Responding to a heckler who said his songs all sounded the same, musician Neil Young once famously remarked that, "it’s all one song." In their new book, The Dominant Animal, Paul Ehrlich, the noted Stamford professor and environmentalist, and his wife, Anne, apply that idea to the environment and argue that it’s all one problem.
This is a truism that too often goes unrealized. We’re not facing a series of environmental issues. We’re facing just the one, but it’s like the mythical hydra, with a lot of heads weaving around each other at a dizzying speed. No matter where we look—from food, energy, and pollution to extinction, overdevelopment, and environmental racism—we’re finding the same thing: a society built on an ultimately unsustainable foundation that’s crumbling faster with each new brick.
Though it’s tempting to be discouraged by this kind of idea, to feel overwhelmed by a foe with a seemingly insurmountable number of guises and tentacles, this is actually a notion that should fill us with great hope. It suggests that as we solve one problem, we’ll also be solving many others.
Once you see this wisdom, it becomes fairly easy to see the rest. As we fix, for example, our energy dilemmas, we’ll also be solving our pollution problems. As we deal with overdevelopment and sprawl, which is certainly part of dealing with our energy dysfunction, we’ll also be creating sustainable cities that better concentrate our human footprint and this, in turn, will preserve natural habitat and protect biodiversity. And on and on it goes.
More importantly, this kind of thinking also offers us a grand holistic strategy. It tells us that as we fix one thing, we can and should be looking for ways that our solution can cure other ailments as well and striving to engineer alternatives that heal more than one ill at a time. This “total body” approach is an ideal one to take because without it we’re likely just grasping at threads in an increasingly frayed tapestry and only really succeeding in pulling it all further apart.
The Ehrlichs have taken a lot of heat from a rather dedicated opposition for predictions that haven’t come true and they are likely to get some flak for their new ideas as well. The point that is missed is that their forecasts may simply be taking a while to come to pass. The Ehrlichs aren’t wrong. They just haven’t been right yet. One thing’s for sure: They’re quite correct about the interconnectedness of the environmental issues we’re dealing with. And even if they’re wrong about the rest of it, that single idea is so important that everything else is just a footnote.