Best Seller Ecology:
Earth in the Balance
Vice President Al Gore says:
"A machine using lots of electrical energy must be grounded to the
earth in order to stabilize the flow of electricity through the machine and to
prevent a volatile current from jumping to whatever might touch it. A machine
that is not grounded poses a serious threat; similarly, a person who is not
'grounded' in body as well as mind, in feelings as well as thoughts, can pose a
threat to whatever he or she touches. We tend to think of the powerful currents
of creative energy circulating through every one of us as benign, but they can
be volatile and dangerous if not properly grounded. This is especially true of
those suffering from a serious addiction. No longer grounded to the deeper
meaning of their lives, addicts are like someone who cannot release a 600 volt
cable because the electric current is just too strong: they hold tightly to
their addiction even as the life force courses out of their veins."
Al Gore believes that our civilization is addicted to the consumption of the
Earth. We are addicted to the conquest of the earth and so we deny the ugliness
and destructiveness of that consumption. We elaborately justify what we are
doing while turning a blind eye to the consequences. Al Gore has a big family,
but he believes strongly in population control, and he is a politician who
believes that most politicians, like most citizens, are making excuses and
refusing to face the hard choices and denying their own responsibilities. He has
a long and distinguished record of environmental activism in the U.S. Senate,
and he has written an excellent and important book, Earth in the Balance:
Ecology and the Human Spirit. I will be leading a three week adult education
discussion on the book in January on Tuesday evenings at 7:30, on January 11,
18, and 25, which will also be the beginning of reviving our religious Society's
Environmental Action Task Force. Please join me!
Gore wonders whether, "in giving humans dominion over the earth, God
chose an appropriate technology, i.e., us? For, Gore believes that we are making
it impossible for our children's children to have a standard of living even
remotely similar to ours. We are practicing FUTURE ABUSE: like a parent
violating the personal boundaries of a vulnerable child, we are violating the
temporal boundaries of our rightful place in the chain of human generations
which another generation will call the present."
Gore's own environmental education began with childhood work to prevent soil
erosion on the family farm in Tennessee. His consciousness was raised by his
mother's response to Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, which made the world
aware of DDT and other pesticides abuses. Then, in college, one of his
professors was Roger Revelle, the first person to monitor CO2 build-up in the
"People had always assumed that the earth's ecological system would
somehow absorb whatever abuse we heaped upon it and save us from ourselves. But
Professor Revelle's study taught me that nature is not immune to our presence,
and that we could actually change the makeup of the entire earth's atmosphere in
a fundamental way." As a soldier in Vietnam, Gore saw "jungles
turned by Agent Orange into what looked like the surface of the
Gore explains that "ecology is the study of balance: our system is on
the verge of losing its essential equilibrium. Public discourse is focused on
the shortest of short-term values, avoids the most important issues and
postpones the really difficult choices. Each of us must achieve our own balance:
a healthy integration of our hopes and our fears, desires and responsibilities,
needs and devotions. We are like a hologram: every small portion of the
photographic plate contains all of the visual information necessary to recreate
a tiny, faint representation of the entire three-dimensional image. Each
individual, however faintly, reflects, a representation of the sum total of
values, choices, and assumptions that make up the society of which he or she is
a part....the world's ecological balance depends on more than just our ability
to restore a balance between civilization's ravenous appetite for resources and
the fragile equilibrium of the earth's environment....we must restore a balance
between ourselves as individuals and the civilization we aspire to create and
sustain. We must restore a balance within ourselves between who we are and what
we are doing."
What is the crisis? Gore argues that there are two primary factors: a
startling surge in human population and a sudden acceleration of the scientific
and technological revolution without enough thought for the consequences of
either one. At the time of Julius Caesar, there were about 250 million people in
the world, by the time Columbus came to the New World, 500 million, and in 1776,
1 billion, at the end of WWII, 2 billion, and in the last 50 years: 5.5 billion.
If Gore and I live average life spans, there will be 10 billion people by the
time we die.
Gore has a beautiful chapter called 'Buddha's Breath.' The sky is only 1000th
as thick as the Earth. A jogger could run across its width in an hour. You and I
breathe air molecules also breathed by Buddha and Jesus, Hitler and Genghis
Khan, Sappho and Mother Theresa.
There are three primary air pollution threats: ozone depletion, diminished
oxidation of the atmosphere and global warming. The CFC chemicals used in
refrigerators and air conditioners were created because earlier chemicals were
toxic to touch. These new CFC molecules were very stable, so stable it turned
out that they floated right up to the top of the sky and have made a hole in the
sky's skin bigger than 3 continental US's over Antarctica, the ozone hole. Gore
sees the Montreal Protocol as prototypic of the new international agreements
that need to be made, but the process needs to be speeded up. The Montreal
Protocol set progressively tighter quotas on CFCs and related chemicals, heavy
taxes on those that are still being produced, and a prospective ban in a few
years. Environmentally benign replacement chemicals would reap big profits, and
they have been created and marketed quickly. Environmentalism is not only
possible, but it is economically efficient in a capitalistic system.
The air has a way of cleaning itself, but we have upset the balance by
putting much more that needs to be cleaned into the atmosphere: each of us are
putting 20 tons of CO2 a year, CO2 has increased by 25% since WWII, and methane
by 40% and chlorine by 70% in the last 40 years. The Earth has two primary
lungs: forests and oceans, and we are cutting down and burning up the forests
rapidly, and we are polluting both the air and the water; so, we are giving the
Earth a bad lung disease.
Gore points out the tremendous changes in human history effected by climate
changes caused by volcanic eruptions; then, he goes on to point out that global
warming is making a greater change in one generation than the volcanic ice ages
made in hundreds of years. It is not just a matter of skin cancer and hotter
summers. Global warming threatens explosive changes because slight changes in
the oceans could make great changes in the earth's ability to produce oxygen and
Fresh water is only 2.5% of the total amount of water on Earth. Most of that
water is caught in ice, in Antarctica, Greenland and glaciers. Ground water
makes up most of what remains. Less than .01% is contained in all the lakes,
creek, streams, rivers, and rainfalls.
Of all the fresh water used by human beings throughout the world, 75% is used
for irrigation, and 60% of that is wasted due to inefficient and environmentally
harmful techniques. Again, Gore is not suggesting that irrigation be ended. He
is arguing that it should be technologically transformed, and that each
irrigation use should be after wise cost and benefit analysis.
Forests are a pre-eminent way for us to maintain the earth's balance.
Reforestation programs offer one of the most accessible and effective strategies
for removing CO2 form the environment, halting soil erosion, and restoring
habitats for living creatures. Did you know that we are well on our way to
eliminating half of the world's species, primarily by deforestation. We are
effectively ending a geologic era of genetic abundance. The top soil in Iowa has
been diminished by half, and India is losing 6 billion tons of top soil a year,
mostly by deforestation. In temperate forests, 95% of their nutrients are in the
soil, and 5% in the forest. In tropical rain forests, 5% of the nutrients are in
the soil, and 95% are in the forest itself. The primary genocide today is
deforestation. Soil erosion in a mature forest is: .03 tons hectare per year,
after deforestation, 9 tons per hectare per year.
Al Gore is not a deep ecologist, ready to condemn the human species. He is
not a back-to-the-land hippy urging the dismissal of technology. He does not
think that we can ask the developing world to not grasp for individual freedom
and basic goods and services, nor that we can realistically ask the developed
world to stop growth and technological innovation. He is impressed with the
efforts of "a new brand of resistance fighters who have recognized the
brutal nature of the force now grinding away at the forests and oceans, the
atmosphere and fresh water, the wind, and the rain, and the rich diversity of
life itself....ordinary people with a deeply embedded sense of right and wrong,
usually imparted by a strong and caring parent, and a stubborn refusal to bend
their principles even when the opposing force appears invincible and even
He points out: Wangari Matthai, Kenyan woman who started the Greenbelt
Movement, which has organized women to plant trees and tend them until they can
make it on their own. They have planted 8 million trees in 10 years, and been
teaching the women about birth control and women's rights at the same time.
Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper in the Amazon, who organized
the tappers and fought the burning and destruction even with his death. Mechai
Viravayda of Thailand, called the PT Barnum of birth control who has helped cut
Thailand's population growth from 3.5% to less than 1.7% in 20 years, creating
thousands of family planning clinics and paying taxi driver's insurance when
they sell their quota of condoms.
Marilyn Bullock, American leader of Humans Against Lethal Trash, HALT, who
has developed and pushed through state and national legislation. Pat Bryant,
Afro-American Louisiana organizer, to protect poor Black neighborhoods from
chemical dead zones, in the cancer alley where 1/4 of America's chemicals are
Dr. Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who blew the whistle on the
dramatic increase in chlorine in our atmosphere and its damage to the ozone. As
he summarizes: "these resistance fighters are important but the larger war
to save the earth is being lost. Resistance to totalitarianism slowed its
advance, but it took the world uniting in opposition as a central organizing
principle before the situation really changed."
What Al Gore proposes is a Global Marshall Plan. He believes that the world
has already made three important choices: in favor of democracy, in favor of
modified free markets, and identification with a truly global civilization.
He advocates 5 strategic goals:
- The stabilizing of world population to low birth rates and low death
- Rapid development of environmentally appropriate technologies, sustainable
economic progress without concurrent degradation of the environment.
- Comprehensive and ubiquitous change in the economic rules of the road with
ecological consequences factored in.
- Negotiation and approval of a new generation of international agreements.
- The establishment of a cooperative plan for educating the world's citizens
about our global environment.
He explains that the state of Kerala in southwest India offers exciting
prospects for workable population control: their population growth is more like
Sweden's than it is like the rest of India's or most of the rest of the world.
How did they do it? high literacy rates, particularly among young women, low
infant mortality rates so people are not tempted to have safety children, and a
variety of affordable and available birth control techniques. I am pleased to
say that the U.S. government is now back on the population control band wagon,
and with the recent and continuing advances in these technologies, I believe
that such a program could be successful in slowing world population growth
significantly in a decade.
Gore argues for a Strategic Environment Initiative, organized like Star Wars,
but this time a coordinated world industrial policy for environmental progress.
Discourage and phase out the older inappropriate technologies and develop and
disseminate a new generation of sophisticated and environmentally benign
Here we need to use governments' power. What is taxed, there is less of, what
is subsidized there is more of. So, use tax incentives and disincentives, fund
research and development, have government purchase early marketable solutions
that promise large profits, establish rigorous technology assessment procedures,
and develop a world network of training centers. How about completely
eliminating the internal combustion engine in 25 years, telecommuting and
information superhighways instead of commuting and business travel,
decentralized electric generation, using waste heat through cogeneration, new
technologies for storage and distribution. For instance, the new light bulbs
cost more, but they last much longer, provide more light, and each bulb saves a
ton of coal over its lifetime. Proud to say that we have those new bulbs in our
Auditorium and other buildings, in cooperation with SMUD, and it is saving us
The goal should be to reuse everything that becomes a part of a new
production process and everything produced as a by-product of each
The new rules of the economic road need to include the environmental costs
and benefits of each action and process. We need to stop discounting
environmental damage. We need to be like the Native American Iroquois nation
that wanted to know the impact on the 7th generation. The 3 M company has
discovered that it can increase profits by systematically cutting down on
pollution in all of its processes; pollution is economically inefficient. The
Dupont company is calculating executive compensation and bonuses partly on the
basis of the performance of their environmental stewardships.
We need to have the debt for nature swaps proposed by Smithsonian scientist
Tom Lovejoy. Much of 3rd world debt is not going to be collected any way, and
rain forests and other 3rd world resources preserved would help everyone in the
long run. It is a win-win solution.
Gore does not think instant world government is the answer, questions even
how central the UN can become, but he is enthusiastic about regional and world
treaties on environmental matters. Half of 3rd world debt has been used to
purchase weapons; so, choking off the obscene flow of advanced weaponry would
cut both waste and pollution.
Why not have international agreements producing lower taxes on work and
higher taxes on burning fossil fuels, subsidize the purchase by consumers of
environmentally benign technologies, have a CO2 tax, and a virgin materials fee.
Gore even proposes a system for credits so those that were making more
environmental progress could sell credits to those who were temporally behind in
Finally, Gore believes that we need a new global consensus: the world is my
backyard. So, rather than eliminating the NIMBY feeling, just universalize it.
He believes the massively parallel computers and other new technology can
provide an educational parallel to democracy and capitalism. He proposes getting
the world's students and teachers collecting environmental data locally, using
standard devices, measures, and reporting, and putting in all in one world-wide
system. He feels that we can educate the world and collect the data
simultaneously, and, that, then many of these local folks will become the
advocates we need and the inventors, investors, and activists, the future will
There is, Al Gore, concludes: a revelatory power in the world, and we need to
make a surrendering decision to invest belief in a spiritual reality larger than
ourselves. He would be enthusiastic about our Unitarian Universalist principles
and traditions, for they clearly reflect, his goals. The newest tradition we are
considering is respect for the earth based traditions, like the Native American,
and he refers often to its insights in practicing an ecological faith. Our new
principle in the 1980s was respect for the interdependent web of nature of which
we are a part, and that is the very correction that he is arguing is essential
to freeing humanity from the absurd idea that it is separate, that if a tree
falls in a forest and no person is there to hear it, that there is no sound, no
importance to it. His ecological faith, like our Unitarian Universalist faith,
stresses individual freedom and responsibility, democracy, justice, equity, and
compassion, and a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all. And,
he wants everyone to know that deeds are more important than creeds, that how
you live is your religion. For Gore, the core of evil is the criminal mistake of
believing that there is a space between thinking and feeling, our absurd
pretension of separateness from nature.
The faith that is so essential is the faith that we do have a future, that
the world we present to our grandchildren is important. "We have an ethical
duty to pay attention, to resist distraction, to be honest with one another, and
to accept responsibility for what we do [and leave undone]....The choice is
ours; the earth is in the balance."
Series: Tuesday evenings, 7:30, January 11, 18, and 25.
Meditation: Gore: Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not
wisdom. Information is distilled into knowledge and then sometimes fermented
We must be the change we wish to see in the world.