by Ed Ayres
(New York/ London: Four Worlds Eight Windows, 1999)
Review Essay by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
After reading this very well researched, cogent analysis, I am increasingly convinced that the world is threatened as perhaps never before, that it is urgent that steps be taken immediately to move the earth away from its present perilous path, and that a shift to plant-based diets is an essential part of the changes that must be made.
Ed Ayres is extremely well qualified to write this book as he is editor of "Worldwatch" magazine, the semi-monthly publication of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based thinktank that produces annual publications, including "State of the World", that aim to alert people to current critical environmental threats. Ayres is also editorial director of the Institute. His book makes it abundently clear why the following ancient rabbinic teaching that has been generally ignored over many centuries is extremely relevant today:
In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: "See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you." Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28
In his compelling, well written book, Ed Ayres stresses the importance of what he calls four megaphenomena that are having great effects on the world today and increasingly will threaten the world's future unless fundamental changes are made. These are four revolutionary changes or spikes in variables that had been relatively constant throughout history: the carbon spike, the extinction spike, the consumption spike, and the population spike. Here is a brief summary of Ayre's discussions of these four important spikes:
1) The carbon spike: There is an extraordinary worldwide concensus of climate scientists about global warming and its potential impacts. After a thorough study and several reviews of their findings, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a task force of leading climate scientists from 98 countries, unequivocally concluded that global warming is already rapidly occurring, that human activites that increase atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a major driving force, that global warming is a problem of enormous consequence that will continue to unleash devastating weather disturbances ranging from unnaturally heavy storms and floods to heat waves and droughts, and therefore it is essential that carbon emissions be cut sharply worldwide. There seems to be abundant reinforcement for these conclusions from many recent news reports of record temperatures, severe hurricanes and other storms, and severe droughts in Israel and other countries.
2) The extinction spike: While largely invisible to most people, this spike may ultimately be the most important one, because it threatens to unravel the web of life that sustains our everyday lives. Many biologists believe that we have entered the fastest mass extinction in the world's history, possibly even faster than the period when the dinosaurs died out.
3) The consumption spike: The global economy expands as much in a year today as it did in any entire century prior to 1900. This rapid increase in commerce is drawing down the earth's finite resources far faster than natural processes can regenerate them. Hence, along with rapid population growth, rising levels of unsustainable consumption contributes to many current environmental and climatic crises.
4) The population spike: while it took all of world history up to about 1800 for the world population to reach its first billion people, in recent years there have been increases of a billion people about every 12 years. While the world faces many critical environmental threats with its present 6 billion people, it is projected that there will be over 3 billion additional people by the middle of the 21st century.
Ayres skillfully shows how all of these spikes are interrelated. As world population grows and people consume more, more fossil fuels are burned, thereby increasing the carbon spike. As more land is used for housing, industry, and agriculture, habitats are destroyed furthering the extinction spike. When the temperature rapidly increases, many species are unable to migrate fast enough to higher altitudes or latitudes, and hence they begin to die off.
In addition to calling attention to these four megaphenomena that so threaten the world''s future, Ayres also analyzes why so little attention seems to be paid to these threats that are related to "the most world-changing events in the history of our species", and why so many people are unresponsive to the challenges that now loom before us. Among the reasons he thoroughly discusses and illustrates using many examples are the failure of the media to probe beyond immediate events for underlying causes and connections, the power of the fossil fuel industries and others who gain from a continuation of the status quo to control the U. S. economy and stands taken by politicians, media attention on side issues rather than critical issues, the fragmentation of knowledge caused by specialization so that few people see the big picture, and the creation of false extremes by corporate PR managers.
Ayres stresses that what we do now to confront the challenges of these spikes will determine whether human civilization can survive in the long term. In his analysis of the steps necessary to avert current global threats, Ayres, a long-time vegetarian who wrote an excellent article in the November 8, 1999 issue of Time magazine that argued that meat consumption will decrease in the 21st century due to the great environmental and other societal costs of animal-based diets and agriculture, emphasizes the importance of shifting to vegetarian diets. He indicates that the production and consumption of animal products is significantly related to increased disease rates, the wasteful use of water, land, and other respources, and many ecothreats.
In summary, I strongly recommend this book to every citizen, especially our political, religious, and industrial leaders, so that they will recognize the urgency of our current situation and the need for fundamental changes. It is especially recommended for vegetarians, because it provides much valuable information and arguments that can help in efforts to make other people aware of he importance of shifts to plant-based diets in order to reduce current global threats.
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