February 21, 2012

Vicious Circle Principle

I came across this gem from Rick Santorum recently while trying to mind my own business. In general, I try not to think about Rick Santorum; I don't see how anything good can come about by thinking about Santorum. He's clearly running for the wrong office; rather than president, he should compete in Vatican City for the job of Pope on a Pre-Vatican II platform. Anyway, here's Rick:

“What they have done? And I referred to it the other day and I got criticized by some of our, well, less-than-erudite members of the national press corps who have a difficulty understanding when you refer to someone’s ideology to the point where they elevate Earth, and they say that, well, men and humanity is just of a variety of different species on the Earth and should be treated no differently.”

He continued: “Whereas, we all know that man has a responsibility of stewards of the Earth, that we are good stewards and we have a responsibility to be good stewards. Why? Because unlike the Earth, we’re intelligent and we can actually manage things.”

Yes, I realize it's mostly gibberish; it's hard to follow what he means by referring to "men and humanity is just a variety of different species on the Earth," but perhaps this is no less articulate than the mean level of political discourse. I think Santorum is advancing a Dominionist view of the relationship between one primate, Homo Sapiens, with its complicated central nervous system, and the planet on which that species, for now, is forced to dwell.

It so happens I've been making my way through a very long book by Craig Dilworth, a polymath professor at Uppsala University in Sweden (I think Dilworth is from Canada, originally), who published Too Smart For Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind in late 2009. Mr. Dilworth does not agree with the thesis that humans "can actually manage things," and that it is this techno-grandiosity which will lead to our inevitable extinction, and in the not too distant future. (Yes, the possibility occurred to me that Prof. Dilworth might want to spend a lot more time in a Southern latitude and soak up some rays.)

Dilworth concedes that we are smart, of course, as mammals go. This is the root of our problem, as follows: Other species cannot really exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat, at least not for long. They die off when this happens, and fall back to a level which is sustainable, given the available resources and territory.

Humans, however, have created conditions which Dilworth calls the Vicious Circle Principle (VCP). This is actually the story of our "uniqueness." It's fairly easy to understand. When human populations surge, mankind solves the problem with technology. These technological fixes work (we're smart, after all), and not only allow the support of the existing population, but create a surplus which allows additional growth. For a while, a period of stasis is maintained until burgeoning population once again strains against the carrying capacity of human habitat. We then develop another technology fix, and the process is repeated.

As the technological fixes accumulate, they begin to interact with each other in unpredictable, and often dangerous, ways which are not appreciated by humans until problems begin to show up. For example, prior to the Green Revolution in agriculture, humans were straining to feed the world's population, leading to such books as Paul Erlich's The Population Bomb (widely attacked by Catholics of Santorum's Pre-Vatican II persuasion, for obvious reasons, since the godless Erlich was proposing birth control, of all things). The Green Revolution, involving the massive use of nitrogen inputs and fertilizers derived from petroleum, powered increased yields in basic crops, creating a surplus which allowed the Earth's population to increase from an inadvisable 3 billion in 1966 to a preposterously over-the-line 7 billion today. The Green Revolution also had the effect of draining the Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains through overuse, halving the original topsoil from 6 feet to 3 in America's breadbasket, and also of creating massive dead zones at the mouths of all major rivers (because of nitrogen and pesticide run-off from agriculture), thus heavily impacting another food source, marine life.

The Green Revolution permitted sustained population growth and encouraged the exploration for, and use of, unprecedented levels of fossil fuels. Burning such fuels released CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and, at the interface of the world's oceans and the air, enabled the formation of carbonic acid, which has had the effect of acidifying the oceans, destroying the lowest end of the marine food chain (phytoplankton and other creatures). Rising ocean temperature (an effect of global warming) has bleached out and destroyed much of the world's oceanic reefs, depriving marine life of habitat and food sources.

The physical layout of modern Western life (and increasingly in Asia and Latin America) has become heavily dependent on the private automobile, a technical fix which originally helped with the mechanization of agriculture and then enabled the swelling populations to live far from city centers and commute to specialized occupations, burning more fossil fuels, increasing the CO2 content of the atmosphere and disrupting the climate on which the Green Revolution also depends. All these people, spread out over such vast areas, required, long, inefficient transmission lines for electrical power, massive burning of coal to generate electricity, and the rest of the interactive infrastructure of modern life, all of which were devised in response to previous needs to cope with population growth and improve the "standard of life," and which all act in concert under the rules of the VCP.

The Earth's 7 billion people now find themselves up against what Dilworth considers an end point. Previous technical fixes, at lower levels of population, at least had the advantages of a functioning ecology and plentiful resources. Now, however, we have messed everything up so badly in such complicated, intertwined, inextricable ways (with so many complicated feedback loops involving so many poorly-understood physical processes), and we are now so short of such basic essentials as fresh water and high-density energy sources, and arable land, and reliable climate, and...well, you read the newspaper.

The idea being: we're really up against it. Rick Santorum actually looks like a guy who might have been a Steward on the "Love Boat" or maybe on an old Pan Am flight, but I don't think it's the national press which is "less than erudite." It's this dumb cluck Santorum and people who think as he does who present the clear and present danger to survival. Although that's essentially just a "bootless cry to mute Heaven," as the Bard says in the sonnet, an attempt to blame another idiot now, when the damage was done so long ago. We overshot the mark in the distant past, and if Santorum wants an education system which portrays the Flintstones as historical fiction, it won't make too much difference for present purposes. I think Dilworth is gloomy because he's right, and it appears we're going to be the first species that ever thought itself right out of existence.

1 comment:

  1. hammerud4:41 PM

    You mention "the clear and present danger to survival." I recall looking at the issue of survival from a personal perspective years ago in high school and being troubled by the reality that I was going to die. I had no answer to that depressing thought; and had no idea if there was one. However, it turned out there was, and the answer is Jesus Christ. Now, as a Christian for more than 45 years, I find it interesting how man, apart from God, finds anything but vanity in existence. I think it is good that we try to get the best policies for caring for the earth and all, but all of that activity in the context of the meaninglessness of existence, which is the reality apart from God, sort of baffles me. I guess most people just don’t think about it, or convince themselves there is no answer. I can tell you for sure the answer is Jesus Christ.