In his thoughtful and felicitous new book, "The Fate of Nature," Charles Wohlforth presents an inspired view of humankind's future, one in which the recognition that we rely on nature to sustain and define our lives will lead us to value Earth and its environment, ahead of such familiar human preoccupations as the competitive expression of individual ego, the hoarding of material goods, and the abuse and exhaustion of the environment that ultimately provides those goods, the amassing of which fuels the egoism. It's a profound and uplifting vision, one we must hope is prophetic.
But the prospects don't seem promising. The world population today is more than 6.8 billion, and growing exponentially. Most of the people on the planet are materially poor by any modern standard. Their greatest plagues are inadequate or polluted water and contaminated living conditions, which facilitate the spread of contagious diseases.
Most of those who are poor aspire to live like those who are not. But that means they must accumulate material goods, which inevitably puts pressure on the environment. Those who are not poor seem caught in an addiction to the naïve expectation that material growth is continuous and unending. Rather than a promise of greater sensitivity and responsibility toward nature, this seems a prescription for both environmental, and human, collapse.
Energy is one of the indispensable components of the inexhaustible prosperity we so casually take for granted. We want cheap electricity, cheap fuel for heating systems, and above all, cheap gasoline for our vehicles, which means we want oil on the easiest terms possible, and lots of it. All of us who want that, and that includes all of us who do not want to be poor, are culpable in the BP disaster in the Gulf. Thomas Friedman made this point in the New York Times two weeks ago. Recalling Walt Kelly's droll cartoon character "Pogo" from the 1950s, Friedman noted that "we have met the enemy, and he is us!"
BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf was registered as a ship, as are all offshore rigs registered in the Marshall Islands, for regulatory and insurance convenience. That's not unusual for offshore deepwater rigs, and the Marshall Islands bureaucrats insist that their regulation was defensible. That remains to be seen.
But the fact that the Marshall Islands are involved at all manifests our culpability. Why do we permit such an arrangement? Because in the final analysis, it means cheaper operating costs for the industry, and thus cheaper oil, and gasoline for those of us who do not want to be poor, for those of us who want to spend as little as possible on energy.
The Gulf crisis has, appropriately, shone a bright investigatory spotlight on BP. And BP may be more blameworthy than some other operators. After BP's 2006 spill on the North Slope, resulting from the company's refusal to send a "smart pig" through a transit pipeline there to check for corrosion, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation into BP's level of responsibility. According to the online probe Truthout, the principal investigator on the case felt that he had enough information to bring felony charges against the company. But after a year of preparing the case, Justice shut down the investigation, arguing the department needed the resources for more productive activities. The result was only a misdemeanor conviction and a $20 million fine, regarded as inconsequential by legal analysts.
While he did not put it there, Charles Wohlforth's title should really be followed by a question mark. The demand for cheap energy, the appetite for material goods, the explosive population growth, the perfectly reasonable aspiration of the world's poor for more secure and hopeful circumstances, all raise the fundamental question of the human capacity for discipline and restraint. Some scientists, contemplating the Gaia thesis, have suggested that if mankind becomes a problem for the survival of Earth's environment, that environment may organize so as to eliminate man as the irritant.
Wohlforth is optimistic that as a species, our good sense will prevail, and we'll understand our interest in nurturing the environment. He is absolutely right that the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.