From the Editor: Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui

September 30, 2005

Katrina, Rita and the World’s Coastal Cities

“Katrina is a test of how America should respond to the effects of global warming. It is a test that we are largely failing. Environmental scientists and activists have warned that warming ocean waters will increase the frequency and intensity of these storms. They have also warned that the working poor and people of color would bear the brunt of climate change impacts, at home and abroad. To address these issues, we need to begin reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. We must learn to build cities and towns that are less environmentally vulnerable and more sustainable. We need to address the root cause and protect against the impacts that are already coming…” So says a Pacific News Service article entitled “Katrina Reveals Environmental Racism’s Deadly Force” by Beverly Wright.
Quite a few other reports testify to this disconcerting trend. Mike Tidwell, author of ‘Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast’, spells out the alarming foreboding: “… every single coastal city in America – from New York to Savannah to Los Angeles – could soon become a New Orleans.”
Tidwell does not sound the alarm bells without pointing to the root cause of the cataclysmic situation: “Year after year, we burn massive amounts of fossil fuels – oil, coal, and natural gas. The result is that we’ve profoundly warmed our planet’s atmosphere. This change in climate, according to the Bush Administration’s own reports, will in turn lead to 1-3 feet of sea-level rise worldwide by 2100. Here’s the crux: Whether the land sinks three feet per century (as in New Orleans) or the oceans rise three feet per century (as in the rest of the world), the result is the same for America’s 150 million coastal residents and the three billion shoreline inhabitants worldwide: Record storm surges, inundated infrastructure, massive human relocation, economic disruption, and untold suffering and death …”
Environmental degradation is thus taking a speedy toll. There is a pressing need to take equally speedy corrective measures to arrest the alarming situation.
How serious, nay, grave is the problem is borne out by a recapitulation of a review of the global environmental scene that we have done in these columns in the past:
The review started with the question: Has man polluted the moon? Though hardly palatable, the answer is in the affirmative! In July 1969, Apollo II left behind on the moon 5,130 pounds of debris. To date, man has junked more than 37,000 pounds on the moon, and there is much more to come.
As man strives to exact more and more material gains at the expense of Nature, the growing specter of pollution haunts planet Earth. Indeed, man pays dearly for trifling with the delicate chemical and climatic balances on which his very survival hinges. Not surprisingly, in many industrialized countries, the human frame appears battered with visible scars of pollution. Says a New York medical examiner, “On the autopsy table it’s unmistakable. The man who has spent his life in the mountains has nice pink lungs. The city dweller’s are as black as coal.”
Stemming from such alarming observations, the concern for preserving the environment has been steadily mounting. As early as the 1970s, environmentalism reflected the dominant mood in many countries and generated the momentum of a religious movement. Environmentalists were heard with keen attention as they brought home the somber message that the survival of the human race was at stake on planet Earth, if not now, a few centuries hence. It was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ And this leads one to identify the causes of the alarming situation.
Life, in the form of bacteria and microorganisms, evolved on planter Earth about 3.4 billion years ago. Pollution, which threatens living species today, is of recent origin. It has its roots in the Industrial Revolution and is a product of technology.
The outstanding change heralding the advent of the Industrial Revolution was the innovation in the use of energy, with steam taking the place of animal, wind, and hydropower. Fossil fuels - coal, gas, and oil - which catalyzed the change, polluted the air and their harmful residues found their way into rivers and oceans.
As technology proliferated and factories crisscrossed the landscape, fossil fuel was burned in stupendous quantities. During the first 83 years of the Industrial Revolution, the world burned the first 50 billion metric tons of fossil fuel. It took only 23 years to burn the next 50, and barely 11 years to burn the next, which brings us to almost the present time.
If the current trend is any indication the next 50 billion metric tons will be extracted and consumed in only 8 years. By the year 2032 AD, such an amount will be extracted and consumed in one year alone! The trend is disconcerting and unless a clean substitute - one which does not pollute the air or water - appears on the global scene the world will continue to burn fossil fuel in large quantities to sustain its industrial march and thus remain precariously exposed to increasing levels of pollution.
Nuclear power, a clean, nonpolluting form of energy, raised the hopes of many optimists that the atom would free man of his unwholesome reliance on fossil fuel. The promise was stupendous. It still remains so, despite the setback following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. Nuclear power reactors have been described, and rightly so, as inexhaustible sources of energy. Perhaps fissile fuel will succeed where fossil fuel has failed.
But it was not the burning of fossil fuel at the advent of the Industrial Revolution that singly contributed to pollution. Industrialization led to urbanization and its attendant problems of pollution. Until 1800 AD, 80-95 percent of the population of England, where the Industrial Revolution made its first appearance, had turned urban, and by the 1900, only 10 percent of the country’s population was tilling the soil. The remaining was employed in factories!
The growth of new industrial cities, particularly in Britain, denoted a major failure of imagination - a dreary look, lack of playgrounds, little effort to plan streets according to the sun and wind, poor public services, polluted air, etc. No wonder, William Blake called factories ‘black Satanic mills.’
Yet the early industrial cities grew faster than others. In the United States, cities of over 8,000 inhabitants grew five times faster than the country as a whole in the 19th century. Big cities in particular grew at an astounding pace: London reached the one million mark in 1800, Paris in 1850, Berlin and Vienna in 1880, and St. Petersburg in 1870.
Today, there are a hundred cities with population equaling or exceeding the one million mark, a hundred cities which are the size of Rome at its height, and many much larger!
The trend continues. Tokyo’s population today approximates 26 million while Cairo houses 16 million and Mexico City 31.6 million. It would be safe to say that the world of the future will be a world of cities.
The demographic pattern in the last 2000 years also makes interesting reading. A phenomenal growth in world population has taken place since man took to industry. The accelerated growth is in no way attributable to the advent of technology, but in the years to come, it may cast its shadow on the pollution problem.
The world population stood at 250 million in 1 AD, 500 million in 1500 AD, 1,000 million in 1825 AD, 2,000 million in 1925 AD, 4000 million in 1975, and 6,000 million in the year 2000. Thus the doubling period has been drastically reduced - from the first 1500 to 325, 100 and 50 years. Global 2000 rightly predicts that the astronomical demographic explosion would severely test the carrying capacity of planet Earth.
It is thus not difficult to envision the future - an overly populated world and the accompanying specter of pollution. “Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make peace with Nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?” asked Richard Nixon in 1970.
Both the developed and the developing states have to contemplate the answer to conserve a livable world. The devastation caused by Katrina and Rita adds to the urgency of all ongoing and intended efforts to combat the mounting scourge of pollution.



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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.