When you turn on the news and all you see is trivia about which Republican politician is ahead in the race to be the person who loses to Barack Obama in the next presidential election, it’s easy to get the impression that nothing really important is going on in the world these days.
But last night I listened to a recent podcast from a British writer named Johann Hari whose articles I’ve been enjoying for several years, and the topic was more important than anything I’ve seen on the news in weeks. The story was something I and I’m sure most other humans on the planet are unaware of, and those who are aware probably don’t realize how important it could potentially be. Hari framed the issue as a potential hinge-point in history—not just human history but the history of the entire Planet Earth—and I agree that it might be.
Just about all scientists now understand that the world is undergoing its sixth mass extinction since the appearance of living organisms, and that this is due to the rapidly accelerating pace at which humans are robbing species of their natural habitats. I find this even more alarming than the threat of global warming alone, as ecosystems are volatile things and it would only take the disappearance of one or two key links in the food-chain to throw the entire global ecosystem radically off-balance to the point where humanity might no longer be able to sustain itself for more than a few more generations.
Virtually everyone understands that the problem is a global economic system that places all value on short-term profit and practically no value on long-term sustainability. What nobody seems to have a good answer for is what we’re supposed to do about it.
Enter Ecuador, home to a large portion of Amazon rainforest which happens to sit atop substantial oil-reserves. Ecuador’s situation is a microcosm of the world-at-large: the planet needs things like rainforests to maintain biodiversity and to continue converting carbon dioxide into oxygen so we can all breathe, but societies need money to keep up with other societies and money can easily be generated through revenue from oil extraction. It may be easy to see that the morally right thing to do is preserve these planet-sustaining ecosystems for the sake of future generations at the small expense of the current generation, but in practice this is a decision not-so-easily taken.
Ecuador has offered the world a compromise. It could potentially generate $7.2 billion by extracting the oil from the Amazon basin, but it would agree not to do so if other countries would come together and make up for half that amount: $3.6 billion.
The UN already has a program to compensate countries for refraining from deforestation, but not for lost oil revenue. Ecuador is really forcing the international community to greatly reconsider the monetary value it places on the earth’s natural habitats.
So far, predictably, the plan appears to be failing miserably. A few countries including Spain, Chile, and Belgium have donated token amounts ranging from $100,000 to $1.3 million, but Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa has said that unless the first $100 million can be raised by the end of the year he’ll have no choice but to begin clearing the forest for oil extraction.
$100 million. A drop of water in the U.S. national budget. Pocket-change to the world’s wealthiest people. And yet no one is stepping up to the plate.
You might think, “So what? It’s just one rainforest.” But we can’t overlook the larger issue of the precedent it sets. Were it to succeed, Ecuador’s proposal would greatly increase the monetary value of natural environments, and countries across the world would have a much easier time refraining from destroying those environments if preserving them didn’t mean sacrificing such large potential revenues.
Conversely, if this plan fails it will have the opposite effect and confirm the precedent that the world places far more value on the resources that can be extracted from natural environments than maintaining those environments themselves. Ecosystems will continue to be destroyed, their rate of destruction will likely accelerate, and the delicate worldwide ecological balance could be pushed passed the tipping point far sooner than anyone might have expected.
When our great-grandchildren are growing up in a world devoid of electricity, running water, sufficient food for everyone, and perhaps even enough oxygen for everyone to breathe, they may look back on this moment in history and point to it as the crossroads at which we failed to take the last exit available to us on the highway to self-destruction.
For all the recent hype over one huckster’s ridiculous warning that the world was about to be brought to an end by God’s hands, it’s baffling how little attention is given to stories about the potential real end of the world brought about by human hands.