Over 50 years ago the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban observed, “Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.” History supports Eban’s pessimistic view, particularly with respect to addressing climate change.

In most cases, a destructive human activity was halted after great harm had already been done, while in others it slowed or stopped only because it was no longer profitable or possible. It has been over 13 years since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” heightened awareness of climate change, yet little has been done. Consider these historical parallels:

• The sperm whale: In the early 1800s whale oil was recognized as a superior fuel for lamps, so whalers went out and hunted these animals to near extinction. Complete extinction was prevented not by any concerns for the whales’ welfare, but by the development of kerosene, a more economical fuel. The whales’ numbers declined by about two-thirds until whaling was finally banned in the 1980s.

• Wood: Throughout history, people have utilized the forests around them for fuel and building materials, or cleared them to plant crops. There are many instances where growing human populations used up all the available wood, not only depriving themselves but also depriving countless other species of their habitat. This occurred around London in the 17th century and goes on today in Haiti and in several less developed and overpopulated parts of Asia and Africa. Erosion of soil, flooding and climate change are consequences of eliminating forests. Cutting has stopped only when there were no trees left or when remaining forests were too far away to be of practical use.

• Bison: Need I say more? Over 50 million bison once covered the U.S. Plains states but were hunted or killed for sport until the species reached the brink of extinction. Congress acted to protect them in 1894, when Yellowstone rangers could only find about 20!  Around 150,000 exist today, mostly in preserves.

• The Dust Bowl of the 1930s: Farmers found that good profits could be made by plowing up former prairie lands in the historically dry lower Midwest and planting wheat. When a periodic dry spell began, the unanchored soil blew away in choking dust clouds. It took many years of soil conservation to restore the land.

• Cod: Historical records abound with accounts of the nearly endless quantities of codfish in the North Atlantic. This valuable resource was a prime reason for the settlement of much of Maritime Canada and the Northeast U.S. (heard of Cape Cod?). Protections were put into place only after overfishing reduced the population to near extinction by the late 20th century. Fishing remains restricted and there is hope for at least a partial rebound.

• Sea urchins in Maine: A boom began in the late 1980s when harvesters became aware of a very profitable market in Japan for the formerly shunned urchin. The harvest peaked in 1993, then declined very rapidly and today remains at barely 10 percent of its former volume despite protections that began after the decline had occurred.

It seems we keep fishing and fishing then suddenly wonder, “Hey, what happened to all the fish?”

Some people may feel they can get along fine without sea urchins or even bison, but we are talking about the livability of the entire planet this time. The current increases in sea level, floods, heat waves, storms, fires and droughts are beginning to get people’s attention, and many of us have made personal choices that combat climate change, yet the overall trend continues to worsen. I wish it were not so, but it appears we have not yet felt enough pain or “exhausted all other resources.”


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