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Glenn Hurowitz

Glenn Hurowitz

Posted: December 31, 2009 12:53 PM

The Earth's Decade

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Generations from now, long after the last Twitter follower has unfriended the last Facebook user, this decade will be remembered and felt for its impact on Nature: the species that were saved and those that were lost; the heating of the planet; the forests cut down and those that continue to provide oxygen to our children's children, and the first halting steps toward a clean energy future.

And by those standards, this decade has been one of great beginnings, tragic ends, and the uplifting possibility of a new relationship between man and Nature.

To be sure, these were years of fire and devastation:

In the last decade, more than 200 million acres of rainforest have been cleared and burned, sending an amount of pollution into the atmosphere equivalent to seven times the United States' annual emissions. It's as if all the vegetation in the entire states of Montana, Colorado and New York combined were torched.

For the atmosphere more broadly, these ten years have not been kind ones. Burning of coal, oil, and forests have dumped more than 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, helping make this decade the hottest on record - with corresponding increases in desertification, drought, and extreme weather like Hurricane Katrina.

To me, however, the greatest symbol for what has happened to Nature this decade is the fate of the baiji, a white river dolphin found only in the Yangtze River in China. The baiji was a playful animal that dined on the Yangtze's once plentiful fish and was traditionally venerated by the region's people.

The Baiji, Symbol of the Decade? Photo by Wang Ding and courtesy of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (via

But hunting and overfishing caused a drastic decline in the baiji's population, and there were only a few hundred survivors at the beginning of the decade. And then China, in its thirst for energy, completed its notorious Three Gorges Dam, and the fate of the baiji was sealed. The dam caused a build-up of pollution and further reduction in fish populations that doomed the baiji - and it was declared "functionally extinct" in 2007 when an expedition failed to spot a single living baiji - the first whale or dolphin killed off by human activity in history.

Because of the baiji's disappearance, the world will always be a little bereft. But this decade also saw some tentative first steps toward a living planet in which humanity finds true balance with Nature.

In the United States, for instance, the federal government protected more than 50 million acres of old growth forest from logging - and declared an area the size of Spain off limits to fishing to preserve the ocean for future generations.

Recognition of the consequences of burning fossil fuels for energy has led to extraordinary growth in clean energy: more than 15 times the amount of solar energy is generated today than was generated in 2000, with much greater growth projected for the future.

Of course, these flashes of progress are nowhere near enough - yet - to make up for the immense damage being wrought by a growing population with higher and higher consumption levels.

But what can give us hope going into 2010 is the environmental revolution of the mind: the widespread realization that protecting the environment is the path to prosperity, not the obstacle to it. During the 2008 presidential campaign, when the candidates talked about creating jobs, they more often than not did it against a backdrop of wind turbines.

The culmination of this decade's green revolution was to have been the passage of energy and climate legislation in the United States and the completion of a binding international agreement in Copenhagen. Both would accomplish something extraordinary: finally tying the universal human quest for a better life to protection of the Earth's natural resources, not their destruction.

That new way of life hasn't been realized - yet. But as much damage as this decade did to our planet, it may still one day be seen as the wellspring of its salvation.


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