A case for optimism

September 10, 2018

It’s easy to be depressed right now in the United States. We have a controversial and inconsistent President who seems to be damaging our relationships with our best and more trusted allies. We have a Congress that spends most of their energy fighting the other party instead of working together on reasonable solutions. And we have a Supreme Court that often seems more interested in scoring a political victory as opposed to determining just and fair decisions. While things look bleak at the federal level, Idaho does not seem exempt from its own challenges. Some of our politicians seem to be fixated with the past.

Based on what you hear in the media, you might think the whole world is in decline. That’s not really the case because the media focuses largely on problem areas. The reality is that most countries in the world are improving. Worldwide living conditions continue to get better. For example:

Electricity: In 1970 only 65 percent of the people in the world had access to electricity, now it’s nearly 90 percent. Solar panels have made electricity available for most of the world and within a few years nearly everyone will have some electric power.

Communications: Cellphones and the internet have greatly improved educational opportunities and communication across the globe. Around 90% of girls now have access to at least some schooling; in 1970, only 65 percent did.

Health: Several countries are rapidly moving away from fossil fuels to not only save money and now have cleaner air, and the reduced carbon emissions have led to better respiratory health. In 1970 just over 50 percent of people worldwide could get reasonably clean water, now about 90% have clean water. In 1970 just under 30 percent of people worldwide were undernourished, now it’s closer to 10 percent.

Average life expectancy: In the 1950s the average life span was just over 50 years; now it’s over 70 years worldwide.

Child labor: In the 1950s, 28 percent of kids under 14 had to work full time. Now it’s under 10 percent — still too high, but continuing to drop.

Women’s right to vote: In 1900 only a handful of countries allowed voting rights to women, now only one country restricts women voting rights.

Protected landscapes: In 1900 less than 1 percent of the land had some form of protection. Now nearly 15% of the worldwide landscape is under some form of government protection to ensure the sustainability of healthy watersheds serving to maintain native fish and wildlife species, and to provide for local and indigenous people to live sustainably.

Nuclear warheads: Have been reduced by about 75 percent since 1980 at the peak of the Cold War.

Human population: We have just under 8 billion people now worldwide. Projections are that worldwide we’ll hit about 11 billion, and then slowly decrease as more women receive higher educational opportunities in the future.

The biggest issue the world needs to tackle right now is climate change and that is being addressed by the great majority of countries around the world, excepting the United States and Russia. This widespread focus has resulted in a leveling off of worldwide carbon emissions. As more renewable energy comes on line there is a good chance we can keep worldwide temperatures somewhat livable. However, while efforts to level carbon emissions have been undertaken, we must continue the effort. Carbon dioxide, and other insulating greenhouse gasses, slowly float into the atmosphere over time where they hold in the heat from the sun like a blanket. And carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for generations. Because of this delayed effect we can expect increasing levels of coastal flooding, more massive wildfires, an increasingly acidic ocean, and more extreme weather events. To keep temperatures livable, we will need to reduce that concentration and reduce our carbon output by 80% or more.

To limit temperature rise, some degree of technological solutions will be required to reduce carbon dioxide levels and possibly limit solar energy reaching the earth’s surface. Much research is being conducted in these areas. Carbon sequestration in our soil through new agricultural practices, chemically stripping carbon dioxide from the air, changing forestry practices to retain more carbon in trees, and even spreading chalk into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight are all being studied. Technology alone isn’t the answer, we need the political will to keep reducing our output of carbon dioxide.

Frogs in a pot that is slowly heating to a boil will not jump out to save themselves. We need to be aware of the same conundrum; humans today are confronted with the challenge of reducing the temperature worldwide. The great majority of countries are working steadily to reduce their carbon footprint in order to decrease the insulating greenhouse gasses. As a democracy, the United States depends upon informed voters who participate in government and who understand the future we are creating for our children. We all need to educate ourselves using multiple sources, to be involved and to participate in the problems this country faces. When this happens, we will regain international respect and maintain a livable world for all people.

Mike Larkin lives in Pocatello and has degrees from Utah State University and the University of Idaho in Natural Resource Management.

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