When history is written, we may well discover
that the most important event of the 20th century was not two World
Wars, the Cold War, the fall of state socialism or the triumph of
global capitalism. Rather, the signature event was what was done to the
Earth across the whole community of life—biosphere, human society and
In the past 100 years humans moved more rocks and soil, and they lost and poisoned more topsoil and water than did volcanoes, glaciers and tectonic plates. They altered the thin envelope of the atmosphere dramatically and put record numbers of people in competition with one another and the rest of life in the effort to eke out a livelihood (or enjoy excess).
Accelerated climate change, by itself, may be the most important alteration of the planet in thousands of years. It is nonetheless only one dynamic in a vast process that has put the planet in jeopardy at human hands.
Yet we are slow to stir. Consider James Gustave Spaeth’s letter to The New York Times (Feb. 24) in response to an article, “Glaciers Flow to Sea at a Faster Pace, Study Says.” Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Conn., Spaeth wrote:
“The world we have known is history. A mere 1 degree Fahrenheit global average warming is already raising sea levels, strengthening hurricanes, disrupting ecosystems, threatening parks and protected areas, causing droughts and heat waves, melting the Arctic and glaciers everywhere, and killing thousands of people a year. …
“Yet there are several more degrees coming in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. … It is easy to feel like a character in a bad science fiction novel running down the street shouting, ‘Don’t you see it!’ while life goes on, business as usual. …
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers