"World Law and the Roman Senate's Steps"

Take a deep breath. One of the nitrogen atoms in your lungs right now was exhaled by Julius Caesar as he lay dying on the steps of the Roman Senate. Since then, it has traveled the world as part of plankton in Antarctic waters, a tropical bird in the jungles by the Congo, a soil bacterium in Iceland and a peanut plant in the American south. Earth's intimately interconnected biosphere is rich in luminous facts such as this.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of the 20th century space program is that this planet is a whole. We see this whole in the famous Apollo photographs. But we also see it in satellite pictures that reveal Earth's processes in false-color imagery. We see thinning ozone over the Antarctic and know it is being eaten away by refrigerants and aerosol propellants used 20 years ago in Paris or New York. We see enormous dust clouds leaving China and know that agriculture that depletes the soil also pollutes the air hundreds or thousands of miles away. We see rainforest burning in Brazil and know it makes the Arctic icepacks melt. Yet we persist in acting as if political boundaries reflected physical or biological reality.

American companies sell pesticides long banned domestically overseas. After endangering human lives and ecosystems there, the poisons return on imported produce in one of those ironies that remind us that we cannot treat the air, oceans and biosphere as if they were fragmented. We have reached the point at which what happens anywhere affects what happens everywhere.

Planetary problems demand planetary solutions. Treaties can be of some help, but environmental agreements are poorly enforced. Furthermore, they present a great incentive to cheaters. A country refusing to sign a treaty on, say, global warming may attract foreign investors. The same problem occurs with purely domestic labor and environmental standards, as transnational corporate outlaws drive a race to the bottom.

The solution is surely obvious. There must be global minimium standards for environmental protection. They must be the same in every country -- no cheaters -- and they must be binding. Unenforceable standards are useless. In other words, we need global environmental laws made by a global government.

How this may be accomplished is far from being known. Yet it is difficult to see an alternative. We have accidentally created global problems and must now deliberately devise global solutions.

Jane Shevtsov is an Ecology, Behavior and Evolution major at UCLA and co-founder of World Beyond Borders.

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