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Stop smoking. Exercise daily. Eat less junk food. Lose ten pounds. Be a better employee. Be a better boss. Be a better spouse. Be a better parent. Be a better citizen. Change the world.
We're only a few weeks into the New Year, and those resolutions, appearing so recently to be challenging but scalable mountains, have for most of us once again been transformed by human weakness into fog-shrouded peaks beyond reach.
All except the last.
Intentionally or not, every human action changes the world. Though any one deed is seemingly of little consequence, the cumulative effect of every mile driven, every degree of heating or cooling in every home, every tree cut down or planted, every field tilled and crop harvested, every spray of irrigation or pesticide, every child conceived, every child vaccinated, every child fed, every life, every death, every technological innovation ... is transformation on a planetary scale.
And every year, people resolve that their individual contributions to this cumulative transformation will be beneficial. But how can they know, and what should they do?
Before they act, they need knowledge, not simplistic slogans. Understanding is in the details, and two excellent sources are The Earth Policy Reader by Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute (Norton, $15.95, 320 pp. paperback) and the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2003 (Norton, $27.95, 272 pp.).
Environmentalists are passionate about their cause, and who can blame them? People too often take for granted the life-giving environment and resources of this planet. They underestimate the impact of our species on the world and overestimate our technological prowess. They believe that humanity can repair whatever it breaks and can anticipate and fend off any danger.
These two books lay out the findings that illuminate the perils of that attitude and the need for a different perspective on the facts.
POLICY AND POLITICS
That perspective should be scientific and analytical, not ideological. Readers need not agree with the political leanings of the Earth Policy Institute or the Worldwatch Institute to appreciate the information these books include. Individuals and organizations may advocate different policies to deal with the problems, but they cannot deny the need for action.
Mr. Brown and his colleagues look at the growing demands on the world's soil and water resources, changes in food production, sources of energy, population growth, health crises, and climate change from an economic perspective. In China, he notes, "ecological deficits are setting the stage for an ecological meltdown ... on a scale that has no historical precedent." Elsewhere, "[i]n much of the world, the demands placed on natural systems have become excessive, leading to their deterioration and, in some locations, their collapse."
The world needs policies that encourage sustainable use of its resources, but current economic, social, and political institutions are not up to the job. Governments are flawed by human frailties, business and industry are motivated by short-term needs and narrow perspectives, and markets are built on incorrect assumptions. For example, as Mr. Brown writes in the case of burning fossil fuels, "those benefiting and those bearing the costs may live on opposite sides of the planet.... The costs and benefits are also separated by time."
Both books point out that not all trends are discouraging. New technologies are making wind-generated electric power economically competitive, and solar power seems poised to follow. Population growth, though still an issue, is responding to changes in the economic and political climate, especially where women are becoming better educated and improving their social status.
The organization of The Earth Policy Reader makes it especially useful for politically active readers. Its three sections lay out "The Economic Costs of Ecological Deficits," provide twelve eco-economy indicators to track, and conclude with a comprehensive set of short "Eco-Economy Updates" written by Earth Policy Institute researchers.
In his presentation for schools and community groups, "Our Next Planet," science writer Dr. Fred Bortz transports his audiences to a future in which humans engineer other worlds to make them suitable for terrestrial habitation. He then brings them back to today's Earth, where the transformative impact of human actions -- including their own -- is only beginning to be understood.