I have been uncharacteristically almost depressed about what I see and hear these days. The economy has recovered somewhat, but at the expense of unemployment at levels I cannot remember having lived through before. I was born in during the Great Depression, but have no direct memories of its impact, only the remnants I saw for years later in the attitudes and behavior of my parents. The political world is filled with static and anger, leading me to try to avoid this arena which I am usually deeply immersed. Progress toward action on climate change is dormant, and, worse, is being buffeted by the efforts of billionaires and many corporations to mislead us and stymie any efforts to act prudently or to act at all.
Then I came across an authoritative article about the continuing recovery of the ozone layer.
Geneva/Nairobi, 16 September 2010 – International efforts to protect the ozone layer-the shield that protects life on Earth from harmful levels of ultraviolet rays-are a success and have stopped additional ozone losses and contributed to mitigating the greenhouse effect, according to a new report.
“Today’s report underlines that action to protect the ozone layer has not only been a success, but continues to deliver multiple benefits to economies including on efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals. The contribution to combating climate change is one, but so are the direct benefits to public health. For without the Montreal Protocol and its associated Vienna Convention atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances could have increased tenfold by 2050. This in turn could have led to up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife and agriculture.”
The news is very good. I first focused on the results described, but then my eyes lingered on the word “action.” in the second paragraph. We have the power both to destroy and to restore. The destruction comes through actions we do not connect with the problem and engage in mindlessly. But the power to restore can come only from deliberate acts: first, acts that recognize the full impact of what we are doing to our home on Earth and commit us to do something about it, and, second, real on-the-ground acts in accordance with our commitment. Ozone depletion was a simple challenge compared to climate change and to sustainability in general. The causal agents were few and could be eliminated by a ban on a class of chemical agents. Not so for climate change. Although the proximate causes are only a small group of chemicals, their sources are uncountable, coming from every smokestack, tailpipe, sheep farm, and many more classes of sources.
So, with the lessons from our response ozone depletion, we know we can act properly. The path to sustainability is not so clear as that of repairing the ozone layer, but we cannot let that difference stop action. There are no NASA pictures that shocked us into action then; the impacts to our earthly home are much more subtle and difficult to establish convincingly to the skeptics and much of the general public. Unfortunately, it will be much too late when similarly shocking pictures of millions of flooded out impoverished victims and of wrecked seaside villas of the wealthy hit the media. As Pete Seeger wrote, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?”