THE RAPID deterioration of the stratospheric ozone layer is but one signal of an environmental crisis that is revealing itself all over. Suddenly, the disturbing news carries with it a threat to all of us.
The infamous ozone "hole" that opens each winter over Antarctica is now threatening to open over Kennebunkport and a sizeable portion of North America, exposing densely populated areas for the first time to significantly increased doses of dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Scientists have recorded higher levels of ozone-depleting chlorine over northern New England and Canada than they have ever recorded over Antarctica or anywhere else. And the emergency described by NASA scientists is only going to get worse throughout the coming decade.
Indeed, a global ecological crisis is now banging down the door, announcing itself in various ways:
Increasing emissions of carbon dioxode and other greenhouse gases are fueling increases in Earth's temperature that foreshadow catastrophic consequences.
Forests are being destroyed at one and a half acres per second, and with them thousands of species that can never be replaced.
Each day, almost 40,000 children under the age of 5 are dying from hunger and malnutrition caused in significant part by ecological devastation.
We continue to generate waste in the United States at a rate that exceeds twice the average body weight of every American every day.
Dead dolphins wash up along the Mediterranean Coast, their immune systems weakened by too much pollution; within the last few years, several million starfish washed up over miles of the White Sea; thousands of seals washed up on the shores of the North Sea; our own children dodged hypodermic needles washing in with the waves.
It's beginning to resemble what the comedian A. Whitney Brown called, "A nature hike through the Book of Revelations."
All these ecological crises are symptoms of the same underlying crisis: a relatively recent and dramatic change in our relationship to Earth, which has led to a collision between industrial civilization and the ecological system of the planet. Like an alcoholic who has a string of drunk-driving accidents, but sees each one as an isolated incident with a separate explanation, we're failing to recognize the pattern connecting these environment catastrophes. Our civilization is, in effect, addicted to the voracious consumption of Earth itself.
We can discern this pattern better if we begin to think in terms usually used by the military. There are "local" skirmishes, "regional" battles and "strategic" conflicts. This third category is reserved for threats to a nation's survival and must be understood in a global context, like our long and successful struggle against Soviet communism.
In the same way, most instances of water pollution, air pollution and illegal waste dumping are essentially local in nature. And we now recognize that problems like acid rain and the contamination of large underground aquifers are fundamentally regional. But we now face a new class of environmental problems that affect the entire global ecological system and are fundamentally strategic in nature -- the ozone "hole" now threatening to open above our heads is but one example.
Ozone depletion is, in fact, just one of three strategic threats to the entire global atmosphere; the others are diminished oxidation and global warming. All three have the power to change the makeup of the atmosphere and, in the process, disrupt its crucial balancing role in the global ecological system.
Ozone depletion changes the atmosphere's ability to protect Earth's surface from harmful quantities of short-wave (ultraviolet) radiation. Decreased oxidation potentially damages the atmosphere's ability to cleanse itself of pollutants like methane. Global warming increases the amount of long-wave (infrared) radiation retained in the lower atmosphere and thereby inhibits the atmosphere's ability to maintain temperatures within the relatively constant range that provides stability for the global climate system.
In all three cases, the changes are ubiquitous and persistent.
A thinner ozone layer allows more ultraviolet radiation to strike Earth's surface. Many life forms are vulnerable to large increases in this radiation, including plants that normally remove huge quantities of CO
from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The scientific evidence indicates that these plants, when exposed to increased ultraviolet radiation, can no longer photosynthesize at the same rate, thus further raising the levels of CO
in the atmosphere.
We too are affected. The best known consequences of extra ultraviolet radiation include skin cancer and cataracts, both of which are increasingly common, especially in areas of the Southern Hemisphere such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Patagonia.
Residents of the area already inside the Southern Hemisphere's ozone hole, in Patagonia, have been advised by the Argentine Health Ministry to stay indoors as much as possible during September and October. In Queensland, in northeastern Australia, more than 75 percent of citizens who have reached the age of 65 have some form of skin cancer, and children are required by law to wear large hats and neck scarves to and from school to protect against ultraviolet radiation. In Patagonia, hunters now report finding blind rabbits; fisherman catch blind salmon.
When the international Ozone Trends Assessment Panel reported its findings last fall -- ozone depletion occurring 200 percent faster, during the summer months as well as winter, and over mid-latitudes and not just the poles -- they warned it could mean hundreds of thousands of deaths and more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer.
Less well known are the effects of extra ultraviolet radiation on the human immune system. Still, it is clear that increased levels suppress the immune system and so may actually increase our vulnerability to diseases of the immune system, all of which, incidentally, have increased dramatically in the last two decades. The scientists said that skin pigmentation and most sun screens would offer little protection from this threat.
Although other chemicals have contributed to the ozone depletion crisis, the principal damage has been done by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The fact that CFCs have been produced for fewer than 60 years and yet have had such a sweeping impact should make us consider how many of the other 20,000 chemical compounds introduced each year may, when mass-produced, cause other significant changes in the environment. Very few are extensively tested for environmental impact before they are used -- although, ironically, CFCs were. It was their benign chemical stability in the lower atmosphere that enabled them to float slowly, unimpeded, to where ultraviolet rays finally sliced them into corrosive pieces.
Today, even as we try to understand the enormity of this, we continue putting the same chemicals into the environment. What does it mean to redefine one's relationship to the sky? What will it do to our children's outlook on life if we have to teach them to be afraid to look up?
Considering the Bush administration's slow response to ozone depletion, it is frightening to think what kind of environmental disaster it will take to get the White House moving on the even more serious threat of global climate change.
In the past, it was safe to assume that nothing we could do would have any lasting effect on the global environment. But it is precisely that assumption which must now be discarded so that we can think strategically about our new relationship to Earth.
We must do no less than make the rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle for our post-Cold War civilization. Adopting a central organizing principle -- one agreed to voluntarily by nations around the world -- means embarking on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy.
Marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change -- these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary. The Neville Chamberlains of this crisis carry not umbrellas but "floppy hats and sunglasses" -- the palliative allegedly suggested by a former secretary of the interior as an appropriate response to the increased ultraviolet radiation caused by the thinning of the ozone layer.
What is needed is a plan -- call it a Global Marshall Plan for the environment -- that combines large-scale, long-term, carefully targeted financial aid to developing nations; massive efforts to design and then transfer to poor nations the new technologies needed for sustained economic progress, a world-wide program to stabilize world population and binding commitments by the industrial nations to accelerate their transition to an environmentally responsible pattern of life.
To work, however, any such effort will also require wealthy nations to make a transition that in some ways will be more wrenching than that of the Third World, simply because powerful established patterns will be disrupted. It must emphasize cooperation -- in the different regions of the world and globally -- while carefully respecting the integrity of individual nation states.
The world's most important supranational organization -- the United Nations -- has a role to play, though I am skeptical about its ability to do very much. The U.N. might, though, consider establishing a Stewardship Council to deal with matters relating to the global environment -- just as the Security Council now deals with war and peace. Such a forum could be increasingly useful as the full extent of the environmental crisis unfolds.
Similarly, it would be wise to establish environmental summit meetings, much like the annual economic summits of today that only rarely find time to consider the environment. The preliminary discussions of a Global Marshall Plan would, in any event, have to take place at the highest level. And, unlike economic summits, these discussions must involve heads of state from both the developed and developing world.
Some strategic goals are obvious. For example, world population should be stabilized, with policies designed to create the conditions necessary for the so-called demographic transition -- the historical and well-documented change from a dynamic equilibrium of high birth rates and death rates to a stable equilibrium of low birth rates and death rates. This change has taken place in most of the industrial nations and in virtually none of the developing nations. It is no secret that President Bush has opposed an active U.S. role in population stabilization.
But we also need to rapidly create and develop environmentally appropriate technologies -- especially in energy, transportation, agriculture, building construction and manufacturing.
In this regard, I have proposed a Strategic Environment Initiative (SEI), a worldwide program that would discourage and phase out older, inappropriate technologies and develop and disseminate a new generation of sophisticated and environmentally benign substitutes. As soon as possible, the SEI should be the subject of intensive international discussions, first among the industrial nations and then between them and the developing world.
And we need to re-think the economic "rules of the road," by which we measure the impact of our decisions on the environment. We must establish -- by global agreement -- a system of economic accounting that assigns appropriate values to the ecological consequences of both routine choices in the marketplace by individuals and companies and larger, macroeconomic choices by nations.
The nations of Earth need a new generation of agreements that will embody the regulatory frameworks, specific prohibitions, enforcement mechanisms, cooperative planning, sharing arrangements, incentives, penalties and mutual obligations necessary to make the overall plan a success. These agreements must be especially sensitive to the vast differences of capability and need between developed and undeveloped nations. The process will begin at the Earth Summit in Brazil this June. President Bush is the only major world leader who has refused to announce his participation there.
What is needed, finally, is this: an ecological perspective that does not treat Earth as something separate from human civilization. We, too, are part of the whole, and looking at the whole ultimately means also looking at ourselves. If we do not see that we are a powerful natural force like the winds and tides, we cannot see how we threaten to push Earth out of balance.
Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) is chairman of the Senate subcommittee on science, technology and space. This article is adapted in part from his new book, "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit," published by Houghton Mifflin.