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Death wish
Saturday, June 2, 2001

Humanity has a death wish? It sounds like a glib joke, but unless you assume people can thrive on a poisoned, parched, denuded and fuel-less planet, the suggestion that our actions are tantamount to collective suicide seems more serious by the day. Dead serious.

Earth's population has surpassed six billion and is rising by about 78 million people a year (United Nations experts expect it to peak at about 10 billion), constantly increasing the need to tap into natural resources. Enterprise may be free, but the energy crunch is growing so severe that gasoline prices soon may hit $1 a litre. South of the border, a Texas oil man who now sits in the White House is urging his nation to jack up supply rather than decrease demand.

Closer to home, fish-deprived Newfoundland sees water, water everywhere and suddenly wonders what's so wrong with bulk exports. Ontario's common-sense revolutionaries try to reconcile their affection for high-density livestock production with the way it fouls the province's drinking water.

Conflicts like these have been mounting at such a rate that even those willing to pay an ecological price for progress are shocked at the inflation rate.

  • Alanna Mitchell: biography
  • Canadian Environment Week
  • World Environment Day
  • Rio Declaration
  • Places
  • Johannesburg Summit 2002
  • Science
  • Greek, Indian, Buddhist and Chinese theories of the elements
  • Environmentalism still suffers from the stereotype that it is a kind of global do-goodism, in which "tree-hugging" charity toward wildlife trumps the human need for jobs and economic development. But what if eco-friendliness is really a matter of cold, keen-eyed self-interest - of preventing our own extinction?

    Like the global climate, the debate is about to get hotter. Today is not only the launch of Canada Environment Week, the annual exercise in eco-consciousness raising, it's the ninth anniversary of the Earth Summit, the great gathering in Rio de Janeiro that put the environment on the front burner.

    Or did it? With the celebration on Monday of yet another eco-event, the UN's annual World Environment Day, preparation begins in earnest for Rio Plus 10, the follow-up summit slated for next year in Johannesburg. An estimated 64,000 participants are expected to take stock of the situation and decide what can be done to rekindle the environmental flame.

    There may not be much time. As actor Harrison Ford, an ardent environmentalist, told Alanna Mitchell, The Globe and Mail's earth sciences reporter: "We all know we are losing parts of the biotic continuum at each and every step. We have no idea, really, what finally the effects of those losses will be."

    How bad is it? To find out, The Globe sent Mitchell around the world. After visiting the Middle East, the Far North, South America and the badlands of Alberta, she concluded that the ancient Greeks' theory of the four elements needs an update. The relationship between earth, air, water and fire is now subject to the pervasive influence of a fifth element - humanity.

    As Ford, an active board member of Washington-based Conservation International, puts it: "Human interference with the natural order of our planet is the biggest factor in why it is now so fragile."

    We are using and abusing water so quickly that nature cannot replenish its supply. So much forest cover has been lost that there is now more carbon dioxide in the air than at any other time in three million years. Temperatures are rising at unprecedented rates; ice caps and permafrost are melting. In fact, climate change is so advanced that experts fear some parts of the world will lose the ability to feed themselves and fall prey to disease.

    With the ecosystem breaking down, 24 per cent of all mammal species are at serious risk of extinction, along with 30 per cent of fish, 25 per cent of reptiles, 20 per cent of amphibians and 12 per cent of the birds, according to the World Conservation Union.

    Unless something changes soon, species will go extinct faster now than they did when the dinosaurs died out - all, ironically, at the hand of Homo sapiens, the big winner when the dinosaurs surrendered the Earth. Our new understanding of that "extinction spasm," and what it implies about our current predicament, is the subject of today's opener to Mitchell's startling four-part series.

    The next two parts of the series support that admittedly bleak picture, with humans acting the role of a suicidal horde, like the apocryphal march of the lemmings.

    But in the finale, Mitchell finds hope deep in the virgin rain forest of Suriname that even if the situation is desperate, humanity can do one thing the lemming cannot: We can change our behaviour.

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