Credit: Elias Castillo/flickr

William H. Schlesinger: Patriotism in a globalized world

On a full planet, how we divide up finite resources, may well define our future—as one of conflict or one of enlightenment.

When photographed from space, the Earth appears as a blue planet, with swirls of clouds passing over its surface that circulate its atmosphere from pole to pole and top to bottom, mixing it over time periods of a few months.


The history of oceanography shows a circulation of the seas that matches the mixing of the atmosphere. The physics of these fluids on Earth recognizes no political boundaries, such as we have been prone to delineate on land.

Defending boundaries on land is the realm of traditional patriots, who have often had isolationist beliefs.

It is comfortable to think that a fence surrounding our yard or a wall surrounding our country will keep out undesirables, however we might define them.

But, the air we breathe, the climate we experience, and the rain that falls on sovereign lands derive from the larger biophysical circulation of our planet, which does not recognize such boundaries.

When the world had fewer people, it was practical to fence off and isolate local areas, so the sustenance of life could be obtained within. On a full planet, where every nation can affect the global climate, isolationism is not relevant.

Climate change wrought by any nation can cause drought and crop failures half a world away, stimulating the migration of local peoples to the borders of foreign lands.

The carbon dioxide emitted from Denver or Dubai has an equal effect in melting polar ice and flooding the coastal areas of nations worldwide.

Toxic mercury, pesticides, and radiation are carried globally in the atmosphere and ocean currents.

A world linked by immediate air transportation is linked by the arrival of diseases, pests, and pathogens across sovereign borders. In today's world, it is not patriotic to shun a global view; indeed the successful patriot will be a globalist who recognizes and works to reduce conflict and increase cooperation across boundaries everywhere.

We live in an integrated system that spans only a thin "peel" about 20 kilometers thick on the surface of planet Earth. How we manage that arena will determine the persistence and quality of life for every one of the species that now inhabit this planet with us.

Some species are likely to disappear; others will proliferate globally, bringing huge changes to daily life that we have long regarded as "normal." Homo sapiens will be the supervisor of this arena.

On a full planet, how we divide up finite resources, such as oil, water, phosphate and the fishes of the sea, may well define our future, as one of conflict or one of enlightenment.

We can manage the biosphere well, we can manage it poorly, or through purposeful actions of terrorism and war, we can poison Eden.

When the playground is full, it pays to play well together if we expect the game to go on.

William H. Schlesinger is one of the nation's leading ecologists and earth scientists. He has served as dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. This article originally ran on Translational Ecology, Schlesinger's science-based blog offering analysis of current environmental topics.

We’re dumping loads of retardant chemicals to fight wildfires. What does it mean for wildlife?

As western wildfires become bigger and more intense, state and federal fire agencies are using more and more aerial fire retardant, prompting concerns over fish kills, aquatic life, and water quality.

As the Caldor Fire roared toward drought-stricken Lake Tahoe in the last days of August, firefighters faced a sobering scenario: Strong winds increased from the southwest, pushing the fire toward populated areas and prompting tens of thousands to flee.

Keep reading... Show less

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Photo by Oz Seyrek on Unsplash

In search of ‘Lithium Valley’: why energy companies see riches in the California desert

Firms say what's underneath the Salton Sea could fuel a green-energy boom. But struggling residents have heard such claims before.

Carbon, caribou and a Dene Tha’ plan to protect a northern Alberta lake

The nation is proposing the first Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area in the province to protect the region surrounding one of Alberta' largest lakes, which stores five times more carbon per square metre than the Amazon.

WATCH: This man is fighting climate change by managing 100,000 acres of forest

Produced by Colby College, this film features conservationist Steve Tatko. Managing over 100,000 acres of Maine forest for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Tatko focuses on techniques that promote natural regeneration rather than planting trees.

Pa. community’s fight against electric lines shows tensions coming with push toward a clean energy future

To achieve a carbon-free electricity sector, the country would need to more than double the power infrastructure it has now in the next decade.

Young people take to the streets of Pittsburgh, demanding climate action

Local students called for the region to end get out of coal, gas and petrochemicals. The event was part of a worldwide student climate strike.