UN atlas, zoomed in on environmental damage, misses big picture
When I fly, I always insist on taking the window seat. Maybe it's the 12-year-old boy in me - I like seeing the world as Matchbox cars and ants-as-people scurrying about. Even as an adult and a resident of a large metropolis, I'm always curious about exactly what this modern expanse of planned communities and shopping meccas really looks like from above.Skip to next paragraph
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I recently took a flight from New Orleans, across the center of the country, into Chicago. Upon the flight's descent, about 50 miles outside of Chicago, I had a revelation; or, more apt, a bit of confusion: I'd flown 800-plus miles, most of it unobstructed by clouds, and all along I was asking myself - where exactly is this supposedly overwhelming urban sprawl? Certainly there were splotches of it here and there. Certainly there were rare specks of civilization within a virtual universe of green and brown. But sprawl? I just didn't see it.
All of this was little more than an interesting observation until the next day, when I read about the release of the United Nations atlas entitled "One Planet Many People" - comparing decades-old satellite photos of certain areas with modern ones, supposedly showing the global devastation of man. Interesting.
I assumed the UN project had more resources for statistical analysis than I did during my few cross-country trips. But when I dug into the book, what I found wasn't actually a shocking exposé on how mankind is destroying the planet. Instead, I found an excellent exposé of the flaws of the fundamental environmentalist argument.
While environmentalist causes are often born anecdotally, they're certainly not always lacking in statistics - and the pages of this UN atlas have just enough, as they say, to be dangerous. The facts and figures sprinkled throughout this UN atlas are not necessarily invalid, but they always seem to be missing one concept - the context of the global calculus.
X number of acres of rain forest have been cut down. OK, but X acres of how many total? Cities have grown X amount per year, on average. I believe you, but how much of our space is left? Carbon dioxide emissions for the decade were X tons. Great, that seems like a lot, but what specific events will happen because of this?
Unfortunately, these questions often elicit a lot of "I don't knows", "maybes", and "possiblys". Unless you're one who believes the end result must be dire merely because of a statistic in print, the numbers presented by traditional environmentalist arguments are rarely meaningful.
Fine, so people don't like math - math is boring, I get it. People do like pretty pictures - hence, the UN is releasing an atlas rather than volumes of statistical analysis to prove its point. Now, I love nifty satellite photos as much as the next guy, but any search for true significance in them will yield far less than the proverbial thousand words.