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Chapter 7 Revisioning the Planet

The human mind delights in creating all-embracing theories and definitive explanations. Yet, as we have seen in the preceding chapters, quantum indeterminism, chaos theory, the limits to language, and the incompleteness and uncertainty of mathematics all call into question the validity of such ambitious goals and plans. But here the reader could be excused for objecting that these case histories from science, philosophy, and mathematics, interesting as they may be, are remote from his daily life. In most cases they are the end result of brainwork created by academics who work in ivory towers and look out at the world from a relatively privileged position. And, when we speak of a transformation in consciousness that began in the 20th century, is this change confined only to an elected few, or does it apply to everyone?

This chapter discusses far more pressing issues - the global and local choices we face in our daily life, and decisions that will impact on our children and our children's children. These issues concern aspects of our daily living that our grandparents' generation took for granted but which we have now come to question.

The 19th century had been a time of vast horizons and empty spaces. Question marks could still be found on maps and new lands were being opened to explorers and settlers. Over a century ago people believed that the earth and its resources were unlimited. There were always new materials to be developed and new energy resources to be exploited. There would always be something for everyone. Until the Industrial Revolution when machines acted to amplify human actions, a lifetime of human labor and effort had only a small impact on the earth. It was natural to believe that the human race would persist forever. Thinkers like Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw even believe that humanity was climbing onward and upward towards the age of the Superman.

All this changed during the 20th century. The human race experienced the hubris of its earlier pride and arrogance. This change is symbolized by two remarkable images that have etched themselves deeply into our collective unconscious: a mushroom cloud and a blue ball in space. Both were the result of advances in science and technology. Both subverted our boast that humanity was capable of unlimited advance and progress.

The first, the mushroom cloud, stands for the atomic bomb and the generations of nuclear weapons that followed. For over half a century the world lived under the shadow of this cloud. During that period the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set its symbolic nuclear clock on its masthead with the hands pointing at five minutes to midnight, indicating that the human race stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Although a generation of American children was taught the nuclear drill of "duck and cover," scientists were soon pointing out the futility of the various emergency measures that had been set in place. The immediate effect of explosions and radiation was bad enough, but what came afterwards would be far worse. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev put it, after a nuclear war the living will envy the dead. Nuclear explosions would create vast dust clouds in the upper atmosphere so thick they would block out the sun's light and heat for years to come. A nuclear winter, a period of cold so profound and unremitting that it would wipe out not only the human race but also most life on earth, would follow.

The tension of the cold war is now behind us. But in a different form a nuclear threat still exists, not so much from the big superpowers but from smaller and less stable nations, and even organized criminal groups. Half a century of international tension has made us more aware of the fragility of life on the planet. Science has revealed other threats, from viruses to drug-resistant microorganisms. Recently a Swedish hospital discovered that Hepatitis C had found a way of spreading to hospital patients not through the normal routes of intravenous injections of contaminated blood but as an airborne virus.

Ebola first emerged from the Ebola River region of Zaire in 1976. The death rate from the disease is 50-90%. There is no known treatment. AIDS is taking a terrible toll and its effect in Africa is proving to be as devastating as the Black Death that swept across medieval Europe. Yet the AIDS virus can only survive under optimum conditions. Imagine what would happen if such a virus could be transmitted by a flea or mosquito bite? Or if it were airborne, as was the case with Hepatitis C in Sweden? Would that spell the end of or global civilization? Human life may be far more vulnerable than we imagined.

The second key image of the 20th century, a photograph taken by American astronauts. is of planet earth as a blue ball suspended in space. The fact that the earth is finite is something we all knew at an intellectual level, yet it required all the billions of dollars spent on the space race to remind us in a forceful way that we are all brothers and sisters. Native Americans say "all my relations," meaning humans, animals, fish, birds, insects, trees, plants, and rocks. That image from space reminded us all that we are inhabitants of a single earth and that its resources are not infinite. What is done in one place effects another. Smoke from the smelters in Sudbury, Northern Ontario, pollutes the North Eastern United States. The rain that fell on my car in central Italy last night left a fine dusting of white mud - it was sand from the Sahara desert carried by the wind.

When it comes to ecology and environmental pollution, there is no room for national politics. Wind does not acknowledge national boundaries, rain falls on international treaties. The destruction of the Amazon rain forests is not an internal matter for the Brazilian government but an issue vital to the climate of the entire world. The choice of a family car or the act of switching on an air conditioner is no longer a matter of purely personal choice. It is on issues like these that the environmental movement takes its stand.

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