In 2005 the Institute for Environmental and Human Security estimated that 20 million "environmental refugees," people fleeing ecological collapse, desertification, deforestation, drought, crop failure and the social anarchy that goes with environmental collapse, are adrift in the world. By 2010 that number is predicted to be 50 million.
A few weeks ago a 65-year-old eastern Nevada real estate agent proposed that the U.S. Congress turn 500 square miles of land around eastern Nevada's Great Basin National Park into a nature preserve. The proposal was made so the strict environmental protections of that designation would curtail a plan by Las Vegas to pump groundwater from the area and pipe it 235 miles to "Sin City" to help water its unsustainable, explosive growth.
Lake Mead has been the primary source of drinking water for Las Vegas, the fastest growing urban area in the United States. The lake level has dropped substantially and more 3 trillion gallons of water have disappeared in five years. Between 2000 and 2005, the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead, lost approximately half its flow, a direct consequence of what is commonly referred to as "global warming," which for most Americans is an abstract issue. Dave Tilford, a lifelong Ely, Nev., resident who made the Great Basin proposal, said, "Maybe this is a good way to stop it. Basically, I'm concerned about my grandchildren and their children and their futures."
Also a couple of weeks ago, three water scientists from Blaine County, Idaho, wrote a guest opinion for the Idaho Mountain Express calling for scientific studies about local water to be made, and for the results of those studies to be translated into public policy. In it they wrote: "Some of the most tragic episodes in the annals of water history have occurred in areas that did not grasp the limits of their water resources; by the time problems emerged it was either too late or too expensive to fix them."
In China, the Gobi desert is expanding at a rate of about 10,000 square kilometers a year, taking any village in its way and threatening many others.
Canadian Roy Woodbridge believes the world is on the brink of planetary warfare over diminishing resources and that the proper and essential role of nations is to organize around a single, critical principle—the provisioning of societies with the basic necessities of civilized life. He writes, "Even if ecological decline is an enemy we have created, it is still an enemy. It is an enemy that threatens all of human ambition: It can stifle growth, preclude the reduction of poverty and constrain the human prospect. Defining ecological decline in this way and making the provisioning of human societies the goal turns the equation around. Defining ecological decline as the enemy rather than human consumption is a straightforward appeal to human self-interest. It leads to a call to organize to directly meet human needs. It is an attempt to force people to think differently about the nature of their dependence on ecological systems and how they must go about the task of reorganizing to meet their provisioning requirements."
A couple of weeks ago a mudslide at Guinsaugan on the Philippine island of Leyte wiped out the village and buried and killed more than a thousand people, including a school with more than 300 students and teachers. A week before, the village had been evacuated after torrential rains made the steep hillsides unstable. The hillsides had been denuded by illegal logging. The people apparently returned because they had no place else to go. They were environmental refugees in their own home town. Aside from the torrential rains, environmentalists blame rampant illegal logging, mining and other ecological excesses for such disasters.
"Our country is in a state of ecological crisis, aggravated by La Nina (a phenomenon characterized by unusually heavy rains and cold weather)," said Philippine Senator Jamby Madrigal. "We are now at the mercy of environmental disasters."
And Woodbridge says, "Even if ecological decline is an enemy we have created, it is still an enemy. It is an enemy that threatens all of human ambition."
The three Idaho water scientists wrote, "By the time problems emerged it was either too late or too expensive to fix them."
Madrigal, Woodbridge and the water scientists could be describing any number of past environmental disasters, like Katrina and Guinsaugan, any number of future ones that might be prevented by forethought, honesty, and grasping the limits of natural resources and the nature of man's dependence on ecological systems.
And Tilford says, "Basically, I'm concerned about my grandchildren and their children and their futures."
Me, too. I don't want them to be environmental refugees.