Lynton K. Caldwell is the most influential environmental thinker you’ve likely never heard of. He literally pioneered the concept of environmental policymaking in 1962. He also proposed a cross-disciplinary study for environmental policy and management, which in 1972 became the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs – the first of its kind in the nation.
Caldwell is widely credited as the chief architect of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and personally authored its Environmental Impact Statement language, which has done as much to protect the environment as any law or program ever conceived.
Yet, multiple reviewers of the 2014 book Lynton Keith Caldwell: An Environmental Visionary and the National Environmental Policy Act (Indiana University Press), said the IU professor was largely unknown. One noted he was often accused of exaggerating and being “overly pessimistic.”
For example, despite the gravity of its title and the intellectual weight of its author, a search for his last academic paper Is Humanity Destined to Self-Destruct? produces less than a page of results, almost exclusively links to purchase copies.
Still, serious harm is part of the dictionary definition of self-destruction. And nearly a quarter century after Keith Caldwell posed humankind’s ultimate existential question, the evidence is clear that his query, while still largely ignored, was prescient, not exaggerated or overly negative.
In Self-Destruct?, published by Cambridge University in 1999, Caldwell identified seven driving forcesbehind the threats to humankind, the most formidable of which was planetary change – climate change in particular. He builds his thesis from the foundation laid in the 1992 World Scientists Warning to Humanity, which was signed by more than 1,600 scientists from 70 countries.
“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” the scientists begin. “… If not checked many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”
In those dawning days of climate change awareness, the scientists added: “Predictions of global warming are still uncertain – with projected effects ranging from tolerable to very severe – but the potential risks are very great.”
Seven years after the World Scientists Warning, Caldwell updated their portent in Self-Destruct? “Humanity has become a force of planetary proportions for change within this system, with consequences only recently becoming subjects of scientific inquiry and policy concern.”
He called this global transfiguration of the natural order a “major man-made discontinuity in the history of mankind.”
After 23 years of scientific inquiry and policy concern, not to mention the news, planetary climate changes have unquestionably landed on the very severe end of the world scientists’ continuum. And the potential risks have been magnified by multiple orders of magnitude.
The World Scientists Warning was spearheaded by the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists, whose website today declares: “Climate change is one of the most devastating problems that humanity has ever faced – and the clock is running out.”
Two months ago, the Smithsonian Magazine reported the Antarctic’s Doomsday Glacier is melting at its fastest rate in 5,500 years, which could lead “to more than 11 feet of global sea level rise in the next several centuries.”
Wildfire seasons in the West are now three-and-a-half months longer than in decades past. Since the 1980s, more than 70,000 wildfires have damaged 199 million acres of property and cost $41 billion to fight. In 2020, the United States experienced 275 significant wildfires that killed 37. In January, nearly 1,000 homes were incinerated in a fire southwest of Denver.
While covering only 1 percent of the world’s oceans, coral reefs support one quarter of all marine life. Yet, in 2016, ocean temperatures 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal bleached 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. And since the corals feed on the disappearing algae, half of the reef is dead or dying.
Warmer temperatures allow disease-carrying bugs like ticks and mosquitoes to expand their ranges. Mosquitoes’ hunger increases in warmer temperatures and, in their quest to satisfy their need for blood, they are likely to spread viruses and other blood-borne diseases more broadly. In fact, the insects now die before most viruses in their systems can mature. And since higher temps can accelerate the incubation process, the actual number of viruses that can be spread thus increase.
A recent report from the First Street Foundation predicts Caldwell’s former home here in the Southern Indiana hills will be part of an “extreme heat belt” that, in a mere three decades, could experience 125-degree days.
I met Keith Caldwell in a 1999 mountain-coming-to-Mohammed moment, a few months before Self Destruct? was published – when he asked me to discuss a column I had written in The Bloomington Independent.
The piece posed the question: Given the overwhelming public support for environmental protection, why did nothing ever happen? My answer: the corruption.
Keith told me he read the column, knew I was someone who “understood” and wanted to find out where I was “coming from.”
Where I was coming from at that point in my career was children’s environmental health – the impacts toxic chemicals have on childhood development. I began writing about the issue at the movement’s dawn a few years earlier, when I had gone behind the journalistic lines to serve as senior environmental writer/editor at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
While children’s environmental health was not an issue Caldwell specifically mentioned in Self-Destruct?, I know from several conversations we had that he viewed the Earth’s toxification as an ominous planetary change.
In fact, we discussed Our Stolen Future, Theo Colburn’s landmark 1996 book about developmental effects spawned by endocrine-disrupting chemicals – persistent toxins such as PCBs, organohalogens, pesticides, phthalates, heavy metals and countless other compounds.
Colburn argued that such industrial chemicals in the human body – in concentrations as little as parts per millions, billions and trillions – not only interfered with normal development of the endocrine systems in developing children. They cross the placenta and expose the fetus in utero.
“Many chemicals are able to cross the placental barrier, which means that a developing fetus can be exposed to the accumulated body burden of the mother,” she would later say in a 2012 letter to Barack and Michelle Obama.
The endocrine system integrates all the body’s glands, creating a chemical messaging system that impacts all life stages – from conception to gestation, birth, puberty, adulthood and senescence. Among the vital functions the system orchestrates are metabolism, immune function, reproduction, intelligence and a variety of behaviors. It sends hormone signals like estrogen, testosterone, thyroid hormone and insulin between organs.
Colburn told the Obamas these hormonal signals “humanize us.” She cited ADHD, autism, diabetes and obesity as consequences of endocrine disruptions.
And she wasn’t alone in sounding the alarm. According to a 2012 report from the United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Organization, endocrine disrupting chemicals pose “significant health implications.” An Endocrine Society panel concluded in 2014 that endocrine disruptors likely contributed to neurobehavioral deficits and disabilities, including autistic disorders.
Colburn summarized the reality in her Obama letter: “Today the surface of the earth is saturated with manmade chemicals that society and the global economy have become totally dependent upon, chemicals that can interfere in the womb with the delicate endocrine system that makes possible the development and differentiation of … a normal healthy baby.”
As with human-induced planetary changes, science and experience offer similar support for the arguments behind Caldwell’s other six drivers of humanity’s self-destruction – population, energy, technology, information, convention and innate tendencies.
In Self-Destruct?, he said population “may be the most significant in the prospect of societal self-destruction.” The United Nation says the world’s population has tripled since 1950.
Energy source choices fundamentally impact the extent to which humans can impact their future, he continued. “Engineered energy” such as fossil fuels, have “disruptive ecological and economic effects” and increase society’s vulnerability to “possible deprivation of critical energy flows.”
But the point here is not to exhaustively address every point Caldwell made in Is Humanity Destined to Self-Destruct? It’s to revisit the fundamental question he posed in 1999. And based on evidence from the most formidable of the seven, the answers are self-evident. With respect to the ultimate expression of human self-destruction – whether our actions will render the planet unable to sustain life – the answer will only be known if, and when, the end comes.
With respect to the serious harm component of humanity’s self-destruction, the answer is undeniably yes.
The spoliation process has only just begun. And it will continue playing out for eternity.
Steven Higgs is a retired journalist and author who lives in Bloomington, Ind., and teaches journalism at the Indiana University Media School.