Proverbs says it best: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Think about it. We dream, we conjure visions of our future as we pursue our daily lives. But do we have any collective vision?
Cassandra had visions. She was cursed to utter true prophecies but never to be believed. Modern Cassandras warn us still. But do we listen?
Thomas Malthus, English cleric and scholar, observed that populations tend to grow until the lower classes suffer hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease. In my own lifetime, the world’s population has increased from little more than two billion to an estimated 7.7 billion. The good news is that global birthrates are falling below replacement level, but the population will continue to grow because the young cohorts (0-15 years) are largest and have not begun breeding.
A century and a half after Malthus, other Cassandras appeared. In 1949 Aldo Leopold called for an “ethic” toward the soil that nourishes us. Rachel Carson documented health effects of pesticides on wildlife, humans and ecosystems in her 1962 “Silent Spring.” In 1969 Garrett Hardin described human overexploitation of Earth’s limited resources in his classic “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The first Earth Day was observed in 1970. Increased environmental awareness was reflected in the National Environmental Policy Act and similar legislation enacted that year.
“The Limits to Growth,” published in 1972 by MIT scientists, caused a furor because it linked human development with environmental degradation. Follow-up studies 20 and 30 years later supported the basic conclusions.
“Our Common Future,” commissioned by the United Nations and published in 1987, addressed “how we can protect the world we live in for future generations” while continuing to stimulate economic and social development. The proposed solution was “sustainable development” to meet needs of the present without compromising needs of future generations. The key conclusion: need for long-term strategies to manage the earth’s natural resources.
“Earth Summit” followed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. This UN Conference on Environment and Development began drafting goals for sustainable development. By 2015 all UN member states had adopted goals that address interconnected problems across the globe. They recognized “ending poverty and other deprivation must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”
1992 was also the year the Union of Concerned Scientists published the first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” in which they listed vulnerable categories where the environment was “suffering critical stress” – the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, forests, living species and human population. The statement emphasized environmental uncertainties on our finite globe. They called for “a great change in our stewardship of the earth” if “vast human misery is to be avoided.” It was signed by 1,700 scientists, including most living Nobel laureates in science.
Two years ago, on the 25th anniversary of that warning, the Alliance of World Scientists published a “Second Notice” because humanity’s response to the first was “distressing.” This warning was signed by more than 20,000 scientists from 184 nations.
How many warnings do we need?
We need to replace our consumer mentality with a global vision of earth stewardship, a moral imperative. Most religions advocate such an imperative. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” asks, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?”
Might we create a common vision to address this question? Or shall we just perish?
Pete Haug’s eclectic interests and several careers drew him across the U.S. and into China with his wife, and sometimes draconian editor, Jolie. They retired south of Colfax. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.