The "Voice"

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The “Voice”

Charles Oberg, MD, MPH Professor of Pediatrics & Public Health Division of Epidemiology & Community Health

School of Public Health University of Minnesota

Prologue

The time had come, all had passed, and the Voice remained. It lingered as I sat by the stream. Then it spoke in a whisper and asked, “What has happened and where are all my

children?” Before I replied, I reflected for a time. Then a frightful epiphany—we had forsaken

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Tell me about your population growth and the reason for its explosion? A great deal had been written about the population explosion dating back to Robert Malthus and his 1798 AnEssay on the Principle of Population. The world population reached 7 billion in 2011 and surpassed 11 billion at the turn of the 22nd Century with no sign of slowing. What accounted for this continued growth? Though the reasons were myriad, there is no denying that the transition from

hunter/gatherer and agrarian societies, to the industrialized economies of the 19th and 20th century, and the post-industrial world of the 21st century, gave humanity the tools to shape the environment to its needs and wants. Many viewed this transition as providing the opportunity for improving the lives of a vast majority of the world’s populations. However, the advancement was not equitably shared with all. Vast disparities in standards of living and of wealth resulted in an ever increasing widening of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

“Could you not appreciate the consequence of your gluttony on earth?” It is true that the

hydrocarbon addiction had led to the depletion of the once enormous global deposits of coal, oil and gas. As quantities dwindled, we moved into the once protected and pristine wilderness reserves, unwilling to adequately transition to alternative energy resources. Add to this, the blatant global deforestation policies that show little interest in maintaining our rain forests at the expense of destabilized ecosystems, eliminated natural habitats and the depletion of soil

nutrients, all of which continued to occur at an alarming rate.

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mining, and oil exploration by large governmental and private multi-national corporate

partnerships. In addition, indigenous small-scale subsistence activities, such as slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal production, and firewood collection, exacerbated the problem. Despite their uniqueness and extraordinary value, tropical rain forests were destroyed and replaced by

unprecedented soil erosion, massive flooding, and global famine.

Clean, fresh water became “the” traded commodity of the 21st century. As we dammed and diverted rivers and lakes on the surface, and drained down our subterranean water viaducts, the globe found itself fighting over the control of water as it once did for land, oil and precious metals.

But why did you destroy your life-sustaining atmosphere and replace it with a toxic mist?”

Humanity had always faced the difficult dilemma of what to do with the waste generated from our consumption. Magnified and accentuated throughout the early 21st century, we allowed the global environment to move toward a critical stage beyond homeostatic equilibrium and self-correction. On a grand scale, the release of fluorocarbons secondary to the use of aerosols and refrigerants had badly damaged the ozone layer that protected us from ultraviolet rays. The burning of coal, oil, and gas used to generate the global energy grid had added acid rain and dangerous levels of fine particulate matter. “Climate change” and global warming entered our lexicon due to the emission of sulfur, carbon and nitrous oxides in to the atmosphere. In addition, our love of the automobile not only contributed to the changing climate but also

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attempts at projecting the magnitude of expected change rather than to addressing the pending catastrophe, until it was too late. We celebrated our success at removing certain pollutants from society such as the banning of lead additives to paint and gasoline, but we never fully

appreciated the magnitude of mercury and dioxin pollution, another byproduct of our ubiquitous coal burning. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 20th centurymobilized awareness long

enough to ban DDT as a pesticide. It was soon replaced by an arsenal of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that demonstrated the capacity to produce birth defects, growth abnormalities, reproductive damage and cancer, yet with little awareness by the general public.

Tell me of violence and war?” The tendency or trait of humanity to seek vengeance upon itself

was something of which we were always aware and yet we were somehow able to justify, condone, or, at times, just tolerate. The combination of memory gave us history; emotions provided not only our joy but also the hatred needed to wage war; and our intellect provided the rationale.

As a species, humanity recorded its history not by seasons of peace but by the sentinel periods of violence and war. In the 20th century, the global conflicts of World Wars I and II, and the “Cold” War, evolved into a “Global War on Terror” that spanned the entire 21st Century. Political assassinations, government sponsored terrorism and regime changes were but a few of the tools of the trade. Genocide for ethnic, religious, cultural, or economic reasons were not limited to Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields,” Hussein’s Kurdish solution but also included similar atrocities around the globe including the Balkans, Rwanda, Chile,

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women and children. This “cleansing” was launched not only by dictators, but also by the masses fueled by presumed nationalistic and/or religious zeal. The perpetrators convinced themselves and others that the killings were honorable, true, and the manifest destiny of their people. Despite world condemnation, “weapons of mass destruction” were stockpiled for our presumed self-protection. Technological supremacy eventually contributed to our own undoing.

As we entered the 22nd century it became increasingly clear that humanity’s sustainability was clearly in jeopardy. Global human rights and children’s rights became but a memory. The majority of persons on the globe were living in extreme poverty that was once unimaginable. Those fortunate enough to continue to experience wealth lived in isolated affluent protected societies. For every river or lake that was reclaimed, one hundred more died; for every acre restored, one thousand more were deleted of nutrients necessary for life. Clean fresh water replaced fossil fuels as the commodity traded by speculators for profit. Famine ran rampant and women, children, and the aged died from hunger and starvation and preventable diseases of Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and a resurgence of more virulent forms of polio, anthrax, smallpox, Ebola and plague.

Epilogue—Humanity Lost

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codified in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child were little mentioned and never enforced.

In retrospect, humanity’s extinction did not come with a nuclear winter or in a cataclysmic conflagration as many had predicted. Rather, it began with small incremental changes that were perceivable with numerous etiologies, duration, limitation of analysis, and a myriad of confounding variables. Yet the changes to our world persisted, intensified, and eventually overwhelmed so as to make life, as we knew it, unsustainable. As resources were exhausted and the environment irreversibly changed, fear, greed, intolerance and indifference overwhelmed compassion, trust and hope. And for those who had been waiting upon Providence realized too late that providence had always been present but that we were unable to hear its Voice.

So I replied, “I am tired and now I must cease to be.”

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