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The Planet Exposed : Just What Is Our Future With the Ozone Layer Fading Away?

October 05, 1986|JACQUES LESLIE | Jacques Leslie, a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Times Magazine, became a father Sept. 3

Basking in the waning glow of August, my wife and I have our minds on the future. She's already chosen the fall bulbs she'll be planting and looks forward to their blooms next spring. More urgently, she awaits the birth of our baby--a girl, according to the tests, who has overstayed her welcome in my wife's womb. Virtually immobilized, my wife is now more than nine months pregnant and is hoping, with an ardor that verges on desperation, for an imminent delivery. On the lookout for omens, she burst out laughing when she found this message inside a fortune cookie: "A short stranger will soon enter your life." "Short!" she kept shrieking. She hadn't expected fortune cookie authors to be masters of understatement.

Raising flowers and children implies confidence that the seasons and years will unfold in stable succession. Now, however, even that modest expectation is apparently unsound, for according to our scientists, depletion of the atmospheric ozone layer over the next century will do more to alter the earth's climate than has already occurred throughout the 35,000-year stretch of human history. Newspaper articles recount the scientists' deepening conviction that global temperatures will rise, causing the polar icecaps to melt and ocean levels to increase by as much as 10 feet. Drastic climatic changes will curtail agricultural production. Without the ozone layer, ultraviolet rays will reach the earth's surface more easily, increasing the incidence of skin cancer. The rays will also kill a significant portion of aquatic organisms, such as anchovy larvae, which provide much of the world's supply of animal feed.

I have searched the articles for some hint that these predictions are subject to error or that the process of ozone depletion is reversible, and I find little evidence of either. "Earth atmosphere in more danger than first thought," says a Christian Science Monitor headline. "Significant rise in sea level now seems certain," says the New York Times. A scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, not exactly an alarmist group, was quoted as saying, "Global warming is inevitable--it's only a question of magnitude and time."

Yet the alleged transgressions of Michael Deaver, the 55-m.p.h. speed limit, Ronald Reagan's colon and Prince Andrew's wedding all have received far more play than the projected end of the world. Maybe my friends in journalism would answer that the impact of ozone depletion is mere prediction, whereas these other stories are based on undeniable events. Perhaps cynics would explain that ozone depletion would receive more attention if news of it leaked out piecemeal, a la Watergate. I suspect there's another, deeper reason: We're not ready to digest this news yet.

To my wife's consternation, I have brought up ozone depletion in conversation with friends, and I find their reactions evocative of the press' gingerly treatment of the subject. A few months ago, I tried mentioning the subject to my brother-in-law, a clear-sighted fellow. He stayed with me for a sentence or two, acknowledging the dire nature of the ozone forecasts. Then, abruptly, he brought up the Lakers, whose performance in the NBA playoffs had apparently sated his capacity to absorb disaster. None of the people I've collared have expressed surprise upon being informed that ozone depletion may do in the human race; rather, they act as if they know that already. All they do is change the subject.

One reason for their lack of interest may be their sense of powerlessness. If Ethiopians are starving, we send money; if our politicians disappoint us, we vote them out. But in 1978 the United States banned aerosol sprays containing chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals that play a major role in destroying ozone; yet global production of chlorofluorocarbons is accelerating, and the ozone layer presumably continues to deteriorate. Moreover, chlorofluorocarbons already released into the atmosphere may be enough to cause significant ozone depletion. What should we do? Sell our stock in agricultural concerns? Use twice as much sun block? Move to high ground? It's ironic that our standing in the world is based largely on our mastery of science, and now we're reduced to hoping that our scientists are wrong.

Still, powerlessness does not fully explain our passivity. I'm reminded of a theory devised by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who worked with terminally ill patients. Dying people typically pass through five stages as they confront death, she said; the first stage is denial. It seems to me that our reluctance even to contemplate the consequences of ozone depletion is a way of denying our collective death.

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