Peering down from his aerial perch aboard a red Cessna, J. Michael Fay surveyed the African continent in panoramic splendor.To the untrained eye, the digital images he captured from several hundred feet in the air seem to reveal a breathtaking utopia, nature at its most pristine: rolling desert dunes, jagged mountain ranges, spreading plains dotted with antelope and bison and rivers teeming with hippopotamuses.
From Fay’s experienced vantage point, however, the human footprint was evident everywhere. And it’s growing by leaps and bounds.
Fay, explorer in residence for “National Geographic,” came to campus in late January as the Geology Green Chair guest lecturer. While Fay’s message centered on the need for stepped-up conservation efforts in Africa to preserve and repair its development-scarred ecosystems, it’s the gas-guzzling, resource-wasting mind-set of Americans that he is bent on changing.
“I think every citizen needs to start recognizing the problem and acting on the problem,” Fay said. “And the first place to start is energy consumption, no doubt about it. Everybody can conserve energy tomorrow easily and hardly have any impact on our quality of life. In fact, improving our quality of life.”
We’d be wise to heed his advice. It’s time we made a true commitment to battling global warming. It’s time we invested serious research dollars toward finding viable alternative fuel sources. And it’s time for the United States to stop acting like our natural resources are a never-ending supply.
“If you kind of add it all up and you think about where humanity’s going, it’s a real dilemma,” Fay said. “It’s something that I grapple with every single day.”
Forget for a moment the global warming debate and the fact that even conservative politicians are now acknowledging what scientists have believed for decades: that the world is getting warmer and that fossil fuels are playing a significant role in the warming trend.
Take a look, instead, at resource management. Fay is trying desperately to protect the richly forested Congo Basin from logging. He’s fighting an uphill battle. According to a 2005 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, some 13 million hectares of the world’s forests are lost to logging each year, and the rate of deforestation far exceeds the rate of forestland replenishment.
Although 30 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with forests, two-thirds of the forestland is located in just 10 countries, including the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That means in the rest of the world there are not a lot of trees to go around.
“A country’s wildlife and resource management strategy and record are generally a good indicator of the path they have chosen,” said Mike Slattery, director of TCU’s Institute for Environmental Studies. “Typically, those who have neglected their natural resources, or pillaged them, are beset by political unrest, poverty, disease, etc.
“It’s not that having a meaningful and rigorous wildlife and conservation program alleviates these. Rather, proper stewardship of the land generally leads to greater well-being and a more sustainable future.”
There’s a more pressing problem in Africa than logging or misuse of agricultural lands: us.
Africans, especially in countries where improvements are being seen in economic development and infrastructure, are consuming more fossil fuels and consuming larger quantities of factory-produced products. They want to consume like we consume, drive cars like we drive.
“Poverty alleviation doesn’t mean anything other than let’s bring this population of people or this individual to a place where he’s consuming as many resources as the West,” Fay said. “That’s what it is. You can’t really conceal that in some other language. That’s what it translates into.”
We in the United States need to set a different example. And we can start by doing little things, such as purchasing a hybrid car or, when practical, placing solar panels on our homes to make them more energy efficient.
Sound like liberal hogwash to you? It doesn’t to Fay.
“This isn’t left-wing liberal politics. This is reality,” Fay said. “And this has nothing to do with being green or being a hippie. This has to do with practical reality, and conservation is one of those most conservative things you can do.”
His words turned out to be prophetic. On the second day of Fay’s two-day visit, President Bush gave his State of the Union Address. In it, he urged Americans to break our “addiction to oil.”
It’s time for us to do something to save what’s left. And everyone can and should play a part.
Mark Wright is a second-year graduate news-editorial journalism student from Arlington.