UN atlas, zoomed in on environmental damage, misses big picture

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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.

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.

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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.

Looking at photo after photo comparing specific areas over decades, you can't deny that humans have had some effect on the planet. But how much? The majority of photos are close-ups of specific cities, so all that's evident is that coastlines are colored differently, a few trees are now buildings, and cities are growing. Yet again, you're left to assume that photographic evidence proves it must be enough to be "globally devastating."

Much of the atlas focuses on urban sprawl, a subject on which I - along with most environmentalists - have plenty of circumstantial knowledge. Living in the suburbs - exactly halfway between urban-industrial-monstrosity and out-in-the-sticks - I see daily the argument's cultural roots. City slickers don't like having to drive farther and farther to reach those quaint villages where time stands still. Ruralists don't like their sleepy country roads turned into shopping malls, cookie-cutter houses, and golf courses. More often than not the first and most intense arguments are personal, and environmentalism is backed into.

However, when you look at it globally, the effects add up to a heck of a lot less than "devastating." Look at any global population density map - or just take a cross-country road trip. There is still plenty of "out in the sticks" for us to eat up. After millenniums of seemingly massive population growth, humans take up only a minuscule amount of the planet. Even given our current growth rate, the human effect will still remain basically infinitesimal.

Environmentalists would have you believe that we're inhabiting the lone, rare pockets of land that can sustain human life, and any damage to those are, indeed, globally devastating. However, when one zooms out, so to speak, from the areas we inhabit now what we see is ample land, ripe for our inevitable technological advancements to make inhabitable.

The collection of photographs in this book - and most photographic environmental evidence, in reality - proves only one thing: Our effects on the planet are really evident only when zoomed in on.

Beyond the admittedly neat pictures, this attempt at an atlas of man's destruction crystallizes but one thing: Environmentalists love microcosms. Any situation they can prove to be gravely perilous in a 40-square-mile area, they tend to extrapolate globally.

It's been the linchpin of the environmental movement forever: coal smoke in a few large cities during the early 1900s, a few miles of coastline destroyed by an oil tanker crash, the mere existence of pollutants in relatively tiny metropolitan areas - all these were heralded as environmental disasters.

Despite constant warnings, global devastation never quite seems to happen. We've been safe thus far - throughout industrial revolutions, oil landgrabs, and periods of rampant consumption - and there has yet to be any solid, fact-based rationale to explain how we won't always find a way to grow beyond microcosmic environmental problems.

It appears environmentalists can't see the forest because they're zoomed in on one or two ailing trees.

Christopher J. Falvey is the editor of the online magazine The VN/VO.

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