Monterey Bay Aquarium

Last week I attended a conference in San Francisco and over the weekend visited Monterey and went to the aquarium. It is well worth a visit. There were many interesting things to see but what really caught my imagination were the sea dragons and the jellies (watch the videos), they were so delicate and beautiful.

What impressed me, other than the marine exhibits themselves, was that the museum takes its educational mission seriously, devoting quite a bit of attention to educating its visitors about what sea food is harvested in a manner that is sustainable and what we should look out for. Their website offers practical guides on what to buy.

The museum is also outspoken about its concerns about the negative impact of climate change. There was no wishy-washy equivocation. It may be that because the museum is run by a private foundation, it is relatively immune to the pressures that the global warming and evolution deniers have exerted on government institutions like the Smithsonian museums.

The propaganda machine and climate change

Some time ago, in one of my posts in my series on climate change, I pondered on why there seemed to be such a vehement opposition to the idea that human actions might be causing an irreversible and disastrous change to our planet. After all, this seems like largely a scientific question that, unlike (say) evolution, has no religious or partisan political implications.

But somewhere along the way, the word seems to have spread amongst right-wing political and religious types that the warnings about possible irreversible global warming represent some kind of deep plot being advanced by leftists and scientists and atheists working together, and this has resulted in a union of right-wing think tanks and politicians and Christians to oppose the idea. How did that happen?

Evidence for the organized nature of the opposition to the ideas of global warming coming from a particular ideological perspective is not hard to find. A new study looks at how the so-called ”Conservative Think Tanks’, (CTTs) play an important element in the propaganda machine by underwriting those who are skeptical of the dangers of climate change.

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

The movement to undermine the environmental movement is largely underwritten by corporations and their supporters who want to prevent having to comply with environmental regulations that might limit their profits. Some of the CTTs are funded by companies (like ExxonMobil) that have a stake in preventing any regulations that limit their profits, and even have their CEOs on the boards.

But even that still does not answer the question of how this opposition became so widespread and vehement. This is why I found this blog entry very interesting. It is by someone who has pondered this same question and, tracing this phenomenon back in time, finds that there is a family of conspiracy theories that have caused this situation. He has created an entire genealogical tree of the theories.

He said it started during the Cold War in 1962 with the labeling of Rachel Carson as a Communist sympathizer. She is often considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT. That allegation became expanded to suggest that some environmentalists may even be Soviet agents seeking to undermine capitalism, and that they were suppressing the work of enviroskeptics.

Meanwhile, on a different front, those who were unhappy with the scientific opposition to Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense shield plan started accusing scientists of being Soviet stooges.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the story has shifted and the target of opposition has changed. Instead of the environmental movement being merely a tool to advance communism by advocating measures that will increase the costs of business and raise taxes, the environmental movement has now replaced communism as the main foe of capitalism.

Of course, since the religious right has always viewed ‘godless communism’ with alarm, they tend to sign on to anything that seems to oppose or restrict the workings of capitalism in any way, even if means allowing unregulated industries unbridled freedom to pollute and destroy the environment.

Thus emerged the coalition of big industry, conservative think tanks, the religious right, and their political allies, all working to discredit any science that seems to suggest that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment.

Although the article is not a scholarly one and not an authoritative source, it is interesting and thought-provoking.

POST SCRIPTS: Amazing back flips

The impact of modern agriculture on land use

Agriculture has only been around for about 10,000 years and the reasons for its success are not clear since the archeological evidence suggests that early farmers were, nutritionally speaking, not as well off as their contemporary hunter-gatherers. It may have been that since grains can be stored over years of bounty and used in lean years, farmers were better able to withstand adverse times and thus better able to sustain themselves over longer times than their rivals in lifestyles.

However, the rise of agriculture led to some serious distortions in the use of land. In nature, diversity abounds, for the simple reason that different plants species provide services for others. Some provide shade, others fix nitrogen, others protect from wind, others retain water, and so on, each enabling the others to flourish. So natural lands tend to produce a mixture of these various forms of life. The widespread growth of farming and the use of lands for single crops like rice, wheat, and corn marked a significant change since it stripped the land of its diversity.

These crops like wheat, rice, and corn have some advantages. Mainly they transform solar energy into bundles of carbohydrate energy that are tight, transportable, and relatively long lasting. Apart from the hydrocarbons like oil, these are the most concentrated form of energy. But in creating this new form of agricultural energy, we have been essentially drawing upon the reserves of energy created and stored in the land over periods of millions of years before the arrival of agriculture.

Most of this stored agricultural energy existed in the form of prairies. In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning describes how energy from the Sun is stored in this particular form of plants.

A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat.

The cost of using that topsoil for farming is apparent, according to Manning. “Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you.” This represent our using up of the world’s long accumulated energy capital that has been stored in the soil. Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (p. 489) similarly saw a visual example of this during a recent visit to Iowa where a church had been built in the 19th century in the middle of farmland. As a result of the land around it being cultivated over the years and using up the stored resources in the soil, the church now stands like an island about ten feet above its surroundings.

As we use up this soil this way, we have to replenish it using artificial fertilizers. “Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year’s worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years’ worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else.”

So after using up our inheritance that was in the rich soils, we use up our inheritance that was stored in the form of oil to cover up for the first loss, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. This process was accelerated by the arrival of what are called “wheat-beef” farming people six thousand years ago who, within the relatively short time of 300 years, became the dominant agricultural group, pretty much eliminating the hunter-gatherers. But single crop agriculture like wheat depletes the soils, leading to famines. Manning points out that between the years of 500 and 1500, “Britain suffered a major “corrective” famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period.”

However, as these two countries became sea-faring colonial powers, they were able to use the riches of the colonies to reduce the famines at home. This also led to inequalities in resource consumption between the colonizers and the colonized.

But as the populations of these wheat-beef communities grew because of the abundance of food, they had to keep moving on, finding new sources of prairie grasslands to conquer and use up. After they arrived in the US, this drive to open up fresh lands happened here too, as settlers moved west searching for new land in order to tap its vast reserves of soil energy.

But at some point the sources of new land became exhausted. There were no new prairie frontiers to exploit. So then what happened? The ‘green revolution’ occurred in which genetic modifications produced rice, when and corn species that, combined with the use of increased irrigation and artificial fertilizers, produced three times the yield they had before. Most people might think that this was a good thing, since it enables the production of more food that can feed more people more cheaply. Manning argues that this is the worst thing to have happened.

One reason, Manning argues, is that it moved poor people off their own land while enabling their growth in numbers. “In the forty-year period beginning about 1960, the world’s population doubled, adding virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world’s poorest classes, the most fecund classes. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position. . .[T]he methods of the green revolution . . . added orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the iron for tractors, drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not farmable.”

It is clear that we cannot go on consuming resources at this rate. It seems to me like we have only three choices:

1. Perpetuate existing wide disparities in rates of consumption by the use of brute force. This will inevitably lead to more and more global conflicts, and an inevitable collapse as resources get used up.
2. Allow for increased rates of consumption globally as the newly emerging countries like China and India also start to consume at current first world rates. This will lead to an even more rapid global collapse than option 1 since resources will be used up even more quickly.
3. Reduce consumption rates in the first world while at the same time making resources more equitable worldwide so that we can bring worldwide rates to a level that is sustainable and yet provides the world’s population with a decent although not luxurious standard of living.

While I favor the third option, that requires global cooperation and sharing, ideas that are not that popular these days. I fear that the other two options are more likely to be adopted.

POST SCRIPT: Middle East politics round up

The invaluable Juan Cole gives a handy round up on the state of play in the Middle East, including the emergence of Saudi Arabian interests as a big factor. He also discusses something that has not been emphasized much in the media, and that is the possible reason why Dick Cheney was “summoned” to Saudi Arabia just after Thanksgiving and was “read the riot act” by the Saudi king, and the abrupt resignation this week of the Saudi ambassador to the US.

The fact that the Saudis can snap their fingers and Cheney immediately gets on a plane and goes to get lectured by them is another indication of how weakened the US has become by its invasion of Iraq. At least we can be thankful that Cheney didn’t shoot the Saudi king in the face.

The food-energy equation

In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning lays out the basic energy equation that underlies food.

All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet’s “primary productivity.” There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth’s primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.
. . .
Part of that total—almost a third of it—is the potential plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it’s mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can’t eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today.

Humans cannot eat most of the naturally produced biomass each year since it is in the form of grasses and trees, so we destroy that biomass by clearing those fields and planting crops that we can eat more readily or, as is more common, to use as raw materials to produce food in other forms. But each of these things carries with it energy costs. As Manning points out:

America’s biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can’t eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can’t eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don’t. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it’s about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food. (emphasis in original)

It turns out that about eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to feed livestock and that it “takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way” and “sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.” Livestock produced this way creates high-quality protein no doubt, but at a cost. In addition, the US produces twice as much per capita protein as the average adult needs each day. This results in over-consumption which leads to fat, resulting in an epidemic of obesity, which now is second only to tobacco in being the cause of health-related problems and fatalities.

The higher you go up the food chain, the more energy that is wasted along the way. All of us know that instinctively but I had not fully appreciated the massive scale of wastage as you ascend each rung of that chain.

Eating a carrot gives the diner all that carrot’s energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary predator, meaning it not only doesn’t eat plants but eats other fish that themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up, easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than eating a plant.

As Manning sums up: “Prairie’s productivity is lost for grain, grain’s productivity is lost in livestock, livestock’s protein is lost to human fat—all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat.”

Even avoiding meat does not quite solve the problem since there are hidden energy costs in non-meat foods as well.

The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

It seems to me that if we are going to learn how to become better custodians of the earth’s resources, we need to have a deeper understanding of how those resources are used. It seems like it would be advisable to emphasize the energy aspects of food in our educational system to create a greater awareness of where all the energy goes to and comes from. Right now, I think that students learn about photosynthesis as a purely biological process. Including the energy cycle along with it seems like a good idea, both educationally and in terms of creating increasing awareness of our relationship to nature and the Earth’s resources.

POST SCRIPT: Letting Go of God

Julia Sweeney has a CD of her monologue about her drift away from Catholicism to atheism. She was interviewed by late night talk show host Craig Ferguson.

Saving resources

One of the things that appall me is the waste of food. Whenever I have to throw away food that has been uneaten, I take that as a personal defeat. As a result, the refrigerator in our home is relatively bare since it tends to have things that are likely to be used soon. Even then, I periodically go through the refrigerator and use up everything that is there and only throw stuff away if it is beyond salvaging.

I have the impression that in our highly litigious society, manufacturers have become highly conservative in labeling packages, fearful that they will be sued if someone gets ill. And as a result, the “sell by” dates are likely quite early and a lot of perfectly good food is thrown away unnecessarily because of people adhering strictly to them. It would be interesting to see what kinds of statistics are used to arrive at the “sell by” dates.

The greater waste occurs in supermarkets. Consumers are now so picky and demand such perfection that even slightly bruised fruit or other produce is thrown away by stores, even though it might be perfectly good to eat, because they think that consumers will not buy them. At home, on the other hand, if an apple or banana is bruised I, like many others, simply cut out that part and eat the rest. This is not because we cannot afford to buy more fruit, it is simply that I cannot bear to waste food. It seems criminal to me.

In Sri Lanka when I was growing up, even in the cities vendors of food would sell their wares in small open stalls (like the ones you see in the US along country roads in the summer and fall) and you would haggle with the vendor about the price. If the produce was pristine is quality, you would pay a higher price. The more damaged or older it looked, the less you paid. Anything that was not sold that day or likely to be sold in the future was consumed by the vendor’s family and neighbors. As a result of this system, there was very little waste.

(The haggling over price was a kind of game that was played between vendor and customer and the scene over the purchase of a false beard in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian accurately captures the spirit of the game. I personally never had the heart to haggle since the vendors were obviously so much poorer than I and I felt that the small amount of money involved meant a lot less to me than to them. Hence I would simply go through the motions of haggling and would end up paying more or less the asking price. While it was more profitable for the vendors to deal with me, I also had the feeling that they thought I was not much fun.)

Food costs a lot in terms of the resources that go into producing it. In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning analyzes the true cost of agriculture. Clearing out vast areas of land to increase agriculture has a cost, all the fertilizer we use to achieve high yields has a cost, and the mechanized planting, harvesting, transport and distribution systems that are used have a cost. The food we get at our stores has used up a lot of resources and it is a scandal how much of it we waste.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

This is a question that is looming larger and larger as countries with large populations that were once considered third world, such as China and India, are rapidly becoming industrialized and their populations rate of consumption are rising to first world levels. While we simply cannot go on consuming at the current first world rates, how we resolve this question to achieve a lasting, sustainable, and fair solution is not at all clear.

POST SCRIPT: Picking and choosing from the Bible

Stephen Colbert interviews Francis Collins and the discussion raises the key problem facing those Christians who are not Biblical literalists. (Collins is the head of the human genome project and a practicing Christian and the author of the book The Language of God.)

When Colbert asks him on which of the six days of creation god created DNA, Collins argues that some parts of the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. To which Colbert responds “If you throw out any part of the Bible, you throw out all of it.”

This is why Christian fundamentalists reject the position of those who argue that the Bible should not be taken literally.

Reduce, reduce, reduce

Environmentalists use the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” to indicate the different ways that we can lower our consumption of resources in order to save the world. It is true that recycling has become more popular now, which is a good thing.

But we must remember that recycle is merely the third item on the descending list of actions to save the world’s resources. The most important one is ‘reduce’ and I think we not paying anywhere near enough attention to that. If we really want to save the world, we have to focus our attention on the first item in the list: reduce.

Ever since I started reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed I have been increasingly aware of how much we consume for just no reason. His book (which I will discuss in more detail in later postings) warns that when you look back at societies that have undergone collapse in the past (see, for example, my posting on the fate the befell Easter Island), one of the factors at play is that during times of abundance, people get in the habit of consuming resources that are in excess of what the environment can sustain during average or lean times.

The unusual abundance was usually because of two reasons. One was that they experienced a period of good climate, with a nice mixture of rain and sun that enabled them to have exceptionally bountiful harvests and made them forget what it was like when things were not so good. This encouraged them to consume at a high rate and maintain high rates of population growth. Then when bad weather of other types of problems struck, they were not prepared to deal with the resulting deprivation, and the social structure collapsed.

The other situation was that when people discovered a new and lush land, they thought that the lushness was because the soil was very fertile. In reality, the soil and climate was quite inferior but the lush vegetation they encountered was the result of slow growth over a very long time, and not due to the land’s ability to replenish itself rapidly. Hence once the new arrivals had cleared the land and harvested a few good years of agriculture, the land went barren. He points to Australia as an example of poor soil that fooled the early European settlers into thinking that the soil was highly fertile, leading to the current environmental problems there.

In the case of the Earth, what we are doing is more like the second case, except on a much longer timescale. The Earth has tremendous resources that have been generated over billions of years during which the resources were not consumed but were allowed to accumulate, like interest in a bank account. These resources are either finite or replenish themselves at a very slow rate. We are like new settlers that are living off the benefits of billions of years of acquired wealth that is stored in the Earth. But we are simply consuming it as if the good times will last forever.

A good financial metaphor is that we are not treating the Earth’s resources as capital that should be invested wisely so that it can be preserved and even grow over time so that our children and grandchildren can have an even better life than we have. Instead, we are treating the Earth’s resources as if it were income. The way we live is like that of heirs to a fortune who are spending their inheritance on a wild binge of partying. We are simply running through the Earth’s capital, living beyond our means. And in doing so, we will reach a time when ‘we’ (by which I mean the human race) become broke.

As Diamond points out, the fate of past societies that treated their natural resources as income and not capital is not pretty to contemplate. The only advantage that we have over them is that we have the knowledge of what caused those collapses in the past and if we take those lessons to heart and are wise custodians of those resources, we can avoid their fates. The choice is ours. But do we have the will, let alone the wisdom?

One problem that we encounter is the inherent conflict between reducing consumption and the voracious needs of capitalism. It seems to be an article of faith of capitalism that society benefits when people spend more money to buy more stuff. The massive advertising industry is there to manufacture fake needs and drive up consumption. The holiday season we are currently in is a good example of this madness. The media actually celebrates when the shopping season breaks previous records for expenditures. This is supposed to be ‘good for the economy.’

This feature of constantly increasing consumption cannot be part of a sustainable economic system. I suspect that it happens to be a peculiar manifestation that has evolved and taken deep hold, like a weed infestation in a garden, but that societies can function perfectly well with a model that emphasizes reduced consumption and increased conservation. It seems to me that we should be designing our economic systems to serve the very long-term needs of society, and not tailoring our society to meets the needs of present day economic systems.

To emphasize the importance of reducing our rate of consumption, perhaps we should start by taking a cue from real estate agents. When asked what are the three most important things about a property, they say “location, location, location” in order to emphasize the importance of this one thing that dwarfs all other factors. We should similarly change our environmental slogan from ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’. That way we might stop deluding ourselves that our recycling efforts alone, worthwhile though they may be, are sufficient to prevent a future global ecological collapse.

POST SCRIPT: The paradox of choice

There is no question that in the affluent industrialized first world, people have a wide array of options to chose from for almost all aspects of their lives, whereas in many parts of the third world, people have almost no choices. Barry Schwartz argues that this abundance of choice in the western world has actually lowered the quality of life for the people who have all these choices, and that everyone would be better off if some of the options were shifted to the poorer countries.

It is an excellent little lecture, worth watching.

Are we owners or custodians?

In the previous post, when I said that my generation had been poor custodians of the world, I used the word ‘custodians’ deliberately.

I think there is a big difference between those who see their relationship to things in terms of ownership and those who see it in terms of custodianship.

The ownership mentality sees things this way: “If I earn money, that money belongs to me and I am free to do what I want with it. Similarly, anything that I buy with the money is mine to do with whatever I like.” In this view, if I am a millionaire, I should be able to buy five huge homes around the world, each of which uses vast amounts of resources to build and maintain but are empty for most of the time, fly around in my private planes, drive around in huge cars that I replace every year, buy lots of clothes that I discard soon after, and so forth. The feeling is that I have a right to do this because I ‘own’ these things and bought them with my own money.

This sense of ownership also extends to the Earth and its resources. Although no one, of course, owns the Earth, the fact that I feel I am entitled to use up whatever resources that go into enabling my lifestyle means that I essentially feel entitled to the ownership of those resources as well.

Contrasted with this attitude is the custodian mentality. This says that we never really ‘own’ anything. Everything we have we are custodians for, given the privilege of looking after and using until we pass them on to the next user. When I go to a store and buy something, I am essentially buying not the object itself but the right to be its custodian. I get the right to use it exclusively while it is in my care but I also have the responsibility to look after it well. The same applies to the Earth and its resources. We are custodians of it and charged with taking care of it, not its owners to do what we like with it.

I am fortunate enough to have paid off the mortgage on the house I live in. If I think of myself as the ‘owner’ of the house, then I am free to do what I like with it, consistent with the zoning laws of my community. If I like, I can trash it. If it thus loses value, that is my own business and no one else’s. I can even raze it to the ground and build either a new house or leave it as open space. In the ownership mentality, it can be argued that the only considerations that should influence my decision is whether it is beneficial to me, since I am the ‘owner’.

But surely I have a responsibility to the Earth and my neighbors and my descendants as well? Trashing the house or destroying it so as to put up a bigger new home, even though my children have gone away to college and my space needs are less, would not be a good decision for a custodian of the Earth to make since it would be a waste of resources, even if it led to an increase in my property values and made me personally richer.

The same questions apply to every purchase I make. When I pay for a car, I become a custodian of the vehicle as well as the resources that went in to making it. Hence I have a duty not to waste it but to take care of the car and make it last as long as I can. The same with clothes.

If we cannot shift our thinking away from thinking of ourselves as owners to thinking of ourselves as custodians, the fate the Jared Diamond describes (in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed) happening to past collapsed societies could well happen to us. Those societies that collapsed did so because segments of those societies short-sightedly thought in terms of their own interests and not of the long-term viability of the entire community.

Since in this case it is the Earth itself that we are custodians for, we will have nowhere else to go to escape if we fail to act as good custodians.

POST SCRIPT: Russell’s Teapot

Just a reminder that every Monday the website Russell’s Teapot puts out a new cartoon. These cartoons are funny but are not just gags. They also contain a lot of interesting information. Last week’s cartoon (“Who put the X in Xmas”) dealing with Christmas myths ties in nicely with my series of posts on the dubiousness of much of Biblical history. To make the cartoon image larger, keep clicking on the cartoon image.

The age of consumption

Some time ago I was having breakfast with a few friends and during the casual conversation I said that I felt that our children and grandchildren would judge our generation harshly for what we have done to the world.

One of my companions was surprised and after a moment’s thought told me why she disagreed. She pointed out that our generation (the so-called ‘baby boomers’ although I hate cute labels like these) had brought about advances in civil rights, greater equality for women, more tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles, and made tremendous medical advances that had resulted in finding cures for some diseases and even the elimination of some.

I agreed with her on all these points. But my concern was more about how we have treated the Earth’s resources, its environment, and its climate. I have written about global warming before and will write in the future about the consequences of our actions on the environment, but what I told her was that I feel that the people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful and profligate with the planet’s resources that we are risk leaving future generations resource poor.

My friend challenged me on this too. She pointed out that our generation has become more conscious about recycling in a way that our parents never were.

This is also true but I think that the advances that we have made in recycling have been more than dwarfed by our massive increase in the consumption of resources. There is no doubt that the current generation of people in the first world has the highest standard of living ever. All the scientific and technological advances that we have been witness to in our own lifetimes have resulted in us being able to possess lots of material goods.

But what this has spawned is even greater levels of consumption. Some increase in consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the merits of the increased availability of potable water, more food and less hunger, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, homes that are better able to withstand the elements, and so. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But what bothers me is the increase in consumption just for the sake of it, just because we can. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that is driving people to build huge mansions and own multiple homes on vast areas of cleared land that are vacant most of the time. I am referring to a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where luxury is flaunted, where people feel the need to buy new stuff before the old stuff is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts the affluent and also those members of the middle class that aspire to the affluent lifestyle. The media celebrates celebrities and corporate tycoons living lavish lifestyles. This infects the middle classes who seek to emulate the very rich by also living an extravagant lifestyle. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on.

A lot of this consumption is not based on any physical needs but instead seems to result from a competition to flaunt wealth and consumption, for show, to let others know how ‘successful’ we are. This attitude is like a virus that has spread all over the world.

As a result of all this wasteful and image-driven consumption, I worry that we are rapidly using up the world’s resources without even the benefit of a better quality of life. I worry that at the rate we going, we are going to leave future generations very resource poor.

POST SCRIPT: Analysis of ISG group report

Senator Russ Feingold gives a good summary of the few strengths and the many weaknesses of the report put out by the Iraq Study Group.

And editorial cartoonist Oliphant gives his perspective on the responses to the report.


Global warming-7: The current status of the scientific consensus

So what is the scientific consensus about the answers to the key questions concerning global warming?

The British magazine New Scientist gives a review of the state of affairs concerning climate change, along with a handy summary sheet of the main points, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (thanks to Brian Gray of the Kelvin Smith Library who runs the blog e3 Information Overload for the link) provides more detailed information. Here are some tentative answers to the five key questions I raised in a previous post.

1. Is warming occurring? In other words, are average temperatures rising with time?

Here we have to distinguish between the more recent period (starting in 1861) when we have direct measurements of temperature and the prior periods, for which we have to infer temperatures using proxy measures such as using tree rings or bubbles trapped in ice cores that date back 750,000 years.

For the recent past, the IPCC report says that “The global average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 ± 0.2°C since the late 19th century”.

For the period prior to that, the report says “It is likely that the rate and duration of the warming of the 20th century is larger than any other time during the last 1,000 years. The 1990s are likely to have been the warmest decade of the millennium in the Northern Hemisphere, and 1998 is likely to have been the warmest year.”

2. If so, is it part of normal cyclical warming/cooling trends that have occurred over geologic time or is the current warming going outside those traditional limits?

Some skeptics have pointed to relative warm periods associated with the 11th to 14th centuries, and relative cool periods associated with the 15th to 19th centuries in the Northern Hemisphere as evidence that the kinds of warm temperatures we have witnessed recently are part of global cyclical patterns. However the IPCC reports says that “evidence does not support these “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” periods, respectively, as being globally synchronous.” In other words, these were likely regional phenomena.

If we go back even further the report says that “It is likely that large rapid decadal temperature changes occurred during the last glacial and its deglaciation (between about 100,000 and 10,000 years ago), particularly in high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In a few places during the deglaciation, local increases in temperature of 5 to 10°C are likely to have occurred over periods as short as a few decades. During the last 10,000 years, there is emerging evidence of significant rapid regional temperature changes, which are part of the natural variability of climate.”

So while rapid localized changes in temperature have occurred, there is little evidence that these were global in scope.

But there are also suggestions that temperature swings in the past may have been greater than originally thought.

3. Are the consequences of global warming such that we can perhaps live with them (slightly milder winters and warmer summers) or are they going to be catastrophic (causing massive flooding of coastal areas due to rising ocean levels, severe droughts, blistering heat waves, total melting of the polar regions, widespread environmental and ecological damage)?

The answer to these important questions, of course, depend on projections for the future which in turn depend on what actions are taken. The IPCC report outlines possible scenarios here. But some things, such as the reductions in the polar ice caps and snow cover generally are already visible.

One of the most dramatic consequences of snow and glacier melting is a rise in sea levels. It is estimated that a 30 cm (one foot) rise in sea levels results in shorelines receding by 30 meters. Some recent studies suggest that the IPCC report estimates of possible rise in sea levels were low, and more recent estimates are that sea levels could rise by six feet, which would result in massive flooding of highly populated areas the world over. Again, there is limited data so these are still rough estimates. But to my mind, the state of the large ice and snow areas (the polar caps, Greenland, glaciers, and mountain tops) are things that we should watch carefully, and the signs there are not good.

4. How reliable are the theories and computer models that are being used study this question?

The IPCC report points out that “The basic understanding of the energy balance of the Earth system means that quite simple models can provide a broad quantitative estimate of some globally averaged variables.” But only numerical models can provide the kinds of detailed quantitative projections into the future that we need in order to make informed decisions. “The complexity of the processes in the climate system prevents the use of extrapolation of past trends or statistical and other purely empirical techniques for projections.” In other words, just having data about the past is insufficient to project to the future. We also need computer models based on the science and mathematics of climate change. “Climate models can be used to simulate the climate responses to different input scenarios of future forcing agents. . .Similarly, projection of the fate of emitted CO2. . .and other greenhouse gases requires an understanding of the biogeochemical processes involved and incorporating these into a numerical carbon cycle model.” (For details on how the computer models used to predict future trends in climate work, see here.)

The IPCC report concludes that “In general, [the computer models] provide credible simulations of climate, at least down to sub-continental scales and over temporal scales from seasonal to decadal. Coupled models, as a class, are considered to be suitable tools to provide useful projections of future climates.”

5. What are the causes of global warming? Is human activity responsible and can the process be reversed?

Several of the greenhouse gases that influence global temperatures, referred to as “climate forcing agents” (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) have recently shown dramatic increases in concentrations in the atmosphere. This graph is perhaps the one that alarms me the most.


These sharp increases in greenhouse gas concentrations are clearly correlated with rapid increases in the rate of industrialization and energy consumption within the two last centuries. It seems to me that while individual changes in behavior (such as using less stuff and reusing and recycling more) are important, they must be accompanied by concerted international governmental actions to reverse the trends.

We have a precedent for this kind of concerted international action to solve an important environmental problem. Recall the recent time when there was concern that the ozone layer was being damaged by the extensive use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). International action led to the complete ban on its use worldwide. Now there is some good news.

While ozone degradation continues despite global bans on ozone-depleting pollutants imposed more than a decade ago, the rate has slowed markedly enough in one layer of the atmosphere that scientists believe ozone could start to be replenished there within several years.

“There is compelling evidence that we are seeing the very first stages of ozone recovery in the upper atmosphere,” said Michael Newchurch, an atmospheric chemist with the National Space Science and Technology Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Evidence suggests that international efforts to reduce chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) pollution are working.

Of course, greenhouse gases are produced by a much more extensive and powerful group of industries than those producing ozone depleting ones, and require greater changes in our own lifestyles. So achieving international cooperation on this will not be easy, as the difficulties implementing the Kyoto treaty suggests. That treaty committed industrialized nations to commit to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases within the next decade to a level of about 5% below their 1990 levels. Although the US produces about 36% of the world’s output of greenhouse gases (the largest single producer), George W. Bush said in 2001 that the US would not sign the treaty.

Next: The danger of complacency

POST SCRIPT: And sure enough, right on cue. . .

Just last week, I said that the lack of public understanding that climate questions such as global warming only deal with averages over long times and large areas inevitably lead to people drawing the wrong conclusions from short term fluctuations.

Sure enough, yesterday’s Plain Dealer has the following letter to the editor:

We constantly are subjected to news about the coming devastating effects of global warming, which includes the recent story on how it is going to dramatically change Lake Erie and its shoreline. So it’s a bit perplexing to me to see in my most recent FirstEnergy electric bill that during my past 30-day billing cycle, the average temperature in Cleveland was 69 degrees, versus 72 degrees last year. Now, if we are to believe the global-warming doomsayers, a three-degree swing in temperature is cataclysmic. So when will The Plain Dealer begin printing articles about how Cleveland is at risk of entering an ice age if we don’t change our behavior?

Why does the Plain Dealer even print such nonsense? Either they know it is flat out wrong, which means they are deliberately propagating erroneous information, or even the editors don’t know the basics about climate. I don’t know which is more disturbing.