With much environmental doom and gloom in the news, it is easy to become disheartened. Proclamations surrounding the Rio+20 environmental conference, for example, implied that the Earth is on the verge of an apocalypse. Although there is room for improvement, the global environment will not fall apart in the near future. Four decades after similar alarms sounded, life still goes on. Humanity overcame environmental challenges in the past and will overcome the current round of problems too. Hopefully.
In preparation for the Rio+20 environmental conference, the UN issued a report on Earth’s environmental status. Exceeding 500 pages, it details environmental degradation and change. Pesticide contamination, desertification, deforestation and declining wildlife are some of the report’s ‘highlights’. Predictions of rising sea levels, droughts, floods and exhausted fish populations threaten readers who do not heed UN warnings.
A new meme adds to the sense of urgency. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, the environment is reaching a threshold beyond which it can never return. UNEP executive director Achim Steiner interpreted the report as a sign of humanity’s criminal irresponsibility. He worries that failure to reverse trends today will condemn future generations to immutable environmental consequences.
Nevertheless, Steiner sees a glimmer of hope. Pointing to past environmental preservation projects, he declared that humanity can still avert catastrophe. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed these sentiments. Ki-moon wanted UN member states to agree on mid-term and long-term plans for sustainable development at the Rio+20 environmental conference.
UN reports of environmental catastrophes have a long history. A UN report from 1972 warned that all of humanity was in danger from potential environmental disasters. Some predictions, such as global population growth, came true without resulting in the collapse of civilization. Other problems, such as air pollution and water pollution, still plague certain areas and must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The UN report called for programs to preserve biodiversity and protect waterways, two goals that are commonly accepted today.
There will always be ways to improve the environment. Each generation must surmount the environmental challenges before it. That being said, humanity is not at the edge of an abyss. The UN’s current warnings amount to an environmentalist version of Pascal’s Wager. It is best to focus on tangible improvements in air and water quality that benefit people alive today. The success of past environmental efforts suggests that humanity can accomplish these goals. So spend some time cleaning up the waterways this season, but also leave time for fun activities like co-ed Segway polo.