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Special Report

Earth in the balance


What on earth are we doing to the Earth?” asks journalist Bill Moyers at the beginning of a two-hour program that premieres on PBS Tuesday, June 19, from 8 to 10 p.m. ET (check local listings). “Bill Moyers Reports: Earth on Edge” probes two of the most critical questions of the new century: What is happening to Earth’s capacity to support the human species and civilization? And, more important, what can we do about it?

“This is not a report on saving the pandas or even a beautiful scenic view,” says Moyers. “Scientists are now asking whether the Earth can continue to sustain human life. We are reporting on what they are finding.”

The program coincides with the launch of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an international scientific effort to gauge the health of the world’s forests, grasslands and farmlands, as well as coastal and freshwater resources. Preliminary findings were featured in the study World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems, prepared by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and the United Nations Development and Environment Programmes. Their statistics are sobering: half the world’s wetlands lost in one century, half the world’s forests cut down, 70 percent of the major marine fisheries depleted, and the world’s coral reefs at grave risk.

“Anyone who follows the news knows that the environment is under pressure, but what is the big picture? Scientists want the facts, and they are starting to comb every room in the global household to see what we have to do to go on living here,” says Moyers.

Moyers begins on the prairies of Western Kansas then ranges to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, to British Columbia’s rain forests, to the grasslands of Mongolia, then to the coral reefs off the coast of Brazil. The program looks at five ecosystems, describing the human impact on the environment and what’s necessary to restore it.

“We are pushing our planet to the absolute limit of its ability to function,” says Melanie Stiassny, one of the biologists interviewed whose findings suggest that the planet is approaching critical environmental thresholds that may be irreversible. The program profiles individuals who are confronting the challenge head on.

A Kansas farmer, Charlie Melander explains how he uses the richest farmland in the world in ways that prevent its loss to erosion and pollution, bucking the conventions of farming practice. “Why should I, who live in Manhattan, care about how you farm out here, as long as I get the food I need?” Moyers asks. “The equation’s not that simple,” Melander answers, explaining that the cost of current farming practices is polluted water even hundreds of miles out in the Gulf where Midwestern rivers empty and the prospect of eroded fields unable to bear crops in the future. “Like it or not, you’re going to be affected by what we do or don’t do,” he warns.

In South Africa the problem is water scarcity. European colonists planted non-native pine and eucalyptus that interfered with that ecosystem’s million-year-old practice of filtering water through drought-hardy bushes. Today forests of those trees drink up the water so necessary to city dwellers downstream. The government decided to train 40,000 unemployed people to cut down the trees and restore the precious water flow from the mountains to the rivers. Their “Working for Water” program has been a huge success.

Peacefully and productively resolving the conflicts of competing agendas is one of the great environmental challenges facing the world today. In the rainforests of the Canadian northwest, Moyers tells the story of a collaboration involving one of Canada’s largest timber companies. Environmental protesters halted the clear-cutting of old-growth cedar, hemlock and fir and when the logging stopped, so did the jobs for Canada’s native peoples who live in the area. Working together, company executives, native leaders and environmentalists formed a new company to harvest trees in ways that mimic the natural process. They market the lumber with a certified Green stamp of approval, and are waiting to see if the public is willing to pay the extra money to keep these cathedral-like forests healthy.

In Mongolia, individual families compete for pasturelands. The thinning grass no longer protects the topsoil, which blows away in the persistent winds. As happened recently when a Mongolian dust storm blew pollution from China all the way to the mainland United States, what happens in Mongolia has implications elsewhere.

While Mongolia is barren, Brazil is lush, but it too faces the same problem -- pressure of human demands on resources. Moyers journeys to the coastal reefs at Tamandare, a magnet for tourists and a gold mine for fisher folk. The beauty and bounty of these waters are at risk as a result of the destruction of mangrove trees on rivers that empty into the Atlantic. The trees were cut to make way for tourism development.

Marine biologist Carl Safina explains that sea life is threatened the world over. “I hear buzzers going off all around me,” he says. “Eighty percent of the world’s fisheries are either at the very limit of what they can produce without going into major long-term decline, or are already in decline or depleted.”

Moyers weaves these individual stories together into a compelling picture of the present state of the planet’s health. “We don’t like to react to the first warning light that comes on the dashboard,” Safina says. “We like to make sure that we’re really hearing a big grinding noise before we can all agree that we should stop, get out and look at what’s wrong.”

The world’s ecosystems are literally our life support systems. They feed and clothe us, recycle our wastes, provide us with jobs and spiritual nourishment. We can’t live without them, but Moyers’ report shows the difficulties we have living with them as well.

Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001