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Everything Is In Play

     Everything’s in play, a friend said the other day.

     The phrase has been caroming around my brain ever since. Within a week after he said that, a fire consumed 166 homes outside Boulder, Colorado, and threatened the town. A natural gas pipe explosion obliterated a neighborhood in San Bruno, California, 25 miles from my house, killing eight people and destroying 37 homes. Scientists announced that a gene that makes bacteria resistant to nearly all antibiotics had spread from India to three people in the U.S., presaging the likely transmission of antibiotic resistance throughout the world. At least I don’t live in Moscow, which was engulfed in lethal smoke for two weeks this summer, or along the Gulf of Mexico, where the oil spill zone overlapped the dead zone, or in Pakistan, a quarter of which— an area the size of Washington state— went underwater. Everything is in play.

    Every one of these events forewarns that we are entering a new era, during which most of what we’ve assumed solid, reliable, and unchanging, and therefore took for granted— such foundations of civilization as climate stability, disease suppression, and infrastructure integrity— has turned volatile. The Boulder fire, for instance, can’t be blamed on climate change with certainly, but the massive infestation of mountain pine beetles that turned the forests near Boulder into fire-ready tinder— the underlying reason for the fire’s ferocity— certainly can. The additional hot days have extended the beetles’ breeding season, and winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill them off, as they once did. The result is exponential growth in their population. Billions of pine trees covering millions of acres throughout the western Rockies have already succumbed to the beetles, and, desiccated, await conflagration— epic forest fires are assuredly in the Rockies’ future. And the ecological damage is not limited to trees— flash floods in dozens of river systems are now more likely, and the absence of fat-laden nuts that grizzlies depend on in the fall will place a severe new stress on them. Everything is in play.

   The San Bruno explosion drew attention to the precarious condition of the nation’s gas pipelines. Of the U.S.’s 300,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines, nearly two-thirds were installed before 1970: they’re starting to crumble, as befits their age. The story is much the same for the nation’s dams, levees, roads, drinking water supply systems, energy systems, waste disposal systems (including hazardous waste), schools, and inland waterways. In its 2009 infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave every one of those sectors grades ranging from D- to D+; the combined U.S. infrastructure also received a D. All of these systems are aging, but repair is unglamorous, expensive work, and Americans have neglected it— politicians enjoy dedicating new dams much more than allocating funds for their upkeep. Without huge investment in infrastructure, we will endure more San Brunos, more Minneapolis bridges, more Katrinas. Everything is in play.

    Add to this the resource crunch that the world’s burgeoning population and accelerating economic development has precipitated. It may still be arguable, for instance, whether humans have reached “peak oil,” the date of maximum oil production that marks the beginning of its inevitable decline, but it is unquestionable that we’ve used up all the “best” oil— high-grade oil, easily accessible oil, oil that doesn’t require huge energy expenditures or environmental damage to tap. The reason we drill for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico is that more accessible, less risky oil has already been tapped; that’s why oil companies want to drill, for example, in the treacherous Chukchi Sea off northern Alaska, and it’s why we can expect more spills. It’s for similar reasons that coal is now mined by leveling mountaintops, and natural gas miners have turned to “fracturing”— such monumentally destructive practices are likely to accelerate as the desired substances become ever more scarce. Dozens of other vital resources are experiencing a similar shift, including water, uranium, most metals, agricultural land, ocean food fish. Everything is in play.

    These developments will soon collide with the planet’s dominant economic ideology: growth. Only radical reform that replaces growth with a broader set of objectives that values most highly the health of humans and natural systems can avert collapse, but reforms of this magnitude face a wall of entrenched resistance. Instead, our society is turning into an exaggerated version of itself, relying ever more heavily on energy-guzzling technology (see under “the digital revolution”) and chanting “Drill, baby, drill!” Americans passed up the chance to launch a vast and needed infrastructure overhaul even when the economic downtown provided a bonus justification for it. Indeed, the call from many politicians now for smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes in the face of this steadily intensifying crisis is both jaw-dropping and reckless. Greed reigns: the hunger to live in affluence for as long as we can apparently is stronger than the wish to insure that future generations prosper, even though our short-term gain insures our offspring’s long-term disarray. The old assumption of American life was that each generation’s standard of living would surpass its predecessor’s; now my friends and I speak ruefully of our children’s future, and dare to hope that they will survive the coming storms.    

     Everything is in play.