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Charles Cutter

The End of the World (Hopefully)
By Charles Cutter (
Jan 6, 2006 - 7:06:00 AM

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According to an article in the environmental magazine OnEarth (Winter 2006), the human race may be poisoning itself to the point of extinction.

And that’s the good news.

Because another article in the same issue suggests that humans worldwide are depleting the planet’s resources to the point of self-destruction.

First, Gay Daly’s story on the threats we face from man-made chemicals:

"Before [World War II], only a few synthetic chemicals - laboratory-made compounds that do not exist in nature - had been invented…There are now more than 100,000 synthetic chemicals on the market…2,000 new chemicals go to market every year…" Ms. Daly traces the presence of these chemicals in our food, water, cosmetics and landfills; she then focuses on what are known as "endocrine-disrupting chemicals" suspected of causing "reproductive failures, genital deformities, thyroid malfunctions, behavioral abnormalities, and immune suppression."

Ms. Daly documents compelling evidence of a causative link between exposure to these chemicals and a serious health impact; she points out that "…of 104 studies done by independent researchers, 94 found adverse side effects and 10 found no effects. Of the 11 studies conducted by [chemical manufacturer]-supported researchers, zero identified adverse effects…In 2003, 2004, and 2005, the Bush administration tried to cut all EPA funding for independent scientists who do endocrine-disruptor research."

To put the issue in perspective, Ms. Daly quotes Dr. Theo Colborn, a pioneer in the field of endocrine-disruptor research: "Think of how many billions we’ve spent on cancer research. If these chemicals threaten our ability to reproduce, then we ought to be spending at least as much money on understanding how they work and whether we need to get them out of our environment…If we can’t reproduce, whether we get cancer or not will be a moot point."

Alex Shoumatoff’s article - on the history and living conditions in the African nation of Mali - is touted as a glimpse into our global fate: "A warming climate, an exploding population, dwindling resources - Mali gives the world a harsh glimpse of the future." The article is really more of a grim travelogue than a scientific review, despite several references to global warming and some statistics on desertification. The damning point Shoumatoff illustrates is not climatological, but psychological: The human willingness to embrace fables over rationality - even at the expense of our own lives.

It’s a scene of desolation: "…since 1968, Mali and the rest of the Sahel (‘shore’ in Arabic, the semi-arid band below the Sahara…) have experienced a devastating drought. Precipitation has dropped 30 percent—the most dramatic decline ever recorded…At the same time, the population of the Sahel has exploded, compounding the demand for firewood, the main source of cooking fuel. A million acres of trees a year are being cleared and burned in Mali alone…"

Shoumatoff quotes an economist from the Institute of the Sahel: "Malians have always had droughts to contend with…But now there is also the population problem. The Sahel’s population is currently 50 million, and it is growing by 2.7 percent a year. By 2050 it will conservatively hit 100 million. This is because the women continue to have seven children…"

A number of groups are working to help (including the Population Council, which is attempting to curb population growth by "trying to persuade Malian women not to marry so young") but, Shoumatoff reports, "Despite all their efforts, most of the organizations I talked to remain pessimistic. The consensus is that the villagers will continue to multiply and cut trees until the Sahel becomes completely denuded and desiccated and uninhabitable…"

Why do the people of Mali persist in this behavior? Because their fate, they believe, is out of their control.

Says one village elder, "It is the will of Allah."

Another: "Allah gives rain. He is so old. He knows better than us."

And another: "There is less rain because there are more people now, and they are doing things that Amba [the supreme deity] doesn’t like, and it is Amba who brings rain…[N]ot everybody’s heart is in their prayers now, so Amba doesn’t listen to them."

One Malian explained that "…their religion says the future is uncertain…So you just have to live in the present, and the future belongs to God. That is how they think." He went on to explain that a previous drought was "ended by the capture of a [mermaid] by some Bozo fishermen, who held her hostage until she unleashed a tremendous deluge that caused floods, then they let her go. I personally saw her…"

Taken together, the two articles weave a bleak tapestry of corporate greed, consumer laziness, governmental corruption, human short-sightedness, and religion-induced suicidal behavior.

It’s worth considering whether the endocrine-disruptor "worst-case scenario" - the inability of humans to reproduce themselves - is really such a bad thing after all

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