Saturday, November 24, 2007

Want to Save the Earth?

Why are there so many college students who want to save the earth, and so few who want to read their Geography 101 textbook? Saving the earth is very important business; but shouldn’t they know something about this earth they are trying to save?

Don’t we need to know why so many species of birds migrate thousands of miles north from the tropics each summer, including some that migrate all the way to the arctic region of Canada and Alaska? Why are soils so deep and well developed in the tropics, but so poor in organic material and nutrients; and, why are the soils of West Texas thin and rocky? What makes some rainfall very erosive, whereas other types of rainfall are hardly erosive at all? Why are some soils very erodable whereas other soil types are not prone to erosion? Why do we have many river valleys flooded by the Atlantic Ocean to become broad estuaries, with the Chesapeake being a prominent example, whereas cliffs and deep harbors are common along our Pacific coast? What caused all those long narrow lakes, often extending into the ocean as fjords, in the northwest of North America; and why do we find similar long narrow lakes along the west coast of Norway, Southern Chile, and New Zealand? Why is the east humid and most of the west arid? Why are the trees in the extreme southeast mostly broadleaf evergreen, in the east generally mostly broadleaf deciduous, in the north mostly needleleaf evergreen, and in the far north and Siberia mostly needleleaf deciduous? Is the earth closer to the sun in July or January? Has it always been that way? Has the elliptical orbit of earth about the sun always been so circular (off by only about 3%)? Has the tilt in the axis always been 23½ degrees? Why do almost half of all U.S. endangered species have Hawaiian names? Could we save many species by changing their names to something non-Hawaiian? Why is traveling “straight east” to some destination a very different sort of thing than traveling “straight north” to some other destination? Is the current interglacial period warmer or cooler than past interglacial periods? Wouldn’t it be prudent for those folks who are saving the earth to know the answers to those and several thousand other questions?

I suppose we should admire those young men who grow ponytails and douse themselves with that “save the earth” perfume. Hell, I never had the guts to do something like that! Just let one of those guys walk into your lecture hall and you and all 100 students present know immediately that the earth is being saved! If you are female the ponytail doesn’t help to save the earth; on the contrary, girls with ponytails are destroying the earth. Girls need to comb their long hair straight down and stop wearing makeup. And, if they are REALLY serious about saving the earth they need to wear a print dress of the sort made from flour sacks back in the 20’s and 30’s; unless there is an Amish community nearby those dresses are hard to come by and cost big bucks when you do find them. When one of those gals walk through the mall in her flour-sack dress, on her way to the natural foods and herbs store, several hundred shoppers know for sure the earth is being saved.

It helps when the “saving the earth” guys and gals gather in some public place and sit cross-lagged on the sidewalk. It’s tough sitting cross-legged when you really AREN’T an American Indian or Zen Buddhist. But they console themselves with long periods of intense eye contact and saying things like: “The wolves and Indians were here first, you know;” or “I don’t eat McDonald’s hamburgers;” or “People who can’t ride bicycles can just walk to work!” As a matter of fact, I don’t ever recall a single American Indian or Oriental person in one of those groups. And interestingly, there is never a foreign student among them either—not even from one of those countries that will take the brunt of famine, drought, rising sea levels, rainforest destruction, and capitalist exploitation. Apparently saving the world is strictly the “White Man’s Burden”.

When you have lived through as many environmental crises as I have, you start taking them in stride. I remember the first one ever brought to my attention; it was 1953 when our 9th grade science teacher informed us that all petroleum would be depleted by 1960, and natural gas and coal would last only five years longer. By 1965 we would be back to the horse and buggy and wood stoves. Hitchhiking to school a few days later I was picked up by an oil field worker who, being a good citizen, wanted to save me from the toil and low income that was his lot in life: “Take a degree in petroleum engineer; you’ll make good money in that field,” he said, contrasting his lot as a roughneck with those guys who walk around with clipboards. “My science teacher told us that all the oil would be depleted by 1965—long before I could complete a degree in petroleum engineering.” “Those people don’t know shit; we haven’t even started looking for oil yet.” He replied. Now I ask you: Am I to believe my science teacher or some oil field roughneck? Study petroleum engineering in the 1960’s? That about like buying new skis or investing in snowmobile factories with global warming bearing down on us: DAH’HAAA!

The end of fossil fuels could not have come at a worse time, because in the 1950’s and 60’s we were headed straight into the teeth of an ice age. The northwest passage was long closed and ice was moving rapidly over Canada, and would soon be bearing down on Detroit and Chicago. Indeed, even in the mid-1970’s there was still “a consensus among environmental scientists” that the ice age was imminent and with devastating consequences already apparent. The cooling trend from 1940 actually ended in about 1965, but a couple of cold snowy winters in the 1970’s keep global warming at bay for a time. I remember an environmental geography text published in the mid-1970’s (by Harm de Blij) that included a map showing ice covering much of North America and on the same page another map showing the consequence of global warming with Florida and much of the east coast under water—take your pick—ice age or global warming! Either way it will be disastrous; and incidentally, either way we were causing it by burning fossil fuels!

Actually the coming ice age and/or global warming was not the top environmental crisis at that time because the overpopulation bomb exploded in the mid 1960’s. Paul Ehrlich told us (in his Population Bomb book) that the struggle against overpopulation was over and we lost. We would have “mild” food rationing in the U.S. by 1975. Obviously, the darker-skinned folks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia would have mostly starved to death by then, assuming we were humane enough to mercifully stop sending them food. He projected a world population of 2 billion by 1985 and 1.5 billion by the turn of the century. As if that were not sufficiently scary, he also told us that most minerals would also have been depleted by that date. Take copper, for example, he told us (in his famous Playboy interview): All copper reserves would be depleted by 1975 and thereafter all our electrical systems would cease to work.

Never mind that fiber optics had just been developed to replace copper. And, never mind that we humans have not destroyed (or created) a single atom of copper in our entire existence—the end of “known reserves” of copper would be the end of copper. And, never mind that “known reserves” is defined as the amount already discovered that can be mined at the current price; and never mind that the “known reserves” has always been equal to five or ten years of current consumption because mining companies would have to be complete fools to develop reserves that will not be needed for ten years. And, never mind that the real price (adjusted for inflation) of copper and virtually all other raw materials has been generally declining since stone age times because potential supply continued to exceed the rapidly expanding demand. And, never mind that the percentage of total income spent on raw materials has declined to so small a fraction of total income that a doubling of the prices would hardly be noticeable; and etc., etc., etc. Anyway, we would be too busy mining libraries for fuel to worry about recovering and reprocessing used copper, inasmuch as deforestation would have long since have eliminated alternative fuels.

It was shortly after the overpopulation bomb exploded that the soil erosion crisis hit us. Remember that one? At the rate the Mississippi carried soil downstream, the entire Midwest would be rendered useless for agriculture by 1990. The Mississippi Delta would have extended several hundred miles into the Gulf—fortunately, because that would be one of the few places left to grow crops. Then our rivers started burning up, and most of us were choking to death on second-hand smoke, pollution, and Big Macs, and being poisoned by arsenic in our water or mercury in our air. Never mind that life expectancy has increased to the point that most people face the prospect of continuing to breath several years after their bodies were completely worthless and their brains mostly or totally dead while a nurse spooned pabulum down their throats.

Remember the 2006 hurricane season? After Katrina it was certain that global warming had increased Gulf temperatures to the point that dozens of class five hurricanes would be bearing down on us in 2006. We would run out of names for hurricanes and be forced to assign Greek letters, and after exhausting all those Greek letters would be forced to fall back on simple numbers. Now that is a true crisis; imagine not having names for our hurricanes! Actually, the number and intensity of hurricanes was abnormally low in 2006, but never mind that. The terrors of global warming were not diminished.

Is there anything to any of this environmental crisis stuff? YES! We have very serious environmental problems. Most of those problems can be remedied or ameliorated with good science and public funding. Too bad the “save the earth” people have made environmentalism a big joke that most citizens shrug off as complete nonsense. But, if college students weren’t saving the earth they would be doing panty raids and “streaking” nude across the campus. We expect that from college students. Too bad those students have been joined by adults who know better, and too bad the press gives them front page news coverage. [I don’t remember front page newspaper spreads and television coverage of the panty raids and nude streakers!]


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