03/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Letter from Chile

Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile -- The leisurely sub-Antarctic daylight still gives the Chilean Fire Bush its unique second bloom here. But Patagonia, remote and only lightly dusted with inhabitants, is otherwise feeling the heavy hand of industrial excess press down from the gusty skies. Glaciers here have been in retreat for sixty years. Long-time residents describe the steady decline in winter snowfall on the Paine Massif. Lake Sarmiento, one of the world's rare terminal lakes where cyanobacteria produce calcium carbonate formations, has shrunk to the point where it is now two Lakes Sarmiento -- Great and Small -- and the small one is about to be split yet again by a new causeway.

Fresh assaults on the ozone layer may have been suspended, but here the impact of its wounds are severely felt -- everyone wears hats and sunscreen, even on cloudy days, and the hotel briefing described the "feeling" of your skin being radiated if you don't.

But if Chile is hard-hit by ozone depletion and global warming, popular consciousness is still far removed from grappling with the need to respond. Mining -- first of nitrate, then of copper -- built this nation's economy, and now that forests, fisheries, and farmlands are yielding the new export bonanza, the mining paradigm -- do it fast, hard, and cheap -- still rules. Renewable energy here means new mega-dams on wild mountain rivers. Environmental advocates are marginalized.

Chileans are hopeful and excited about the new Obama administration. They look to it for leadership. But describing to them the economic importance Americans have come to attach to getting off their addiction to fossil fuels is clearly a totally new concept. Among younger people, the greatest ecological emphasis comes, people tell me, from those who went to college abroad in Europe or the U.S.

Chile's salmon fisheries are creating severe pollution problems, its forests are logged unsustainably, and the opportunity to create a new agricultural paradigm remains unrealized. Chile seems torn about whether to emulate the U.S. or Europe -- and no one is offering it a green model for Latin America, well-positioned though this country is, with a geography and ecology that remind me of America's west coast, only steeper and narrower.

It has wonderful parks like this one -- but almost all the visitors are foreigners.

A new kind of environmentalism is needed here.