Did Nero actually fiddle while Rome burned? Could people actually continue to stoke our "modern" economies and lifestyles until all the glaciers and forests and coral reefs are gone? Until cities disappear under water and societies wither from famine? There's an episode (12/5/03 - "Middle of Nowhere") from This American Life, my favorite radio show, that left a huge impression on me. It's about a South Pacific island, Nauru, whose 12,000 or so people were surrounded by trees, many that bore fruit. In the late 1800's an Australian man brought back a piece of what looked like petrified wood from the island and used it as a doorstop. Another man at his work discovered that it was actually a rich phosphate and Nauru became very conspicuous on the world map. One colonizing country after another came to mine the phosphate during the 20th century. When colonialism went out of style and gave way to globalization the citizens of an independent Nahru continued to sell off their valuable phosphate rich parcels until the tiny island was almost completely denuded of topsoil and trees. For awhile, in the late 80's, the "Nauruinians" were the richest people per capita on the entire planet. By the late 90's, except for some trees on the perimeter, the entire surface of the Manhattan-sized island is all dusty gray-white coral. All food and even drinking water must be flown in.
(The story gets into the crazy and barely legal ways Nauru has schemed to raise money without any natural resources to sell.)
To me, this little island is a total metaphor for the larger group of us inhabiting Planet Earth, which is just a bigger, more spherical island. Have we reached the equivalent of the late 80's in Nauru?