at the current 
    level of disruption. Nature may still meet us halfway, but  halfway is 
    a long way from where we are now. What's more, we can't delay. If we 
    wait a few decades to get started, we may as well not even begin. It's 
    not like poverty, a concern that's always there for civilizations to 
    address. This is a timed test, like the SAT: two or three decades, and 
    we lay our pencils down. It's _the_ test for our generations, and 
    population is part of the answer.

                       "Changing Unchangeable Needs"

     When we think about overpopulation, we usually think first of the 
    developing world, because that's where 90 percent of new human beings 
    will be added during this final doubling. In _The Population Bomb_ , 
    Paul Ehrlic wrote that he hadn't understood the issue emotionally until 
    he traveled to New Delhi, where he climbed into an ancient taxi, which 
    was hopping with fleas, for the trip to his hotel. "As we crawled 
    through the city, we entered a crowded slum area....the streets seemed 
    alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. 
    People visiting, arguing, and screaming....People, people, people, 
     We fool ourselves when we think of Third World population growth as 
    producing an imbalance, as Amartya Sen points out. The white world 
    simply went through its population boom a century earlier (when Dickens 
    was writing similar descriptions of London). If UN calculations are 
    correct and Asians and Africans will make up just under 80 percent of 
    humanity by 2050, they will simply have returned, in Sen's words, "to 
    being proportionately almost exactly as numerous as they were before 
    the European industrial revolution."
     And of course Asians and Africans, and Latin Americans, are much 
    "smaller" human beings: the balloons that float above their heads are 
    tiny in comparison with ours. Everyone has heard the statistics time 
    and time again, usally as part of an attempt to induce guilt. But hear 
    them one more time, with an open mind, and try to think strategically 
    about how we will stave off the dangers to this planet. Pretend it's 
    not a moral problem, just a mathematical one.
     *An American uses seventy times as much energy as a Bangladeshi, fifty 
    times as much as a Malagasi, twenty times as much as a Costa Rican.
     *Since we live longer, the effect of us is further multiplied. In a 
    year an American uses 300 times as much energy as a Malian; over a 
    lifetime he will use 500 times as much.
     *Even if all such effects as the clearing of forests and the burning 
    of grasslands are factored in and attributed to poor people, those who 
    live in the poor world are typically responsible for for the annual 
    release of a tenth of a ton of carbon each, whereas the average is 3.5 
    tons for residents of the "consumer" nations of Western Europe, North 
    America and Japan. The richest tenth of Americans--the people most 
    likely reading this magazine--annually emit eleven tons of carbon 
     *During the next decade India and China will each add to the planet 
    about ten times as many people as the United States will--but the 
    stress on the natural world caused by new Americans may exceed that 
    from new Indians and Chinese combined. The 57.5 million Northerners 
    added to our population during this decade will add more greenhouse 
    gases to the atmosphere than the roughly 900 million added Southerners.
     These statistics are not eternal. Though inequality between North and 
    South has steadily increased, the economies of poor nations are now 
    growing faster than those of the West. Sometime early in the next 
    century China will pass the United states as the nation releasing the 
    most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, though of course it will be 
    nowhere near the West on a per capita basis.
     For the moment, then (and its the moment that counts), we can call the 
    United States the most populous nation on earth, and the one with the 
    highest rate of growth. Though the U.S. population increases by only 
    about three million people a year, through births and immigration 
    together, each of those three million new Americans will consume on 
    average forty or fifty times as much as a person born in the Third 
    World. My daughter, four at this writing, has already used more stuff 
    and added more waste to the environment than most of the world's 
    residents do in a lifetime. In my thirty seven years I have probably 
    outdone small Indian villages.
     Population growth in Rwanda, in Sudan, in El Salvador, in the slums of 
    Lagos, in the highland hamlets of Chile, can devastate _those places_ . 
    Growing too fast may mean they run short of cropland to feed 
    themselves, of firewood to cook their food, of school desks and 
    hospital beds. But population growth in those places doesn't devastate 
    _the planet_ . In contrast, we easily absorb the modest annual 
    increases in our population. America seems only a little more crowded 
    with each passing decade in terms of our daily lives. You can still 
    find a parking spot. But the earth simply can't absorb what we are 
    adding to its air and water.
     So if it is we in the rich world, at least as much as they in the poor 
    world, who need to bring this alteration of the earth under control, 
    the question becomes how. Many people who are sure that controlling 
    population is the answer overseas are equally sure that the answer is 
    different here. If those people are politicians and engineers, they're 
    probably in favor of our living more efficiently--of designing new cars 
    that go much farther on a gallon of gas, or that don't use gas at all. 
    If they're vegetarians, they probably support living more simply-- 
    riding bikes or buses instead of driving cars.
     Both groups are utterly correct. I've spent much of my career writing 
    about the need for cleverer technologies and humbler aspirations. 
    Environmental damage can be expressed as the product of Population x 
    Affluence x Technology. Surely the easiest solution would be to live 
    more simply and more efficiently, and not worry too much about the 
    number of people.
     But I've come to believe that those changes in technology and 
    lifestyle are not going to occur easily and speedily. They'll be begun 
    but not finised in the few decades that really matter. Remember that 
    the pollution we're talking about is not precisely pollution but the 
    inevitable result of when things go the way we think they should: new 
    filters on exhaust pipes won't do anything about that C02. We're stuck 
    with making real changes in how we live. We're stuck with dramatically 
    reducing the amount of fossil fuel we use. And since modern Westerners 
    are practically machines for burning fossil fuel, since virtually 
    everything we do involves burning coal and gas and oil, since we're 
    wedded to petroleum, it's going to be a messy breakup.
     So we need to show, before returning again to population, why 
    simplicity and efficiency will not by themselves save the day. Maybe 
    the best place to start is with President Bill Clinton--in particular 
    his reaction to global warming. Clinton is an exquisite scientific 
    instrument, a man whose career is built on his unparalleled ability 
    ability to sense minute changes in public opinion. He understands our 
    predicament. Speaking to the United Nations early last summer, he said 
    plainly, "We humans are changing the global climate....No nation can 
    evade its responsibility to confront it, and we must all do our part."
     But when it comes time to do our part, we don't. After all, Clinton 
    warned of the dangers of climate change in 1993, on his first Earth Day 
    in office. In fact, he solmenly promised to make sure that America 
    produced no  more greenhouse gases in 2000 than it did in 1990. But he 
    didn't keep his word. The United States will spew an amazing 15 percent 
    more carbon dioxide in 2000 than it did in 1990. It's as if we had
    promised the Russians that we would freeze our nuclear program and 
    instead built a few thousand more warheads. We broke our word on what 
    history may see as the most important international commitment of the
     What's important to understand is why we broke our word. We did so 
    because Clinton understood that if we were to keep it, we would need to 
    raise the price of fossil fuel. If gasoline cost $2.50 a gallon, we'd 
    drive smaller cars, we'd drive electric cars, we'd take buses--and we'd 
    elcect a new President. We can hardly blame Clinton, or any other 
    politician. His real goal has been to speed the pace of economic 
    growth, which has been the key to his popularity. If all the world's 
    leaders could be gathered in a single room, the one thing that every 
    last socialist, Republican, Tory, monarchist, and trade unionist could 
    agree on would be the truth of Clinton's original campaign admonition:
    "It's the economy, stupid."
     The U.S. State Department had to send a report to the United Nations 
    explaining why we would not be able to keep our Earth Day promise to 
    reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; the first two reasons cited were 
    "lower-than-expected fuel prices" and "strong economic growth." The 
    former Senator Tim Wirth, who until recently was the undersecretary of 
    state for global affairs, put it nakedly: the United States was missing 
    its emissions targets because of "more prolonged economic activity than 
     America's unease with real reductions in fossil-fuel use was clear at 
    last year's mammoth global-warming summit in Kyoto. With utility 
    executives and Republican congressmen stalking the halls, the U.S. 
    delegation headed off every attempt by other nations to strengthen the 
    accord. And even the tepid treaty produced in Kyoto will meet vigorous
    resistance if it ever gets sent to the Senate.
     Changing the ways in which we live has to be a fundamental part of 
    dealing with the new environmental crises, if only because it would be 
    impossible to imagine a world of 10 billion people consuming at our 
    level. But as we calculate what must happen over the next few decades 
    to stanch the flow of C02, we shouldn't expect that a conversion to 
    simpler ways of life will by itself do the trick. One would think 
    offhand that compared with changing the number of children we bear, 
    changing consumption patterns would be a breeze. Fertility, after all,
    seems biological--hard-wired into us in deep Darwinian ways. But I 
    would guess that it is easier to change fertility than lifestyle.

     Perhaps our salvation lies in the other part of the equation--in the 
    new technologies and efficiencies that could even our wasteful lives 
    benign, and table the issue of our population. We are, for instance, 
    converting our economy from its old industrial base to a new model 
    based on service and information. Surely that should save some energy, 
    should reduce the clouds of carbon dioxide. Writing software seems no 
    more likely to damage the environment than writing poetry.
     Forget for a moment the hardware requirements of the new economy--for 
    instance, the production of a six-inch silicon wafer may require nearly 
    3,000 gallons of water. But do keep in mind that a hospital or an 
    insurance company or a basketball team requires a substantial physical 
    base. Even the highest-tech office is built with steel and cement, 
    pipes and wires. People working in services will buy all sorts of 
    things--more software, sure, but also more sport utility vehicles. As 
    the Department of Energy economist Arthur Rypinski says, "The 
    information age has arrived, but even so people will still get hot in 
    the summer and cold in the winter. And even in the information age it 
    tends to get dark at nite."
     Yes, when it gets dark, you could turn on a compact fluorescent buld, 
    saving three fourths of the energy of a regular incandescent. Indeed, 
    the average American household, pushed and prodded by utilities and 
    environmentalists, has installed one compact fluorescent bulb in recent 
    years; unfortunately, over the same period it has also added seven 
    regular bulbs. Millions of halogen torchre lamps have been sold in 
    recent years, mainly because they cost $15.99 at Kmart. They also suck 
    up electricity: those halogen lamps alone have wiped out all the gains 
    achieved by compact fluorescent bulbs. Since 1983, our energy use per 
    capita has been increasing by almost one percent annually, despite all 
    the technological advances of those years.
     As with our homes, so with our industries. Mobil Oil regularly buys 
    ads in leading newspapers to tell "its side" of the environmental 
    story. As the company pointed out recently, from 1979 to 1993 "energy 
    consumption per unit of gross domestic product" dropped by 19 percent 
    across Western nations. This sounds good--it's better than one percent 
    a year. But of course GDP grew more than two percent annually. So total 
    energy use, and total clouds of CO2, continued to increase.
     It's not just that we use more energy. There are also more of us all 
    the time, even in the United States. If the population is growing by 
    about one percent a year, then we have to keep increasing our 
    technological efficiency by that much each year--and hold steady our 
    standard of living--just to run in place. The President's Council on 
    Sustainable Development, in a little-read report issued in the winter 
    of 1996, concluded that "efficiency in the use of all resources would 
    have to increase by more than fifty percent over the next four or five 
    decades just to keep pace with population growth." Three million new 
    Americans anually means many more new cars, houses, refrigerators. Even 
    if everyone consumes only what he consumed the year before, each year's 
    tally of births and immigrants will swell Amercian consumption by one 
     We demand that engineers and scientists swim against that tide. And 
    the tide will turn into a wave if the rest of the world tries to live 
    as we do. It's true that the average resident of Shanghai or Bombay 
    will not consume as lavishly as the typical San Diegan or Bostonian 
    anytime soon, but he will make big gains, pumping that much more carbon 
    dioxide into the atmosphere and requiring that we cut our own 
    production even more sharply if we are to stabilize the world's 
     The United Nations issued its omnibus report on sustainable 
    development in 1987. An international panel chaired by Gro Harlem 
    Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway, concluded that the economies 
    of the developing countries needed to grow five to ten times as large 
    as they were in order to meet the needs of the poor world. And that 
    growth won't be mainly in software. As Arthur Rypinski points out, 
    "Where the economy is growing really rapidly, energy use is too." In 
    Thailand, in Tijuana, in Taiwan, every 10 percent increase in economic 
    output requires 10 percent more fuel. "In the Far East," Rypinski says, 
    "the transition is from walking and bullocks to cars. People start out 
    with electric lights and move on to lots of other stuff. Refrigerators 
    are one of those things that are really popular everywhere. Practically 
    no one, with the exception of people in the high Arctic, doesn't want a 
    refrigerator. As people get wealthier, they tend to like space heating 
    and cooling, depending on the climate."
     In other words, in doing the math about how we're going to get out of 
    this fix, we'd better factor in some unstoppable momentum from people 
    on the rest of the planet who want the very basics of what we call a 
    decent life. Even if we airlift solar collectors into China and India, 
    as we should, those nations will still burn more and more coal and oil. 
    "What you can do with energy conservation in those situations is sort 
    of at the margin," Rypinski says. "They're not interested in fifteen- 
    thousand-dollar clean cars versus five-thousand dollar dirty cars. It 
    was hard enough to get Americans to invest in efficiency; there's no 
    feasible amount of largesse we can provide to the rest of the world to 
    bring it about."
     The numbers are so daunting that they're almost unimaginable. Say, 
    just for argument's sake, that we decided to cut world fossil-fuel use 
    by 60 percent--the amount that the UN panel says would stabilize the 
    climate. And then say that we shared the remaining fossil fuel equally. 
    Each human being would get to produce 1.69 metric tons of carbon 
    dioxide annually--which would allow you to drive an average American 
    car nine miles a day. By the time the population increased to 8.5 
    billion, in about 2025, you'd be down to six miles a day. If you 
    carpooled, you'd have about three pounds of C02 left in your daily 
    ration--enough to run a highly efficient refrigerator. Forget your 
    computer, you TV, your stereo, your stove, your dishwasher, your water 
    heater, your microwave, your water pump, your clock. Forget you light 
    bulbs, compact fluorescent or not.
     I'm not trying to say that conservation, efficiency, and new 
    technology won't help. They will--but the help will be slow and 
    expensive. The tremendous momentum of growth will work against it. Say 
    that someone invented a new furnace tomorrow that used half as much oil 
    as old furnaces. How many years would it be before a substantial number 
    of American homes had the new device? And what if it cost more? And if 
    oil stays cheaper per gallon than bottled water? Changing basic fuel-- 
    to hydrogen, say--would be even more expensive. It's not like running 
    out of white wine and switching to red. Yes, we'll get new 
    technologies. One day last fall _The New York Times_ ran a special 
    section on energy, featuring many of the up-and-coming improvements: 
    solar shingles, basement fuel cells. But the same day, on the front 
    page, William K. Stevens reported that international negotiators had 
    all but given up on preventing a doubling of the atmospheric 
    concentration of C02. The momentum of growth was so great, the 
    negotiators said, that making the changes required to slow global 
    warming significantly would be like "trying to turn a supertanker in a 
    sea of syrup."
     There are no silver bullets to take care of a problem like this. 
    Electric cars won't by themselves save us, though they would help. We 
    simply won't live efficiently enough soon enough to solve the problem. 
    Vegetarianism won't cure our ills, though it would help. We simply 
    won't live simply enough soon enough to solve the problem. Reducing the 
    birth rate won't end all our troubles either. That, too, is no silver 
    bullet. But it would help. There's no more practical decision than how 
    many children to have. (And no more mystical decision either.)
     The bottom-line argument goes like this: The next fifty years are a 
    special time. They will decide how strong and healthy the planet will 
    be for centuries to come. Between now and 2050 we'll see the zenith, or 
    very nearly, of human population. With luck we'll never see any greater 
    production of carbon dioxide or toxic chemicals. We'll never see more 
    species extinct or soil erosion. Greenpeace recently announced a 
    campaign to phase out fossil fuels entirely by mid-century, which 
    sounds utterly quixotic but could--if everything went just right-- 
     So it's the task of those of us alive right now to deal with this 
    special phase, to squeeze us through these next fifty years. That's not 
    fair--any more than it was fair that earlier generations had to deal 
    with the Second World War or the Civil War or the Revolution or the 
    Depression or slavery. It's just reality. We need in these fifty years 
    to be working simultaneously on all parts of the equation--on our ways 
    of life, on our technologies, and on our population.
     As Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in his book _A Moment on the Earth_ 
    (1995), if the planet does manage to reduce its fertility, "the period 
    in which human numbers threaten the biosphere on a general scale will 
    turn out to have been much, much more brief" than periods of natural 
    threats like the Ice Ages. True enough. But the period in question 
    happens to be in our time. That's what makes this moment special, and 
    what makes this moment hard.

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