Round One - September 13, 2000
The good news is that Boston Harbor is swimmable (and as someone who once had to get a tetanus shot because I fell in the Charles River, which empties into the harbor, I know that's no small accomplishment). The bad news is that Boston Harbor is a few inches higher than it was a couple decades ago, and is probably heading for a few feet higher before the century is out.
This, to me, points out the essential divide between the different types of environmental problems, a distinction that needs to be made if discussions of "pollution" are going to make sense. We have, on the one hand, technical problems: smoke pouring unfiltered from stacks, sewage rushing untreated from pipes, carbon monoxide spewing out of the tailpipes of antiquated cars. We can treat these fairly simply: scrubbers, catalytic converters, and so on. And in those parts of the world with sufficient cash, we're doing so: the air in L.A. is noticeably cleaner than it was a generation ago, and even Bangkok is better than it was in 1990. These are environmental problems as purely technical challenges.
On the other hand, we have another set of problems that have less to do with technical deficiency than with sheer volume. Global warming is (so far) the archetype of this kind of dilemma. The carbon dioxide that causes the greatest part of the problem is not really pollution as we're used to thinking of it -- in ordinary doses, it does no damage. But there are so many of us, using so much fossil fuel, that we have begun to significantly raise the temperature of the planet and hence alter everything on its surface: ice caps, rainfalls, animal migrations, fire patterns, you name it.
It's possible that this is merely a technical problem, too -- that with enough cleverness, enough hybrid cars and hydrogen fuel cells, we can jam this trouble back into the boxes we're used to dealing with. It's possible that our politics -- and in a deeper way our sense of who we are -- won't have to change to deal with it. But I think the math indicates that's unlikely: tackling the problem of global warming in the short time that physics and chemistry allow us may well mandate tackling questions like: how big can populations and economies sanely get? How should they share the planet's resources, including the resource of the atmosphere?
Those are the problems that the Kyoto treaty sidles up to but doesn't really address. Very few of the world's political leaders are willing to even raise them as possibilities (except, increasingly, in some parts of Europe). But no one has defined the issue as squarely as George Bush the elder when he said, prior to the Rio summit in 1992, that "the American way of life is not up for negotiation." That way of life (already quaint and humble to us SUV-piloting descendants a decade later) stands somewhere near the center of this debate. So far, we're willing to entertain the possibility -- and indeed the fact -- of things like massive polar melting and the spread of tropical diseases to a temperate climate, but aren't really even willing to discuss what we might need to do to bring climate change under control.
As I say, it's possible new technologies may help force at least part of this problem back into the bottle -- we may be able to reduce it to a technical question. Surely that's the hope of the Administration, with all its New Vehicle Partnerships and so on. But even if that happens with global warming -- and again, the math makes me think it's highly unlikely -- there are other problems out there on the horizon at least as large. At least that's how I read Bill Joy's Wired article on nanotechnology, robotics, and genetic engineering. I think this will be the century when we grapple, or don't, with the root questions of how big we should be as a species, how much control we should aim for. Those questions are currently beyond politics, but they can't remain there forever.
Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000
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