From DON SANDERSON
June 11, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California
A Green Bubble?
But how can I explain, how can I explain to you?
You will understand less after I have explained it.
All that I can hope to make you understand
Is only events; not what has happened.
And people to whom nothing has ever happened
Cannot understand the unimportance of events.
~T.S. Eliot, “The Family Reunion”
Search for certainty as much as we can, and we’ll invariably fail. That’s the story told by the so-called new science of emergence that is infiltrating all the old sciences and taunting classical beliefs that humans and their sciences and technologies can overcome. Below is a five act tragedy or comedy – it’s difficult to say which, though I’m reminded of Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges – centered on our dilemma.
Global warming news
Record cold has been experienced in the past few weeks across the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Our own spring has become cool. The sun is acting strangely and may be throwing a kink in the immediate prospects of rapid global warming. George W. Will and friends have been arguing for years that the climate is not warming, it is cooling. They are surely savoring the news, recognizing confirmation, and preparing to twist it. Here is my, more likely I believe, contrary twist.
The sun goes through roughly an 11-year cycle of activity, from stormy to quiet and back again. Solar activity often occurs near sunspots, dark regions on the sun caused by concentrated magnetic fields. It is much warmer during solar maximum, when sunspot cycle and solar activity is high, versus solar minimum, when the sun is quiet and there are usually no sunspots.
An international panel of experts led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has released a new prediction for at least another year of mostly quiet solar conditions. In 2008 and 2009, the sun set Space Age records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind, and low solar irradiance. The sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare. “In our professional careers, we’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says Dean Pesnell, NASA’s lead representative on the panel. “Solar minimum has lasted far beyond the date we predicted in 2007.” The solar cycle is currently in a valley – the deepest of the past century – although increasing activity is being observed. “If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78.” The panel predicts that this next high will peak in May 2013, but admits their 2007 sunspot estimates were wrong. At that time, a sharply divided panel believed solar minimum would come in March 2008 followed by either a strong solar maximum in 2011 or a weak solar maximum in 2012. “Go ahead and mark your calendar for May 2013,” says Pesnell. “But use a pencil.”
There are many reasons to be curious about this, but perhaps the leading one is that low solar activity has a profound effect on Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to cool and contract. For example, using all of their satellites and instruments, NASA scientists gather data on many factors that determine if a tropical cyclone may strengthen or weaken. Data includes: storm and surface winds; sea surface heights; rainfall intensity and area; lightning; cloud water; water vapor; cloud heights, extent of cloud cover and cloud temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure; cloud development; and size of the storm. Sea temperature is the leading predictor.
NASA data currently indicate that sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic are below normal. As reported by the Science Daily (June 3, 2009), these cooler than normal ocean temperatures could “starve” developing hurricanes of their driving force, which are waters warmer than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, thus suggesting a damping of hurricanes. Most recent NASA sea-surface temperature and height data clearly illustrate the persistence of this basin-wide pattern. “While this PDO pattern tends to make the formation of a new El Niño event less likely, the warm waters in the western Pacific favor a very active western Pacific typhoon (‘hurricane’ in the eastern Pacific and Atlantic, ‘cyclone’ in the Indian) season and inhibit the hurricane damping condition over the Atlantic and Caribbean,” said Dr. William Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
NASA has compiled the Earth’s average temperature for each year since 1880 by using ships logs, weather stations, and satellite measurements. Temperatures started trending upward in about 1920. That was when the automobile, industrialization, and energy production began increasing the carbon dioxide concentration in the air. The processes that remove carbon dioxide from the air take decades, so as the carbon dioxide concentration slowly built up, the Earth became a better greenhouse. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is now 50 percent higher than in 1920 and the Earth’s temperature is about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher.
A downward trend from 1945 to 1975 is attributed to increased particulates, especially sulfur aerosols, in the air from both natural and manmade sources as found in Greenland ice cores. Sulfur aerosols form the centers about which water vapor collects to form clouds and rain, specifically acid rain during those years. Clouds in the troposphere reflect sunlight and cool the Earth. Curiously, some are now proposing seeding the troposphere with sulfur aerosols to counter global warming, discounting the devastation caused by acid rain. The 1973 Science Digest reported, “scientists are agreed” that we “are entering another Ice Age.” Scientists were not agreed. Science News reports that of the scientific articles published during that period, seven predicted global cooling while 44, correctly, predicted an eventual increase in temperature. The former articles seem to be the origin of the global cooling Will and company broadcast.
After 1975, the trend has been clearly upward. The year 1998 was unusually hot. This was not due to natural causes such as sunspots and volcanic activity. A 2006 study published in Nature determined that there has been no net increase in solar brightness since measurements began in the 1970s. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, human activities now emit 130 times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. The World Meteorological Organization’s 2007 report concludes that the Earth’s temperature is rising, that the cause is mainly man’s activities and that we are beginning to see measurable changes in the Earth such the disappearance of polar ice and a rise in ocean levels. Every major scientific organization in the world has endorsed a statement that global warming is occurring and that it is caused by man’s activities.
NASA’s J.E. Hanson first warned about the effects of greenhouse gasses when he testified before Congress in 1988. He has continued his research and has become ever more worried. “I think action [to reduce greenhouse gas emissions] is needed urgently, because we are on the precipice of a climate system ‘tipping point’,” Hansen warns. “I believe the evidence shows with reasonable clarity that the level of additional global warming that would put us into dangerous territory is at most 1°C.”
Solar activities may well slow global warming in the short term, but can’t be counted upon to save us. NASA reports solar variations are expected to continue to modulate both warming and cooling trends at the level of 0.1 to 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.18 to 0.26 Fahrenheit) over many years, not nearly enough to counter human greenhouse gas effects. But, for now, it gives cheer to those who can’t see themselves sacrificing their lifestyles and hopes for an ever better life.
The Green Bubble
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger recently wrote an article entitled “The Green Bubble: Why environmentalism keeps imploding” (The New Republic, May 20, 2009) that is spreading waves of consternation throughout the Green community. George W. Will is delighted.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that American environmental consciousness is only skin deep. They begin the article with the following paragraph:
Sometime after the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, environmentalism crossed from political movement to cultural moment. … For those caught up in the moment, the future seemed to promise both apocalypse and transcendence in roughly equal measure. And then, almost as quickly as it had inflated, the green bubble burst. Between January 2008 and January 2009, the percentage of Americans who told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that the environment was a “top priority” dropped from 56 percent to 41 percent. While surveys have long showed that enthusiasm for all things green is greatest among well-educated liberals, the new polling results were sobering. For the first time in a quarter century, more Americans told Gallup in March that they would prioritize economic growth “even if the environment suffers to some extent” than said they would prioritize environmental protection “even at the risk of curbing economic growth.” Soon thereafter, Shell announced it would halt its investments in solar and wind power.”
As they note, Congressional and the White House policymakers followed the trend toward fixing the economy first and turning Green into a jobs program. The authors then document this isn’t the first time this switch occurred, that there is a pattern; the environmental movement has long been a rollercoaster. “The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and, over the next three years, Congress passed and (a Republican) President Nixon signed into law sweeping environmental statutes.” Nordhaus and Shellenberger write, “But, in 1973, soaring oil prices pushed the country into recession. By the time Jimmy Carter suggested, a few years later, that profligate American lifestyles were partly to blame, the public reacted with resentment and ridicule. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was tearing Carter’s solar panels from the White House and blaming trees for pollution.” And, he got reelected. Nordhaus and Shellenberger fail to note that those environmental statutes and resulting regulations arguable reduced sulfur aerosols and interrupted the cooling trend. They continue:
The second green bubble began to grow in the summer of 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about the arrival of global warming.” Nordhaus and Shellenberger continue, “Coupled with images of the Amazon in flames and record heat and drought across much of the United States, it was easy for the press to wrap global warming in an end-of-times narrative. The following January, Time magazine eschewed its usual ‘Man of the Year’ profile and declared Earth ‘Planet of the Year.’ In 1990, President Bush signed a Clean Air Act amendment on acid rain, and, two years later, he signed a global-warming treaty at a United Nations meeting in Rio de Janeiro. But the bubble had already begun to deflate. In 1990, California voters rejected a sweeping environmental initiative by a two-to-one margin. The recession of 1991 and 1992 mostly pushed green issues off the table, and Gore, in a move that would foreshadow his own run for president eight years later, would spend much of his vice-presidential campaign with Bill Clinton downplaying his role as a leading environmental advocate. In 1994, Clinton’s proposed energy-consumption tax played a significant role in costing Democrats control of the House of Representatives, and, three years later, the Senate unanimously rejected the Kyoto treaty before Gore could even fly to Japan to negotiate it.
Also in 1990, concentrations sulfur aerosols and other atmospheric particulate matter were falling.
Utopian environmentalism has, to some extent, always promised to heal the alienation wrought by modernity. But, during bubbles, increasing numbers of Americans become captivated by the twin thoughts that human civilization could soon come crashing down–and that we are on the cusp of a sudden leap forward in consciousness, one that will allow us to heal ourselves, our society, and our planet. Apocalyptic fears meld seamlessly into utopian hopes. The end of the world is near–unless we heal all that divides us. … The problem is not that most greens are elites, per se, but rather that too few of them acknowledge the material basis for their ecological concern and that too many reject the modern project of expanding prosperity altogether.”
In so many words, those who have dream of simpler lives; those who haven’t dream of having. Those who have may figuratively, symbolically, make moves toward living more Earth-friendly lives, but they generally minimize hardship. Need I say that “the modern project of expanding prosperity altogether” is smoke and mirrors hiding massive wealth collection and increasing world poverty.
In a column dated June 4, 2009, commenting on this article, George Will concludes “The dark side of utopianism is ‘escapism and disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green or financial.’ Re-engagement with reality is among the recession’s benefits.” Nordhaus and Shellenberger never reveal their environmental concerns nor, if they have any, what steps personally they are taking to deal with them. The entire article is an attack on the Green movement, tagging it an ineffective passing fad. While I believe they are massively simplistic and fail to see how sad the situation they describe is for the Earth and humankind, I feel they draw blood.
Surely, no one can doubt my concern for the planet nor that since the 70s and before, both Marlene and I have been attempt to minimize our effects on it. At times, we had a bit more money and once bought an expensive car. Still, we have always been close to the Earth and escaped sub-urbanity every chance we could. Most would regard our lives as budget-wise austere, yet in fact we eat very well, far better than most we know, and are the happiest we’ve ever been. It has been clear to us from those early times that “the modern project of expanding prosperity altogether” is nonsense.
Having said this, we have observed with bemusement what I shall call the Whole Foods culture. We’ve watched those paying premiums buying heavily processed and packaged “organic,” “health” foods shipped, often, from the other side of the world. Some of these products were “fresh,” which meant they were shipped by refrigerated air. Everyone was patting his back on how softly he was treating the Earth, which was nonsense. If they could have taken the time to calculate the energy, greenhouse gas and other pollution, and human abuse costs of those products, some at least would be shocked.
Ecologists and resource scientists have been turning an accounting eye on our lifestyles since at least the 70s. For example, take any food item one might purchase, healthy and organic or not. Trace it and its packaging back to their origins, maintaining records of how much energy was used, how much water was polluted, and how much greenhouse gasses was emitted at each step. Trace the wages paid per worker at each stage and how much of each of the preceding they produce in acts of living necessary that they be able to work. Don’t forget the costs of dealing with the wastes resulting from these products use. To collect this data and perform the calculations would be a mammoth chore. Still, others have. Some argue that such squander is the leading source of greenhouse gasses – and wastes of diminishing non-renewable resources. Yet, who wants to know?
I informed the Ukiah Co-op board about the environmental and social costs of products on that store’s shelves with as much detail as I could, and their response was “They want it, so the store must offer it.” Falling sales indicate that the recession is being felt here as well, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger predict, and no money is left to distribute to the community. “They want” something cheaper. It appears far past time that we put the local community at the center of our concerns, but “They want it ….”
In 1993, the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, signed by some 1,700 leading scientists, including over half of all living Nobel Laureates in science, was published. It reads in part: “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated….A new ethic is required—a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility….The scientists issuing this warning hope that our message will reach and affect people everywhere. We need the help of many.”
In 2004, Meadows, Randers, and Meadows published their third reprise of Limits to Growth. Under the auspices of the Club of Rome, Donella H Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows collected data and wrote computer models probing the world’s usage of nonrenewable resources, which they published in their first edition in 1973. Ten years later, they wrote an expanded edition.
As Charles Hall and John Day, Jr. document in their article, “Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil”, American Scientist, May-June 2009, “the model results are almost exactly on course 35 years later”. The world model predicts precipitous exhaustion of non-renewable resources, food per capita, services per capita, and industrial output per capita beginning in the 2010-2020 decade, each reaching pre-1900 levels by the end of the century. By 2050, the death rate soars and population begins to fall, though birth rates continue to increase. How accurate these projections may be will likely depend upon whether the world economy recovers and we continue living beyond the Earth’s means. If so, there will be escalating contention for increasingly scarce resources. Should this happen, we surely must expect militaries around the world, most notable that of the U.S., to also continue expanding and, in the process, more rapidly exhausting critical resources. And, the world burns up.
Perhaps because nothing much occurred in response to earlier warnings, in 2000, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a Millennial Ecosystem Assessment (MA) to assess the consequences of ecological change on human well-being and the scientific basis for actions need to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of these systems. In the seceding six years, more than 1,360 experts worldwide were tasked to develop the assessment. The results were published in late 2006 and early 2007. The documents were recapitulated in a statement from the MA board entitled Living Beyond Our Means. As summed up by their bottom line, “At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity are putting such strain on natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. The provision of food, fresh water, energy, and materials to a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex system of plants, animals, and biological processes that make the planet habitable. … Above all, protection of these assets can no longer be seen as an optional extra, to be considered once more pressing concerns such as wealth creation or national security have been dealt with.”
Also in 2007, the publication of third edition of resource scientist David Pimentel’s Food, Energy, and Society and the second edition of the late ecologist Howard T. Odum’s Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy arrived. Together with the MA’s Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, these are massive, expensive, texts with exceedingly detailed analyses of the energy, resource, and environmental accounts of those policy decisions that will be required to preserve this precious Earth and humankind. Each of the texts is the summation of a long productive life; what they have to say is not new material.
I’ve seen no indication that any politicians or corporate CEOs have read any of these warnings or are using any of these tools. Have you? Yet, the 2006 report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scared enough important people that the 2008 World Economic Forum’s annual meeting held in Davos, Switzerland placed climate change firmly on center stage – The IPCC is mandated to establish scientific baselines for international efforts to mitigate global warming, though some of the most prominent researchers in the field are now challenging its reference scenarios as overly optimistic, even pie-in-the-sky thinking. Even so, we see so little fruit. The new Australian government has decided it can’t deal with its environmental problems until the economy improves. The U.S. Congress dallies and patches, business as usual. Why is that? Yet, I insist as I’ve illustrated above, it’s not just about global warming. It’s about our Western consumption lifestyle, the ways you and I choose to live. In spite of its criticality, I find almost complete ignorance of ecological science, of the dense interconnectedness of the world.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, Mendocino Farm Bureau President Michael Anderson, in the April 09 issue of Mendocino Country Life, expresses another viewpoint. He writes, “something that never seems to change is the need for a new cause, it helps the special interest groups raise money and give politicians something to rant about, global warming seems to be the cause of choice of late.” “The question we must ask,” Anderson continues, “is how this trace amount of CO2 can be responsible for global warming and the end of life as we know it on earth? … There is over $50 billion being spent to prove that man-made CO2 is responsible for global warming and a few million to prove it is a natural phenomenon. I suppose if I were a researcher and wanted my research funded I would attempt to prove it is a man-made problem and try to get my hands on some of that $50 billion. In spite of expenditures of this magnitude since 1990 scientists have not been able to demonstrate any human caused climate change trend, let alone a dangerous one.” He adds final nails “Should we consider that over 31,000 scientists, 9,000 of which are PhD’s refute the concept of global warming? … For me, when the weather models that scientists use improve to the point they can accurately predict the weather next week, I will be a little more open minded about their global warming claims for the decades ahead.” How can we answer him? How many in the U.S. Congress and the media feel the same way?
Why Take The Risk?
The Co-op board’s behavior astonished me. Several of the individuals on the board I had considered to be among of the most aware persons I’d met. With that vote, I struggled to find hope that humankind could react swiftly enough to counter the biosphere’s and our economic system’s disintegrations. I searched for reasons, for hope that wasn’t apparent.
After leaving the Co-op lists and considering the issues more carefully, I find I can’t condemn board members for their action, nor George W. Will and friends, nor do I most of those in the corporate and political hierarchies, nor Americans in general. Mostly, they do what they conclude is right for themselves. They are but children of their money-driven culture, good citizens all. It is very difficult for us to be other. Which surely includes me as well.
Will and Nordhaus and Shellenberger would like us to accept what they say on the flimsiest of evidence, but I search for more solid footings. As physicist Robert B. Laughlin has written in his wonderful review of emergence, A Different Universe, “In situations that matter, mythologies are immensely powerful things, and sometimes we humans go to enormous lengths to see the world as we think it should be, even if the evidence says we are mistaken.” He provides many examples.
Lisa Bennett reviews this in her Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?, Greater Good, November 14, 2008. She tells us scientists ideally base their conclusions on the hard evidence and carefully reviewed conclusions, but Laughlin warns us to note the word “ideally”. As Bennett notes, “This is the process that was used by climate scientists to reach the strong and clear conclusion that the risks of global warming are momentous and require immediate and significant action.” In contrast, most of the rest of us don’t have sufficient background to understand the issues and rely instead on emotions. She quotes Elke Weber, a Columbia University psychologist and the chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change’s Public Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working Group, “For most of us, most of the time, risk is not a statistic. Risk is a feeling,” a gut feeling if you will. In terms of such, we have been found to much more readily discount future costs in favor of present gains. “… we have no innate experience of global warming that tells us, from personal or evolutionary experience, that when we burn too many fossil fuels, it causes the build-up of greenhouse gases that trap warm air within the Earth’s atmosphere, which, in turn, melts ice caps and glaciers, raises ocean levels, and causes hurricanes to intensify, floods to worsen, droughts to increase, lakes and water supplies to disappear, and, as in any such dire and threatening circumstance, famine and warfare to spread,” Bennett continues, “As dramatic as these scenarios are, we can’t feel them because we haven’t experienced them [yet]. Human-driven climate change is simply unprecedented.” This is a surely true as well for an economic depression even greater than the last one, which some pretty sophisticated people are predicting. If something hasn’t happened in one’s experience, how can one estimate likelihoods? One punts and guesses.
There is more prevailing difficulty: “A third obstacle that limits people’s response to global warming-and even their willingness to believe in it is also one of the most intractable. In a series of recent studies, a group of scholars from Yale and other universities have been studying how cultural values shape our perceptions of risk,” Bennett writes, “Based on the premise that Americans are culturally polarized on a range of societal risks, from global warming to gun control, Paul Slovic [a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies human judgment, decision making, and risk], Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, and others analyzed the results of surveys and experiments that matched the risk perceptions of some 5,000 Americans to the worldviews of those Americans. Their finding: People may simply reject evidence that clashes with their worldview.” “To a certain extent our attitude toward risk and behaviors are conditioned not just by the raw facts of the matter, but by the orientation that we have to the world,” says Slovic “The truly disconcerting thing about this work is that it shows how difficult it is to change people’s views and behaviors with factual information.” He continues, “To a certain extent our attitude toward risk and behaviors are conditioned not just by the raw facts of the matter, but by the orientation that we have to the world.” They found that those with a hierarchal orientation were less concerned, because increased regulation would be counter to their ideas of upward mobility and personal control and impact their feelings of security, their lifestyles; egalitarians were ready to jump on the environmentalist bandwagon, assume risks, and take personal responsibility.
Let me explore this from another direction. Bradd Shore, in his Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning, so well described how our cultures become imbedded, hardwired so to speak, in our brains from early ages to the extent that it is onerous to “change our minds.” As he explains, of all the primates, only human babies are born with immature brains that continue to grow until puberty. Fully three quarters of the brain develops outside the womb. During that period, we are immersed in our culture to the point that it is wired into our neurological system, into how we perceive our world. Perception is a vastly complex matter of pattern matching and construction very much colored by skills, memory, imagination, the way we have been wired – there are many more neurons directed downward from the high levels of our brains into the sensory pattern matching areas than passing upward. It has also been reported that “monkey see, monkey do” is deeply embedded. We see as we have been programmed to see in order to adapt to in our cultural context, which can be dramatically dissimilar in different cultures. David Matsumoto has written a supporting book, People: Psychology from a Cultural Perspective, that all who venture out should read. This inherently dysfunctional culture is embedded in our nervous systems. We are programmed for pratfalls.
A Metaphor for Our Times
Recently the May/June 2009 issue of American Scientist arrived. In addition to several others that captured my attention, it had five that serendipitously framed what I’m trying to express here. I told you about the article written by Charles Hall and John Day, Jr. describing the Limits to Growth projections above. I’ll only tell you about another now, only a series of events; I leave it to you to understand what happened. The others are more technical and would take more time to explain than you would likely allow me. But, please read them if you have an opportunity and attempt to understand, if you can.
The second of these articles is “The Battle of Bull Run” by Douglas W. Larson. This Bull Run is the watershed providing drinking water for Portland, Oregon. In 1894 and more emphatically in 1904, that U.S. Forest area that lies to the east of Portland below Mount Hood was declared off limits except to a few management personnel. In 1952, a Forest Service ranger proposed that Bull Run be logged because, he claimed, old growth trees are more susceptible to fires. With visions of millions of dollars dancing in their heads, Forest Service administrators approved and Portland’s mayor and city council agreed without informing the public. Loggers and sawmill workers were put to work.
By 1972, nearly a third of the forest had been clear cut and was littered with debris, stumps, and logging roads before anyone who might be concerned noticed. A retired physician who lived nearby did, however, and sued. Logging halted and the forest was closed. Workers were laid off. This was quickly followed by the passage of a Congressional bill, signed by President Carter, that permitted logging subject to oversight by a nine member scientific panel.
The panel, however, was so torn between pro-logging and anti-logging advocates that despite years of effort it was unable to reach decisions. The pro-logging scientists, most of whom worked for the Forest Service or logging companies, were adamant that logging prevented fires, though they could provide no definitive evidence – historically, almost all fires in the forest had been caused by loggers. Anti-logging proponents, among whom were other Forest Service employees, were concerned with resulting soil erosion. The committee steadfastly refused to agree. So, logging continued.
In December, 1983, a powerful windstorm felled about 300 million board feet of trees adjacent to the cuts. Loggers were permitted to clear these as well as nearby trees – in the name of preserving water quality. The forest was rapidly disappearing. Then, the issue was resolved by disaster: In 1996, heavy rains fell on the watershed and immense amounts of soil and logging debris flowed into Portland’s two storage reservoirs. The city very nearly didn’t have a backup. City government demanded action and Congress quickly passed a bill declaring Bull Run off limits. Portlanders are now faced with an alternative of periodically drinking possibly polluted well water or installing a filtration system that may cost $500 million. It is expected to take at least a century before the forest recovers.
Larson sums up, “Despite the common belief that scientific objectivity and science-based decisions will prevail, over the rough-and-tumble world of confrontational politics and competing self-interests, the capacity of scientists to solve environmental issues fairly and expeditiously is usually overestimated. The ensuing, often acrimonious, scientific debates become themselves stumbling blocks to final resolution. Meanwhile, the public waits for these interminable conflicts to be resolved, confused by the barrage of technical information and disinformation, and thus unsure whom to believe. … In the end, resolution is often achieved not by scientific resolution and decision-making, but by the people simply deciding what they value most. … Deeply troubled by the sudden and unexpected failure of their drinking water source, Portlanders simply decided that waiting for scientific answers wasn’t worth the risk.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger mock gardening and simpler lifestyles as but fashions that fade quickly with the economy. They poke fun at “suburban matrons [who] proudly clutched copies of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and came to see the purchase of each $4 heirloom tomato at the farmer’s market as an act of virtue.” Still, “no doubt, many Americans are seeking out some form of (in)voluntary simplicity in response to the financial crisis. But making virtue of necessity is not the same as making necessity of virtue. Whatever romanticized vision of a simpler life that might have existed a year or two ago has largely been replaced by a fearful vision of a life of poverty or, at least, greater insecurity. Today, the Times and other newspapers run stories about how Americans are coping with their economic, not ecological, anxieties.”
Maybe the sun will cool off just enough to cancel out greenhouse gas emissions and so solve the global warming problem – for two or three years – that geoscientists have been warning us about with massive amounts of backup data. Or, perhaps Will, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, and Michael Anderson are right and they are all mistaken, intent on building wealth with their massive NASA paychecks. But, would that solve all our other non-renewable resource exhaustion problems? Since the unforeseen side effects of technology are what got us here, why should we expect technical fixes will save us? Ah, Father Obama has arrived and all will be well.
Is there a way besides GDP growth to assuage the American public’s insecurities while dealing with our cascading environmental problems? I believe so, but it will require a cultural revolution soon, of which more later.