March 10, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: The Environmental Problem That Dares Not Speak Its Name

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As the result of writing a series of posts on Craig Dilborn's amazing Too Smart For Own Good, I drew the attention of the notable Prof. Dilborn himself, and the next thing you know I was on a mailing list of people in Europe and the U.S. who think a lot about the ecological predicament of mankind, write about it, and for some of whom it is even their day job. Including one of my intellectual heroes from way back, Herman Daly, the author of Steady State Economics, a seminal work if the word "seminal" has any meaning. I'm halfway to thinking I should almost take myself seriously, what with my readership suddenly doubled and whatnot, but I'll resist the temptation. It just wouldn't be me, you know?

Environmentalists tend to be a dour and surly lot, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, and I suppose that's because of the fundamentally discouraging nature of the enterprise. I would not accuse Henry David Thoreau of being a cockeyed optimist, for example. It begins with the recognition that, especially in a country like the United States, "environmentalism" is an "issue" that may or may not even come up during one of our quadrennial rearrangements of the deck chairs on the Titanic. That is deeply weird. Another name for the so-called "environment" is Planet Earth, where we more or less have to live. How can it not be virtually the only thing we ever think about? What can be more fundamental than making sure the planet which sustains human and all other life remains ecologically viable?

Instead, we analyze "economics" as if it occurred in some sort of netherworld vacuum. Most of the mainstream economists of the popular press seem to analyze economics in this sterile way, simply comparing previous recessions or boom cycles to similar "patterns" in the distant past, paying no attention to issues such as: (a) the population in the United States is over twice what it was at the end of World War II; (b) the United States now is simply one of the economic "players" on the world stage, competing for dwindling nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs) with other big industrialized nations; (c) world population has doubled since the late 1960's, to its current 7 billion, in line with Paul Erlich's predictions in The Population Bomb, but we all know Erlich was "wrong" because the Green Revolution saved everyone from starvation so it's all good, except the Green Revolution allowed the world's population to increase to 7 billion, a level which cannot be sustained under any set of economic or ecological circumstances.

Yeah, that's the issue no one likes to talk about: overpopulation. It's a dicey topic. The human race, vis-a-vis the increasingly tired and depleted Mother Earth, is in a state of massive overshoot with respect to the Earth's real tolerance for modern Homo sapiens. Earth can handle maybe one to two billion of us on a sustainable basis, one where huge inputs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides are not essential to keeping the yields of arable land at impossibly high levels forever, especially with steadily eroding soil, vanishing water, and an increasingly wobbly climate caused by mankind's enormous releases of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It just isn't going to work. There are things that can be done. I commend Lester Brown's "Plan B: 4.0," available on the internet, to you as a comprehensive treatment of how to get out of this mess in a humane and equitable manner. Mr. Brown's work is quite an opus, a very thoughtful analysis of ecological economics and what you might call the science of survival. My inclination is to side with those who try to imagine ways out of the predicament rather than to make an obsession out of pessimism. If nothing can be done, there will be plenty of time to suffer and tell everyone I told you so later on.

Of course, optimism isn't always easy when you live in a country, the largest polluter per capita on Earth, which features as one of two leading Republican candidates for president a guy who takes the position that maybe contraception ought to be criminalized. I'm trying to figure how an idea, in this day and age, could be farther out of whack than that, and I'm coming up empty. We are descended from ancient forebears who routinely practiced infanticide (the ultimate in late-term abortion) as a means of dealing with what they considered population problems of their own, and Rick Santorum (whose personal sexual psychology must be enormously messed up) doesn't think that condoms or birth control pills are a good idea.

Well, the epidemic of idiocy in the United States isn't all bad. We've trashed our economy to the point that our fossil fuel use, particularly gasoline, is way down. As mentioned before, it appears we might stupid our way into compliance with the Kyoto Protocol. Let's take what we can get. It's the optimistic way.

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