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August 29th, 2002
Growing Up Global
The Common Future of Rich and Poor

By Bill McKibben
August 29, 2002

Photo of an Afghan man pushing a heavy cart

Ten years after drafting Agenda 21 at Rio, world leaders reconvene for a progress report.

We’re used to thinking of the world as completely divided between rich and poor — and to a large extent that’s true. But because of the ways humans have damaged the environment, we face not only an increasingly grim future, but also an increasingly shared one, where Latvia and Kenya will be dealing with the same kinds of problems as Louisiana and Kentucky. It’s an opportunity, perhaps the final one, to really make common cause with the rest of the globe, or to go our own ever-more-vulnerable ways.

I sat watching “Growing Up Global” with my nine-year-old daughter Sophie, who was born the spring after Rio. It was, of course, easy to see her good heart reflected in the sweet favela girl Rosamaria, and in Panjy, the bangle-clad daughter of the fireworks maker, and in all the other kids as well. At the age of 10, kids are far more alike than not.

But it was even easier to see the enormous gulf between my daughter’s circumstances and theirs, to see how the accident of birth had left Sophie on one side of a great divide, and most of the world’s children on the other. That’s why the world has made little progress since Rio. It’s so divided that it’s hard for the rich nations to truly understand the struggles elsewhere. We’ve accomplished little but talk in the decade since Rio, and too often that talk has been shouting back and forth across the chasm of wealth and poverty.

This evening, though, the air outside our home in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York has turned hazy with smoke. After the driest summer on record, a forest fire has broken out on the piney cliffs of the mountain down the road. It’s a small fire compared with the one raging in Oregon this month, which has burned half a million acres, or the one that burned a similar swath across Quebec in July. Meanwhile, mosquitoes carrying the tropical West Nile virus are steadily making their way across the continent, and floods are causing billions of dollars in damage in Germany and central Europe.

All of this, the scientists tell us, is just what we should be seeing as the world warms, thanks to the carbon emissions we are pouring into our atmosphere. By changing the temperature, we cause arid areas to grow drier, and increase the odds of deluge in wet places.

It will be tougher elsewhere, of course. I’ve spent some time in Bangladesh in recent years, a poor but green and fertile country. And unfortunately a country that won’t survive unless our leaders at forums like the Johannesburg summit manage to reach real agreements. Bangladesh lies close to sea level. If warming temperatures cause the oceans to rise, as the consensus of scientists now predict, then much of that nation will be uninhabitable. Already residents have started evacuating Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation with a civilization dating back millennia.

But it will be tough here too. Our own green and fertile land will see huge changes as environmental conditions worsen. Some computer models, for instance, predict that melting Arctic ice could cause the Gulf Stream to falter or to fail, dramatically shifting our lives. At the very least, things that we take for granted may disappear. Models for our latitude show that winter may have disappeared by mid-century — no more snow and ice. Which is to say, when I think of my daughter’s children, no more sledding and skating.

And so, this time, we shouldn’t rely on pity for the plight of others to move us to action. That doesn’t seem like a strong enough force. After all, the gaps between rich and poor have only grown in the years since Rio. What we must realize now, is that our own children’s lives are at risk as well. And that we can do something about it, since unlike the parents of Erdo or Rosamaria, we contribute the lion’s share of pollution.

This sense of a grim, shared future is important, for America has been particularly intransigent in the years since Rio. We’ve refused to endorse a wide variety of international accords that could have helped curb global warming and other problems. We’ve thought of ourselves as distant, set apart, somehow different. President Bush’s father went to Rio declaring that “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” But since, in many ways, the American way of life is precisely the problem: with four percent of the world’s population, for instance, we manage to produce a quarter of its carbon emissions.

The smoke lingering in the air outside the window reminds me, insistently, that much as we might like to believe it, we’re not alone. My daughter shares more than a quick wit with Rosamaria, more than a love of school with Panjy. She shares a planet. And there’s no way that any one of them can secure that planet alone. They need us not to waste another decade, but to make the changes that will give them all a future.

Johannesburg represents one of those opportunities. So far there’s no sign that we’ll take it. Even after September 11, our leaders have told us to return to business as usual — to the shopping mall and the car dealership. Even as the rest of the world embraces new sources of power (wind power grew 31 percent last year, the fastest-spreading form of electric generation), the administration’s energy plan calls for emitting 40 percent more greenhouse gases by 2020.

What will convince Americans that they can’t keep thumbing their noses at the rest of the world? That is probably the most important international question of our time. We have enormous power — enormous power that might preserve a habitable planet for my kid and everyone else’s. But only if we use it wisely. And quickly too.

Bill McKibben is the author of “The End of Nature” and other books on nature, the environment and sustainable development. A former staff writer for THE NEW YORKER, and a frequent contributor to THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, ROLLING STONE and THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, McKibben is currently a visiting professor of environmental science at Middlebury College. His next book, “Enough,” will appear in spring 2003.

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