Prince Ea Is Sorry. Me Too.

Rachelle Peterson

Prince Ea, a St. Louis rapper and spoken word poet, released a video tribute to Earth Day. “Dear Future Generations: Sorry” apologizes to posterity for leaving them a world desiccated, overheated, and run down. Many apparently share Prince Ea’s remorse. His video has more than 60 million views on Facebook alone. College administrators, professors, and students, too, have cited Prince Ea’s message as a prod to penitence.

Like Prince Ea, I, too, am sorry. The amiable spell-binding poet crafts some clever sentences, but falls for a number of popularized half-truths. Here’s my “fisking” of Prince Ea’s message. His lyrics are in italics.

Dear future generations, I think I speak for the rest of us when I say, “sorry.” Sorry we left you with our mess of a planet. Sorry that we were too caught up in our own doings to do something. Sorry we listened to people who made excuses to do nothing. I hope you forgive us. We just didn't realize how special the earth was. Like a marriage gone wrong we didn't know what we had until it was gone.

A popular trope has it that we use one and a half earth’s worth of resources every year, destining our descendants to scarce resources. But our “mess of a planet” is actually in the best post-lapsarian shape it’s ever been. Life expectancy is up in every region of the world at all income levels, the global expectancy jumping from 66 in 1990 to 71 in 2013. That’s about 35 billion cumulative years added to the human family. By comparison, global life expectancy in 1900 was about 30 years.

life expectancy.png

Child mortality is down by half since 1990 alone, quality of life is rising, and happiness is generally ticking skyward. The percentage of the world’s population living on a dollar a day has plummeted 80% since 1970, down from more than a quarter of the globe’s inhabitants to 5.4% as of 2006.

Far from “doing nothing,” we’ve cut pollution and cleaned up the environment. Air pollution has been declining for the past 110 years, and the risk of death from poor air quality has fallen eight-fold. Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water. That doesn’t sound like nothing.

For example I'm guessing you probably know it as the Amazon desert, right? Well believe it or not it was once called the Amazon rain forest and there were billions of trees. They're all looking gorgeous and—oh, you don't know much about trees, do you? Well let me tell you, trees are amazing. I mean, we literally breathe the air they are creating. They clean up our pollution, our carbon. They store and purify water; give us medicine that cures our diseases, food that feeds us.

Trees, like all plants, do take in carbon dioxide—which is why rising CO2 levels have promoted the growth of foliage and enabled more plants to take in more CO2. Increases in CO2 have led to 11% of the increasing plant life. That means more plants to provide more medicine and produce more fruit and store more water and pull in more carbon.

Which is why I'm so sorry to tell you that we burned them down, cut them down with brutal machines, horrific, at a rate of 40 football fields every minute. That’s fifty percent of all the trees in the world gone in the last 100 years. Why? For this. (He holds up a $100 bill.) And that wouldn’t make me so sad if it weren't so many pictures of leaves on it.

Since 2000, it is estimated that the earth has lost 2.3 million km2 of forests and gained another 0.8 million km2 of new forests—a net loss of 1.5 million km2, which is closer to 36 football fields a minute. That’s a lot of trees. But such numbers obscure the regrowth of forests as societies move past their initial industrialization and into more stable economies. And it’s not true that half of the earth’s trees got truncated to stumps in the course of the last century. The earth has been experiencing a “global greening” over the last 30 years as foliage has flourished:

Many regions of the earth have undergone “forest transitions” as they’ve industrialized and turned away from subsistence farming, enabling farmers to grow more crops more efficiently and return more land to forests. Rising prosperity and the spread of modernized agriculture correlate with reforestation. Of the fifty heavily forested nations, categorized by the Food and Agriculture Organization's comprehensive 2005 Global Forest Resources Assessment, none with an annual per capita gross domestic product exceeding $4,600 has been losing trees. France reached peak deforestation in 1830, Denmark in 1810, Switzerland in the 1860s, Portugal by 1870, Scotland in the 1920s and European Russia in the 1930s. There are more trees in the US today than there were 100 years ago. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, by 1997 the volume of American forest growth was 380 percent greater than it had been in 1920. Even in the Amazon, Brazil has cut its deforestation by 70% since 2005. Until 1940, the globe’s land surfaces were a net source of carbon to the atmosphere; now they are a net carbon sink. Since 1960, global carbon uptake has increased from about 2.4 billion tons per year to about 5 billion.

And for the first time in recent history, population growth has been decoupled from deforestation, meaning that as more countries rise from subsistence farming and into the modern world, more forests will have the opportunity to rebound.

CHART: Estimated deforestation, by type of forestand time period

You know, when I was a child I read how the Native Americans had such consideration for the planet that they felt responsible for how they left the land for the next seven generations, which brings me great sorrow because most of us today don’t even care about tomorrow.

The “seventh generation” line has been bandied about with great success by a home products company and others, citing the “Great Law of the Iroquois.” The Great Law gives some space to general principles of caring for the future, but so does, say, Edmund Burke, who hasn’t enjoyed quite as great a revival. The Great Law does advise that leaders have skin “seven spans” thick to keep them from “anger, offensive actions and criticism.” But it says not a word about protecting the land for seven future generations.

So I'm sorry, I’m, I'm sorry that we would put profit above people, greed above need, the rule of gold above the golden rule. I’m sorry we use nature as a credit card with no spending limits, over-drafting animals to extinction, stealing your chance to ever see their uniqueness, won't become friends with them. Sorry we poison the oceans so much that you can't even swim in them.

Here is some of Prince Ea’s cleverest wordplay—interrupted, unfortunately, by CG polar bears waddling across the screen. But the polar bear population is actually rising. Of the 19 polar bear populations in the world, only 2 are in danger of decline (down from 7 that were confirmed to be declining in 2010). And there are more polar bears alive than there were 40 years ago.

In the US, the Center for Biological Diversity has declared the Endangered Species Act a 99% success, with only 10 of the 1400 protected species having gone extinct, and 8 of those thought to have gone extinct before the passage of the act. Globally, bird and mammal extinctions peaked at 1.6 a year around 1900 and have since dropped to about 0.2 a year. (If E.O. Wilson’s predictions of cumulate 27,000 extinctions per year were true, we’d expect to see about 26 bird and 13 mammal extinctions annually.) The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps the most definitive list of extinct and threatened species, has counted 832 total confirmed animal extinctions since the year 1600. Biodiversity is important, but it’s unlikely that our children will have no pets available to them.

Marine health is a serious issue. But acidification isn’t the main culprit, as ocean levels can vary naturally by as much as 1.4 pH levels—46 times the .03 change in pH units that carbon dioxide emissions are thought to cause over the next 90 years. A much larger problem is trash dumping in the ocean, which accounts for an 46,000 pieces of plastic dotting, on average in 2006, each square mile of ocean. That’s caused more by underdeveloped nations with poor legal enforcement using the ocean as a landfill and less by the developed world that watches Prince Ea’s video. And for ocean swimmers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration blames rip currents for 80% of swimming accidents and rescues. Also on the list are shorebreaks, lightning, tsunamis, sharks, jellyfish, and sunburn—but not ocean toxins.

But most of all I'm sorry about our mindset, because we had the nerve to call this destruction progress.

Net gains factor in costs and benefits, and on balance, I’d prefer a world with longer, healthier human lives, even at the cost of some pristine natural landscapes.

Hey Fox News if you don't think climate change is a threat, I dare you to interview the thousands of homeless people in Bangladesh. See while, while you were in your pent house nestled, their homes were literally washed away beneath their feet due to rising sea levels.

During last year’s monsoon season, flooding left almost half a million Bangladeshi people homeless. And two months ago, as Bangladesh citizens were moving inland, Fox covered the story, blaming fuller seas on higher temperatures.

Part of Bangladesh’s flooding has to do with heavy rains, and part of it with rising levels, but little of it with inevitable dangers of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that sea levels will rise 0.25 meters (10 inches) to 0.91 meters (3 feet) by 2100. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that sea levels have recently been rising by 0.12 inches per year. Meanwhile, 26% of the Netherlands is already beneath sea level, and yet kept dry by a series of dikes and sea walls. Protecting the people of Bangladesh could be better accomplished by adapting and mitigating the effects of flooding, rather than investing in more expensive, more distantly related projects to cut carbon emissions and slowly shift atmospheric conditions.

And Sarah Palin. You said that you love the smell of fossil fuels. Well I urge you talk to the kids in Beijing who are forced to wear pollution masks just go to school.

Okay, she was pandering to the Harley Davidson crowd. But Americans love the jobs and economic growth that correlate with the smell of fossil fuels. There were 50,250 workers in the oil and gas extraction industry in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, averaging a salary of more than $40 per hour. America is now the top producer of oil. From 2011 to 2013, the U.S. trade imbalance fell $72 billion while the trade balance in energy increased $96 billion. There’s certainly a lot to love there.

Yes, Beijing pollution is bad. The US embassy rates the current Beijing air quality as “unhealthy,” fourth on a scale of seven ratings from “good” to “beyond the index.” That rating is largely due to Chinese dependence on coal; 69% of the country’s energy comes from the black gold. And energy usage is increasing in China, in correlation with its rising GDP.

Graph of China energy consumption and GDP for 2001-2011, as explained in article text

So coal is providing cheap energy to an emerging economy that is working to educate more of its citizens. Literacy in China has skyrocketed from about 78% in 1990 to 96% in 2015. We should all hope that Beijing students can soon doff their masks during the trip to school. And because early economic growth tends to correlate with environmental deterioration before making a hairpin turn to correlate with environmental improvement (known technically as the Kuznets curve), we should hope that this will be the case in China, pace any heavy-handed economic juggernaut mandates coming from the Communist Party. But for now, better to go to school with a mask than to never go to school at all.

So you can ignore this. But the thing about truth is, it can be denied, not avoided. So I’m sorry, future generations. I’m sorry that our footprint became a sinkhole and not a garden. I’m sorry that we paid so much attention to ISIS. And very little to how fast the ice is melting in the Arctic.

Prince Ea is not the first to make such a bold claim. Hillary Clinton and President Obama have both declared that climate change is “the most consequential, urgent” issue facing the world.

ISIS is mauling its way through the Middle East, decapitating peaceful citizens, burning its prisoners of war, capturing volunteer aid workers, assaulting villages, setting up dictatorships. It’s making a mockery of decency by publicly sharing the images of the executions. If anything is “brutal” and “horrific,” it’s this, not the bulldozers pushing over trees.

It’s true that, per Google trends, we’ve had more headlines about ISIS than about the Arctic.

And that seems right. As of November 2014, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that ISIS had killed 8,493 Iraqi civilians and injured 15,782. Climate change, on the other hand, is thought to lead to 400,000 additional deaths due to heat, but also save 1.8 million lives that would have been caused by cold.

I'm sorry we doomed you and I'm sorry we couldn't find another planet in time to move to and I am—

Ah, the real purpose of SETI emerges. Or Interstellar comes to life.

You know what, cut the beat. I'm not sorry. This future, I do not accept it, because an error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. We can redirect this. How? Let me suggest that if a farmer sees a tree unhealthy, they don’t look at the branches to diagnose it. They look at the root. So like that farmer we must look at the root and not to the branches of government, not to the politicians run by corporations. We are the root. We are the foundation. This generation, it is up to us to take care of this planet.

Politicians have their share of corruption and financial backing—but it goes both ways. Tom Steyer dropped $76 million in an attempt to green the midterm elections results. Former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber just resigned amidst a scandal involving renewable energy and consulting contracts awarded to his fiancé. Solyndra and its $535 million is only one of a long list of government-favored companies to suck up public funds for green dreams.

It is our only home. Now we must globally warm our hearts and change the climate of our souls and realize that we are not apart from nature. We are a part of nature. And to betray nature is to betray us. To save nature is to save us. Because whatever you’re fighting for (sic), racism or poverty, feminism, gay rights or any type of equality, it won’t matter in the least. Because if we don't all work together to save the environment, we will be equally extinct. Sorry.

This fits nicely with the claim that should turn our sympathies away from ISIS victims and to the ice caps—but it makes little internal sense. Why should we care about saving nature in order to save us, unless we were worth saving in the first place? And if we are worth saving, then why not save as many of us as possible, making use of our life-saving technology and improved economic systems while also putting our modern inventions to work cleaning up the environment?

The natural environment has room to improve—but so does the state of human living conditions. Prince Ea might find himself less sorrowful if he took a moment to appreciate the ingenuity of the human race. I’m not sorry to say, there is room still for optimism.

Image: Kate Ter Haar, cropped.

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