Today's date:
Winter 1993

Ecology: The New Sacred Agenda

Al Gore - Vice President of the United States

I fear we are on a downslope toward a future catastrophic event that will dim history. At a gut level, people throughout the world realize that the environment is the issue of our time. In the not too distant future, there will be a new "sacred agenda" in international affairs: policies that enable the rescue of the global environment. I agree with the Spring 1989 issue of NPQ that this task will one day join, and then perhaps supplant, efforts to prevent the world's incineration through nuclear war as the principle test of statecraft.

When we consider the relationship of the human species to the planet Earth, not much change is visible in a single year, in a single nation. Yet, if we took at the entire pattern of that relationship from the emergence of the species until today, a distinctive contrast in very recent times clearly conveys the danger to which we must respond. It took ten thousand human lifetimes for the population to reach two billion. Now, in the course of a single human lifetime the world population is rocketing from two billion toward ten billion, and is already halfway there.

Startling graphs showing the loss of forest land, topsoil, stratospheric ozone, and species all follow the same pattern of sudden, unprecedented acceleration in the latter half of the 20th century. And yet, so far, the pattern of our politics remains remarkably unchanged. To date, we have tolerated self-destructive behavior and environmental vandalism on a global scale.

Even with top-level political focus, the pervasive nature of all the activities that cumulatively create the greenhouse effect make the global solutions almost unimaginably difficult. Therefore, our first task is to expand the circumference of what is imaginable. It is not now imaginable, for example, to radically reduce C02 emissions. Even if all other elements of the problem are solved, a major threat is still posed by emissions of carbon dioxide, the exhaling breath of the industrial culture upon which our civilization rests. Yet, emissions must be curbed. We can make that task imaginable by building our confidence with successful assaults on more easily achievable targets, like elimination of CFCs and reversing the practice of deforesting the earth.

The cross-cut between the imperatives of growth and the imperatives of environmental management represents a supreme test for modern industrial civilization. Can we devise dynamic new strategies that will accommodate economic growth within a stabilized environmental framework?

The effort to solve the global environmental problem will be complicated not only by blind assertions that more and more environmental manipulation and more and more resource extraction are essential for economic growth. It will also be complicated by the emergence of simplistic demands that development, or technology itself, must be stopped. This is a crisis of confidence that must be addressed.

There is no assurance that a balance can be struck. Nevertheless, the effort must be made. And because of the urgency, scope and even the improbability of complete success in such an endeavor, I will borrow from military terminology: To deal with the global environment, we will need the environmental equivalent of the Strategic Defense Initiative - a Strategic Environment Initiative. Even opponents of SDI, of which I am one, recognize that this effort has been remarkably successful in drawing together previously disconnected government programs, in stimulating development of new technologies, and in forcing a new wave of intense analysis of subjects previously thought to have been exhausted.

I have likened our newfound awareness of ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect to the Kristallnacht which forewarned the holocaust. The logic of this analogy can be extended, as NPQ editor Nathan Gardels did in his foreword to the Spring 1989 issue on the ecology, to include Hannah Arendt's memorable notion of "the banality of evil" which emerged from her reflections on Hitler's lieutenants at the Eichmann trial.

My own religious faith teaches me that we are given dominion over the earth, but that we are also required to be good stewards. If, during our lifetimes, we witness the destruction of ha If the living species God put on this earth, we will have failed in our responsibility as stewards. Are those actions, because of their result, "evil"? The answer depends upon our knowledge of their consequences. The individual actions that collectively produce the world's environmental crisis are indeed banal when they are looked at one by one-the cutting of a tree, the air conditioning of a car. The willingness to trace the line of responsibility from individual action to collective effect is a challenge that we as a civilization have not yet learned to master.

"Evil" and "good" are terms not frequently used by politicians. And, yes, we know from historical experience the dangers of mixing public policy and religion. But, in my own view, while we must avoid zealotry, this ecological crisis cannot be met without reference to spiritual values.

In truth, as a civilization we don't have much faith left. The idea that we can totally abandon any but the secular values comes perilously close to saying that nothing has worth unless it can be consumed in our lifetimes.

The word "faith" need not be defined in conventional religious terms. Whether or not an individual has faith in life after death, they must have faith that life on earth continues after their death. If we are so far gone as a civilization that such a belief system cannot be put together, then nothing can save this species.

Ultimately, I believe that the ecological solution will be found in a new faith in the future of life on earth after our own, a faith in the future that justifies sacrifices in the present, a new moral courage to choose higher values in the conduct of human affairs, and a new reverence for absolute principles that can serve as guiding stars by which to map the future course of our species.


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