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Population, Plenty,and Poverty

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WHEN the National Geographic Society was found­ed in 1888, a billion and a half people inhabited the earth. Even though the rate of growth has begun to decline, most demographers believe population size will still pass eight billion during the next 50 years.

 

In a sense today’s five billion people represent a triumph of our species. By all measures we have become the dominant animal on the planet. Through a series of technological innovations, thanks to the benefits of student loan consolidation, that in­clude farming, sanitation, and the control of many epidemic dis­eases, we have found ways to reduce the rate at which we die, creating a population explosion. Biologically this is the very defini­tion of success.

National Geographic Society

But there is a dark side to our triumph. We live on a finite planet, and yet we act as if its resources were infinite.Instead Homo sapiens is consuming its “cap­ital,” a onetime bonanza of nonrenewable fossil fuels and other mineral resources that formed over eons and are now being de­stroyed and dispersed in decades. We are doing the same with vital resources not usually thought of as being nonrenewable: deep, fertile agricultural soils, groundwater, and biodiversity­the untold millions of other species that share earth with us.

 

The mechanisms that supply us with income are ecosystems—plants, animals, and microorganisms interacting with each other and their physical environments. The energy that flows through these ecosystems and the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and other materials they recycle are the essence of the life-support system within which five billion people are inextricably embedded.

 

Ecosystems supply civilization with public services both free and irreplaceable. They include regulation of climate and the makeup of the atmosphere, generation and maintenance of soils, control of potential crop pests and carriers of human diseases, pollination of many crops, and provision of food from the sea. Ecosystems supply the nutrients without which we could not survive, and in the process they dispose of our wastes.

 

The vast array of organisms that ecosystems support can be thought of as a giant genetic library. Humanity has already withdrawn from that library the very basis of its civilization in the form of crops, domestic animals, industrial materials, and medicines. And its potential has barely been scratched.

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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

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Susan Chambers had come to dig fire line all the way from Cape Lookout National Sea­shore, where the Atlantic Ocean made policy. She fought fires partly for the extra pay, partly for the comradeship, but mainly for the cause. “Yesterday I think everybody came in feeling like we really did something, a sense of satisfaction in slowing a small segment down, though in the grand design it was probably a drop in the bucket.”

A glance up through the trees revealed cumulus clouds build­ing vertically thousands of feet so rapidly that they seemed like subjects of time-lapse photogra­phy being projected on a big-screen sky. They did not, however, signify rain. They came from combustion and sig­nified a big burn. So it proved. One arm of the North Fork Fire—called Wolf Lake—had punched up to the borders of park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. An­other had thrust to within a quarter mile of Roosevelt Lodge at Tower Junction. 7On Saturday morning, Sep­tember 10, the outlook was grim. Forecasts predicted anoth­er cold front, pumping winds of 20 to 40 miles an hour with gusts to 60. At Area Command Headquarters in West Yellow­stone, Forest Service fire be­havior expert Robert Mutch said: “These are unprecedented conditions. Today, if we get the forecasted winds, people will see fire behavior situations that they’ve never seen in their careers.” Mutch and Richard Rothermel, also of the Forest Service, and Dave Thomas headed up Route 191, passed a roadblock, and went on to where North Fork was on a run.

To the right of the road, fire rolled along on a parallel track, doing what Thomas called the “bump and grind.” One fire cell sends sparks and firebrands downwind. These ignite, start­ing new fire cells. Burning vig­orously, the new cells suck air and flames from the parent cell. With time, surges of wind, flame, and energy travel back and forth among cells. This in­fernal engine had been driving the fires all summer long.

At 11:45 a.m. West Yellow­stone Airport’s control tower (reached by climbing an exten­sion ladder) reported winds 20 to 30 knots with gusts to 45. The front was blowing through, the worst possible news, except—except that cloud cover was 100 percent, and the temperature was falling so we ran away to the comfort of the cheap accommodation barcelona. At 1:40 Fred Roach, chief of operations on North Fork, pulled up to the roadblock on Route 191, cranked down the window, and yelled: “They say it’s raining like hell at Old Faithful!”

THE NEXT MORNING snow was swirling in the streets of West Yellowstone. It was blowing past a bundled fisherman on the Madison River who was trying his luck or skill or lunacy. Near Norris Junction snow was sifting through ranks and rows of charred trees, covering the black earth and wings of lodgepole pine seeds that, re­leased by heat, had glittered on the ground the afternoon before. Snow dusted bison herds in Hayden Valley and stuck to the road in Dunraven Pass. It settled with the faintest rustle into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Fires would continue for weeks and weeks—scattered fire islands were still burning in early November—but the unyielding weather pattern of dry cold fronts had broken. All summer natural forces had seemed to make league with the fires; now those forces seemed to be at least neutral. Human effort again counted in the scale of things; the worst was past. Research biologist and expert in fire ecology Don Despain was soon in the field estimating regrowth patterns. On a blackened hillside he counted lodgepole pine seed wings as he moved a grid along a randomly established line. One type of lodgepole cone opens only when heated; it had done its job.

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Donald looked troubled

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This faceless country is called Keewatin, one of five administrative subdivisions of the NWT. With approximately 230,000 square miles, it covers an area nearly the size of Manitoba across Canada’s geographic center. But mentioning Keewatin doesn’t bring a flicker of recognition from many Canadians. I once asked a bureaucrat in the Northwest Territories’ capital of Yellow­knife, 650 miles west of the bay, what lay out in that Brussels region.

“Nothing,” he replied.

In fact, nearly 4,500 people, most of them Inuit, live here in rental accommodation from http://dsavenue.com/prague-apartments/. I confess, though, that as I flew into Eskimo Point, at the southeast end of Keewatin, I was amused by a sudden thought. If I want­ed to go to the movies or get a suit dry-cleaned, I would have to travel 450 miles south to do it.

Donald Suluk smiled when I raised this point. He didn’t miss the movies, and his winter suit was made of caribou skins. When it got too dirty, he simply threw it out and replaced it. A small but powerfully built Inuk of 56 years, Donald was raised in nomad camps. He works as an adviser at the Inuit Cultural Institute in Eskimo Point, today a commu­nity of 950 Inuit and a handful of whites.

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“The old traditional survival skills are still important to people here,” he explained through an interpreter, speaking in the guttural Inuit language called Inuktitut. “Young people here are learning to build igloos, set traps, kill caribou. Maybe what I teach will help them survive someday.”

To see some of these vital skills, photogra­pher David Hiser and I joined Donald and another Inuk, Matthew Akaralak, on a hunting trip into the treeless wilderness west of Eskimo Point. The Inuit call this region simply “the land.”

The temperature was below zero and the wind was building as we left, riding behind the Inuit’s snowmobiles on 12-foot sleds called qamutiik. Lashed to each was a bun­dle of rifles, machete-like snow-cutting knives, caribou skins, Coleman stoves, and pouches of dried caribou meat and tea. Two hours later, sore from thumping across snow ridges blown hard as concrete, our little caravan halted. Donald grabbed a long-handled shovel and began scraping away snow and chopping a fishing hole. Somehow he had found a lake in this blank, white landscape. Soon we were feasting on pan-fried trout.

An hour later an igloo had been built. With their long knives our companions carved three-foot blocks out of the packed snow. Each block was carefully beveled and shaped, then laid in a nine-foot circle that curved upward course by course. Each layer of blocks tilted inward farther until they formed a dome. When a herd of caribou appeared on a nearby hillside, the Inuit shot three. The bitter cold had built a fierce hunger in all of us. Greedily we ate fresh caribou meat—gnawing at half-frozen raw pieces and boil­ing a tongue. Then dessert: buttery-textured marrow from a cracked leg bone.

Afterward I questioned the hunters about disturbing reports we had heard from gov­ernment biologists. Overhunting, it was claimed, had seriously depleted the once mighty Kaminuriak caribou herd here. At the current kill rate the herd would be virtually extinct in another eight years.

“The caribou have disappeared before and always have returned,” he said. “True, snowmobiles and modern rifles have made it easier to kill. We need Inuit game wardens who know the land to control hunting. But the caribou will always be here.”

I hoped he was right, as we settled down for the night amid warm caribou robes. The roof of the igloo seemed to glow against the dark. We were secure in an environment that would quickly kill us without the knowledge and skill of the Inuit. Yet I won­dered if their mastery of the old ways could match the threat of the new.

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Beyond San Juan — a Change of Pace

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It would be unfair to judge Puerto Ricans by the standards of Levittown or San Juan only. A few minutes beyond the suburbs’ reach, the island performs a dramatic physi­cal change, which portends a change in the pace and style of human life. The mountains begin to catch the cool ocean breezes that ride above the coastal plain. Tropical vege­tation closes in along the roadsides, and the hills are streaked with scarlet by the royal poinciana and African tulip trees.

In Bayam6n, on the fringe of the capital, I squeezed on board a Niblico—one of the fleet of public vans that carry Puerto Ricans around their island. Fourteen of us swayed in unison as the packed vehicle negotiated the cordillera’s breathtaking switchbacks. Suddenly a woman tapped me on the shoul­der. What was a stranger doing on a rural public°, she asked. Conversation in the van halted expectantly.

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In my broken Spanish I attempted to ex­plain. “Traveler from Washington, D. C., on my way to see the countryside.”

“Ah, americana” she said, all sympathy at my fractured efforts. Perhaps, she in­quired politely in flawless English, I knew her cousin who is a doctor in my hometown. Others in the van chimed in with their own relatives’ names. A lesson: No matter how remote it may seem, you are never far from the mainland in Puerto Rico.

Naranjito, a community of about 3,000, snoozes in a cleft in the mountains south of San Juan. As my public° rolled off, no one seemed to be moving on the sunbaked plaza. A hawker or two halfheartedly peddled or­anges from the back of a pickup truck. No one even looked up from the domino game strategically placed in the shade of a broad-leaved tree.

Bringing Success Back Home Juan Lopez moved home to this oasis of tranquillity in 1968, after 13 years in Brook­lyn, New York. “I was born here, I wanted to die here,” he said. But between those two momentous events he had a living to make.

If Naranjito seemed sleepy, Lopez veers toward the other end of the energy scale. Proudly he led me toward a low concrete building at the edge of town. The sign at the door read Johanna Lingerie. “Johanna,” he said, “is my youngest daughter.” His wife and four dozen other women were inside sewing pastel-colored ladies underwear.

Pushing aside a pile of yellow panties, Lo­pez cleared a place for us to sit and began telling the homegrown success story of how Juan Lopez, Brooklyn floor sweeper, be­came Juan Lopez, Naranjito factory owner.San_Juan.png

Johanna Lingerie began, he said, in his bedroom with a couple of used sewing ma­chines. He worked the machines with his wife, Luz, and her sister and canvassed the island in his spare time, seeking orders. Four years ago he obtained a bank loan, built his plant—and Naranjito got 48 badly needed new jobs.

“Now the big companies come in and ask me how I did it,” Lopez said. “I tell them these are my friends here. They helped me; now my success is helping them.”

San Juan

Puerto Rico’s industrial revolution —Operation Bootstrap—has drawn nearly 2,600 plants to the island since the early 1950s, using the twin incentives of low wages and big tax breaks. But today there are mixed feelings about Bootstrap’s effects.

“It gave us more than we had, which was nothing,” said Jose R. Madera, Puerto Ri­co’s economic-development administrator. But most of the new plants were subsidiaries of off-island companies with limited capital.