One thing I’ve learned about my writing recently is that I have a tendency to insert throwaway lines that distract from my point. Consider Yulsman getting all upset about the Forbes piece because of a throwaway line at the end. Consider the trouble I got into with my contribution to the Edge question. And it happened again in my most recent piece. That one, you’ll recall, was about the disconnect in Andy Revkin’s mind about the seriousness of our problems and the lack of seriousness in his recommended response. But I closed with a grunt of despair which seems to have distracted lots of people:
The evidence is piling up that our circumstances are beyond our cognitive or managerial abilities. I’m more scared of that than of hundred degree oceans right now. I think at the present rate we will not manage to maintain what we are pleased to call civilization long enough to get to 5xCO2. I suppose you could say that may be more good news than bad news; at least a few vertebrates will straggle through.
Should I have said that? I mean, it was a difficult piece to pull together to begin with. Any sane editor would have told me to tighten it up. That the best writing in the thing was so off topic didn’t help. (Of course, pessimism is where written language most readily shines! Oop! Forget I said that!) And sure enough, Keith jumped on me for it.
So I followed up thus:
As Grypo pointed out, that wasn’t really the main point of the article. I have a bad habit of distracting from my main point with excessive but tangential rhetorical flourishes. I’ll have to watch that.
Still it’s true, I did say it. So let’s discuss it.
Keith, do you really think the world is handling its challenges well? Do you see any immediate prospect of improvement?
First of all, food production is practiced as an extractive industry, dependent on depleting aquifers, petroleum and natural gas. That’s unsustainable by definition. Secondly, resource allocation is inequitable, we are running out resources, and the implicit promise of universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham about now. Thirdly, despite the fact that our economies are grossly overheated, the idiot bankers have gotten us in a situation where if we don’t resume growth our whole organizational pattern will collapse. Fourthly, after some decades of improvement, the momentum has resumed toward xenophobia, isolationism, and ethnic blame. In particular, Christianity and Islam are about as friendly now as they were during the crusades. Fifth, the cheap petroleum is running out and the next cheapest replacements double the carbon burden of the atmosphere and oceans, which leads us to sixth, the atmosphere and oceans are already about as full of carbon as we can reasonably risk. Seventh, in the middle of all this nobody gives a rat’s behind about nuclear proliferation which we all used to lose a lot of sleep about. Eighth, the world’s major power is controlled by obstructionist elements and is redeveloping a fascist streak that had been in remission. The fact that Africa is dying of AIDS and hunger, and that species extinction is accelerating, now seem to disturb nobody’s sleep anymore amid all this. Did I miss any?
The good news? Well, Twitter is pretty cool. So is my iPhone; so are movies on demand which after decades of promises have finally arrived. But somehow I don’t think that sort of thing is enough.
I mean, please. It’s one thing to mock my worry; it’s another to explain what’s wrong with it. By all means, cheer me up. What did I miss?
And who should rise to the challenge but Tom Fuller, who wrote a remarkable quantity of stuff between 4:15 and 5:29 yesterday in response. I make it out to be about 1900 words in barely an hour. Even those of you unimpressed with his writing have to give the fellow credit for one thing. He sure can type!
Anyway, an effort like that deserves some sort of answer. My original claims will be in blue. Tom Fuller, for purposes of this article, will be responding in red. And I’ll redouble in black.
First of all, food production is practiced as an extractive industry, dependent on depleting aquifers, petroleum and natural gas. That’s unsustainable by definition.
Tobis, could you please be more specific? The UK government, not known for its skeptical bent, talks about a number of environmental successes here: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Environmentandgreenerliving/Thewiderenvironment/Lookingafternature/DG_064406
Let’s address your comment #5 one item at a time.
“First of all, food production is practiced as an extractive industry, dependent on depleting aquifers, petroleum and natural gas. That’s unsustainable by definition.”
Actual beef yield per animal has increased from 266 kg per animal in 1975 to 351 kg in 2007. Milk production per cow has increased 443% since 1945. “The environmental mitigation effect from increased productivity is a function of either output per animal or the time taken to produce the product.” Both have increased dramatically in modern times, reducing the ‘industrial’ drain on resources ranging from land and water to sewage treatment.
The intensive agricultural practices you bemoan actually reduce emissions (primarily, but not solely, because they require less land/less deforestation).
Intensive agriculture (using an ‘industrial’ model that maximizes output and pays attention to inputs) also is better for the climate than dependency on locally grown foods. It often reduces ‘food miles’ outright, but even when it doesn’t, other efficiencies more than compensate.
Tom starts off with an actual reference. Two really.
His first addresses”environmental” progress in the UK, which doesn’t map onto my concerns at all. He may have missed my intervening comment in the same Kloor thread:
I think the environmentalist perspective and the sustainability perspective are different. Environmentalism is about ecology, watersheds, preservation of local systems. Sustainability is about a whole earth perspective, deep time, and demographics. Mondo addresses the first set of issues in a well-trodden but not entirely unconvincing way, though one could argue that the connection between prosperity and environmental protection is not entirely cast in stone.
I am raising the second category, where my thoughts have always been since I was a young science fiction reader. It turns out that now that they are realistic and increasingly urgent, we simply do not have ways of weighing these problems and addressing them. This is not surprising, because they are new. What is surprising is how badly we are doing at rising to the occasion.
His second attempts to prove the sustainability of agriculture with an article supporting feedlot beef over pastured beef because its immense impact is claimed to be smaller insofar as greenhouse gases are concerned. (Even so I was stunned to see that a gallon of milk is the greenhouse equivalent of more than a gallon of gasoline!) I had some other concerns with that paper but it’s all perfectly moot. Much of the rest of the thread shows that Fuller is confused about agricultural sustainability. So his first point is a whiff.
Secondly, resource allocation is inequitable, we are running out resources, and the implicit promise of universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham about now.
Again, in comment 5 you write, “Secondly, resource allocation is inequitable, we are running out resources, and the implicit promise of universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham about now.”
Are resources allocated equitably? Some are, some are not. ‘It rains equally on the just and the unjust,’ but the sun shines more in some places than others. I doubt if you are advocating the redistribution of natural resources, however, other than by commerce, which even someone like you must realize is beneficial to the poor and disadvantaged.
How about ‘unnatural’ resources (manmade)? I suppose you would argue that Nike shoe factories in South Asia are exploitative rather than beneficial–overall I would disagree. But certainly the trend of pillaging commodity resources and leaving nothing behind for the inhabitants has reversed, even if that sometimes proves a curse for the country involved. We pay Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for oil, and China pays Indonesia for the hard wood it shouldn’t be buying. But unnatural resources (which could also be called the ‘value added’ portion) flow in great quantity from the developed world to the developing part–from intellectual property bought or stolen to pharmaceuticals, with a lot in between.
Whether these resources are allocated fairly is not always up to us.
In any case, inequality is decreasing, not increasing, worldwide (even as it increases within many countries, including mine). And this is a miracle of the modern age that we should be celebrating with the popping of many a champagne cork.
If you don’t see that, Tobis, you’re literally living in a cave.
To continue about resources, you write that we are running out of them. I’d love to see some evidence of that–which resources are we running out of?
I can’t imagine you’re referring to fossil fuels, which I think you would cheer the disappearance of. Sadly for you, their demise is probably less imminent than you would prefer, and their replacements already exist.
So what resources are disappearing? Not water–we have plenty, even if we will have to learn how to transport it efficiently in future. Not sunlight. Not land–the population density of this world is effectively less than Afghanistan. Not minerals–the rare metals China is hoarding have just called back into production mines the world over to replace that withdrawn from the market. Not food–half of which rots in the distribution system, and large quantities of which are discarded uneaten after purchase.
Precisely what valuable resources are disappearing?
To finish up on resources, you write that ‘universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham.’ Do you have any evidence that that is true? Has China or India renounced development, or are they in fact committing more time and more energy and more resources to speed it up? How about Indonesia? Turkey? Mexico? Brazil?
Can you quote people living in those countries saying it’s a sham? Are politicians being turfed out (where that is possible) in favor of medievalists preaching ‘back to the land?’
Or is it possible you are projecting your belief system onto them?
Well, as a champion of Hans Rosling, I’d have to admit that many countries have made material progress. And so I’ll grant Tom a fraction of a point here; I might have acknowledged that.
But some poor countries have little to offer; our response seems to be to let them suffer. The sustainability issue here, of course, is that they are breeding grounds for people who hate us and wish us ill.
As for “running out of resources”, for an environmental reporter to be unable to think of a half dozen instances is a bit shocking. In addition to fuel, there’s
potassium phosphorus, rare earths, zinc… Also topsoil, clean water, mangrove swamps, coral reefs…
Thirdly, despite the fact that our economies are grossly overheated, the idiot bankers have gotten us in a situation where if we don’t resume growth our whole organizational pattern will collapse.
From Tobis’ comment 5: “Thirdly, despite the fact that our economies are grossly overheated, the idiot bankers have gotten us in a situation where if we don’t resume growth our whole organizational pattern will collapse.”
Economic growth does vary by country, Tobis. The countries growing most quickly (at or about 10% per annum) are precisely the countries where you worry about resources not being fairly allocated, I believe. This growth is welcomed by almost all, and is a solution, not a problem.
Growth in the developed world is not very resource-intensive, and is occurring in the services sector. It also is welcomed by almost all. But far from being overheated, most of the developed world is struggly to recapture trend growth. Many bankers are idiots, true. I would suspect the percentage is much the same in any industry, however.
Tobis, do you think growth should be stopped? Pious thoughts about Gaia aside, economic growth is not a cancer. It can be stopped–and we have seen occasions where this has occurred. The results have been uniformly disastrous for the people involved, and it has not been kind to the environment either.
Do you have any evidence that the world economic growth (estimated at between 4% and 5% this year) is ‘overheated?’ How do you define that and what do you think the consequences are likely to be?
Most of this is completely nonresponsive.
I think growth as conventionally defined is ending in the most advanced economies, whether we want it or not, though in fact I think it is also necessary to slow it down considerably. Reasons have been discussed on this blog several times. Yes, that’s always turned out badly in the past. So we’d better think pretty hard how to avoid it turning out badly in the future, because infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.
Fourthly, after some decades of improvement, the momentum has resumed toward xenophobia, isolationism, and ethnic blame. In particular, Christianity and Islam are about as friendly now as they were during the crusades.
In the infamous comment 5, Tobis writes again, “Fourthly, after some decades of improvement, the momentum has resumed toward xenophobia, isolationism, and ethnic blame. In particular, Christianity and Islam are about as friendly now as they were during the crusades.”
Political discussion regarding the concept of the ‘Other’ always degenerates in times of economic distress, and this period is no exception. From Jean Marie Le Pen (and now his daughter) to various U.S. Republicans, talk about differences is certainly not improving.
But in terms of actions, what do we see? 3% of the world’s population is immigrant, and 700 million people in their home countries would like to follow suit. Individual acts of violence against the ‘Other’ certainly occur, but they are dwarfed by violence against those of the same ethnicities/religions, etc. The most violent conflicts we see are not Christian vs. Moslem by and large, but Sunni vs. Shiite. And even these are only a pale shadow of past struggles. We just celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. You would (unintentionally, I’m sure) be insulting his memory and the story of his life if you characterized today’s racial environment as anything but a huge improvement over that which he struggled with–and he proclaimed that he would rather live in his era than any preceding one.
Do you know what happened during the Crusades? How can you even compare then and now? You are redefining hyperbole.
Hmmm; a half a point for Tom. Christianity and Islam are not actually at war. It remains a small and vocal minority in both groups that wants that to start up again. But the trends are terrifying.
Fifth, the cheap petroleum is running out and the next cheapest replacements double the carbon burden of the atmosphere and oceans,
Again from comment #5, “Fifth, the cheap petroleum is running out and the next cheapest replacements double the carbon burden of the atmosphere and oceans…”
I’m surprised you complain about this, as I would think you want petroleum to be priced at least high enough to reflect negative externalities. As for the next cheapest replacements, for natural gas that is not even close to true, as it is less emissive intensive than petroleum, and as for coal, it is not twice as emissive, even when burnt inefficiently, and when burnt with today’s technology it performs much better. Nuclear and hydropower are not at all emissive. And I still have hope for the non-emissive solar industry.
Did you think before writing this? Do you really worry about this?
Tom makes some damn thing up about coal which I am pretty sure is not just wrong but clueless, failing to pacify me. Coal to liquids and gas to liquids are worse than liquids by a long shot, and they are coming online. Our infrastructure commitment to liquid fuels is going to be voracious and is already causing immense international tension. And even with all that there seems to be noting in the way of planning to replace the self-powered liquid fuel vehicle as the basic tool of our lives. So yes, I worry about it, and yes, in some ways it helps the greenhouse problem but on balance it might well make matters worse.
sixth, the atmosphere and oceans are already about as full of carbon as we can reasonably risk.
Which brings us to “…which leads us to sixth, the atmosphere and oceans are already about as full of carbon as we can reasonably risk.”
Which, as you might have noticed, is a subject currently being discussed, both here and elsewhere. And which, I hope I can infer, is the reason you subjected all of us to the rest of your lament.
As it happens, I am close to agreement with you on this, depending on what ‘about’ means. As we will not know the answer for at least another 30 years, I think we should take vigorous actions to accelerate measures to reduce that measure, including a tax on carbon and transfer of technology to the developing world. But then, I’m just denialist s__m, so my opinion doesn’t matter.
But failure to accomplish this will not destroy civilization, the environment nor the human race. It will be like Bladerunner, not Waterworld. Pretending othewise is scare tactics–and the first victim is apparently yourself.
If we dawdle long enough, if things break the wrong way, it could well be enough to bring down civilization by itself. Waterworld is silly, of course, but Mad Max? Maybe not so much.
But all of this seems to miss the point of how these problems, when they get big enough, start to interact.
Seventh, in the middle of all this nobody gives a rat’s behind about nuclear proliferation which we all used to lose a lot of sleep about.
Gee, who invented the term ‘Gish Gallop?’ In comment #5, Tobis writes, “Seventh, in the middle of all this nobody gives a rat’s behind about nuclear proliferation which we all used to lose a lot of sleep about.” Umm, did you just notice that we just got a treaty with Russia? That there is a nuclear summit this year and a non-proliferation conference in Tehran this year, of all places? That in 2005, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei introduced a fatwa against the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons? That we have the same cast of characters with nuclear weapons that we did a decade ago?
Tens of thousands of people are working to stop nuclear proliferation, Tobis. They just don’t always make the news.
Well, thousands of people are working on the other problems, too. People don’t work on solved problems. All this work is the opposite of reassuring.
Eighth, the world’s major power is controlled by obstructionist elements and is redeveloping a fascist streak that had been in remission.
And finally, “Eighth, the world’s major power is controlled by obstructionist elements and is redeveloping a fascist streak that had been in remission.
I hope I addressed your concern about China and Africa above.
China? China??? That is funny.
The fact that Africa is dying of AIDS and hunger, and that species extinction is accelerating, now seem to disturb nobody’s sleep anymore amid all this. Did I miss any?
As to your question about missing any, my answer is yes.
We should be concerned about a widespread movement whose aim seems to be to stop the material progress of the human race in the name of environmental concerns. Without the material progress needed to lift billions out of poverty, there will be no peace, no justice, no chance to either care for or appreciate the environment. There will be no equitable balancing of resource use or allocation, no end to religious or ethnic strife, no chance for non-proliferation to take hold–it’s no coincidence that the most recent entrants to the nuclear club are incredibly poor.
We should be further concerned that this movement, which hides behind the skirts of the much-loved environmental movement which did so much good for this planet, is so willing to use scare tactics, hyperbole and the occasional outright lie to advance its cause. Much as Tacitus lamented that the generals created a desert and called it peace, you would create a desert and call it Gaia. You are the problem, Tobis. You and those like you who think that escaping poverty is a crime against nature.
This idea that feeling that growth has reached its limits in America means one wishes to keep the poor countries poor would be laughable if it weren’t so commonly wheeled out. As it stands, it’s just libelous. The reason growth must stop, and possibly reverse slightly, in the west is precisely to leave a share, or at least a potential share, for everybody else.
Overall, Tom really thinks this was a Gish gallop, and responds sort of in the way Scott and I responded to the awful Forbes article. But a crucial point about sustainability issues is that they can’t be taken in isolation. They operate at a global scale, and jostle at each other. Yet they are existential issues. Each of them taken alone seems possible, though not easy, to cope with. Taken together they represent a daunting picture.
The world is smaller than it was, and problems arise on larger time and space scales than our institutions are capable of handling (journalism among them). At least as I see it, the signs are that we are not only failing to cope, but that we are to some extent failing to see the landscape at all.
Trees, meet forest.
Update: This apropos infographic cheered me up a little.