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Is There a Silver Lining to Our Environmental Actions?

Is There a Silver Lining to Our Environmental Actions? Recent human and environmental crises are a stark reminder that we are all connected by the vast meridians spanning planet earth. We share the same atmosphere, affected by the same hydrological and climatic systems, and therefore are vulnerable to the waste products we spew. With population levels expected to rise to 9 billion by century’s end, what kind of planet are we leaving for our children and is there hope for a better future? Both the "Millennium Ecosystem Report" (2005) and recent forecasts of a species extinction crisis that could wipe out three-quarters of all life on earth within centuries, are sobering reminders that it’s time for rationale discussions on energy and natural resource consumption. We created this mess and we certainly can choose a different path if we want a better future. First and foremost, we need to look at the true costs of drawing down biological capital to fuel economic growth. Cutting down forests, damming rivers, draining wetlands, runaway sprawl, and toxic energy byproducts are all indications that something is not quite right with the current economic model. Development projects almost never assess ecological costs, only the economic benefits. The media almost always reports on sluggish growth as a crisis, without truly examining the consequences to our health or the vitality of the planet’s life-support systems. There is certainly no discussion of what Herman Daly calls “a steady state economy”—an economy of relatively stable size—or one that is in tune with the ecology of the planet. Paul Hawken’s calls this the “ecology of commerce.” Energy consumption is an opportunity for just this discussion as it both drives and is driven by economic growth. According to the 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), energy consumption is responsible for 29 percent of all global warming pollution, more than any other sector. While the carbon footprint of nuclear power is debatable, the human crisis in Japan is not. Something is clearly out of control and climate change is waiting in the wings as an insidious reminder of more chaos to come. So what can be done about all this? Clearly, we hold the keys to steady state consumption and energy is the door through which we must pass. To get there, we must leap rather than crawl to an alternative future. This means nations of the world must work together in fostering another Marshall-like plan to restructure the way we get and use energy. Unlike the Marshall Plan of 1947 that helped to rebuild the economy and infrastructure of Europe after World War II, investments in properly located solar and wind farms, biofuels, especially those coming from algae production with a low carbon footprint, improvements in efficiency of energy delivery, reduced wasteful consumption, more energy-efficient buildings, and a new industrial ecology where byproducts are used over and over again must emerge now if we are going to have a safe and prosperous planet. Linguists tell us that the root word “eco” originated from the Greek meaning of house. It’s pretty obvious that both ecology and economics share this root word and that we are on opposing sides of the fence. Clearly, it’s time to bring the two houses together for the sake of the planet and each other.