2007 Threat #03 Environmental Degradation Forecast

PDF: Environmental Degradation

THREAT:  Environmental Degradation

The Environment became a mainstream political issue only ten years after “environmentalist” was a pejorative term for fringe trouble-makers. Political environmentalism can be traced more than ten years, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) which after a long and bitter battle led to the restriction of DDT. Then the 1970s saw new terms such as “agent orange” in every newspaper and pictures on every television of wildlife habitats obliterated by oil spills. Public opinion shifted slightly. With the environment as a new factor – as lip-service or hard policy – environment debates were now not just academic. Profitability or oblivion suddenly depended on a percentage point in government emission/pollution standards. But even though the environment, like crime, is an issue there are no obvious a priori rules. At bottom there is always a Faustian test – a few billion in personal wealth today in exchange for the chance your grand-children will be homeless or be born limbless. Nothing is black or white. To further confuse things — DDT remains one of the best weapons against the world’s greater killer – malaria.

Near-Term:

Clarify the Now:  Most developed nations now factor environmental impacts into decision-making. Big-stakes cases hinge on contradictory evidence of each party’s expert witnesses and judgements often depend on an intellectual coin-toss, manipulation of public opinion, or corrupted officials. Only the creation of disinterested expert jurisdictions removes important environmental issues from the dread grasp of short-term political vision. Also, only public education (or opinion-leaders at least) can give a better grasp of cost. Discussion of cost in environmental debates is often deceitful, often on both sides.

Mid-Term:

Clarify the Future:  Rachel Carson was called a liar and alarmist by opponents but history proved she was a prophet. The same problem remains today – early warnings are always so early that well-financed inertial mass of vested interests are able to discount and ridicule them. If early warnings on tobacco or asbestos had been investigated, no-one smoking today would have started smoking, no-one dying of asbestos would be dying. Because government does not see beyond five years or the next election, only statutory agencies that outlive governments can be trusted to observe the public environmental interest into the conceivable future..

Long-Term:

Globalise the Public Interest:  Initial excitement about globalization lost its innocence when nations realized that everyone really meant “my globalization: not yours”. But the underlying premise of globalization – interconnectedness of all nations is inescapably true. Nations will realize that environmental problems in one sovereign state are also eventually a problem for all. The rapid destruction of the Amazon is not Brazil’s problem but a factor of global climate. My Chernobyl is your Chernobyl. Governments and their electorates will soon realize all nations are in the same boat.