The Sky Was Falling
A "where are they now?" field guide to popular calamities of yore
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Save the Rainforest
What it was: Slash-and-burn agriculture was going to rob the world of its oxygen and potentially cancer-curing flora.
What we did: The approach was two-pronged: In 1987, the World Bank created an environmental division; meanwhile, schoolchildren from across the country pooled allowances to corner the market for Brazilian hardwood, one acre at a time.
Did it work?: Still smoking. The concern has shifted from species preservation to global warming. Roughly 20 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted during the nineties were from rainforest fires.
In the Future: The World Bank will promote a program called REDD, which stands for something like “Cold Hard Cash for Not Cutting Down the Rainforest.”
The Ozone Hole
What it was: That was different from global warming, right? We vaguely recall hearing about CFCs and rising skin-cancer rates in Australia.
What we did: The multilateral Montreal Protocol of 1987what Kyoto and the “coalition of the willing” aspired to match for inclusivenessgradually phased out the use of CFCs. By 1992, more than 140 countries had signed on to the agreement.
Did it work?: Problem solved! In 2006, the size of the hole peaked at 18.5 million square miles. Scientists predict it will slowly disappear by about 2050, meaning we can all stop wearing sunblock, right?
In the Future: It turns out that the replacements for CFCs contribute significantly to global warming. Scientists are cooking up a new fix.
What it was: Toxic emissions from Ohio Valley power plants ended up in eastern lakes, lowering the pH and making them unsuitable for fish.
What we did: The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act reduced sulfur dioxide emissions to half of 1980 levels through a system of tradable pollution permits. The effort is a shining example of the effectiveness of so-called cap-and-trade.
Did it work?: Pass the bass! Lakes and streams are recovering, but long-term problems persist, especially in the Southeast, where sulphates and nitrates are still leaching from the soil into waterways.
In the Future: While the U.S. seems to have cleaned up its act, recently industrialized nations like China and India are certain to face a similar crisis.
The Spotted Owl
What it was: Clearcutting threatened the bird’s habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Logger-comedians invented “Campbell’s Spotted Owl Soup.”
What we did: In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan was implemented, protecting thousands of acres of old growth but also eliminating an estimated 400 timber jobs and leading to protests by the recently unemployed.
Did it work?: The final hoot is imminent. The remaining spotted owl habitat is still threatened by development and pollution, and aggressive barred owls from the East are now pushing them out of even that.
In the Future: Among the last-ditch efforts scientists are considering is a plan to kill barred owls with shotguns. Sounds like work for 400 ex-loggers.