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World holds its polluted breath

The latest failure of the world’s industrial nations to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, drafted by 170 countries to reduce greenhouse emissions by 5 percent by 2012, simply reminds us that our world is on the brink.

Carbon dioxide is deceptive. It is clean. And unlike carbon monoxide, write Marjorie Hope and James Young, carbon dioxide cannot kill humans directly. It will kill indirectly, they write, through global warming. And if global warming isn’t checked, it will kill on a massive scale.

The release of the Hope-Young book (Voices of Hope in the Struggle to Save the Planet, Apex Press, Council of International and Public Affairs) coincides with the collapse of the recent U.N. Conference on Global Warming at The Hague.

Now the world will hold its polluted breath until October when the industrial giants will try again in Marrakech, Morocco.

The collapse of the conference -- in what became a Europe-versus-U.S. contest -- brings home forcefully that the global enterprise is actually a rather ad hoc undertaking. The globe, despite the sometimes-magnificent attempts of the United Nations, is not a manageable entity. There is no final voice of authority, only the sometimes strong and more frequently feeble voice of public opinion.

Consequently, there will be no significant gains anywhere on the major environmental/ecological front until there is a crisis severe enough to alarm nations to take action. Global warming is not yet a crisis. Here in the United States, we deal with global warming by stepping up the sun block from 15 to 60 while skin cancer treatment, practically unheard of two decades ago, becomes a health care staple. Polluting countries like ours may choke on their own emissions but they deal with the effects of the thinned-out ozone layer by printing ultra-violet index warnings along with the smog alerts.

We’re mad, we might say. And that’s correct. But we’re not frightened enough to take mass remedial action. The killer is within our reach, on the hook by the door, the hall table, the coat pocket. It’s the car keys, and we won’t do without them.

We can rail against the polluting industries and national policies that give us our “cheap” affluent standard of living, but the industries and policies are really our proxies, our stand-ins. They’re a reflection of our culture’s selfishness, our concern for lifestyle, convenience and profit, our I’m-all-right-Jack outlook.

The people of the United States, lulled by easy credit, working frantically to meet those monthly payments, commuting through the traffic of our megalopolises -- where the average speed will drop from 31 miles an hour to 23 miles an hour within a decade or so -- and who spend a minimum of 12 hours a day outside the house, have little energy for considering the environment on the weekends or during the five hours between arriving home and going to bed.

But our shorelines aren’t about to be inundated with tidal waves and half the population washed away. If they were, we’d just move to higher ground until the free market system prices high ground beyond our reach.

People might wonder, where are the organized religions? Why aren’t they doing something? But they’re us, too. The United States probably has more organized religions than any other country in the world. “Religions all over the world are facing crises of survival and relevance. Dwindling flocks generate fear,” write Hope and Young.

“Institutional religion generates passivity: ‘The Lord will provide,’ or ‘The Buddha taught us to accept a world that is full of suffering.’

“To convince a religious congregation that concern for the earth and its creatures is a concern for people of faith is difficult. But the religious leader or lay person who has taken a long walk in the woods and fields is likely to be the one who can best lead people back to the primary experience of seeing the divine in the natural world -- an experience increasingly rare in the ersatz world of television, Internet and Disneyland.”

A walk in the woods as a solution to global warming? Alas, no. Only a temporary balm for the soul. But the woods and fields are remarkably good places to start thinking, yet again, how personal concerns can translate into the personal response that may still make a difference in a world so large and on problems so complex.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000