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Is the Earth Squandering Its Future?


The Finnish Dream in Sundsberg
 This development located near Helsinki represents a Finnish approach to suburbia. Neat and orderly, Sundsberg is nonetheless nearly inaccessible except by car or other private vehicle.  Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson, © 2007, 2012. All Rights Reserved.


On The Street of the Lifted Lorax, "the wind smells slow and sour when it blows; and the birds never sing, except for old crows . . . " In this forsaken place, there are decrepit signs in shoddy disrepair, tufts of grickle-grass, and not much else.

The Street of the Lifted Lorax is Dr. Seuss' mythical representation of the consequences of rampant greed and urban sprawl run amok. Although The Lorax was published in 1971, and the animated feature produced in 1972, its lessons still resonate as a cautionary tale, with some of its hardest lessons evidently still unlearned in the real world.

The destruction the Earth's natural habitats and the effects of climate change are increasingly obvious, with the ironic result of making further commercial ventures viable in regions heretofore inaccessible. The fabled Northwest Passage, long an unattainable shipping lane due to year round Arctic ice cover, may become a reality before the end of this century.

Also ironically, the fossil fuels which are believed to be largely responsible for climate change have become potentially more accessible as well. In August 2005, a Russian research ship was able to reach the North Pole without an icebreaker to clear a pathway - the first time in history. Its mission? To anchor Russia's claim to virtually half the Arctic Ocean - estimated to hold a full one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves. Such reserves are nearly irresistible for industrialized and developing economies facing increasing scarcity and higher prices for fossil fuels. A Thneed, after all, is what everyone needs.

The need has become more acute as the planet becomes ever more urbanized, putting further strain on resources such as clean drinking water and arable land suitable for agriculture, never mind uninhabited natural landscapes. According to U.N. Habitat, the world's urban population will grow from 2.86 billion in 2000 to 4.98 billion by 2030, with much of that growth in the developing world, in medium and low-income countries - with many of the migrants themselves being extremely poor.

This is an increasingly urgent situation, which, if unaddressed, is a time bomb in the making. Many cities worldwide are ringed with shantytowns of unimaginable poverty. A major aspect of urban sustainability (if not bottom-line livability) in decades to come will be in dealing with this influx of people, both in numbers and in the scope of their social needs.

Adding to the urgency of the situation is the detrimental effect of human actions on many other species which populate our planet. For instance, the Baiji freshwater dolphin, believed never to have numbered more than 5000 and found only in the Yangtze River in China, is, for all intents and purposes, extinct, although there was an alleged sighting in 2007. Illegal fishing and the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam were directly related to its demise. Intense, worldwide coordinated preservation efforts are presently being pursued on behalf of the extremely endangered Spix's Macaw, extinct in the wild due to poaching and destruction of its natural habitat in northeast Brazil.

At the conclusion of The Lorax, a curious young passerby is entrusted with a precious gift by the Once-ler - the final Truffula tree seed. Fortunately real-life circumstances are not nearly so dire, at least not yet. Nonetheless, we would be wise to take heed of the stern warning the Once-ler gives to the young passerby:


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