Posted by: terrapraeta | January 12, 2008

The Rebirth of Environmentalism


We feel like Greeks, we feel like Romans
Centaurs and monkeys just cluster round us
We drink elixirs that we refine
from the juices of the dying
We are no monsters, we’re moral people
and yet we have the strength to do this
This is the splendour of our achievement
Call in the airstrike with a poison kiss

Shriekback, Nemesis

In the comments for Tell Me a Story(ed: original posting), yesterday, Brian referred to a Reason article about Environmental Doomsaying. This morning, when I logged in, I discovered that my Recent Comments script somehow linked directly to that article, although no comment on my blog seemed to account for it. Very strange. But as a result, I followed the link and read the article in question.

Talk about a blog inspiration. If you are disinterested in environmental concerns, world problems, society, culture and the future of humanity, you may want to skip this article: because it is going to be a long one. But if you have the time and the interest, join me on an exploration of the systemic nature of our world and an analysis of what that means for our species and Gaia herself.

Anyone that has been involved with environmental issues is probably aware of the Doomspeak of the first Earth Day and the environmental movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s. Many extreme predictions were made and none of those predictions have proven to be terribly accurate. Some examples as quoted by Ronald Bailey at Reason:

“We have about five more years at the outside to do something,” ecologist Kenneth Watt declared to a Swarthmore College audience on April 19, 1970. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment. The day after Earth Day, even the staid New York Times editorial page warned, “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”

On Population:

Imminent global famine caused by the explosion of the “population bomb” was the big issue on Earth Day 1970. Then–and now–the most prominent prophet of population doom was Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. Dubbed “ecology’s angry lobbyist” by Life magazine, the gloomy Ehrlich was quoted everywhere. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” he confidently declared in an interview with then-radical journalist Peter Collier in the April 1970 Mademoiselle. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
“Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” wrote Ehrlich in an essay titled “Eco-Catastrophe!,” which ran in the special Earth Day issue of the radical magazine Ramparts. “By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”

On Pollution:

In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….” Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” Barry Commoner cited a National Research Council report that had estimated “that by 1980 the oxygen demand due to municipal wastes will equal the oxygen content of the total flow of all the U.S. river systems in the summer months.”

On Global Climate Change:

“Kenneth Watt was less equivocal in his Swarthmore speech about Earth’s temperature. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” “

This is only a small sampling and many more predictions and warnings are to be found within the Reason article. I intend to address each of these topics as well as others: why were the predictions wrong, what actually has occurred, and where does that leave us today. Is there cause for concern? Are things really looking bright for humanity’s future? Are the erroneous predictions of the past evidence that all environmental arguments are fallacious? And most importantly, what does all of this mean for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren.

World Population, Food Production and Famine

When Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, Europe was in a very precarious position. Famines and plagues had wracked the continent for centuries, resources were dwindling and population pressures were increasing every year.

Discovery of the New World gave European man a markedly changed relationship to the resource base for civilized life. When Columbus set sail, there were roughly 24 acres of Europe per European. Life was a struggle to make the most of insufficient and unreliable resources. After Columbus stumbled upon the lands of an unsuspected hemisphere, and after monarchs and entrepreneurs began to make those lands available for European settlement and exploitation, a total of 120 acres of land per person was available in the expanded European habitat—five times the pre-Columbian figure! (Link)

Although the Americas were inhabited, the arrival of Europeans with their Guns, Germs and Steel instigated a massive, genocidal die off of Native American peoples. North and South American populations prior to the arrival of Europeans has been estimated as high as 10 million, with estimates of 90% mortality by 1600. These two factors set the stage for European population expansions into the new world with relatively high standards of living throughout the Americas. Standard of Living is one of the critical components of population growth rates which we will be discussing.

Once the Americas had been fully claimed, Europe turned their attention to Africa and Asia. Although these areas were fully populated, the resource bases of less developed regions attracted the Imperial ambitions of European monarchs. However, in these regions a new tact was in order. European Standards of Living had risen enough at this point to reduce the drive emigration, so instead later colonialism was driven by missionaries and soldiers. The missionaries, in particular had a dramatic and unforseen effect on population dynamics.

In ‘primitive’ societies, particularly horticultural and subsistence agricultural cultures, population is maintained via high birth rates balanced against high death rates. When Europeans arrive, the first thing they do is often to bring medicines which quickly reduce death rates in the native populations. Unfortunately, it takes time for the birth rate to adjust to the new paradigm. As a result of European colonialism, we see that world population figures skyrocketed during this colonial period. Overall, world population for the last10,000 years has been a classic, exponential curve.

In 1600, World population is estimated to have been 500 Million. By 1800, we hit the one billion mark (with a doubling period of 200 years). In 1930, our population doubled once more to 2 Billion:


Since then, as you see, the graph does not reflect a standard growth curve. I suspect that the reason for this is the unprecedented population growth that resulted from the politics of colonialism in the old world. If this was not taken into account in the predictions of the late sixties, it is no wonder that their predictions were off the mark.

So if the predictions of the ‘doom and gloomers’ of the sixties were incorrect, then the question must be asked: Are there valid concerns over world population? Although their estimates and time frames were wrong, were the basic principals behind their arguments valid? In order to answer that, we need to look at the mechanics of population, food supply and Standard of Living.

Malthusian population mechanics have long been shown to be fundamentally flawed. Malthus claimed that population always increases exponentially while food supply can only grow arithmetically. Recent technological breakthroughs and first world population demographics both demonstrate that these assumptions are invalid. However, it seems equally absurd to accept that population growth is completely divorced from food supply. After all, baby humans are not made out of whole cloth: they are made of food. So how we can analyze these two factors consistant with known facts, patterns and demographics?

First, Population is a Function of Food Supply. In other words, population can only grow so long as there is sufficient food surplus to feed that growth. Second, population growth is fully dependent on standard of living.

The first and most common objection to the first assertion is always that population demographics suggest otherwise. After all, many first world nations – those populations with the highest access to food – have the lowest population growth factors, and in several cases have reached negative growth rates. That is where the second assertion comes in to play.

In the US, the average middle class child costs One Million Dollars to raise (medical and insurance costs, food, clothing, shelter, education etc). This creates an economic disincentive to have a large family. Individual families can still choose to do so, but it requires a subsequent reduction in actual standard of living. In other words, a typical family with an average income might have one or two children and maintain an average lifestyle. Another family, with the same income, may choose to have more children, but their lifestyle will then be more similar to a lower income family. Or, conversely, a couple that opts to have no children may be able to engage a lifestyle more akin to upper middle class standards.

By contrast, a family in agrarian India not only has a lower standard of living, making each child less expensive to start with, but further reflection notes that each child also provides economic incentive in that the child can become a producer by the age of eight or ten. It has always been the case that farming provides an incentive to have more children as the economic benefit outweighs the cost within a few short years.

So what can we expect in the future? So long as there are poor families with standards of living low enough to enable children to provide an economic benefit to the family as a whole, and so long as there is sufficient food supply to enable more people, world population levels will continue to grow. Which leads us inexorably to our second issue.

Initiatives to End Hunger and Poverty Around the World

Where did the doomsters go wrong? They assumed that overpopulation drives world hunger. To the extent that such conditions exist in certain places, the real culprit was–and is–poverty. “The images evoked by the term overpopulation–hungry families, squalid, overcrowded living conditions, early death–are real enough in the modern world, but these are properly described as problems of poverty,” explains Harvard population researcher Nicholas Eberstadt. “Poverty, like all other possible human attributes, is represented in individual members of a population. It is an elementary lapse in logic to conclude that poverty is a `population problem’ simply because it exists.”

Bailey is both correct and not in his conclusion on hunger and population. It is not that overpopulation drives hunger, nor that poverty drives hunger, but that poverty drives overpopulation. So the next question is, can we solve poverty? Can we eliminate the severe divide between the haves and the have-nots and thereby bring our global civilization into a new period of stability and universal comfort and opportunity?

The simple answer is no. With our current technology, resource availability and population levels, it would take approximately five Earth-like planets to provide the necessary resources to allow every person to achieve a Standard of Living comparable to a middle class american. Conversely, if the current worldwide assets were distributed evenly, standard of living would be reduced to third world averages.

What about the in-depth answer? In the real world, without extra planets or magical income redistribution, what options are available to us? Is it possible to raise up the poorest of the poor to such a degree that they would cease to be driven toward overpopulation?

For that, we need to look at our economic and social systems. Wealth is generated by the application of willful exploitation of workers by capital providing elites. Whether the ‘capital providing elite’ is a government (socialism, dictatorships, traditional monarchies), an individual (capitalism), or an investor (corporatism), the provider owns the means of production and exchanges access to that equipment and wages, for the productive capacity of the worker. By definition, the value of that productive capacity must exceed the cost of wages, equipment and other overhead costs: otherwise the provider would not have any income of their own (so why would they do it?) Some government projects may, in fact, violate this premise, but those projects cannot be maintained indefinitely as they require a constant influx of capital from an outside source.

In the last fifty years, there has been a tremendous growth in the First-World Middle Class. I submit that this is a direct result of globalization and increasing exploitation of the Third World. Average first worlders have had increasing access to products and consumer goods, specifically because production of those goods has shifted to Third World countries where labor costs are naturally low and (sometimes) artificially deflated.

So what would happen if we were to turn around and provide ‘fair’ compensation to labor around the world? The cost of consumer goods would skyrocket, pushing the ‘Middle Class’ back down into poverty, or Corporate/Investor profits would evaporate, eliminating the upper class and driving the middle class down almost into poverty. (At minimum). If anyone can suggest a way to encourage our elites to give up their status, I would love to hear it. Government regulation is often pro-offered, but so far it has always been the case the regulation merely leads to greater corruption and increased polarization of economic status rather than the equalizing function it seeks.

For example, in the early twentieth century, the Labor Unions finally came together and began to have an impact on governmental policy and regulation. As a result, the elites offered Labor a ‘seat at their table’ so to speak and the labor movement has since been predominantly ineffective at anything beyond managing labor so that it is more dependable and docile. Union Leadership has become the watch dog of labor, rather than its advocate.

Pollution, Global Warming and Health

Pollution was the other big issue on Earth Day 1970. Smog choked many American cities and sludge coated the banks of many rivers. People were also worried that we were poisoning the biosphere and ourselves with dangerous pesticides. DDT, which had been implicated in the decline of various bird species, including the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the brown pelican, would soon be banned in the United States. Students wearing gas masks buried cars and internal combustion engines as symbols of our profligate and polluting consumer society. The Great Lakes were in bad shape and Lake Erie was officially “dead,” its fish killed because oxygen supplies had been depleted by rot-ting algae blooms that had themselves been fed by organic pollutants from factories and municipal sewage. Pesticides draining from the land were projected to kill off the phytoplankton in the oceans, eventually stopping oxygen production.

Bailey regales us with all of the incorrect predictions of the Environmentalists of 1970. And then proceeds to gloat that, in fact, none of their predictions were accurate. He is honest enough to admit that new governmental regulations were enacted and effective at improving the quality of our air, water and land. However, he then goes on to quote a governmental official:

Cleaner air is a direct consequence of better technologies and the enormous and sustained investments that only a rich nation could have sunk into developing, installing, and operating these technologies.

While absolutely true, there are a number of factors neglected. The Tragedy of the Commons ensures that common assets of large populations – like air and water – will always be abused by the populations that share them. Why? Because when no one person is responsible, it is impossible for anyone to take responsibility. Bailey notes this, discussing ‘open-access commons’ in detail. However, what he neglects to acknowledge is that private ownership will never effectively protect our air and oceans unless, of course, we were to reach the draconian practice of buying the air we breathe from some corporate entity. And even then, one would have to assume a monopoly, so what economic incentive would said company have to provide clean air?

What has been rather effective, is the power of public perception: once companies discovered that they could access new customers and markets by advertising their environmental ‘best practices’, it became first economically valuable, and eventually competitively requisite to maintain environmental standards higher than previous generations. Those industries that were, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to achieve higher standards, have now moved offshore to countries that do not have the resources for “sustained investments that only a rich nation could have sunk into developing, installing, and operating these technologies. (So not only do we exploit the workers of third world nations, we exploit their land bases as well.)

Next, Bailey questions the environmental concerns over synthetic toxins, pesticides, herbicides, and other potentially carcinogenic substances that we have allowed to accumulate not only in our general environment, but specifically in our food supply.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom at Earth Day 1970, there’s a broad consensus that exposure to synthetic chemicals, even pesticides, does not seem to be a problem. In 1996, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, in a comprehensive report called Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet, concluded that levels of both synthetic and natural carcinogens are “so low that they are unlikely to pose an appreciable cancer risk.” The National Cancer Institute reports that “increasing exposure to general environmental hazards seems unlikely to have had a major impact on the overall trends in cancer rates.” “Pollution appears to account for less than 1 percent of cancer,” concludes University of California biologist and cancer researcher Bruce Ames.

This is a somewhat strong statement, seeing as how, in most cases, the causes of cancer are still largely unknown. The only thing that we know for certain is that there is a correlative (as opposed to causative) relationship between exposure to environmental toxins, industrial waste, pesticides and herbicides, and other carcinogenic chemicals and incidents of cancer. Correlation is not proof, but at the same time, when we do not understand the causes of cancer it seems absurd to simply dismiss unexplained correlations. Second, cancer is a modern industrial disease. It is unheard of amongst primitive foraging and horticultural societies, and really has only become common in third world in the last fifty year. This provides another strong correlation between modern techniques, chemicals, diets, lifestyles and cancer.

(On a slight side note, much of the report from the National Academy of Sciences, quoted above, concerned comparing synthetic and natural chemicals. One of the primary assertions used was that natural and synthetic chemicals are indistinguishable and therefore fundamentally the same. While this is technically correct, natural chemicals are always found in complex relationships with other compounds which may have significantly different metabolic effects than stand-alone synthetic imitations. This leaves me a bit wary of any argument founded on the premise that synthetic and natural compounds are equivalent.)

In relation to pollution levels of the ’60’s, Bailey also discusses Global Warming, dismissing much of the issue outright because:

“The greenhouse theorists contend the world is threatened with a rise in average temperature, which if it reached 4 or 5 degrees, could melt the polar ice caps, raise sea level by as much as 300 feet and cause a worldwide flood,” explained Newsweek in its special January 26, 1970, report on “The Ravaged Environment.” In the service of balance, however, the magazine also noted that many other scientists saw temperatures dropping: “This theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.”

As scientists have come to understand these effects over the last few years, the two contending theories have now merged into one, complex system that is becoming increasingly precarious. As it turns out, while Global Warming has been the more obvious and discernible effect over recent years,our climate has also been impacted by several different ‘Global Cooling’ effects. The particulate pollutants they were concerned about in 1970 did have a significant effect on atmospheric conditions, blocking heat from reaching the planet’s surface. While pollution controls have significantly reduced the particulates in our air over the last twenty years, invisible greenhouse gases have increased, and this is the most likely reason for the apparent acceleration of global warming. Other factors adding to cooling and warming effects: loss of glaciation on mountaintops and northern latitiudes is decreasing the albido of planet earth, allowing the planets surface to absorb more energy from the sun each day. Air traffic generates cloud cover with every passing plane. In some areas this effect is significant enough to decrease average temperature variants by several degrees. The Atlantic Conveyor (the current system of which the Gulf Stream is part) may be in danger of shutting down if the North Atlantic Seas continue to lose salinity. The last time the conveyor ceased operation, Europe endured the Little Ice Age.

Most importantly, when discussing Global Warming, it is important to note that the theory does NOT suggest that the entire world will get warmer. Hailifax does not become the new Atlantic City, while Atlantic City becomes Miami. Rather, we are in an unusually stable climactic period right now – so whether the end result is warmer on average or cooler on average, in either case, we will see weather that is increasingly unpredictable.

Peak Oil and the Holocene Extinction

And so we come to the last issue of interest on Earth Day 1970, and in contention according to Ron Bailey. Resource Depletion.

Of course this didn’t happen. The prices of all metals and minerals have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1970, according to the World Resources Institute. As we all know, lower prices mean that things are becoming more abundant, not less. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that at present rates of mining, reserves of copper will last 54 years; zinc, 56 years; silver, 26 years; tin, 55 years; gold, 30 years; and lead, 47 years. What about oil? The survey estimates that global reserves could be as much as 2.1 trillion barrels of crude oil–enough to supply the world for the next 90 years. These reserve figures are constantly moving targets–as they get drawn down, miners and drillers find new sources of supply or develop more efficient technologies for exploiting the resources.

This quote shows a remarkable failure to appreciate what Peak Oil is all about.

When a new resource is discovered, it takes some time, technological development, and investment to build up to maximum exploitation capacity. In the case of oil, that simply means that over the years we have gotten better at finding it, extracting it and processing it. However, it is still a finite resource. When accessing a finite resource, there is a bell curve associated with the ease – technologically and financially – with which you can lay claim to it. The absolute high point of this curve represents the moment when maximum technical efficiency and capacity meets maximum resource availability. But because one of the axes is maximum resource availability, it becomes quite clear that from that point forward, resource availability must dwindle.

This does not mean that we will go to the gas station and they suddenly won’t have any more. In fact, at least half of the oil existent here on planet earth is still in the ground: but once you hit that half way mark it becomes harder, more expensive and less efficient to continue to get it out. At some point, the energy cost of extraction begins to exceed the embedded energy of the resource. (Or to look at it financially, it costs you ten bucks to drill eight bucks worth of oil.)

When do we hit the peak? No one will be able to say for certain until some years after it occurs. However, there is speculation that we already have or soon will, based upon the frequency and volume of new finds, known field sizes and past models of individual field peaks. Once the Peak is obviously upon us, we will have a choice between diverting all fossil fuel resources into medical research, agriculture and chemical processing, or to continue wasting it transporting fruits and vegetables hundreds and thousands of miles from their origination point. (Not to mention everything else that gets shipped around the world). How we address that issue, and how far we have gotten in developing and implementing alternative, renewable energy resources, will determine how bad things really get.

On current extinction rates:

There’s only one problem: Most species that were alive in 1970 are still around today. “Documented animal extinctions peaked in the 1930s, and the number of extinctions has been declining since then,” according to Stephen Edwards, an ecologist with the World Conservation Union, a leading international conservation organization whose members are non-governmental organizations, international agencies, and national conservation agencies. Edwards notes that a 1994 World Conservation Union report found known extinctions since 1600 encompassed 258 animal species, 368 insect species, and 384 vascular plants. Most of these species, he explains, were “island endemics” like the Dodo. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to habitat disruption, hunting, and competition from invading species. Since 1973, only seven species have gone extinct in the United States.

In this case, Bailey is being a little disingenuous with us. Of all species alive on this planet, scientists have documented about 1.5 million. However, estimates range from 2 to 100 Million species existent. Considering that 99% of the total biodiversity on our planet is bacteriological (Steven J. Gould,Full House ), I am inclined toward the higher figures overall. It also becomes quite clear that documenting the extinction of bacterial species is logistically impossible, so we must rely on estimates that correlate observable extinctions with statistical estimates of micro-species.

The science of ecology is starting to develop a strong sense of what makes our environment work. Complex relationships, developed over thousands of years, inculcate a given ecology with the resiliency and efficiency that humans have yet to imitate. Every waste product becomes food for another organism, every function is repeated in multiple forms/organisms; it is emergent. Natural ecosystems provide us with food to eat, oxygen to breathe, clean our air and water and recycle our detritus. If we allow these natural systems to break down, we will have to replicate these functions with our own technology and energy: and our simple, linear techniques cannot begin to compare to the elegance of the natural, evolved versions. One wonders, with dwindling energy resources whether such will even be possible.

Environmental Science obfuscation has become a high paying and politically expedient activity in this modern world of ours. If we find holocaust denial to be morally repugnant, how much more so should we appalled at the denial of issues that effect the possible extinction of the entire human race?

(Originally Posted October 13, 2006)

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