Isaac Asimov – How to Save Civilization

I have written an article on the Green House effect. It was a year-end article. They wanted me to pick out the most important scientific event of 1988. And I really thought that the most important scientific event of 1988 would only be recognized some time in the future. When you have a little perspective,. But I thought that the most interesting scientific event of 1988 was the way everyone started speaking about the Green House effect just because there was a hot summer and a drought. So I explained what was meant by the Green House effect, and I also explained that not only were we constantly pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because we’re burning fossil fuels, coal and oil and gas, so that the content of the atmosphere, as far as carbon dioxide is concerned, has been going up steadily. Not very rapidly, but steadily ever since 1900. And it’s continuing to do so. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is now 50% higher than it was in 1900. It’s still only a little over 300 (pause) .

035%. Which is not enough to bother us as far as breathing is concerned, but it’s enough to trap the infrared waves that Earth reflects into space and to raise the temperature of the earth slightly. The temperature will keep on going up. And not only are we piling in more and more CO2 in the atmosphere, but we’re chopping down the forests of the Earth at a great rate. And the forests themselves are the most efficient consumers of CO2 that there are on Earth. Anything that substitutes for the forests, like, let us say, grain fields or grass lands, are not going to consume CO2 as efficiently. And if we replace them with desert, which is most likely, it won’t absorb the CO2 at all. So that, in a sense, we are contributing to the Green House effect in two ways: by, by pushing the output of CO2 and inhibiting the input, so to speak.

I say, therefore when Brazil begins to cut down the rain forests of the Amazon, not only is it destroying a habitat for vast numbers of plant and animal life, which could be of great use to us. There are perhaps pharmacological products we know nothing about that are produced by these forms of life, that if we knew about could advance the art of pharmacology and the practice of medicine, enormously. And we’ll never find out, we’re going to drive them to extinction. We’re going to destroy the ground, because the soil of a rain forest isn’t very good. When you chop it down it doesn’t make for good farming, what it makes for is good deserts. And, finally, we’re going to cut down the absorbing of CO2 and on producing oxygen. So we are actually tempering with the climate of the Earth and with the very atmosphere that we breathe. So that under those circumstances it is useless for Brazil to say that she can do what she wants with her own. That the rain forest belongs to her and that if she wants to cut them down, she can.

The rain forest doesn’t belong to her, it belongs to humanity. She is merely the custodian of the rain forest. I said that in the course of my article, and I got a letter in which a young man said: Who gave the United States the right to tell Brazil what to do? What if Brazil says to us that we produce far more carbon dioxide than any other nation, because we have more automobiles, more motors, we have more industry and we are polluting the atmosphere far more in a per capita basis than anyone else on Earth, and therefore why shouldn’t they have the right to tell us to cut down on our industry, to clean up our pollution instead of telling them not to cut down their forests. And I answered and said: You make a very good point, but now look through my article, and see where I said it was the United States who is supposed to make these decisions.

I didn’t say anywhere that it was the American right to police the world or to tell them what to do. And, in fact, that gets to the nub of the whole point. That we are facing problems that transcend nations. That when we talk about the Green House effect, we’re talking about something that effects not just the United States, not just Brazil. That effects the entire Earth, for the worse. If the population goes up to the point where we destroy the resources of the Earth, it doesn’t matter which nation is most populous, we all get it in the neck. If we have a nuclear war that produces a nuclear winter, or a fall out that kills people everywhere, it doesn’t matter who started the war, it doesn’t matter at whom the nuclear bombs were aimed, we’ll all get it.

You can go through the entire list of dangers that faces humanity, and the very point of the whole thing is that they face humanity, and not any one section of it. And, therefore, I might say in passing, that this should be a peculiar interest to Humanists. I have always thought that the reason we’re called Humanists is that we’re involved with human beings as opposed to the supernatural, the existence of which is dubious, at best. But, if we are going to be interested in and involved with human beings, then I fail to see anything in the name that distinguishes between one set of human beings and another set. We are all human beings. If there is one thing that is biologically certain about the human species is that it is a human species. One species. The similarities among us are enormous.

The differences are trivial. That it is criminal for all of Earth now, now not to be Humanists. Because now when all human beings are facing the same problems. And these problems are life and death problems, they go to the root of the viability of the planet itself. And in order to solve these problems, in order to make sure, not just that our progeny will be prosperous, that our progeny will be peaceful, but that our progeny will live. To go to the solution of these problems, we cannot expect that this will be done by individual nations. The only way we can solve a problem is by a human solution, a totally human solution, an international solution, a cooperative solution. It is important that the world get together and be sufficiently a unit to face the problems which attack us as a unit. The problems with the ocean, with the atmosphere, with the soil, with the population, with pollution, with anything you want to aim, do not distinguish among us.

How, then, can we distinguish among ourselves? There must be some way of getting together. And of deciding not that the United States will tell Brazil what to do, not what Brazil will tell the United States what to do, but what the people of the Earth will tell themselves they must do. We have no difficulty applying this principle to the United States itself. We don’t say that New York hasn’t got the right to tell California what to do, that California hasn’t got the right to tell Florida what to do. When it comes to international trade, when it comes to any facet of national life that it rises above the parochial needs of cities and states, the federal government tells all the states what to do, and the federal government can do it because it consists of representatives from all the states. Well, what we need is some sort of federal world government, and the only problem is how we manage to do that.