Sustainable silliness

Sustainable silliness
May 1, 2000


Controversy over the sustainability of modern civilization has been with us since long before our current modern civilization, and it has grown steadily during the Clinton-Gore administration’s reign.

On one side of the issue stands the Clinton-Gore administration and its anti-progress supporters. They preach fear--that we will overpopulate the planet, use up all our precious resources, and run out of food, drinkable water, and breathable air, all while killing off most species of plants and animals.

The apocalyptic camp blames mankind for these and other imagined, and as yet unimaginable, ills. They have little confidence in the common sense and inventiveness of the human heart and mind and, therefore, believe “someone”--ideally they--must control all human activity through a massive command-and-control central government.

In other words, the apocalyptics intend to save us from ourselves.

Pitted against the apocalyptics are those who express an eternal optimism and confidence in the creativity and problem-solving of the human species. They confound and disgust the anti-progress folks, and incite their rage just as if you had attacked their religion (which in many cases may be true).

The anti-apocalyptics are essentially humanists. It’s not that they eschew divinity or the existence of a supreme being, as many of them are deeply religious. But they have an abiding faith in the progressive, rational qualities of humans and their ability to solve problems in the interest of humans.

According to the optimist camp, humans do not recklessly deplete resources: They create them.

With the two camps in this debate clearly defined, we can delve more deeply into specific battlegrounds in the “sustainability” wars.


Population growth

For over two hundred years, there have walked among us some who have warned that if the world’s population continues to grow, we will soon run out of both natural resources and food.

Think Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 “Essay on the Principle of Population” advised that “It is an obvious truth, which has been taken notice of by many writers, that population must always be kept down to the level of
the means of subsistence,” and Paul R. Ehrlich, of 1971 The Population Bomb fame.

The Malthusian take on population became particularly popular among alarmists about 1950, five years into the post WW II baby boom (when the world population stood at 2.5 billion). It became a rallying cry for the anti-progress camp in the early 1980s, when the United Nations and other “global” institutions forecast a world population of 15 million early in this century.

Won’t happen.

Today, even the U.N. projects that our current population of 6 billion will top out and stabilize at approximately 8.6 billion around 2050. Why? It appears that humans are intelligent enough to adjust their lifestyles to suit the needs of their environment.

Population growth has stabilized in most developed countries, and the rate of growth is declining rapidly in developing nations such as Taiwan and Korea. Japanese government officials reported on March 23 that the country posted its lowest annual increase in population growth since the end of World War II.

Social anthropologists explain that large families were an economic asset in economies that relied heavily on manual labor, but they are a liability in a technological society where increasingly costly education is important to personal well-being. In other words, as nations develop technologically and industrially, population growth falls. This is true even though individuals in more advanced nations live longer.

The anti-progress scaremongers, however, continue to mislead the public on this issue.

Botanist Peter Ryan, newly elected head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a self-styled expert on everything from fertility to farming, recently bemoaned to the Chicago Tribune that the last billion people were added to the world’s population in just 12 years. He never mentioned that population growth rates have declined, or that the U.N. projects an early top-out.

Of course, whether population grows, declines, or stays the same is less relevant than whether there the Earth will have enough resources to “go around.”


Food

We currently have the ability to produce enough food to feed the world’s population. In fact, while the U.S. population has increased by 81 percent during the last half of this century, the Department of Agriculture reports U.S. food production has increased 148 percent.

This abundance of food explains why prices, particularly for grain, are at an all-time low and many farmers are getting out of the business. The overproduction problem in the Midwest is so severe many farmers are having difficulty finding truckers to haul their crops and processors willing to accept them. Newly developing countries, such as Brazil, are also becoming major food producers, further exacerbating the problem of over-supply.

It is true that hunger remains a serious problem in many undeveloped countries, an issue we will address later in this store.


Farm land

As more efficient farming techniques make it less necessary (and less profitable) for many farmers to remain in business, it’s not surprising that the country is losing farmland. It’s also not a crisis.

According to the U.S. Farm Bureau, the U.S. has lost about 20 percent of its farm land since the 1952 peak of 1.2 billion acres. Yet the productivity of our agriculture has soared. Rapid advances in agricultural technology are enabling us to grow more food on less land. This is a good thing.

An October 1999 Department of Agriculture report noted that “Crop land converted to urban uses is small relative to total crop land and is expected to remain so well into the next century.”

As for the quality of farmland, botanist Raven told the Chicago Tribune that the U.S. has lost 25 percent of its topsoil through over-cultivation, and he claims we’ve made even more land unusable through over-irrigation. He neglects to mention that much farming is now done by the “no-till” method, which actually enriches top soil; nor does he mention advances in drip irrigation, which uses far less water, or our continuing development of drought-resistant plants.

Bioengineering of crops promises even more food of higher nutritional value, at lower costs, using less fertilizer and pesticides--perhaps even food containing vaccines--all grown on less land and under less-favorable conditions.

Those alarmists who fear bioengineering should acknowledge that many medicines, including most insulin, are produced through bioengineering. Indeed, much of the food we eat today is the result of a somewhat more haphazard form of bioengineering called hybridizing--the art of cross-breeding plants, and in some case animals, to get a desired characteristic. This process can also produce undesirable, and often unknown, characteristics. Modern bioengineering, by contrast, deals with specific genes, producing specific changes without altering other characteristics.

Scares about bioengineered food emanate, to a large degree, from Europe. Yet the world’s best-known French chef, Julia Child--renowned for her insistence on the finest ingredients--counts herself among bioengineering’s fans. She told Lucette Lagnado of The Wall Street Journal that protests against genetically altered food take “a very backward point of view.” Genetic modification of food, said Child, is “one of the greatest discoveries of the last century.”


Water

As we’ve written before in Environment & Climate News, the Earth today has about the same amount of water it has always had: Gravity won’t let it get off. True, where the water is at any given time may change because of weather patterns. Water levels in the Great Lakes have dropped about five feet from their modern-record levels of about 14 years ago; at the same time, many areas of the world have endured massive, repeated flooding.

Generally speaking, there is an abundance of water in the world and in the United States, the world’s most industrialized nation. Even the Environmental Protection Agency admits our has gotten much cleaner over the last half of the century.

In many areas of the world not naturally blessed with an abundance of fresh water, such as parts of the Middle East and the Caribbean, massive, state-of-the-art desalinization equipment is already turning sea water into plentiful, affordable drinking water. One such plant is now in the planning stages in Tampa, Florida.


Forests

Environmental alarmists have driven the Clinton-Gore administration to reduce timber harvesting by 75 to 90 percent in our National Forests, and to seek to prohibit road-building on over 60 million acres of federal land and actively destroy roads in other areas.

Those same alarmists may be the single biggest threat to one of our most sustainable natural resources: forests.

According to U.S. Forest Service statistics, the last year we harvested more trees than we planted was 1933. Much of the no-longer-needed farmland mentioned earlier has been converted to woodlands in recent years--almost entirely without government involvement.

Many of the Forest Service’s so-called “dirt” foresters--the on-the-ground and in-the-trenches foresters with lifetimes of training and experience in forest management--have protested both the logging cutbacks and restrictions on road-building. Many have quit the Service in protest and/or frustration with current policy.

Unlike the politicians and ecoterrorist activists, these experts know forests inside and out. They warn that current policies put the forests at great risk.

Failure to cut old or diseased trees, they have testified, results in an unnatural overabundance of fuel, making catastrophic forest fires more likely. These tree-fueled fires burn more intensely than they would if the forests were properly maintained, sterilizing the soil as far as ten feet down, preventing re-growth. Older trees are also more susceptible to disease and insects.

Yet the Forest Service and the courts, under pressure from anti-harvesters, have prevented the removal of even insect-infested trees. Millions of acres of Sitka Spruce have been lost to beetle infestation as a direct result of Forest Service policy. The beetle is still active in 23 million acres of Alaskan forests, but the Forest Service has yet to act.

The Clinton-Gore administration’s new roadless policy also means, the dirt foresters say, that more acres of forest will burn. History bears out their concern.

During the active period of forest road-building from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, the number of acres lost to forest fire dropped from an annual average over 50 million to less than 5 million. Firefighters during that period had continuously improving access to the fires. Under the Clinton-Gore administration, that progress has been halted, and annual losses to forest fires have trended upward.

Dirt foresters are nearly unanimous in their belief that the way to preserve forests is through effective management--which includes roads and harvesting--not by preventing access to them.


Energy

Almost since the first oil well was drilled in northwest Pennsylvania in 1859, alarmists have warned that the world would soon run out of fossil fuels.

The alarmists really began to crank up the fossil fuel heat in the 1970s, with a rash of doomsday predictions that look as ludicrous today as today’s scares are likely to look tomorrow. A report from no less prestigious a source than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned in 1977, “The supply of oil will fail to meet increasing demand before the year 2000, most probably between 1985 and 1995, even if energy prices are 50 percent above current levels in real terms.”

In fact, all energy prices are down, when adjusted for inflation, and world-wide reserves of oil have increased by record amounts, in spite of increased consumption. How can this be? We simply keep finding more energy every year, and we continue to improve the tools and processes we use to extract it.

The most serious problem with fossil fuels is that the Clinton-Gore administration has been making them increasingly inaccessible. Mining and oil-drilling restrictions imposed on off-shore and Alaskan sites, have made vast amounts of energy-supplying fuels unavailable. Bans on mining of extremely high-quality, low-polluting coal in the West haven’t helped matters, either.

As for alternative energy sources, most--including solar, wind, hydrogen (highly explosive), and fuel cells--are still largely pie-in-the-sky. Most promising, according to experts who have reviewed the patents, are two new fuels based on fossil fuels.

One fossil fuel-based alternative is natural gas converted into clean-burning liquid diesel fuel by a process developed by an Oklahoma company. Several engine and petroleum companies have shown strong interest. Syntroleum, Inc. may soon have its product on the market, enabling manufacturers to take advantage of the long-life, high-mileage, low-maintenance advantages of diesel while dramatically reducing emissions.

Clean-burning coal, made from waste by a process developed by a Texas company, also shows great promise. The process “makes lemonade” out of two real environmental lemons: coal “fines,” waste from coal mining, which can present a pollution problem; and municipal sludge from human waste, currently spread on farm fields but linked to disease in humans. The new clean-coal technology promises to do away with two pollutants and produce abundant quantities of clean-burning fuel, leaving behind a single by-product: gypsum, a valuable building material.

These are typical examples of how the market and human imagination work together to create innovative solutions to problems and new opportunities for all.


Global warming

Today’s apocalyptics have taken up global warming as their cause celebre. Many of today’s global warming alarmist-researchers had predicted global cooling until the mid-1980s. To date, their predictions have differed wildly from reality.

There is real evidence, reported on a continuing basis in this newspaper by Dr. Patrick Michaels, Dr. Robert Balling, and others, that man’s minuscule contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels--about 2-3 percent of the total--is irrelevant to climate change, which occurs constantly, following various long- and short-term cycles. What warming we do see and may see during the coming decades promises to be a boon for humankind and the planet, not a bust.


The Raven conundrum

In his Chicago Tribune interview, botanist Raven complained that the growth and progress of humankind threatens to have an effect on the planet not unlike the devastation wrought by the meteor alleged to have struck the Earth in the Mesozoic era, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs and two-thirds of other species.

He closed the interview by posing a problem that, it appear to us, can be solved only by thorough refutation of his own anti-progress arguments. Said Raven,

“A quarter of the population of the world lives in absolute poverty on less than a dollar a day. The women and children in those societies spend all their time walking as much as 15 miles a day to gather wood and water, bringing it back home. There is no time for school and training. That means you are lopping off a huge section of the human race from being able to contribute in any way to the future.”

That’s a problem, alright--one with a single, sure-fire solution: Development.

That is, paved roads, cars, and trucks for transportation; coal, oil, and natural gas for heating, cooling, cooking, and running factories; factories that create jobs and train workers to produce products that other people will pay them for, enabling them to afford all of the above, and much, much more.

That is what will cure the ills of the unfortunate folks whose plight Raven so accurately describes. The driving force behind development is the generation of capital--capitalism, the one economic system known to man that recognizes and rewards human innovation.

And it is that innovation, that spirit of optimism and faith in the human mind, that assures the sustainability of the planet for millennia to come.