The vast majority of the world's coral reefs could be dead by 2050. Over 100 million people could die from diseases resulting from a lack of clean water by 2020. Extinctions are now happening faster than they did when the dinosaurs died off, the world population is more vulnerable than ever to epidemics, and there's a dead zone the size of Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico.
Astounding? Maybe. But what effect, really, do statements like these have on us anymore? Are they still with us two hours after we set down our Sunday papers? Or are they washed into a background roar of terror alerts and heart-sinking headlines, a few more sentences scrolling along the bottoms of our television screens?
Eleven years ago, 1,500 scientists, including over half the living Nobel laureates, admonished in their "Warning to Humanity": "If not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."
Since then the months have ticked past, and if anything is new about ecological deterioration, it is the speed at which it is occurring. Is it ignorance? Denial? Is it that many environmental writers come off as doomsayers and Cassandras, shrieking about deterioration without offering tenable solutions?
Perhaps part of the problem is that we talk about the environment as if it is divisible from our lives, something we can list in an inventory of "issues." It's not. The environment is us -- it's the places we live, the air we breathe, the foods we eat, the skies that shelter us. An ecosystem is not merely a place to stare at from a viewpoint; ecosystems keep our air breathable, our houses safe from floods, our water potable, and our fields arable.
It's no longer only the natural consequences of further environmental degradation that we must consider, but also the sociopolitical ones. Already, one in five of the planet's citizens "have no access to safe drinking water." We're fighting a war in Iraq now for fairly confusing reasons; wait until another billion people run out of clean water. Do you think we won't fight wars then?
Three new books address the global environmental crisis in new ways, and each offers more than the customary litany of ecological ills. Indeed, each makes its own case for how human civilization might take some first, tottering steps toward saving itself.
If you'd like a book for the beach, or for your book club, choose "High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis," by Mark Lynas. In it Lynas will fly you from the drowning nation of Tuvalu to the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the grasslands-turned-drylands of Mongolia, weaving a loose web of anecdotal evidence for global climate change. It's occasionally funny and caustic, and always readable.
If you'd prefer a more reasoned, wary, and up-to-date appraisal, as well as a detailed (and even optimistic) agenda for action, go for James Gustave Speth's "Red Sky at Morning." It's well written, evenhanded ("If pressed," he writes, addressing the culture of American consumption, "I would have to confess that I truly enjoy most of the things on which I spend money"), and very, very authoritative. Best of all, his eightfold plan for sustainability may just be persuasive enough to make you believe it can work.
And if you simply want a great book, written by smart, forthright scientists, read "One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future," by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. It will alternately depress and inspire you, as the authors make convincing pleas for change from the most private to the most international. Both the Ehrlichs and Speth, especially, avoid outright hectoring, and understand better than anyone the complexities of environmental reform in a globalized economy.
Please read one of these books.
We citizens of wealthy countries, especially the United States, live in a fool's paradise. The United States "now emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as 2.6 billion people living in 151 developing nations." In 2000, US citizens used about 23 percent of the world's energy, even though we make up under 5 percent of the world's population. Yet we remain "the stingiest of all the rich nations in terms of providing development assistance to poor countries." The implicit argument is: If only everyone could see where our current trajectory is taking us, we'd promptly wake up and slam on the brakes.
But what if we are awake? Don't most of us know that polar ice is melting, the seas are rising, and the 1990s were the warmest decade since records have been kept? As the Ehrlichs put it, "The dire environmental dangers our civilization faces are certainly no secret."
The real questions are: Do we have obligations to people halfway across the globe? To our grandchildren? To other species? Does nature belong to us, or we to it?
You can't help but imagine that one day, millennia from now, an archeologist might dig one of these books out of some long-buried library and marvel that, unlike any other civilization in history, we knew -- all along -- what our demise would be, yet rushed headlong toward it.
Anthony Doerr's new novel, "About Grace," will be published in October.