“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” — Gregory Bateson, An Ecology of Mind
Spotlight on Selected Posts
- What The Future of Humanity is all About: Humanity in a Nutshell
- Significant Book on how we got here and where we might go: Countdown by Alan Weisman
- Remarkable book on Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy: The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy by Lester Brown
I wrote this essay to offer some essential information about our world and the future of our species, adding my voice to the many cries of alarm over the environmental crisis (lately reaching criticality). My purpose is to present:
– a short history of our planet and the human place on it
– how recent trends toward nearly absolute market-based policy and extreme political polarization have made it all-but-impossible for the national government to effect useful, substantive change at the needed scale
– to offer some suggestions for further study and examination.
Recent political trends make it very difficult for governments to act. Worse still, they can keep knowledgeable, capable, and honest leaders from running for office in democratic governing systems around the world.
The recent national disaster across the northeastern tier of states was predicted last year, but the report offering the prediction went essentially unheeded by the government structures set up to protect us. The threats of global warming, including this specific threat, did not come up in the recent presidential debates. It is as if Hurricane Sandy decided to force the national attention on global warming in a very dramatic way.
Many readers will be somewhat familiar with the information in the first several sections of this essay. I have included it anyway, for completeness and emphasis, and to lay the groundwork for understanding the human life-support system and what we are doing to it.
For ease in reading the core material, I’ve relegated some nonessential portions to a hyperlinked supplemental section at the end, so you can focus on reading straight through the main arguments quickly if you like. Or you may read the supplemental information as you go, if you have the time, or you can come back to that later, for more detail or amplification. Each supplemental section has a link back to the main portion where that material was excerpted.
I hope the basic premises of this essay will find their ways into political and mass media circles that have only partially, inadequately, and ineffectively dealt with (and minimally published) the nature of the problem, its causes, and the variety of political and other remedies needed and available, some of which are mentioned at the end of this post.
It’s astounding that so many of our current national political “leaders,” in their speeches, pronouncements, and actions, seem to be ignorant of the facts and fairly obvious conclusions drawn from those facts by a large fraction of the electorate. Many of our leaders have degrees from the best universities in the world. I can only conclude that this intentional (hopefully only pretend) ignorance is a consequence of the currently fractured political process and that there still remains sufficient time to correct that process. For more about this, see my May 7 post, “When Scientists Speak, Who Listens?”
1 Introduction and Background
One of the many miracles of nature is that life first appeared on Earth 4 billion years ago, a relatively short time after the Earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago. That first life form was very primitive, compared with what we see around us today.
Amazingly, it immediately began evolving. Building on previously evolved forms and structures, each new life added to and increased life’s complexity. Once the animals appeared, they developed a degree of self-direction and control. They could choose where they wanted to move and could begin actively to seek out food.
Eventually, this reached a point where we could say that many animals had developed thought processes and thinking skills. Along the way, various means for communication developed—even language.
Built into that long process was still another astounding miracle: at one point, thinking developed to such a high level that we humans could invent the word intelligence to describe it. As thinking skills progressed and intelligence evolved still further, our species found itself with the ability to observe the world and draw inferences about how it worked. We couldn’t yet call that science, but the event was an early precursor of that advanced art.
Finally, only recently on the geological scale, our species developed science to such a high degree that some of the smartest amongst us could discover and quantify quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, nuclear structure, chemistry, biology, mathematics, ecology, planetary science, and evolution itself. The best schools now teach these things and the best students know at least the basics of all of them. We have become the most intelligent species on Earth.
The process of developing a species-wide knowledge of the world about us has led to remarkable understandings about how humans live and grow on this planet, and what planetary services we depend upon to survive and thrive. We need water, shelter, and food grown from the combined actions of solar energy, water, minerals, and nutrients derived from soil teeming with life.(1)
Note: Footnotes are listed at the end of this post.
As science and technology developed, we found that we wanted more than just basic sustenance. We developed machines that needed metals, plastics, products of plants and animals, and extra energy to operate. An amazingly complex society was built upon the abundance of nature’s services and resources, created over the billions of years of planetary creation, development, and organic transformation. These led to the creation of human civilization and culture.
2 System Simulations
An important aspect of relatively recent technological development is that our basic proven theories of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, meteorology, electronics, and computer science have allowed us to simulate important processes and even visualize them on computer screens with high degrees of accuracy. Architects can design buildings mathematically on computers and when the design is done, display them as full three-dimensional images on the screen. The images are presented in full color and texture, looking as real as a photograph. Because of the design’s 3D nature inside the computer, the designer is allowed to move through the building, zoom in on details, see what every part of it looks like, and how the pieces fit together. This ability is particularly useful for spotting design flaws and fixing them before construction begins, a much less expensive operation than repairing the design after-the-fact, on the job site.
This simulation and modeling ability has extended to all areas of scientific and engineering endeavor. For example, the energy performances of buildings and vehicles can be simulated in such ways that their designers can quantify the energy required for their operation. The frictional action of air impeding the forward motion of a car or train can be calculated and the design streamlined to reduce such energy losses. The insulating ability of a modern home, and the heating of the building by the sun, the water heater, the kitchen stove, and other appliances, can be calculated accurately, minute-by-minute, over the course of a typical year. The energy needed to remove some of that heat with an air conditioner can be calculated as well. In fact the total purchased energy cost to operate the building for a year can be determined and the results used to guide its design, allowing the architect to make the building much more energy efficient and to compare the costs of doing so to the monetary value of the energy saved.
This simulation ability is not confined to human-built things. It is used for weather predictions (based on statistical inferences) and to model long term climate variations. A few decades ago, we had only a vague estimate of the direction a hurricane was headed and we didn’t have a clue about its path or track more than a couple of days in the future. Now hurricane tracking models have advanced to such a level that emergency services and building materials suppliers can move equipment and needed supplies into place well before the storm arrives on scene and makes such movement all but impossible.
3 Reading the Records
Humanity has reached the point where it can way better observe and measure what is going on with the planet and can model many aspects of its processes to such a degree that important aspects of our future lives on it can be forecasted or inferred with some accuracy. Of course, there are limitations to the methods used. Over the long term, uncertainties build up and the predicted path varies, especially as human interventions grow, decline, and change evolutionary directions.
Link to supplementary material S3 Returns Here From S3
What we see from Nature’s record, as well as recent measurements and other documented observations, are numerous warnings. The data tells us that nature’s services, upon which we have become so incredibly dependent, are changing, in some cases being depleted at alarming rates, and in others being damaged to such a degree that we may not be able to depend upon them much longer.
Coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification produced by human-caused chemical changes in the atmosphere and ocean systems. Large glaciers and huge ice deposits above sea level are melting at growing rates and the sizes of many of them are shrinking. A consequence of that are rising sea levels around the world and losses of Spring irrigation for vital farm lands in some locations. The number of additional alarms being raised is astounding, but not that evident to our leaders, according to their statements and actions. A plethora of information sources on the web describe these warnings and the growing number and variety of threats to the human life-support system resulting specifically from human action.
This is not that surprising, really. If you consider how rapidly human population has shot up over the last several centuries, the fact that a substantial portion of that population lives a relatively high-impact lifestyle, (meaning relatively affluent compared to nations in extreme poverty), and that the result is 7 billion humans currently demanding food, clothing, shelter, appliances, transportation, and large quantities of material goods and energy. Feeding these needs means that quite a lot of stuff has to be taken out of the ground to make what we need and to fuel the operation of our advanced civilization.
Fossil fuels head the list. Coal, oil, and natural gas have almost single-handedly produced the recent spike upward of world population, by fueling an astounding growth of industrial production and technological advancement.
It is well-known that natural resource extraction rates follow a familiar bell- shape curve. The rate is low initially, as the means of extraction and refinement are developed and perfected and as a market builds for the commodity. Then the extraction rate rises in proportion to its economic value until it reaches a broad, diffuse, often choppy, peak. The peak in production happens when roughly half the available resource has been extracted and the cost to obtain additional quantities of it begins to increase, slowing both production and selling rates.
Near this peak of production, the “easy” stuff has been all but depleted. That portion of the resource close to the surface of the earth and not greatly distant (horizontally or vertically) from transportation depots is largely gone. After this, it becomes more difficult and expensive to continue extracting the resource, causing the extraction rate to enter a long decline to exhaustion. Seldom is a resource truly ever all gone. Instead it is just too far off shore and/or too deep in the ground to extract, refine, distribute and sell profitably. Certain market sectors may remain which are so dependent on the resource that they continue to purchase it, even at exorbitantly high prices, but those high prices cause demand to diminish and the volume of sales to dwindle, reducing the ability to extract that resource at the formerly higher rates. This is the nature of resource depletion on a finite Earth.
Central to the story of growing human domination of the planet is the role of rapid population growth, so evident in my second figure above. The next figure above shows that population growth is expected to slow to a peak in the future. This may deceive some to think that the problem will take care of itself. The problem with that perspective, however, is that whatever growth rate slowing we might see in the future, population growth will still be taking place on top of an already huge total world population, so the impacts will continue to be very significant. It seems like everywhere we turn these days, we see evidence of population and development pressures stressing our life-support systems and producing growing resource shortages.
4 Peak Oil, Peak Lithium, Peak Everything
Several accounts tell us that we have probably passed the peak of world petroleum production. The petroleum industry generally disputes this claim. C. Martenson assessed this apparent controversy in his essay “Dangerous Ideas”, published on the web February 22, 2012. Some excerpts:
We are at a key turning moment in history. The actions that we will soon decide to take will be determined by the beliefs we hold. At a time like this, holding the wrong set of beliefs can destroy your wealth, sap your joy, and even prove to be life-shortening.
Knowing the ‘right’ sets of beliefs to hold is never easy, but it is especially difficult at large turning points because, by definition, most people are holding on to old beliefs. Running against the crowd is difficult for everyone and impossible for many.
[Skipped: Descriptions of various articles and pronouncements from the oil industry that peak oil is dead and that we will not be running out of oil.]
The relief at being able to count on the future resembling the past, only bigger and presumably better, is palpable and seductive. The only problem here is, what if that view of the future is wrong? Then what?
All your plans for happiness, safety, wealth, and comfort go right out the window.
And the odd part is that adjusting to the idea of Peak Oil when it can nudge you towards using less energy more efficiently is just good business and good wealth preservation practice under any circumstances, with high oil prices or low. It really makes no sense to internalize any messages that seek to belittle Peak Oil. In fact, it makes sense to spot them and reject them as rapidly as possible.
It is more than just petroleum we have to worry about. Coal is somewhat more abundant, but is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and contributes the most to CO2 buildup in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and the many adverse environmental consequences of that. Natural gas is suggested as a desirable alternative, at least as an interim fuel to use while we switch to greater energy conservation and use of renewable, less environmentally objectionable energy sources. But natural gas has its own problems, including the increasing need for “fracking” to get what remains out of the ground. Fracking involves energy-intensive efforts to break up deep formations containing natural gas trapped in areas that prevent its ready flow to extraction pipes. It has many bad habits, not the least of which is pollution of drinking water supplies, even to the point of putting natural gas into tap water. There’s a dramatic video of a homeowner using a match to light the gas in the tap water coming out of his faucet.
Link to supplemental material S4 Returns Here from S4
There are many more examples of resources taken from the Earth by humans for life-support and for comfort and the enjoyment of life. Some currently may be truly abundant, but many others are not.
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently said this: “Tropical deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s global warming emissions—that’s more than every car, truck, plane, ship, and train on earth! Think this is just something happening far away, removed from you and me? Think again. The paper you use, the meat you eat, even your Girl Scout cookies may contribute to deforestation.”
Above are only a few examples of the signals we are getting that something is wrong—examples of the adverse impacts humans are having on the environment. There are many many more. It is difficult to escape news of the growing resource shortages and other symptoms of a biosphere seemingly under attack by the human species. The human-induced extinction of plant and animal species at a pace many times greater than the natural background rate(2) is but one more of the many symptoms of our declining life-support system. A lot of attention has been paid in recent years about the serious threats of terrorist acts around the world. Wars have been and are being fought over this terrible problem. The high emphasis on this one problem risks distracting us from the larger threats facing humanity over the long run. Terrorism, as bad and scary as it is, simply cannot extinct so large and disperse a species as humanity. Destruction of that species’ life-support system, however, can do just that.
The fundamental principle behind this destruction is easy to state:
The combined pressures of:
- a large and growing global population
- with increasing per capita use of natural resources
- and increasing pollution and other damage to nature’s resources and services
are increasingly putting our life-support system in grave danger. Paul Ehrlich quantified the process with the now famous “I-pat” equation
I = PAT
Human-induced global environmental impact (I) equals the population level (P) multiplied by the level of affluence (A) of that population and multiplied again by a technological magnification factor (T) resulting from human usage of ever-more-sophisticated and effective machines having the effect of increasing per capita resource extraction rates and destructions of parts of the biosphere by individuals using that technology. The term affluence (A) is a rather nebulous one. I consider it a place-holder in the above equation for the per capita level of adverse long-term impact resulting from a high-consumption life-style.
5 Species dieoff — Is that our fate?
In the 1990s Jay Hanson’s web site predicted with uncanny accuracy key trends of the early 21st century with respect to energy, the environment, and geopolitics. What did he learn that most of us still don’t know, and what does he foresee ahead of us? An audio interview with Hanson reviews the history and motivation behind Jay’s work. With his background in computer programming, he is able to keenly parse a great deal of information into a logical framework, combining analyses of history, politics, biology, energy and economics into a generally horrific view of the future. Jay explains how he believes that until we face the causes of the crises upon us we will not overcome them. However, understanding is seriously hindered by self-deception and political expediency. As a contrast to the horrors of war and coercion he fears are upon us, he uses his knowledge of ecology and energy to envision a sustainable society —the difficulty he has is seeing a path to get there. If you want to see more arguments, discussion, and information about the threat, visit Jay’s web site, where, among other things, you will find this insightful summary:
In order to understand the nature of our crisis, one must evaluate two systems simultaneously: our energy production system and our political system. More specifically, one must evaluate the inexorable decline (literally, impossible to stop) of global “net energy” concurrently with the present use of the “market system” as a means of social control. The information required to gain a basic understanding of these two systems is available on [www.dieoff.org].
Calculations show that the market is not efficient! When economists claim the market is “efficient,” they actually mean “the efficient distribution of benefits”—NOT “the efficient use of materials.” In fact, Americans could be wasting something like two billion tonnes (metric tons) of oil equivalent energy each year! The market system is the most-inefficient social system in the history of the planet!
Some people say that neither our population growth nor our resource depletion threats are as grave as depicted above. Some claim that both these dangerous trends are self-correcting, which, if allowed to go far enough, is certainly true. The argument is that rapid increases in scientific knowledge and technological breakthroughs can either reverse the trends relatively quickly or can ameliorate their adverse consequences.
Indeed, the rapid spike upward shown in the first population chart above, is in the process of rounding off, as approximated in the second population chart. Caution: The second chart’s future predictions remain conjectural. Future population growth rates may be more or less than those depicted by the United Nations. It is not yet known if and when world population will stabilize and stop growing, nor whether this will occur as a result of conscious behavior changes or from mass starvation, drastically reduced fertility rates, and civilizational collapse.
One example: Relatively recent changes in the extraction of natural gas from the ground have resulted in huge increases in the known reserves of this important fossil fuel across North America. Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal and can be burned in such a way that global warming gases produced by its combustion can be reduced, at least in comparison to those produced by coal. Thus, it seems that—on our way through an intentional transition from the fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable energy sources—switching to natural gas can provide a cost-effective stop-gap source. On the other hand, neither of these optimistic trends is certain and may be so gradual without massive changes in public policy that they happen too late and are too small to save civilization from the self-inflicted wounds of overpopulation and accelerated global warming. Amory Lovins last year published the book Reinventing Fire on this topic. His brief but powerful executive summary is not to be missed.
What should be our response to this serious danger? Our species is supposed to be the most advanced and capable on Earth, the most intelligent and self-directed in history. So what should the leaders of an informed citizenry do in the face of such a threat?
A well-informed leadership would ideally gather the evidence and information, ensure its validity, and then consult with scientists, scholars, and other experts to assess the threat and devise a long-term plan, a strategy for reversing the damaging effects. The goal would be a detailed and coordinated global program for conversion to a truly sustainable human population and culture, with individual plans for each country around the world. Beginnings of such planning have already begun. See: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Global Footprint Network.
That word “sustainable” has been incorrectly used in many places. I like Al Bartlett’s definition(3):
Sustainable development is development that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Many useful implications (and dictums) follow from this definition. Most are delineated in Prof. Bartlett’s entertaining and blunt recent paper, just cited3. Anyone attempting to talk or write about energy and other resource policy and future planning in general should first read that paper, available on Dr. Bartlett’s web site and in the Educational Materials Section of this site.
What do we actually see and hear from our current political leaders? All too often the answer is diversions that focus on the narrow aspects of the many problems facing us which the politicians believe best promote their personal goals. Our two main national parties are currently dominated by relatively extreme ideologues, making compromise between the two parties nearly impossible and actual legislation rare. This has produced Congress’s lowest favorability poll rating in history (9% last October according to CBS News and the New York Times). If this were not enough, political discourse has become polluted with outright lies and a nearly total disregard of energy and environmental issues. The political elite ignores the contention of many scientists, scholars, and thinking citizens that humanity is headed for near extinction, if major, large-scale changes in the organization of society are not planned and implemented in the near future.
Of course the problem is global in scope. Yes, nearly all of the nations of the world will have to participate in the corrective actions, but the United States has a history of being the “leader of the free world,” so by all rights and expectations, the planning should begin right here and in earnest.
Problem is—in part due to the failures of our current government to heed the warnings and take action—we are no longer viewed as leading the world in anything but military might and political stupidity, a dangerous combination. Several countries, caught up in the financial follies of spending money they don’t have are now so deep in debt that they have little time or interest in dealing with what are considered longer term environmental threats. The U.S. is similarly (but somewhat less) challenged by debt and serious economic difficulties of its own. Unfortunately, many in the U.S. political world seem to be using this as an excuse for inaction on the environment. Instead, they should be thinking of it as the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time for deep and thorough environmental and political reform.
7 Political Failures
Our political leaders either outright deny many of the great truths science has brought us or conveniently (perhaps only politically, in their minds) ignore the recent conclusions of science about the threats facing humanity. Some even belittle meager efforts to avoid the consequences of our disastrous energy and environmental policies other politicians may promote.
As we come to the Fall 2012 election, a good example is this statement by one of our presidential nominees at his nominating convention: “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” That follows this recent statement by the candidate:
By the way, they do not call it America warming, they call it global warming. So the idea of America spending massive amounts, trillions of dollars, to somehow stop global warming is not a great idea. It loses jobs for Americans and ultimately it won’t be successful, because industries that are energy intensive will just get up and go somewhere else. So it doesn’t make any sense at all. My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us. My view with regards to energy policy is pretty straightforward. I want us to become energy secure and independent of the oil cartels. And that means let’s aggressively develop our oil, our gas, our coal, our nuclear power.
There’s nothing wrong with helping American families, but what about helping protect their children’s and grand-children’s futures too?
The irony of Mitt Romney’s position on the environment is his background as a CEO and business leader. By many accounts, he is particularly good at gathering together an excellent management team, listening to their views on the direction of the enterprise, doing some study of the facts and numbers on his own, and guiding the group toward a successful campaign to save the company and make it profitable.
These are just the skills a national leader with a degree of power needs to have if effective changes in environmental policy are possible. For this reason alone, it might be tempting to vote for Romney on election day. One might hope that, once in office, the Administrators of EPA and NOAA, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Health and Human Services, and State, based on the facts, research, and findings of their scientists and other staffers, would offer the new President accurate factual information about the state of the biosphere, human actions impacting it, and human-induced threats to our life-support systems. One would hope further that the federal government would offer a major educational campaign to set the record straight on the scientific bases of the environmental problems facing us, so that better-informed judgments can be made by the citizenry regarding their future prospects and those of their children and grandchildren. The leadership would also embark on a comprehensive implementation of the plan so developed by the government, with substantial help from reputable scientists, universities, and leading environmental organizations and institutes, not to mention the necessary educational effort required to explain the new policy to the populace.
Following the Republican National Convention of 2012, however, the media were all abuzz about purported factual errors and lies committed mainly by several republican candidates and spokespersons. Clearly proven wrong and misleading statements have brought the whole concept of telling the truth into question. Political lies have been the norm since politics was invented. In areas of science, engineering, and proven knowledge, however, lies are totally unacceptable (and can be extremely harmful).
We seem to have come to a point in the U.S. that intelligent discussions of environmental realities amongst our leaders have become all but politically impossible. Knowing the political climate in Washington and the craziness of the far right disbelievers in science, I’m not holding my breath for action at the national government level anytime soon.
Link to Supplemental Material S7 Returns Here from S7
8 Are We Intelligent Enough Politically?
I do not believe the problem is a matter of inadequate intelligence. It is a failure of education, training, and the current design of our political system. Jay Hanson has thought a lot about this question and wrote about it in a recent paper on his web site(4):
I assume that capitalism has now become illogical. We are destroying the natural world and consuming the remaining resources in exchange for fiat money — which will be worthless when the resources are gone. Moreover, the ongoing planetary destruction is making most Americans unhealthier and unhappier.
I assume that we should make every peaceful effort to prevent our countries from disintegrating into anarchy or engaging in new global wars over resources.
I assume that it is technically possible to make minor changes in the structures of our governments thereby avoiding anarchy and civil war. The key paradigm change here is to realize that goods and services do not need to be mediated by money. In other words, all-powerful government can deliver goods and services directly to citizens (as it’s done to civilians in wartime, and to military personnel during peacetime), which would make our society much more energy and materials efficient. Government can apply science and engineering to social problems without economic concerns. The only reason we live as we do now is because banking interests established the paradigm. As far as I know, my proposal is the ONLY one that has the potential to avoid a new series of world wars over resources by intentionally moving from complexity towards simplicity.
Hanson suggests a rather extreme form of governmental reorganization. Various other approaches can be proposed and should be discussed and debated. For example, a mixed economy, containing an appropriate balance between capitalism and government regulations can help to internalize external costs. Properly designed, such a government structure might meet Hanson’s need for efficiency while avoiding many of the potential problems of his more extreme suggestion. Hanson’s statement brings to mind another one by Julia Allen Field in Miami, around the time of the first Earth Day Teach-In in 1970: “We are using the Earth as if we were the last generation.” My version of this statement: Humanity is systematically taking apart the life-support system of Planet Earth for humans (however inadvertent it may be).
Countering the failure of our political system to deal with this destructive trend are many excellently researched, carefully thought-out strategies, and somewhat self-evident suggestions for the needed reforms. New York Times editorial writer Thomas Friedman, for example, has traveled the world, spoken to scientists, ordinary citizens, and political and other leaders everywhere. From his travels and studies, he has reached several sensible and logical conclusions about the way forward, documented nicely in a recent book.(5) Many other books have offered useful assessments. In particular, the writings of Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute(6) offer comprehensive assessments and suggested directions.
Along these lines, I encourage you to read the post just put up by Joe Bish of the Population Media Center at this link, at which he posts an article “The Biggest Problem of All: The End of the World is Coming?” by Piero Scaruffi, a cultural historian and blogger who made a career in the software industry of Silicon Valley, where he directed an Artificial Intelligence Center. The article Bish reproduced was published on the website of The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Bish says that “The topic at hand is a lecture by Paul Ehrlich, which Scaruffi spends about 3/4 of the essay summarizing and commenting on. He then moves into a conclusion which, like many before him, hypothesizes that the only catalyst capable of bringing about sufficient popular conviction to face the complex challenges of climate change and environmental destruction is that of… catastrophe.” He goes on to mention a Bloomberg Businessweek Politics and Policy editorial, “coming on the heels of hurricane Sandy and titled, ‘Its Global Warming, Stupid!’ [to] perhaps substantiate such ideas.” He also included at the PMC link a 10 minute interview Ehrlich conducted on a 2011 trip to Australia.
Many prominent environmental organizations around the world are well-versed in the dangers facing us, have attempted good programs toward reversing the trend, and are gaining modest ground. But the magnitude of the actions taken is just too small to be effective. They lack the scale needed for success. Most importantly, they lack the scope and power of governmental leadership that could make their efforts more successful.
9 What’s a Person to Do?
At the heart of many of our difficulties is a severe lack of basic education about our world and how it works, augmented by poor understandings of the damage being done to it by human growth, development, and ecosystem destruction. If everyone had a fuller appreciation for these problems and their causes, they might be more receptive to corrective plans, even when they mean a degree of personal and group sacrifice.
One thing an informed citizen can do is help spread the word on the above subjects: about how our world works, how it provides us with renewable and nonrenewable resources, what the renewable ones need for replenishment, and how the ocean-atmosphere system provides fresh water and moderates the climate. The needed information is available on the world wide web. All it takes is a few simple searches on some obvious key words and a degree of curiosity to drive the search toward answers. The information should be widely available through public and private school systems and via novel new knowledge delivery mechanisms.
Over the years I have written a lot on these subjects and delivered many slide presentations. I have written a couple of books and contributed articles for other ones. I plan to put some of this information on the web and make it more easily available. Many other scientists and writers have done the same. The problem is not a lack of information. It is the difficulty of its dissemination to people around the world who can read, listen, and understand the information now widely available.
A critical aspect of this is the large and growing number of people in poverty who have not received sufficient education and reading skills or may be too poor to access the information they need. Some are so poor and starving that just staying alive is the greatest problem they face. There are large and magnanimous foundations like the Gates and Clinton ones, putting significant resources out there to overcome some of these problems. Other organizations do research, publish the results, have memberships to help, and modest funds for information dissemination.
The Population Media Center, for example, has a great idea. Since overpopulation lies at the heart of our global problem and since literacy rates are low and fertility rates high in some areas, PMC has embarked on a program to produce and disseminate a variety of entertaining videos and television programs that also contain important messages about family planning and birth control methods and how to use them. Contributing money to organizations like PMC can help spread the word.
It’s not just a matter of the poor and underserved. What about the political leaders who deny realities and even work against the needed reforms? Perhaps PMC needs to make some especially entertaining informational videos for Radical Right-wing Republicans!
This is another area where the citizenry has an important role. We can send letters, emails, and other communications to the radio and TV networks, as well as to newspaper and magazine editors, urging them to cover the issue more aggressively and intelligently. Specific and relevant environmental information needs to be provided to the viewing and reading public and to the purveyors of mass public information. The latter have a special responsibility to do more conveying of environmental information and reporting on recent trends. The schools need to consider curriculum enhancements that drive home to students the problem and its potential solutions.
Finally, activism still has its place in free societies. We need to hook up with some of the environmental organizations, participate in their lobbying campaigns, and do our best to work toward effective reform of the U.S. political system, hopefully making it more responsive, effective, and future-directed.
Here’s an interesting new development: Social Innovations for Degrowth by Andreas Exner and Christian Lauk. Abstract: A growing community of scientists and social activists are working from the basic premise that a reduction of energy and material use implies a reduction of gross domestic product. Known as sustainable degrowth, Andreas Exner and Christian Lauk outline the basis of this insight and the requirements for this economic transformation. Public Citizen is an organization that can help channel citizen concern toward constructive and intelligent solutions to governmental inadequacies. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is perhaps the nation’s most effective environmental action group, working toward a sustainable human civilization. Their Fall 2012 magazine on earth is outstanding in its use of color, excellent design, and exemplary research and writing.
Below are three examples of the many regular email messages I receive each day on environmental issues. Getting on a couple of environmental distribution lists can keep you better informed and let the organizations know you are watching and listening to what they are doing. You can tell them you appreciate their work by sending them the occasional few dollars. Many will ask you from time to time to send a quick message through their web site to important leaders or to sign a petition. It’s all about strength in numbers. Having the names (and zip codes) of large numbers of citizens who subscribe to an action proposed by the organization can have a lot of impact on political leaders (who depend on votes from certain groups of zip codes).
Finally, in the category of “What every citizen should know about our planet,” I offer the following links (thanks to Randolph Femmer) to relevant materials and Power Point slide shows that you can freely download and send to teachers, students you know, and others who might appreciate receiving a kind of “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”:
A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. – James Madison 1822
Recent emails of environmental news
Center for Biological Diversity, 31 AUG 2012 Moments ago the Obama administration threw the doors of the Arctic open to Shell Oil, allowing it to immediately begin to drill for oil in the heart of protected habitat critical to the survival of polar bears. The administration gave Shell initial approval for controversial and dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska despite the fact that a critical oil-spill containment vessel is still awaiting certification. This is a monumental mistake that puts human life, wildlife and the environment in terrible danger. The harsh and frozen conditions of the Arctic make drilling risky, and an oil spill would be impossible to clean up. The Center has kept Shell out of the Arctic since 2007, and today’s news hits hard. But our team of scientists, lawyers and advocates are deeply committed to our all-out campaign to protect the Arctic. It will mean a massive effort in the courts, Congress and the media — and with the American people. We all know the dangers of drilling for oil in the harsh, remote Arctic: An oil spill will be virtually impossible to clean up with the nearest Coast Guard station 1,000 miles away. The Arctic’s wildlife will be left to fend for themselves, struggling to survive against long odds.
Let [us] be very clear about what’s at stake with today’s news: Once the Arctic is ruined, there’s no going back. Unique animals like polar bears, yellow-billed loons, eiders, walruses, whales and ice seals that have evolved over millions of years to survive in this frozen wilderness — and nowhere else — will be condemned to extinction.
Greenpeace 31 AUG 12: Arctic sea ice reached its lowest level in recorded history this week and the melting still isn’t done this year.
The Arctic has lost 75% of its ice by volume since the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) started recording this information in 1979. Less Arctic sea ice means a warmer planet and a change in climate patterns — that’s bad news. Unless you are Shell and want to drill in the Arctic.
Shell is in danger of missing its window to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic this summer due to its own incompetence. Shell has proven it is not Arctic ready. But now because of the sea ice melt, the company is asking the government to give it more time.
Post Carbon Institute 31 AUG 12: Yes, there’s still oil in the ground. We just can’t afford it. In broad terms, the peak oil analysts were right. But the fossil fuel industry is winning the PR battle.
“Don’t Worry, There’s Plenty of Oil” Post by Asher Miller • August 28, 2012
In recent months we’ve seen a spate of articles, reports, and op-eds claiming that peak oil is a worry of the past thanks to so-called “new technologies” that can tap massive amounts of previously inaccessible stores of “unconventional” oil. “Don’t worry, drive on,” we’re told.
But as Post Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg asks in this short video, what’s really new here? “What’s new is high oil prices and …the economy hates high oil prices.”…
In Addition: Editors at the World Environmental Organization have located over 1,000 of the most useful environment-related web sites. These sites have been arranged into several categories, each containing 100 web sites. Go to: http://www.world.org/weo/top1000.
S1 Supplementary Material Return back to Main Section
S3 Reading the Records Link back to Main Section 3
My old friend, Joe Browder, adds this postscript: “Our decisions to grow crops for fuel creat[ed] more biodiversity losses than were caused by all the fossil fuels in the history of the industrial world. Did you note the recent data about Germany’s need to import food grains because of subsidies for biodiesel? Many progressive thinkers are just as willing to tolerate environmental and social damage created by supposed remedies to climate change as are the climate science deniers who justify continued damage by fossil fuels. I think we lose opportunities to protect natural resources when we get lost in debates about which models should drive policy, and our focus on those debates lets people on all sides pursue activities that continue to degrade real nature.” In spite of the cautions, a lot of useful information is becoming available from real data, supplemented by model predictions and that information can aid in planning human responses to expected future directions.
For example, plant, animal, and human population growths have been measured with increasing accuracy for many years. We have developed amazing abilities for reading the geological, chemical, and biological records placed before us by natural processes. These include sedimentary layers, ice cores, tree rings, bones and bone fragments, the whole field of archeology, and even how much carbon dioxide is in the world’s atmosphere and how that concentration has been changing over a long stretch of time.
S4 Peak Oil, Peak Lithium, Peak Everything Link back to Section 4
In 2010 Ronald Bailey wrote an article for www.reason.com (Free minds and free markets) titled “Peak Everything?” in which he wrote:
Lithium is the element at the heart of the electric car revolution that many green energy enthusiasts are trying to foment. For example, the Chevy Volt … [is] energized by 400 pounds of lithium ion batteries, plus a gasoline engine to produce electricity to extend the car’s range of travel once the batteries are drained. In 2007, William Tahil, an analyst with the France-based consultancy, Meridian International Research, issued a report that alarmingly concluded that there is “insufficient economically recoverable lithium available in the Earth’s crust to sustain electric vehicle manufacture in the volumes required.”
Of course there is controversy surrounding Tahil’s claims, and it might be possible to substitute other materials for lithium. However, even if the extraction rate for lithium can be slowed, it will still be needed for other things and eventually we’ll reach a peak lithium condition. Tahil then assessed two more important metal resources that a modern society needs.
Neodymium is a rare earth metal used extensively to produce permanent magnets found in everything from computer magnetic disks and cell phones to wind turbines and automobiles. For example, the magnets that drive a Prius hybrid’s electric motor use more than two pounds of neodymium. Interestingly, neodymium magnets were invented in the 1980s to overcome the global cobalt supply shock that occurred as the result of internal warfare in Zaire. Because China can more cheaply produce neodymium than any other country in the world, that country is now the source of 95 percent of the world’s neodymium. Recently, however, China’s government warned that it would begin restricting exports of neodymium (and other rare earth metals) in order to insure supplies for its own manufacturers.
Phosphorus. In the 1840s, scientists discovered that plants need the element phosphorus to grow. The phosphorus fertilizer industry grew rapidly, initially by exploiting vast deposits of seabird guano left on oceanic islands. Today phosphate rocks are mined to produce the fertilizer. The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) notes that modern agriculture is dependent on continual inputs of phosphorus fertilizer and that known reserves could be depleted within the next 50 to 100 years. The current issue of Foreign Policy ominously warns that failing to meet the challenge of “peak phosphorus” would mean that “humanity faces a Malthusian(7) trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced.”
Of course, there are ways to reduce the need for and use of phosphorus, including, for example, the use of “NoMix toilets” which allow for the collection of urine separately from solid wastes, allowing the recycling of phosphorus from urine. The phosphorus in urine is close to the amount needed to fertilize the food supply for one person. But massive utilization of this recycling method will require huge investments and high costs.
S7 Political Failures Link back to Section 7
Worse even than the normal political gridlock is the campaign recently exposed at BillMoyers.com by the former head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, to “win back the allegiance of Christian followers he had duped and double-crossed” (Bill Moyers’ words) and to use his new power for a major far right attack on what I might call sensible policies.
Mike Lofgren was interviewed by Moyers in his 31 August video about the dysfunction in Washington. Lofgren is the author of a new book, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.(8) Lofgren was a Republican who worked as a Congressional staffer for 28 years. He made news in September 2011 when he angrily quit over the debt ceiling crisis. He’s critical of Democrats but saves his real bashing for Republicans, whom he called lunatics, in a Truthout piece(9) that got so many hits so fast that the site crashed. He holds two degrees in history and received a Fulbright scholarship. From his Truthout piece:
Both parties are rotten – how could they not be, given the complete infestation of the political system by corporate money on a scale that now requires a presidential candidate to raise upwards of a billion dollars to be competitive in the general election? Both parties are captives to corporate loot. The main reason the Democrats’ health care bill will be a budget buster once it fully phases in is the Democrats’ rank capitulation to corporate interests – no single-payer system, in order to mollify the insurers; and no negotiation of drug prices, a craven surrender to Big Pharma.
But both parties are not rotten in quite the same way. The Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bagmen, egomaniacs and kooks. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP.
To those millions of Americans who have finally begun paying attention to politics and watched with exasperation the tragicomedy of the debt ceiling extension, it may have come as a shock that the Republican Party is so full of lunatics. To be sure, the party, like any political party on earth, has always had its share of crackpots, like Robert K. Dornan or William E. Dannemeyer. But the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today: Steve King, Michele Bachman (now a leading presidential candidate as well), Paul Broun, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx, Louie Gohmert, Allen West. The Congressional directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy.
Lofgren summarized his view of the problems with the two parties for Moyers: “I think they went crazy when they started identifying Obama as the Antichrist. Meaning he’s not a legitimate president. We must do everything we can to obstruct him.” Moyers asked: “How did Democrats become useless?” Lofgren replied, “I think they got complacent during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And then finally after that period, they woke up, found they had lost three straight presidential elections. So they had to retool and make themselves more corporate friendly…. And it certainly helped Bill Clinton get elected. And while he did some good things like balancing the budget, he also unleashed Wall Street by repealing Glass-Steagall, and he signed bills that would end regulation on derivatives. So he is at least to some degree responsible for the Wall Street debacle.” Moyers: “And that’s how, to quote the third of your subtitles, “The Middleclass Got Shafted”? Lofgren: “Both parties don’t really seem to care about having a vibrant manufacturing base in this country, regardless of their rhetoric.”
Lofgren made the point that immediately following President Obama’s election, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was asked what his first priority was for the country. Was it getting jobs for the people? Was it restoring the solvency of the financial system? Was it foreign policy? Was it any of those things? The answer was no. It was making sure Obama was a one-term president. Moyers said that it seemed some of these people are willing to see the government go down in order to win. Lofgren’s reply: “That would be the case.” He pointed out that he grew up in a party that believed in the traditions of Eisenhower and Reagan, working to improve the country. “But now it’s basically [to] obstruct. They’re no longer a parliamentary loyal opposition. They want to seize up the wheels of government. And to most people that means you don’t have federal inspectors of airliners. You don’t have federal inspection of food safety. Your national parks will be closed. Federal law enforcement will go home. That’s what that means…. I left the [Republican] party because it was becoming an apocalyptic cult. Because you cannot govern a country of 310 million [now 314 million] people that is the greatest economic power on earth and the greatest military power on earth as if it’s a banana republic. You can’t govern it with people who think that Obama was born overseas or who believe in all manner of nonsense about climate change. They don’t even know, apparently, where babies come from, if we’re to believe Todd Akin.”
In explaining the “Apocalyptic Cult” charge, Lofgren said, “There’s a very strong element in evangelical or fundamentalist religion that said the apocalypse is coming. …. [so] when the debt ceiling crisis came to a head,… people were warning that we could be downgraded. And if we actually defaulted, we could possibly have to lower our standard of living and credit from abroad could dry up. And [Michele Bachman and people like her had an attitude that] was sort of, ‘Bring it on. If we’re all going to abide in the bosom of the Lord, by and by, it really doesn’t matter whether we default.’ [Yes, that was] mainly rhetoric. But I think it does carry over into the mentality of maximalist obstruction, no compromise, because of course when you are with the saints and the opposition is with the sinners, you are doing evil if you compromise.”
If Lofgren’s comments are to be even partially believed, it explains a lot about the apparent stupidity of our political leaders concerning things environmental—especially the ridiculing of scientist’s warnings about global warming, losses of biodiversity, destructions of forests, and depletion of resources. It also brings to the fore a question of whether the human species, with its supposedly advanced intelligence, is yet intelligent enough to save itself from impending disaster, even extinction, especially when it knows that’s what’s coming.
Footnotes Link Back to Main Section 1
(1) Ecologist Dr. Kevin McCluney of Arizona State University adds this: A diverse community of soil organisms interacts with plants, often in symbiotic partnerships where plant energy molecules are exchanged for fungal or bacterial nutrients. Some soil organisms can even fix atmospheric nitrogen and directly provide it to plants. Others indirectly affect plants, by breaking down waste and transforming multiple nutrients into usable forms. Or, through alteration of the structure of the soil, organisms living in it can actually change soil properties, such as retention of nutrients and infiltration of water. Additionally, by turning some molecules into gases, or sequestering them, soil organisms may influence the global balance of atmospheric gases like CO2, N2, NOx, and CH4.
(2) Stuart Wolper, UCLA Newsroom, News Release, 18 May 2011. “The most widely used methods for calculating species extinction rates are “fundamentally flawed” and overestimate extinction rates by as much as 160 percent, life scientists report May 19 in the journal Nature. However, while the problem of species extinction caused by habitat loss is not as dire as many conservationists and scientists had believed, the global extinction crisis is real, says Stephen Hubbell, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and co-author of the Nature paper.
(3) Bartlett, Albert A., “The Meaning of Sustainability,” The Teacher’s Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 2012, Pg. 1.
(4) Hanson, Jay, “From Capitalism to Democracy: From Complexity to Simplicity,” www.dieoff.org, accessed 1 September 2012.
(5) Friedman, Thomas and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. Picador, reprint edition. 8/21/2012. ISBN-13: 9781250013729
(6) Brown, Lester. http://www.earth-policy.org/about_epi/lester_pubs Particularly, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (W.W. Norton & Co., NY: 2011)
(7) Thomas Robert Malthus, who lived from 1766 to 1834, was an English scholar, influential in political economy and demography. He has become widely known for his theories about population and its increase or decrease in response to various factors. The six editions of his An Essay on the Principle of Population, published from 1798 to 1826, observed that sooner or later population gets checked by famine and disease.
(8) Lofgren, Mike, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. Penguin Group, 8/2/2012, ISBN-13: 9780670026265
(9) Lofgren, Mike, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” 3 September 2011, http://truth-out.org/