COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | CAROLYN CHASE

Distractions that matter

I admit it. I've gotten discouraged. It's difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the drama that pours around the airwaves and e-waves. Life and death, sex and money, how can nature compete?

The problem is, as some sports ecologists tend to note, "nature bats last." Regardless of our day-to-day distractions with drama, nature is needed. And she can become downright dangerous if not heeded.

The concept of Earth Day was founded to inspire people to make a difference for the natural world and the environment, including people. While environmentalism has been on the wane in the corridors of power, both local and global challenges to our quality of life and natural environment continue unabated.

Tuning into the state of nature, if you care to be reality-based, can be alarming. For this 35th anniversary of Earth Day, I'm sorry to report that things have, in the main, gotten worse for most global measures.

According to a recent study (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report) supported by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries, approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth -- such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water regulation and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests -- are being degraded or used unsustainably.

Because of human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel, more land has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined. Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers have doubled in the last 40 years. Humans now use between 40 percent and 50 percent of all available freshwater running off the land. At least a quarter of all fish stocks are overharvested. Deforestation and other changes could increase the risks of malaria and cholera, and open the way for new diseases to emerge.

The Energy Future Coalition (www.energyfuturecoalition.org) of business, labor and environmental leaders released its assessment of the crucial importance of oil-dependence to our economy and environment.

Since the OPEC embargo of 1973, the problem of oil dependence has been the nation's most important energy challenge. The transportation sector is 95 percent dependent on petroleum. Two-thirds of U.S. petroleum use is for transportation. Imports, which supplied 35 percent of total U.S. oil consumption in 1973, have surpassed 50 percent and are projected to reach 60 percent by 2010. Of the estimated 1 trillion barrels of world reserves, only 4 percent are to be found in the United States, and fully two-thirds are in the Persian Gulf. The direct cost of these imports reached $100 billion in 2000, to which must be added part of the cost of military involvement in the Persian Gulf.

Of all the threats to the world's environment, the prospect of climate change looms largest. There is a consensus in the scientific community that our climate is changing and warming; the remaining uncertainty is mostly about how fast and how much this will impact the globe (see story).

Preventing climate change is at its core an energy challenge. Globally, fossil fuel production and use accounts for nearly 60 percent of the emissions that are causing the Earth's atmospheric blanket of greenhouse gases to thicken and trap more heat. In the United States, fossil fuels contribute an even larger portion -- 85 percent -- of these emissions. The sources are oil (42 percent), coal (36 percent) and natural gas (22 percent), split almost equally between use in transportation, industry and buildings.

The likely consequences of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been well documented: rising temperatures and sea levels, altered precipitation patterns, increased storm intensity and the destruction or migration of important ecosystems.

The responsible course is to change direction and avoid making matters worse. For example, increased energy efficiency and increased use of renewable energy -- tools to reduce carbon emissions -- are readily available today, and their use would grow with appropriate economic incentives. Technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions from power plants offer another promising option, as do alternative fuels and advanced vehicles.

Yet the eternally dramatic mix of religion and politics seems to have overtaken the importance of rational thought in the media and power-mongering of our age.

Unfortunately, inspiration and faith are not enough when it comes to actually changing the outcomes of the day-to-day problems of humankind on earth. All those summarized above and others could be solved.

The reality may be discouraging, but solutions exist. They can be made real, if people stop being distracted by drama and do the things that can be done.

Earth Day is only an idea, but it catalyzes hundreds of groups and individuals trying to make a difference. All are attempting to do their part to address the overwhelming challenges of our civilization's decline -- and to ask others to do theirs -- both personally and politically.

We cannot know if what we do will be enough. But do not let that be a reason for not doing what you can. So while I am discouraged, I keep doing what I can. And that includes urging you to get over whatever barriers or distractions are in your way, and do what you can.


Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times, a member of the City of San Diego Planning Commission, chair of the Political Committee of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club and one of the founders and organizers of the EarthFair in Balboa Park. E-mail her at carolyn.chase@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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