When you consider what we are doing to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, and to the world we live in, one cannot help but wonder. What mankind is doing to itself and our world can be related in two categories — man’s inhumanity to his fellow beings, and his disregard for the effect of his actions on the future of Earth and its inhabitants.
World War II produced the greatest human death toll in history — 60-70 million lives lost in six years, with millions more suffering life-changing injuries. It was unmatched in its grievous impact on civilian populations, killing, maiming and disrupting the lives of millions of women, children and the elderly. But all of that death and destruction was a price that had to be paid to preserve our freedoms and save the world from a fate worse than death.
The same cannot be said of the brutality that has plagued the world since then, and seems to increase with every decade. An estimated 15-20 million people have been killed and untold millions of lives uprooted by ethnic, religious and political warfare in Sudan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Rwanda, Nigeria, Cambodia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name only the worst cases, and most recently in Somalia, Syria, and South Sudan.
In Sudan, 50 years of strife has created 4.5 million refugees. Fifteen years of destruction in Lebanon, similar to what has been going on in Syria, destroyed the lives of millions of people. In Rwanda, the Hutus hacked a million Tutsi to death with machetes and produced a flood of 2 million refugees fleeing into neighboring Zaire. Tribal warfare in Nigeria has resulted in another million deaths. Cambodia endured two disasters, a self-inflicted slaughter of 1.5 million by the ruling Khmer Rouge, followed by a Vietnamese invasion that displaced a similar number.
“Ethnic cleansing” by Serbia in Bosnia and Kosovo killed a quarter of a million people, and tore the fabric of those countries to shreds. More than 3 million people were killed in the slaughter that ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). And the U.S. even got in on the action in Vietnam, destroying entire villages in which 2-3 million people died and another million were maimed.
The devastating effects of these atrocities on their victims are incomprehensible. Think of the deaths, injuries, and absolute terror perpetrated on innocent children and their mothers by the actions of other people who just don’t care. How can sentient human beings possibly inflict these appalling crimes against other humans — and actually take pleasure in them? While the rest of the world looks on indifferently with little intent of putting an end to these horrors.
Then we come to the threat to our very survival that we, ourselves, are creating. Lowly bacteria will multiply until they either run out of food or poison their environment with their own waste products (and then they die). Aren’t we doing the same thing, in spite of our supposed intelligence?
In underdeveloped parts of the world, populations are expanding beyond their food supply, resulting in recurring famines and mass starvation — nearly half a million in Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet the populations of 27 countries in Africa are projected to more than double by 2050, with another six close behind. And throughout developing countries (primarily China and India) and the U.S., the combination of increasing populations and growing per-capita consumption of resources, including (but not limited to) fossil fuels, threatens the standard of living and even the survival of future generations. Throughout the world, shortages of water for irrigation are imperiling food production. Ninety percent of California and Texas, home to 20 percent of the U.S. population, are in severe drought; two-thirds of California and half of Texas are suffering extreme drought conditions.
Although the more advanced countries have made great strides in reducing air and water pollution to livable levels, pollution in many developing countries is threatening the health and lives of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. And the outpouring of 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere from the burning of steadily increasing volumes of fossil fuels is raising atmospheric CO2 to the highest level in 800,000 years, posing a threat to the survival of our civilization.
Would an intelligent civilization blindly follow these paths to its own destruction?
— “As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.