04/21/2006 02:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Earth Day 2006: Saving the Future By Looking to the Past

Today is the 36th anniversary of Earth Day. While some celebrate this day planting trees or collecting trash, our world leaders must rapidly confront a dangerous reality: our early twenty-first century civilization is on an economic path that is destroying and disrupting the natural systems on which it depends, consuming renewable resources faster than they can regenerate. Forests, grasslands, soils, water tables, and fisheries are disappearing. And we are using up oil at a pace that leaves little time to plan beyond peak oil, discharging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them.

As a result the earth's temperature is rising, ice sheets are melting, the sea is rising, and we are increasingly finding ourselves in a battle for the survival of our civilization -- one that will require a massive restructuring of our economy.

In my book Plan B 2.0 I highlight our civilization's need to shift from business as usual -- the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway Plan A economy -- to a renewable-energy-based, diversified-transport, reuse/recycle, Plan B economy.

We can see the Plan B economy emerging in the wind farms of western Europe, the solar rooftops of Japan, the growing fleet of gas-electric hybrid cars in the United States, the reforested mountains of South Korea, and the bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam.

The solutions exist. The struggle now is implementing this Plan B economy in time. As we contemplate the rapid restructuring needed, it is both instructive and encouraging to look at the U.S. restructuring for World War II. Initially, the United States resisted involvement in the war and responded only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But respond it did. After an all-out commitment, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three and a half years.

In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced the country's arms-production goals. The United States, he said, was planning to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of merchant shipping.

No one had ever seen such huge arms-production numbers. But Roosevelt and his colleagues realized that the largest concentration of industrial power in the world at that time was in the U.S. automobile industry. Even during the Depression, the United States was producing 3 million cars a year. After his State of the Union address, Roosevelt met with automobile industry leaders and told them that the country would rely heavily on them to reach these arms production goals.

Combined with this transition was a large-scale rationing program. Strategic goods -- including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar -- were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up material resources to support the war effort.

The year 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation's history -- all for military use. Wartime aircraft needs were enormous. They included not only fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes, but also the troop and cargo transports needed to fight a war on two distant fronts. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States far exceeded the initial goal of 60,000 planes, turning out 229,600 aircraft, a fleet so vast it is hard even today to visualize it. Equally impressive, by the end of the war more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 or so that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939.

In her book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how various firms converted to wartime production. A sparkplug factory was among the first to switch to the production of machine guns. Soon a manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats. A merry-go-round factory was making gun mounts; a toy company was turning out compasses; a corset manufacturer was producing grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant began to make armor-piercing shells.

In retrospect, the speed of this conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy is stunning. The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces, reversing the tide of war. Germany and Japan, already fully extended, could not counter this effort. Winston Churchill often quoted his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: "The United States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate."

This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country, and indeed, the world, can restructure the economy quickly if it is convinced of the need to do so. In this mobilization, the scarcest resource of all is time. With climate change, for example, we are fast approaching the point of no return. The temptation is to reset the clock, but we cannot. Nature is the timekeeper.

The question facing governments is whether they can respond quickly enough to prevent threats from becoming catastrophes. History judges political leaders by whether or not they respond to the great issues of their time. For today's leaders, that issue is how to move the global economy onto an environmentally sound path while confronting aquifer depletion, rising temperatures, expanding deserts, melting polar ice caps, and a shrinking oil supply.

In times of crisis, societies sometimes have a Nero as a leader and sometimes a Churchill. The solutions are there. On this Earth Day, let's hope the leadership is too.