Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Supper Club Talk, Feb. 2015

Lynn A. Brant

The road to my brother-in-law's house in western North Carolina is very narrow and twisting.  On one side is a steep bank of rock and on the other side is a steep drop-off into a stream.  Merely getting off the pavement in places would send the car over the edge.  I attend closely to my driving on this road, which is unlike any in Iowa.  A texting teen would come to a bad end in short order.

If we were to stop the vehicle in a moment of time as it travels along this road we would see that the car is always headed either into the bank or over the cliff.  But I have traveled this road many times without disaster.  I am able to anticipate the curves and turn the steering wheel just the correct amount to be able to stay on the road.

I use this road as a metaphor for humanity's travel through history.  Looking ahead at any one moment, society might appear to be headed toward certain catastrophe such as in the spring of 1940 when the Nazis were in the process of destroying Europe, during the McCarthy era when free speech and democracy were in jeopardy, and during the Cold War when nuclear annihilation seemed almost certain.  We continue down this twisting road as we see a dysfunctional Congress in Washington and war-torn countries in the Mid-east doing their best to destroy civilization.  But even if we negotiate the curves presented by Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine, we have even greater threats ahead that might well bring on a global catastrophe ending civilization.  The direction in which we are headed at any one moment is unsustainable, and whether we negotiate the tricky curves in the future depends upon the decisions and good luck of many people.

Josef Fox was a teacher of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa.  He was also a member of this Supper Club.  After Fox died, Tommy Thompson put together a collection of his writings into a slim volume entitled A Faith in Reason.  Included in Fox's book is an essay entitled, "The Present Predicament of Mankind" written in 1973.  According to Dorothy Grant's history of The Supper Club, Fox also gave a talk here by the same title in 1975.  The predicament he describes is that faced by the world of increasing population, decreasing resources, and environmental degradation.

Of course, Joe Fox was not the first to speak of these dangers in the 1970's.  The Population Bomb by Ehrlich, The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner, and The Limits to Growth by The Club of Rome, among others, were in circulation at the time.  Many people thought these warnings were nonsense, but many others, including myself, thought these ideas were spot on.  My own writings in support of this general view of things appeared in one environmental impact statement I was helping to write at the time and in at least one of my journals. 

Over the intervening forty years, civilization has made it around the curves on that twisting road.  No great global catastrophe has yet destroyed our culture, we have not run out of resources, and we aren't choking on each other's waste.  In many ways we have partially cleaned up our pollution and have increased our immediate supply of natural resources, such as natural gas, but many of the dangers of the 1970's, sometimes in a new guise, are still with us.  We still have a predicament.

Recent articles in the scientific literature point out the predicament of unsustainable trends that are ignored by economists and national governments that pay more attention to GDP growth than to environmental issues.  The problems are well documented in scientific studies. *

In 1970 the world's population was about three and a half billion people.  Today there are over seven billion and approaching nine or ten billion by 2050 and 10 to 12 billion by the end of the century.  What level will it reach?  The trip down that road in North Carolina started in an agile sports car, then it shifted to an SUV, and now it is becoming a lumbering bus.  More and more people are along for the ride.  **

Many resources, such as minerals, energy sources, and agricultural commodities, have been extended and increased through new discoveries and new technologies.  Newly discovered deposits of minerals and new technologies to extract them have kept humans from running out of these materials.  Oil and gas are now produced from shale deposits once considered uneconomic.  Hydraulic fracturing is making the United States less dependent upon foreign sources.  Wind turbines spin to light our streets and power our electronic devices.  Increases in agricultural productivity have produced so much food that we are now using it to make fuel.

The world is much richer than it was in 1970.  People in many parts of the world are consuming more metals, more energy, eating more meat, and living in larger houses.  The impact of the population growth is intensified by this growing demand of each of these persons who also want to drive cars and live the good life.  And who has the right to deny these people the things that many of us already have.  That trip along that metaphorical road in North Carolina not only now has more passengers, but the bus is going faster and faster.

In 1970 towns were still spraying DDT to control mosquitoes and farmers were still using it to control other pests.  Bald eagles were in decline because the pesticide was making their eggshells too thin, and DDT was showing up in human milk.  Spray cans were using chlorofluorocarbons (Freon) to make them work destroying the protective ozone in the stratosphere. 

Today we no longer manufacture either DDT or CFC's.  Eagles are back and the ozone layer is beginning its slow recovery.  We have partly resolved acid rain by controlling sulfur dioxide from our power plants, and many other pollutants we once dumped into the global commons are no longer released.  However, our environmental degradation continues as we pollute with new substances such as neonicotinoids which may be causing as much damage as DDT did.  We are also extracting resources in ways that do more environmental damage.  Many of these newly discovered resources are in places, such as the bottom of the sea, that involve impacts upon systems never before affected.  For instance, there is great need for the sand found in northeast Iowa and adjacent states to extract oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  And the need for greater amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to obtain maximum yields in our farm fields is creating new and greater impacts upon the oceans.  Meeting the demand for all these resources to keep billions of people alive and in relative wealth is increasing damage to the planetary ecosystem.

In an impact statement I helped write in 1974 for a power plant that would burn a railroad car of coal every five minutes, I mentioned the threat that all that carbon dioxide would have on the climate.  I was way ahead of the times.  Only a few technical books and the occasional article in Science ever mentioned global warming at that time.  The hot summer of 1988 and the first mention of this topic in the press was a long way in the future. 

Now the glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate, sea levels are rising, and weather patterns are shifting.  I doubt Joe Fox mentioned global climate change as part of the "predicament" in his talk to the Supper Club back in 1975.  Although a warming planet is unlikely to kill us off, it does add stress to the systems that maintain human welfare.

Joe Fox probably didn't mention another problem I have heard or read little about.  In fact, the technological optimists of the world wouldn't recognize such as a problem at all.  I am referring to what I shall call "technological dependency".  Technological dependency started early in human history.  When our primitive ancestors started to move into colder climates and had to rely upon foods that needed cooking, they were dependent upon the technology of building and maintaining fire.  This technology helped the people spread across the globe and certainly helped them increase their numbers.  And of course, fire also enabled these early people to accomplish other tasks as well. 

The evolution of technology, for the most part, whether it is building fire or employing medicine to fight off the latest communicable disease, adds to our comfort, pleasure, safety, and general well-being.  Agriculture is an example.  Growing crops and domesticated animals increased the carrying capacity of the landscape.  Many more people could live within a given area by growing crops than they could by just hunting and gathering.  Growing paddy rice can support as many as 1,000 people per square mile.

But as any Iowa farmer knows, agriculture sometimes fails.  Too little or too much rain, early frosts, insects, and disease can all reduce, or in some cases, destroy the crop.  Crop failure has put a lid on population growth for millennia, and it often leads to starvation, poverty, war, and other nasty things.

The industrial revolution brought forth new machines to grow and harvest larger crops, to carry them to distant markets, and to successfully store the excess for use in leaner times.  Because of world trade, Iowa corn doesn't feed just Iowans, and the people in this state also eat from the tropics and all the rest of the world.  A failed crop in one place can be met by the crop in another.  In addition to supplying the world with greater amounts of food, modern technology and engineering have improved sanitation, medicine, and safer childbirth that have all allowed the world's population to soar, and it continues to grow at a high rate.  Africa is supposed to quadruple its population this century.

The seven billion people alive on the planet right now owe their life, wealth, and comfort (those having wealth and comfort) to an integrated set of high-tech systems that provide food, employment, and all the rest of the things needed for such a life.  For each billion more people added to the earth we need to solve many more problems through even greater advances in science and engineering.  In my analogy, this is steering the vehicle around those curves on that North Carolina road.  But therein lies another problem.  Each of these advances in technology increases our dependence upon those advances.  Ever increasingly complicated systems depending upon other configurations of technology to hold them together makes for a shaky foundation for the billions of people on the planet.

Once in Maine I was touring lighthouses and I asked, "Why do you still have them when nearly every boat is equipped with GPS?"  "What if the GPS system fails?" was the answer I got.  That made sense to me.  I know I don't want to be out in the dark along the coast of Maine without navigational aids.  At another time, I was listening to a speaker from Iowa State University about precision agriculture that depends upon GPS to steer tractors and administer the correct amount of seed and fertilizer so our land can "feed the world".  I asked what would happen to precision farming if the GPS system failed.  "Oh, that wouldn't happen", was the answer I got.   Hmmmmmm! 

We don't know how often they occur but there have been extreme outbursts of the sun throwing gigatons of material toward the earth.  In the 19th century there was an outburst that would today bring down the electrical grid, mess up a lot of electronic systems, and might fry the GPS satellites.  Without an electrical system, our way of life would, at least temporarily, come to an end.  Manufacturing and communications would cease and without GPS there would be a lot of lost motorists on the highway.  Precision farming would be temporarily set back, but lobstermen might continue to find their way home.  But it need not be an extreme solar outburst.  Last September one disgruntled contractor set a fire in an air traffic control center that disrupted air travel across the nation.  If the actions of just one person could do that, think what a global economic meltdown or a nuclear war would do.

But perhaps the greatest long-term threat of all is the loss of biodiversity.  We are in a period of mass extinction greater than at any time since the dinosaurs were wiped out some 65 million years ago.  Can the human species continue to live and prosper in an ever-diminishing global ecosystem?  As someone once made a comparison to a person flying in an airplane as it flew thousands of feet above the ground and watching rivets come out of the wing.  Surely the loss of one or a few rivets would not cause the wing to fail and lead to a crash, but how many can be lost before catastrophe occurs?  We have no idea what the answer is to that question.  We simply do not understand what vital role each species plays in global ecosystems.  Yes, many have a bit part in the play and are not missed when they disappear, but some or some number of certain groups are vital.  Our domination of the planet is driving many species to extinction.  First it's the big cuddly things, but as time goes by the ones that we don't notice - and might be most important - disappear to never return.  That increasingly crowded, lumbering bus in North Carolina is going faster and faster, but now the road is getting narrower.  How long can we keep it on the pavement?

In light of these dangers, I think humankind has a predicament - a predicament somewhat different from the one Joe Fox described in the 1970's but a predicament nevertheless.  And I think the dangers are real, and that our civilization, as we know it, is in great peril.

Of course, there have always been pessimists like myself, and their worst projections usually don't come true.  However, sometimes they do.  I'm sure there were pessimists in 1914 as The Great War broke out, and then in 1941 Admiral Yamamoto warned that if Japan went to war with the United States his country would be defeated and "reduced to absolute poverty".  Many Jews in Europe were not pessimistic enough to imagine what would happen to them as the Nazis came to power.  On the other hand, optimists make the world move forward, solve problems, and lead to greater welfare of humanity.  Some think the problem of too many people will cure itself - as it most certainly will do, the question is how will that happen.  Some want to engineer solutions to technical and environmental problems, and I expect many of these efforts will be successful.  However, can we negotiate the next curve, and what will we find around that next corner?

In 1977 and 78 I did fieldwork for my doctoral thesis in the mountains south of Helena, Montana.  The mountains were covered by a forest, dating back to the last big fire, and dotted by sedge meadows where glacial ponds once glistened in the sun.  About the only evidence of human activity, other than the narrow gravel road crossing the mountains, were the small diggings by prospectors in their search for gold, but even those were nearly obliterated by the intervening century.  Hardly anyone but a few hunters in the fall would wander this land.  In 2011 I revisited the site.  The narrow road was widened for logging trucks, some stream crossings had new bridges made of concrete, the trees had been mostly killed by the bark beetle infestation, and loggers were removing their dead trunks.  The landscape appeared dead, brown, and littered by no-trespassing signs placed around the old mining claims.  I was somewhat heart-broken. 

After a time to reflect, I began to look at the landscape in an entirely different way.  I started to think like a geologist.  What I saw in 2011 was just the present configuration of that landscape.  Some 12,000 years ago the land was barren and rocky.  Glacial ice covered part of the area, and no trees grew there.  After a while, the glaciers melted and dwarf birch trees grew around the ponds that were becoming filled with new life in the warming climate.  Eventually the pine forest moved up out of the valleys to blanket the hills.  Fires reduced the forest to ashes untold times.  A mountain in Oregon where Crater Lake now stands blew its top and covered my research area with volcanic ash.  What a mess that must have made.   What I saw in that beautiful landscape in 1978 was only one configuration of that mountain.  In 2011 I saw another configuration; one where the beetles and loggers had destroyed the forest.  But just as the configurations of earlier times when fires, volcanic eruptions, and prospectors brought about change in the landscape, time will erase the configuration of the beetle destruction too.  A thousand years from now - perhaps after human folly totally removes us - the road will have washed out, the concrete bridges will have crumbled, and the forest will grow, burn down, and re-grow a few times.  The configurations of form, processes, and materials come and go.  Nature is ever-present.  The Helena Mountains have seen a parade of configurations, and eventually even the configuration of the mountains themselves will pass.

It's not as though we are the first to alter the earth in a major way.  The landscapes of Europe and Southeast Asia were greatly changed many centuries ago by the people living there.  The earliest Native Americans, within a short time of their arrival on these two continents, annihilated the megafauna of the Americas that apparently rivaled that of Africa.  Iowa, with its corn and soybean fields, is nothing like it was a few centuries ago.  And early European settlers in eastern North America found a landscape very different from what it had been a few centuries earlier when the Native Americans were busy farming and altering the land.  The "untouched wilderness" these Europeans saw was what grew up after disease wiped out the natives a century or so before.  Our present population is not unique in changing the planet, but there are now seven billion of us wielding technology that is so much more powerful.  The configuration of the world today is unlike anything that has ever come before.

We need not worry about saving the earth.  The earth will go on with or without us.  Our worries should be about saving the habitability of the planet.  The present configuration of the earth includes seven billion human beings with many more billions on the way.  It also includes bits of wildness and species of plants and animals we care about.  Configurations of nature we see in our national parks and other places give us pleasure.  Our very existence depends upon a continuation of certain configurations that permit agriculture, forestry, and living spaces for these billions of people.

But global configurations are changing.  Crowding more and more people onto the planet is bringing forth great change as we convert our landscape into what amounts to a human feedlot.  The inadvertent change we are bringing to the climate will make it harder to maintain this feedlot.  The earth has seen much warmer temperatures in the past, but there weren't ten billion people trying to make a living back then.  The combination of climate change, over-crowding, pandemic disease, religious tribalism, and nuclear war will likely some day reduce the human population to a fraction of the present numbers. 

On the other hand, by dint of wise actions, we may solve our greatest problems facing us in the early part of the 21st century.  It need not turn out badly.  In any case, the human predicament in the future will be of a different character.  Whatever the case, the present direction we are headed down that twisting road is not sustainable.

Now, I ask the members of this Supper Club, how should we act in the light of this unsustainable course we are on?   I suggest that simplistic actions such as driving a Prius and recycling our tin cans is not enough.  Our individual impact upon the earth is far greater than actions such as these can mitigate.

Some of the biggest blunders made in history have been when human actions did not account for changing configurations.  For instance, the nineteenth century military tactics failed to work in 1914 when warfare introduced machine guns.  And the Maginot Line designed with WW I in mind failed horribly in WW II.  Getting rich by borrowing money to buy more stocks, that worked so well in 1928, did not work so well at the end of 1929.  I argued against the coal-fired power plant proposed for Waterloo because the old model of building more coal-fired plants to sell ever-increasing amounts of power was out of date.  Waterloo city leaders couldn't see that, but economic events overtook the situation, ending the planned facility.  Today coal-fired power plants are being shut down and wind farms are springing up.  We need to face up to the present dangers of the present configuration in new and creative ways.  Going on as if having 25 grandchildren and pretending this is to be celebrated, as Mitt Romney has done, is not facing the dangers of the present configuration.

I am suggesting, along with many others in the scientific community, that doing business as usual in light of a rapidly-growing human population, destruction of biologic diversity, increasing technological dependence, as well as pollution, warming climate, and resource depletion will lead to disaster for civilization.  We need to greatly alter our view of where we are going and how we intend to get there. 

How should we act?

*   Dasgupta et al., and McNutt, Science, 19 Sep 2014.
** Gerland et al., Science, 10 October 2014

POSTSCRIPT:  My pessimism was a topic of part of the good-natured discussion after this talk to which I would like to add this comment. 

We sat there in a Cedar Falls restaurant in the comfort of the warm room on a cold night outside with the knowledge that we can go home to a warm house, full refrigerator, and not have to worry about being awakened in the night be a creditor about to throw us out onto the street because we have no money or some military action that will threaten our lives.  Optimism regarding the future is easy in this setting.  Unfortunately, most of the world's population does not live in such wealth and comfort.  The misery created by extreme poverty, political power struggles, religious fanaticism, and such are not that of a pessimist, but rather are facts of the world we see only dimly from our sheltered lives.