Qualified Optimism


The Earth Remains Forever: Generations at a Crossroads. Jackson, R. 2002 . University of Texas Press , Austin, TX . 189 pp. $40.00. (hardcover) ISBN 0-292-74054-9 . $19.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-292-74055-7.

“Optimism,” said Candide, “is the mania of maintaining that everything is well when we are wretched.” Yet, with the knowledge of wretchedness that this volume details, the author proposes a qualified optimism for “generations at a crossroads,” the book's subtitle. Ours is not a generation to face the future with expectation and uncertainty or to cope with the problems of the times. Of course, the implication of the “crossroads” is that the wrong road chosen leads to failure and catastrophe.

The Earth Remains Forever is another volume in the same cautionary genre as the 1992 volume Earth Remains in Balance by former vice president Al Gore. Both books are reminders of environmental damage the earth suffers and an outline of potential future catastrophes. Specifically, Jackson's volume highlights the results of the 2000 presidential election vote by which the balance scales of government were tipped toward a regime that treats environmental damage with denial, postponement, and retrograde policies. The purpose of both Gore and Jackson is to inform the public and thereby influence governmental processes. Yes, planet Earth will remain forever—if billions of years are “forever.” But what will be the fate of the life that teems upon it? With experience in both industry and science, Robert Jackson has excellent credentials for the task of detailing the pertinent facts. Jackson worked as a chemical engineer for Dow Chemical and is now associate professor in Duke University's School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

The usefulness of Jackson's book lies in his ability to make his information intelligible and credible to the interested citizen. He convincingly presents the historical data and scientific studies that demonstrate how environmental degradation happens where human populations fail to take care of the world around them and overuse their available resources. Jackson articulates what the ozone problem is all about, the evidence for global warming, damages caused by invading exotic species, the impact of lost habitat and wetlands, shortages of available safe water, and the importance of maintaining biodiversity. There is a helpful index and 30 pages of references for those who want to do more research.

The details will not be news to any practicing environmental scientist, but they will be helpful for the rest of us who want to understand our natural world so that we can have an adequate basis for political decisions about the resources of the United States and the world. We can find the arguments for balancing economic policy with measures to ensure clean water, air, soils, and oceans. For those among us with short attention spans or limited tolerance for scholarly talk, Jackson sprinkles his dissertation with stories, lively examples, quatrains, and cartoons. Not to muddy the unbiased tone of the scientific material, he restricts his recommendations for political solutions to chapter endings and his preaching to a final “Vision for the Future.”

Jackson's story-telling talent takes over in his chronicle of Easter Island ( Rapa Nui ). The Lapita people of Oceania survived a 1000-mile voyage in canoes, established a complex culture lasting 1000 years, created the only written language in Oceania, and ringed the island with peerless Moai statues before they went into a long, steady decline. Their growing population, using slash-and-burn agriculture, proved fatal to a once lush forest, all but 1 of 30 species of birds, and finally themselves. The magnificent toromiro trees ( Sophora toromiro[Fabaceae] ), which they considered sacred, were used for firewood and as rollers to transport the Maoi figures. The trees now exist only in gardens and private collections. Easter Island's history is a canonical case of human triumph and tragedy, a template for the fate of populations that are so numerous and so “successful” that they overwhelm their resources.

The broad base of Jackson's argument for responsible public policy builds with chapters on human population, its exponential growth rate and energy consumption, and biological diversity, from the great apes to microbes and from the rare to the teeming. There is a chapter on biological extinctions, comparing the Permian and dinosaur extinctions with those of recent history caused by human predation. The role of extinctions caused by exotic species invasions is correlated to increasing globalization of human activity. “Altered Horizons” is the title of the chapter on habitat loss. We must feed ourselves, and in so doing we take over land, including forests and wetlands, for agriculture; divert water for irrigation; spray tons of pesticide; and overharvest the fish of the sea, both those we use and many that we just destroy with trawling nets.

Safe drinking water is not available to a billion people, and millions die for lack of sanitation. There is a tragic irony in the benefits of water control. We have built dams and reservoirs and channeled rivers by which we control floods, provide clean water, clean power, and navigable rivers—while in the process wildlife dies, shorelines retreat, salinity rises, fish disappear, and rivers run dry.

Jackson gives a fascinating litany of medicines that have been derived from plants and animals. For example, from the rosy periwinkle ( Catharanthus roseus ) of Madagascar, we have cancer drugs to control Hodgin's disease and children's leukemia. A microbe that thrives in Yellowstone hot springs has become a basic research tool of modern molecular biology. The blue blood of the horseshoe crab provides a clotting agent used in screening for the pathogens of spinal meningitis and gonorrhea. These and many other examples are arguments for maintaining plant and animal diversity as “nature's tool shed,” a source of solutions for unpredictable future plagues of humankind.

Because there is not always a single, simple relationship between causes and effects, the course of governmental response to environmental problems is complicated by the need to educate and convince legislators and administrators. As a prime example, the danger posed by a hole in the ozone layer of the earth's atmosphere is not yet fully accepted. It has taken years, but we do understand the connections between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, chlorofluorocarbons ( CFCs ) in aerosols and refrigerators, a hole in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation, and human cataracts and carcinomas. Although international action outlawing CFCs has effected some reduction in the growth of the ozone hole, the problem has not gone away. Jackson tells us why this is a cautionary tale of potential catastrophe if we again ignore or fail to respond to damage inflicted on the earth's atmosphere.

In conclusion, Jackson has a few suggestions for preserving a livable environment. He proposes long-term monitoring of the global climate and roundtable congregations of nations working together to mandate that the price of a product be included in the cost of disposing of it after use. He acknowledges, however, that it will be easier for scientists to lay plans than it will be for governments to balance the imperatives of conservation, population control, habitat maintenance, and energy use with the contrary imperatives, customs, and indulgences of twenty-first century people.