Introduction
A remarkable thing happened in 2009: The planet did not come to a grinding, howling collapse.
By Thomas Hayden
Photo: Chicago city lights
Photograph by Jim Richardson

True, the signs of impending disaster were everywhere, from an unspooling global economy, to war and ongoing political turmoil, to drought-stricken land, and dying oceans. And above it all, we have the growing evidence that global warming is progressing even faster than anticipated, while the political will to address it remains sluggish.

No, the planet did not come to an end. And yet—here we are, too far into the new century to pretend any longer that a new age of awareness and responsibility will suddenly emerge, unless we can gather the resolve to drag it kicking and screaming from our imaginations and into reality.

To preserve and redeem our planet, we must first understand it—and the nearly seven billion people who share its beauty, its opportunities, and its challenges. That is the purpose of EarthPulse, and it has never been an easy task. But this year the stakes seem higher somehow, even as the impediments appear steeper. These are complex times, after all, and they are changing fast.

After decades of expansion and years of rapid acceleration, the global economy has grown to an unprecedented size and near universal reach. We are connected now as never before, directly through travel, the Internet and telecommunications, and no less tangibly through the global networks of finance, trade, and commerce, which have spread both wealth and worry to the farthest corners of the Earth. We find ourselves now in an unprecedented double bind, with our global bill for decades of overconsumption—of living beyond our ecological and economic means—apparently coming due just as our financial system faces its most serious threats in several generations.

How different the world is today from the one we inherited from our parents and grandparents. In 1929, when the Great Depression struck, many people still lived in relative isolation, steeped in ancient cultural traditions and drawing on local resources for much of the food, water, and shelter they required. Today the world is knit together with cargo ships and jetliners, advertising campaigns and television reruns. Distances have collapsed, barriers have disappeared, and we are filling our homes and our minds with goods and ideas from around the globe. The human population has nearly quadrupled since the 1930s. Millions now enjoy greater wealth and security and nutrition than ever before, while others have been pushed to the margins.

And what of the planet itself? Our footprint can be seen everywhere, in the deserts we've caused to bloom and the many cities and roadways and verdant suburbs we've built, but also in the greenhouse gases we've pumped into the air, the seas we've emptied of fish, and the forests we've cut, burned, and bulldozed into oblivion. Yes, this interconnected world we've constructed has brought unprecedented comfort to millions, but it has also threatened the very functioning of nature's sustaining systems. We've transformed our home planet to such a dramatic extent that many scientists suggest we've created an entirely new geologic era: the Anthropocene, or the age of humans.

There have been exploiters and abusers throughout our history, and the greedy, the unthinking, and the downright immoral are with us still. But for the most part we've caused these planet-altering changes through the entirely understandable—laudable even—desire to better our own lot, that of our children, and even that of our fellow human beings. If our intentions have been largely benign, however, the impacts have been anything but.

Humans are nothing if not innovative, and we will likely find ways to feed our numbers as population swells beyond nine billion, and perhaps even to preserve some remnants of the planet's natural splendor. But can we do it while leaving enough rain forest so that the orangutans of Borneo can also survive? Is there room on the planet for pervasive global brands and for a thousand different cultures, each expressed through its own unique combination of sound and color, story, language, and belief? Can we continue to overcrowd and overconsume without losing the very things that have given us joy, kept us safe, and provided inspiration for as long as we've been a species? The allure of wealth, comfort, and health is powerful indeed. But asking whether we can afford them means much more than whether we simply have the money.

Money itself is now, for many, in distressingly short supply. If there is any good news in the recent economic slowdown at all, perhaps it is to be found in some still leafy corner of the Amazon Basin, where the primeval forest has not yet been converted to fire-scarred cattle range or soybean fields; or on a patch of Florida swampland that has not yet been drained, filled over, and covered with condominiums; or in the waters of a Chinese river not, for the moment, used to cool the overheated engines of industrial expansion.

After decades of accelerating deforestation, development, and exploitation, our moment of economic crisis has given the planet itself a brief moment of respite. There can be no joy in the global financial collapse—too many lives have been broken, and too many dreams put on hold. But perhaps this is a moment of opportunity also, as we seek to rebuild our systems of production and trade, and perhaps it would be just as wrong to let that opportunity pass us by.

The future is uncertain, but only the most pessimistic among us would say that the world economy will not recover and start to grow again, whether in six months, a year, or ten. We have paused in our centuries-long push to produce and consume ever more now, and the most optimistic might say that this is our chance to breathe deeply and consider the sort of future we want for ourselves and for our planet. Will consumption continue to rule the day, or will we find ways to do more good for humanity, with less harm to the Earth? Will we make our recovery merely fast, or can we make it smart as well? The choice has always been ours; the time to make it, definitively, is now.

Advertisement
Related Content
Image: EarthPulse Cover
Purchase EarthPulse
Order your copy of EarthPulse online today.
Photo: Thermal pool
U.S. National Parks
The U.S. is home to 58 national parks, as varied as the country that houses them.
Photo: Japanese macaque
International Photo Contest
Enter your photos, then browse our galleries of previous winners.
Photo: Italian coastal village
Drives of a Lifetime
National Geographic Traveler has scoured the globe for the world's most beautiful, interesting, and off-beat road trips.
Photo: Australian ecolodge
50 Best Ecolodges
National Geographic Adventure presents the most Earth-friendly retreats in the world’s most spectacular wilds.