With a host of pressing issues demanding attention, many African Americans have not seen environmental issues as a top priority. With some notable exceptions — Charles Jordan at the Conservation Fund and leaders of the Environmental Justice movement, for example — African Americans have chosen to work on other problems.
The reasons are not hard to understand. Why worry about global warming, pollution and forest destruction — tomorrow's problems — when high unemployment, the education gap, street violence and incarceration are hurting African Americans right now. Not to mention Hurricane Katrina.
Now may be the time for this to change. The future has arrived and those problems we thought were far off are closing in fast.
Let's start with gas prices, something that none of us can ignore. Oil prices recently rose to $75 a barrel — an historic high. Of course, oil prices have spiked before, but according to many industry analysts, this time is different. In the past, oil prices rose because of temporary supply problems, such as during the first Gulf War. Now they are rising because world demand for oil is outstripping supply.
Whether or not the spike drops this time, the upward trend is here to stay.
For several years now, oil industry executives have been discussing what's called "peak oil." Simply put, this means that we are reaching the point where half of all the world's oil reserves have been used up.
During the last 100 years, human beings have burned through oil reserves that took many millions of years to develop. America has been at the forefront of this oil economy, along with Western European countries. Now China and India are growing fast and developing their own oil-based economies. Their needs for oil have risen and continue to rise. Other countries, too, are following the same path. Why not?
Everyone wants cars, televisions, personal computers, refrigerators, air conditioning.
Trouble is, the oil is running out, and nothing we know of, at this time, can replace it. In Europe, leaders like Britain's Tony Blair are pushing nuclear energy. The dangers of that — radioactive waste takes thousands of years to degrade — are well known. Other alternatives, such as solar, wave and wind power, while important, would not sustain our current level of energy use. And none of the alternatives currently work independently of oil.
Experts disagree about how long it will take to deplete the oil completely. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, production will peak anytime between 2026 and 2047 and decline rapidly after that. Other analysts, such as Princeton University geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, predict we are already nearing the peak and decline.
This isn't a problem that can be solved simply by driving less — although that may happen. In America, our whole economy depends on oil.
The plastic in your television came from oil. So did your shampoo bottle, your yogurt tubs and your plastic wrap. Look around and just about everything in your home was made somewhere far away. Even the food on our plates usually has traveled many hundreds of miles to reach us.
As oil prices rise over the next decades, the cost of producing and transporting food and consumer goods will rise steeply.
So how exactly should African Americans respond? Proposals range from growing your own food and practicing the three environmental Rs — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — to pressuring city and state leaders to pay attention to this problem.
Above all, African Americans must enter the environmental debate. Earth to America. It is time to adjust your dreams.
What do you think? Drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.