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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Floyd J. McKay / guest columnist

George should see Al's movie

Special to The Times

STEPHEN Hawking, the distinguished British astrophysicist, asks a vexing question: "In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?"

Hawking may have in mind the story of Suzie Cheng, the 20-year-old Chinese woman portrayed in this newspaper as representative of the sea of people moving from Chinese farms to cities.

Simply put, similar migrations in India and elsewhere in Africa and Asia cannot be sustained at today's Western standard of living. Even at one car per family, without air conditioning and supermalls, the world's environment cannot survive the onslaught.

Yet, who will decide? Will it be government or international business? The latter lives on expansion and new consumers. The former, if democratic, responds to the demands of consumers who want more of everything. No one wants the unspoken third alternative, authoritarian governments setting limits.

Americans, despite our massive power, can really only speak for and act for ourselves. But since we are the world's leading consumer market and the world's major polluter as well, any progress here would be of international benefit.

I'd suggest we start by making Al Gore's slide-show movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," required viewing in every high school in the country. Nothing I have seen or read recently has better depicted the very dilemma Hawking addresses.

Of course, all American adults should see the movie, and many will. But we are so politically polarized that we can expect 40 percent of the nation to follow the lead of President George W. Bush and the talk-show hacks and either make fun of Gore or refuse to see his work. Bush proudly declared he has no intention of seeing "An Inconvenient Truth." Yet, he did read the science-fiction novel "State of Fear," by Michael Crichton, and invited the author to the White House, where the two men reportedly agreed that global warming was somewhat of a hoax.

Global warming is only the most important of a number of scientific areas in which the White House has been hostile to scientific research, and has attempted to intimidate government scientists who have the courage to raise issues inconvenient to White House opinion, particularly when they contradict the energy industries.

There will be sacrifices to deal with global warming, and we will need to change some habits of long-standing. But, as Gore points out, there is also the potential for entire new industries with good jobs to emerge from this change. And it could help us reduce dependence on the wretched Middle East. We could build a new "coalition of the willing" on something other than military power.

Just imagine a world in which America led the way — again — on a "Manhattan Project" that would involve something other than warfare. We certainly could do it — we have the brainpower, the business know-how, everything needed to engage the entire world in rolling back the inexorable march toward global disaster that so worries Hawking and others who understand the science.

In today's climate, sometimes it seems as if we must decide which scenario will determine the end of life on this planet.

One, increasingly in favor among the most fundamentalist of Christians and Muslims, is apocalyptic, an end-times for the devout that condemns millions of others to indescribable tortures and agony. Some see today's conflicts in the Middle East as leading to "the Rapture" of this fantastical scenario, perhaps in this century.

Others — perhaps Hawking is one — see the geometric increase in population, pollution and proliferation of weapons threatening or even destroying human life in this century.

The Chinese, meanwhile, whose leaders widely believe that this will be the "Chinese Century" as the 20th was the "American Century," pay no attention to the apocalyptic scenario at the same time their modernization threatens to bring about the alternative. Yet, survival of China is no less dependent than ours on combating real threats to life on this planet, and the Chinese know it. They lose as much as we do with another arms race — only the arms merchants gain — and they gain as we do with a serious attack on environmental degradation.

We, and the world, must pick a scenario.

Policies of our present administration tilt toward the apocalyptic; we will lose eight years on global warming before the Texas oil and military complex leaves office.

I would tell Hawking that the next administration — of either party — must shift from apocalypse to reality, bring China and others into a "coalition of the willing" to turn back the environmental tide and save the 21st century for our grandchildren.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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