As a potential threat to the earth, nuclear war has a tremendous public profile: it's sexy; it's immediate. The bomb might land on anyone's house. We may not know what to do about that problem, but at least we think about it. Environmental destruction,
on the other hand, needs a better press agent. While it's an extremely dangerous thing, few people think about it. Yet it can make us as dead (or as uncomfortable) as nuclear war can. It deserves equal time.
When the tiger goes extinct, watch the market.
The countries of the northern hemisphere have industrialized, paged, and controlled most of their natural environment. The "third world" countries in the south are imitating us as fast as they can. The southern hemisphere controls some of the most fragile and precious natural territories remaining on earth. The nations around the equator, in particular, control the rain forest - an incomparable reserve of wild animal and plant species tied together in complex self-contained ecosystems.
The animal and plant life there is vast and largely uncharted: many species there have not even been identified. According to Newsweek (February 18, 1985), "There are thousands upon thousands of plant, animal and insect species, almost half the planet's species in only two percent of its area."
The rain forest lies in "developing" countries: Brazil, Central America, the Congo, Borneo. Struggling peasants see it as farmland that only needs clearing. Richer nationals see it as real estate from which to carve empires. Governments see it as the target of their "manifest destiny," their ticket to the industrial world. But they're mistaken: they're wrecking their national wealth, not creating it. In fact, they're wrecking priceless, irreplaceable world treasure. Every day, almost thirty acres of rain forest disappear forever.
Says Newsweek, "Each year an area the size of England, Scotland and Wales is razed. By the turn of the century, if this rate of destruction continues, most major rain forests may well be reduced to degraded patches."
Rain forest makes terrible farmland or ranchland. Its true wealth is what now exists: its exotic and abundant life. Newsweek ponders the consequences of the rain forests' destruction:
The carbon released from the burning and decaying forest could have a "greenhouse effect" on the earth, melting part of the polar ice caps and causing floods worldwide. The world's gene pool will dwindle as species become extinct.
Most tragic of all, perhaps, is the annihilation of species as yet undiscovered, which might well have proven invaluable to mankind. Of the plants known to have anticancerous properties, for example, more than 70 percent are rain-forest species.
The destruction of the rain forest is inevitable, according to many observers. They take such a pessimistic view because they can't see a solution. But there is one. Take the case of Brazil.
Brazil owes tens of billions to foreign interests (predominantly American). Its rain forest, the world's largest, holds untold and unimaginable botanical, zoological, and genetic treasures that could hold the keys to breakthroughs both economic and medical. I propose that the U.S. government buy out Americans' Brazilian debts and then, as creditor, forgive the debts in exchange for (a) a moratorium on Amazonian development; (b) unlimited access to the region for American researchers; (c) a strictly limited Amazonian development plan that would preserve the bulk of the ecosystem from permanent harm.
This proposal may sound bold. So did Seward's proposal regarding Alaska and so, perhaps, did Jefferson's offer to Napoleon for the Louisiana Territory. We would be buying real estate not for ourselves but for the world - though we'd be giving ourselves first crack at its real riches.
Let us buy now and avoid the rush - the international rush that will occur when the world's nations finally realize the value of the natural resources they are destroying. (When the tiger goes extinct, watch the market.)
From the U.S. State Department's standpoint, buying the rights to Brazilian jungle may seem problematic: we'd be trying to buy something for which a dollar value has never been assigned, and we'd be encroaching on Brazilian pride. But we might gain a way to bring stability to a colossal Moscow target, and we might gain a way to give U.S. bankers something tangible for their loans. We'd also gain access to some of the world's most precious natural secrets.