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Letter from the Editor

The Global Perspective

Over the last 30 years or so, we have managed to bring back endangered species from the precipice of extinction, transform rivers (like the mighty Hudson) from sewers into scenic, swimmable waterways again, and scrub smokestacks clean of millions of tons of deadly pollutants. But we confront now a problem "at a civilizational scale," says John Ashton, who served as one of Tony Blair's closest advisers on global warming. Harbingers of future calamities have already appeared: rising sea levels, eroding shorelines, record temperatures, melting glaciers, severe droughts. Then there are the geophysical mechanisms -- ocean currents and atmospheric jetstreams that have operated in tandem for millions of years as part of an invisible but finely tuned global machinery -- whose disruption could affect the planet in ways hardly imaginable.

In this issue of OnEarth, Ashton, who left Blair's government to found an organization focusing on international environmental diplomacy, suggests that the rest of the world should get on with creating the new energy economy rather than wait around for the U.S. administration to come to its senses. We offer a report from Anchorage resident Charles Wohlforth, who tries to explain why Alaska's leaders seem incapable of action even as his home state begins, literally, to melt. We bring you a dispatch from Death Valley, where an uncharacteristic increase in precipitation has caused fields of wildflowers to bloom earlier and more prolifically than anyone can remember -- "a perverse beauty," as author Jacques Leslie puts it. Finally, architect Ed Mazria gives Tim Folger an eye-opening lesson on the leading cause of global warming: the huge amount of energy required to build and operate our homes and buildings. "You see some guy driving an SUV and you think, boy, he's really ruining the environment," says Mazria. But you don't go into a building and think, this is destroying the environment -- yet it is. The great thing is that Mazria has solutions.

Thank goodness, there are always solutions, even to the most intractable problems. What's required first is a shift in thinking. Then science and facts can be harnessed to craft a new vision of the future.

In our cover story, "Prairie Crossroads," Richard Manning documents an ambitious project that promises to restore vast sections of Montana's harsh prairie to its natural state of complex, austere beauty. Ranchers and farmers have struggled valiantly to make the land profitable, but the effort has been costly to the people, the land, and its wildlife. A tremendous amount of data -- economic, biological, historical -- has recently been brought to bear on the region, with the potential result that nature's elegant economy of resources can be harmonized with the region's social economy in a way that benefits man and beast.

Finally, cartoonist James Stevenson's political commentary, "Come to the Laissez Fair," and Roberta Swann's whimsical poem, "Catch It While You Can," remind us that even in the midst of adversity we should never lose our sense of humor, no matter how daunting the challenges.

Douglas S. Barasch

Prairie Crossroads
Empty Nest Syndrome
Alaska's Meltdown
Father Nature Says...
Come to the Laissez Fair

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council