The Chronicle of Higher Education

April 21, 2000

Saving Future Generations From Global Warming


We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are "enlightened" all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our "enlightenment," demands that the robbery shall continue. -- George Orwell

How many of us think about George Orwell when we hear about global warming? We've all seen the facts before. Nineteen ninety-eight was by far the warmest year ever recorded. Nineteen ninety-seven was the second-warmest. Mounting scientific evidence indicates that the combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, and poor land-use practices will cause a major, and perhaps self-reinforcing, shift in global climate, given present trends. With climatic change will come severe weather extremes, super storms, droughts, famine, killer heat waves, rising sea levels, spreading disease, and accelerating rates of species loss -- as well as bitter conflicts over declining supplies of fossil fuels, water, and food.

It is not far-fetched to think that human institutions, including democratic governments, will break down under such conditions. As the scientist Roger Revelle once noted, we are conducting a one-time experiment on the earth that cannot be reversed -- and that never should have been run.

To see the situation more clearly, we need a perspective that transcends the minutiae of science, economics, and current politics. Future generations will bear the brunt of the effects of global warming. What will they think about the policy decisions we're making today? Will they applaud the precision of cost-benefit calculations that discount their prospects? Will they think us prudent for delaying action until even the most minute scientific doubts have been erased? Will they admire our stubborn devotion to inefficient vehicles, urban sprawl, and fossil-fuel consumption?


Think about an analogy. In the years leading up to the Civil War, defenders of slavery argued that: The advance of human culture and freedom depended on slavery; slaves were better off living in servitude than they otherwise would have been; freeing slaves would cause widespread eco-nomic and financial ruin; the issue of slavery was a matter of states' rights. Beneath all such arguments, of course, lay bedrock contempt for human equality, dignity, and freedom -- as well as the perverse self-interest George Orwell so clearly described.

The parallels with arguments justifying our extravagant use of fossil fuels, if not exact, are nonetheless instructive. Our tacit position is: Civilization depends on the consumption of fossil fuels; a warmer world will be, on balance, a good thing; conserving energy and using solar energy are too expensive; the issue is a matter of the rights of individuals to drive the kinds of cars they want, live how they want, and the Devil take the hindmost.

Both the use of human beings as slaves and the use of fossil fuels inflate the wealth of some by robbing others. Both systems work only so long as someone or something is undervalued. Both require that some costs be ignored. Both warp the politics and culture of society. In the case of slavery, the effects were egregious, brutal, and immediate. But massive use of fossil fuels simply defers the costs, different but no less burdensome, onto our descendants. Moreover, slavery could be dismantled; future generations can have no reprieve from the consequences of our dereliction.

Of course, we do not intend to enslave subsequent generations, but the fact is that we are placing them in bondage to degraded climatic and ecological conditions. They will know that we failed to act on their behalf with alacrity, even after it became clear that our inaction would severely damage their prospects -- and for reasons that will be regarded as no more substantial than those once used to support slavery.

At the same time, there is substantial evidence that taking steps to vastly improve energy efficiency and to make an expeditious transition to a solar-powered society would accrue to our advantage, saving upwards of $200-billion per year. It would also be the moral thing to do. History rarely offers such a clear convergence of ethics and self-interest.

In a letter to James Madison, written in 1789, Thomas Jefferson argued that no generation had the right to impose debt on its descendants, lest the dead rule the future. A similar principle applies to our use of fossil fuels. Drawn from Jefferson, Aldo Leopold, and others, such a principle might be stated thus:

No person, institution, or nation has the right to participate in activities that contribute to large-scale, irreversible changes of the earth's biogeochemical cycles or that undermine the integrity, stability, and beauty of its biotic systems; the consequences of such activities would fall on succeeding generations as an irreversible form of remote tyranny.

That principle is likely to fall on deaf ears in Congress and most corporate boardrooms, where short-term thinking predominates. To whom should we address it, then?

At the top of my list are those who educate the young. Education is most powerful when done by example. Accordingly, I propose that every school, college, and university stand up and be counted on the issue of climatic change, by beginning -- now -- to develop plans that would reduce the emission of heat-trapping gases, eliminating or finding ways to offset emission by the year 2020. The alternative is to violate Jefferson's principle, and to enslave the future.

Opposition to such a proposal will, predictably, follow three lines. Some people will argue that we do not know enough yet to act. Presumably, those same people would not wait until they smelled smoke in the house at 2 a.m. to purchase fire insurance. A second group will object that educational institutions cannot afford to act. To be sure, change would require initial expenses -- but it would also provide quick savings from reducing energy use. The real problem has less to do with costs than with the failure of imagination in places where imagination is reportedly much valued.

A third objection will come from those who agree with the overall goal of stabilizing climate, but who argue that our business is education, not social change. That argument is based on the belief that what occurs in educational institutions must be uncontaminated by contact with the affairs of the world. It further assumes that education occurs only in classrooms. Such views, however, make us accessories to an unfolding tragedy.

The steps necessary to abolish fossil fuels are straightforward, requiring campuses to:

* audit their current energy use;

* prepare detailed engineering plans to upgrade energy efficiency and eliminate waste;

* develop plans to harness renewable energy sources sufficient to meet campus energy needs by 2020; and

* carry out those plans over the next 20 years, through the combined efforts of students, faculty and staff members, administrators, energy engineers, and technical experts.

Through such campus and community involvement, we can educate a broad constituency about the consequences of our present course and the possibilities and opportunities for change. We can, in effect, begin to build a grassroots movement for the long-delayed transition to energy efficiency and solar power. One day, we will come to understand that true prosperity neither permits nor requires bondage of any human being, in any form, for any reason, now or ever.

_________________________________________________________________ Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education