An Ecocentric Introduction

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I turned 32 yesterday. As periods of time go, not that long—according to the actuarial tables of the Social Security Administration I’m just 41.6% through my life, which actually looks depressing when you write it out. But the world has undergone immense changes over those years—explosions, really—and that growth forms the boundaries for the environmental challenges facing the world. So—not to be egocentric—it seems like a good way to kick off the Ecocentric blog is with a little then and now, in 1978 and today:

Population:                                     4.3 billion             6.7 billion

U.S. GDP:                                       $2.3 trillion         $14.3 trillion

China GDP:                                    $147.3 billion     $4.8 trillion

Daily oil consumption (barrels):   60.16 million 85.51 million

Global  CO2 emissions (tonnes):  18.75 billion 30.38 billion

I could go on—and as I get older, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. When I’m 64, there could be an additional 2 billion people on the planet—2 billion more mouths to feed, 2 billion more potential consumers and producers, 2 billion more burning carbon dioxide. The question is how we’ll be able to accommodate those additional billions—and whether we can at all.

All the environmental challenges we face stem from that question. As I’m writing, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has reached its 55th day, and the news just keeps getting worse. The spill was a result of corporate corner-cutting and regulatory failure of course—in fact, I just wrote that—but it was also the inevitable outcome of what Hampshire College’s Michael Klare has called the age of “extreme energy.” Deepwater Horizon is what happens when much of the easier oil is gone but demand just keeps rising—leading oil companies to push the boundaries of technology to reach petroleum deposits thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

But it’s not just oil—we’re entering a similar situation with food. The chemicals and intense irrigation of the Green Revolution created an industrial farming system that has astounding yields—last year American farmers grew an all-time record 165.2 bushels of corn per acre—enough to provide more than enough food for the planet. Yet the fertilizer needed to drive that productivity requires an immense amount of oil, runoff from farms poisons water supplies and leads to dead zones in coastal waters, factory farming of animals can lead to antibiotic resistance and soil erosion is getting worse and worse. We can try to keep up with demand through what you might call extreme farming—but at what cost?

And then there’s climate change,  the ultimate environmental limit, the one that rolls up all the rest. This isn’t going to be a place for a debate over whether climate change is real. Global warming is happening—while there is active scientific research on exactly how it might unfold, and just how vulnerable we’ll be, we’re heading toward what the writer and activist Bill McKibben calls EAARTH, a planet that will be hotter and less hospitable to life. The fundamentals of climate change are settled.

What’s not settled, however, is exactly what we can—and should—do about it, because climate change isn’t the only problem facing humanity. Billions of people are still poor and hungry around the world, and economic growth is the only way to change that—we know because the past quarter century has seen astounding reduction of poverty in Asia thanks to blindingly fast growth. It was a transformation I saw with my own eyes when I lived and worked in Hong Kong at the beginning of the last decade, and we can only hope it spreads to sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world that are still mired in poverty. Yet that transformation has meant more oil consumption, more fertilizer, more cars, more planes—and ultimately, more carbon in the atmosphere and higher temperatures. We’re not just addicted to oil—we’re addicted to growth. We can’t live without it—but ultimately, we may not be able to live with it.

That’s what the Ecocentric blog is going to explore—how the planet can manage all that growth in a way that doesn’t, well, kill us. That’s going to mean smart policy, so we’ll spend time in Washington as the U.S. struggles to come up with a meaningful energy and climate policy—but we won’t ignore the rest of the world, busy making the decisions that will ultimately define humanity’s fate. It’s going to mean brilliant technology, so expect to see us among the start-ups of Silicon Valley, where veterans of the Internet revolution are competing to save the planet. It’s going to mean sound science, so we’ll continue to follow researchers as they diagnose the full extent of the climate challenge. And all the while we’ll keep our eye on planet Earth, traveling with the conservationists dedicating to celebrating and protecting rainforests, rare species and all the other natural resources that don’t show up on the balance sheet.

We have a great team of guides. Michael Lemonick, a former science writer for TIME now at Climate Central, knows global warming science in and out—and he knows how to make it clear for the average reader. From her perch in Hong Kong, Krista Mahr has already produced great environmental journalism—see her cover on the disappearing tuna—and she knows her Iceland too. Eben Harrell in London will keep us up to date on green Europe—the one part of the world that really seems to take climate change seriously. And Jeff Kluger, TIME’s science editor, has written about everything from space—see his book on Apollo 13—to the science of romance.

As for me, I started writing about the environment for TIME nearly three years ago, when I moved to New York from Tokyo. I spent the first six years of my career in Asia—first in Hong Kong and finally in Japan—and that time has stuck with me. I witnessed the tremendous energy of growth—the hundreds of millions of Chinese people who suddenly had opportunities their grandparents never could have dreamt of. And I witnessed its dark side: the clear-cut stubble where an Indonesian rainforest once was, the air over Hong Kong steadily becoming opaque with Chinese pollution, Vietnamese rivers that were black with industrial sludge. I know there’s a balance that can be struck, growth that really can be sustainable, that doesn’t steal from the future. Ecocentric will be the search for that balance—before we hit a limit that really can’t be broken.