Global Environmental Disruption
On a recent evening my husband and I sat on wooden benches under the oak trees at the Aldo Leopold Shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin to hear Professor Jonathan Foley, Director of The Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the UW-Madison, speak about global environmental disruption. The title of the presentation was: “Tipping Points on Planet Earth: Are We Close to the Edge?” The following is from the notes that I took.
Dr. Foley pointed out that ours is the first generation to see the world globally. We not only know it’s round, we know what’s going on all over it. As what is happening to the environment globally is so threatening, he sees this as the most challenging time in human history.
In the last 50 years, global population has increased from 2.5 to 6 billion. Grain use has increased threefold. Energy use has increased fourfold. Economic activity has increased sevenfold.
Dr. Foley looked at 5 major areas of environmental transformation:
1) Land Use.
– 18 million sq. km are in use to grow crops. This is equal to the area of South America.
– 34 million sq. km are dedicated to pastureland, the world’s largest ecosystem. This is equal to the area of Africa.
– 3 million sq. km have been covered with concrete.
– Agriculture uses 1/3 of the world’s real estate not covered by ice.
– Agriculture is, according to Dr. Foley, the biggest environmental problem on the planet.
2) Water Use
– A Lake Huron of water is transported and used annually by mankind.
– We are using 1/2 of all available water.
– 70% of this water goes to agricultural crops and livestock.
3) Planetary Chemistry
– In the past 100 years our use of fossil fuels has changed the earth’s atmosphere from 280 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide to 380 ppm.
– Plants use carbon dioxide, removing it from the air. Some plants thrive on higher levels of CO2, particularly the “opportunistic” species such as ragweed and poison ivy. [I have noted a stunning explosion of problem species on our 3 acre property in Wisconsin this year.]
– CO2 changes ecosystems. For instance, it makes the oceans acidic. They used to be pH 8.1, but are now pH 7.8. One result of this is that the formation of organite, the material of which coral reefs are made, is interfered with.
– The runoff of nitrate fertilizers causes hugh “blooms” of ocean plankton. When these sink and decompose, no fish can live in the area.
4) Biota (regional flora and fauna)
– For instance, we have introduced invasive species, and created highly resistant viruses.
– Our activities are responsible for climate disruption.
– There is already massive climate disruption in the Arctic
– We have been warned about climate disruption for over 100 years. TC Chamberlain wrote about it over 120 years ago.
– 99% of scientists were agreed twenty years ago that the problem was in part or all due to human activities and warranted immediate action. Now 100 % agreement among ethical scientists that this is so.
– The industy-hired “skeptics,” however, continue to grind out misinformation. 25% of American still doubt that global warming is actually occurring.
We now know that the above 5 changes interact with each other, in ways that can speed environmental disruption.
The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else. As snow and ice melt, the darker ground that is exposed absorbs solar heat rather than reflecting it. This speeds the warming process.
Trees and shrubs are beginning to grow in areas that were previously tundra. They are darker than underlying snow, and absorb heat.
- These processes may double the rate of warming.
- The Arctic is setting a new heat record annually.
Coral reefs are dying. The increased CO2 in the atmosphere acidifies the oceans. The coral also bleaches faster at higher temperatures. In 50 years there may be no more coral reefs.
Deforestation causes drier conditions, and thus more fires. Large areas of deforestation change wind patterns. Changed wind patterns can result in lack of rain, making regrowth impossible.
Species are lost.
The tropics may get much drier, with more el Nino events or even a permanent el Nino. Several areas are already extremely damaged. Borneo is toast.
Our modern societies are not good at considering future dangers. We ignore them till they have bitten us in the proverbial ass.
- A molecule of carbon dioxide lasts 110 years.
- We needed to cut 80% of our CO2 emissions 80 years ago!
Earth takes 40 to 50 years to warm up from a new heat source. The global warming we are experiencing presently is from our 1956 pollution!
- We have already set 150 to 300 years of global warming into action.
- We may have already lost the Arctic as it has existed, and the coral reefs.
- We have created damage beyond our understanding or our control.
At this point, Dr. Foley realized that the audience was rather depressed, and attempted to cheer us by mentioning what he sees as positive about our times. He pointed out that at this time in human history more people eat well than ever before, more people live in participatory democracies, more people are literate, etcetera.
[This “good news” appeared strikingly anthrocentric to me, and also “culturocentric.” I don’t imagine it would be very reassuring to the very high percentages of homo sapiens who are malnourished, illiterate or living in totalitarian states. Nor, could they apprehend it, to the polar bears and tropical species who are dying so that we could live in a luxurious fashion for a few decades.
That said, I frankly admire Prof. Foley’s choice to look on the bright side and to be optimistic about the future. I do perceive his optimism to be more a matter of choice than the result of weighing the evidence to date. Others spending their working days weighing the same evidence are not so optimistic. However, a positive attitude contributes wonderfully to positive achievement. I mean to emulate him.
Dr. Foley notes that there is a tall wall between our scientists and our Decision Makers. Scientists do their research and lob their information over the wall, hoping that somebody on the other side will catch it in receptive hands and act on it. However, what is on the other side of the wall is a big pile of papers and information that the Decision Makers pay no attention to.
When we had a chance to ratify the Kyoto Treaty, agreeing to living carbon dioxide emissions, our Senate voted 99% to 0 against it. The US and Australia were the only countries in the world not to join in the agreement to limit CO2. (However, he pointed out, the Soviet Union joined just to make the US look bad, and have not actually taken any action.)
Our national political “leaders” are not taking the lead. And G. Bush did not keep his campaign promise to reduce CO2. (“This is called a lie,” Dr. Foley pointed out.)
Fortunately, states and cities are taking independent action and forming their own policies to reduce CO2. Many business leaders also realize the importance of this task.
Foley ways that in addition to conserving energy and turning to renewables, we will need “clean coal” energy production. He thinks we may need some nuclear energy as well. [What about the future problems there, though?]
He also thinks some GMOs may be good – plants that can use nitrogen more efficiently.
Dr. Foley recommends reading Isacc Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, about a wise fellow who set up far-flung think tanks when he realized his civilization faced immanent collapse, so that the civilization could be brought back -1000 years hence. We should have a 1000 year plan, Foley says.
Another author he recommends is Barbara Kingsolver.
[A number of Sheri S. Tepper’s speculative fiction books will also provoke a different-persepective look at a number of the issues discussed here. Try The Family Tree, for starters.]
The idea of a 1000 year plan reminded Dr. Foley of the story about New Oxford College. A building built there in the 14th had immense oak beams in the ceiling, which began to fail recently. Many options for redoing the ceiling were discussed, all based on the presumption that such huge oaks were no longer available in m odern times. However, it finally occurred to someone to contact the College forester, who replied “Your trees are ready.”
It turned out that when the original building was constructed, the builders knew that eventually, far in the future, the great oak beams would need to be replaced, and the College forester was instructed to plant more trees and tend them until they were needed.
Whether a second crop of trees has been planted so that several hundred years from now they will be ready when needed, is a question that does not even occur to most people when they hear this story, who just respond with pleased surprise that the present need was met. The audience at the Leopold Shack did wonder, but nobody knew the answer.
The main point that Prof. Foley made is that the issue of global environmental disruption is at core a moral issue. Not only are plant and animal species suffering and being destroyed, but already 150,000 people a year are dying as a result of climate change. This is presently happening far away from our eyes – mostly in Africa- but our consumption choices are directly responsible.
Prof. Foley shared that after his family made lifestyle choices resulting in the household becoming “carbon neutral” (not contributing to CO2 increase), he was talking about it to a friend in Germany who wryly congratulated him for living as people in Germany and many other places already live.
With no conscious intention on our part, just living the ordinary American lifestyle amounts to chronic contribution to the galloping disruption of our global environment. If we wish to counter this disruption, we must first clean up our own consumption habits, and then inspire others to do likewise. Without this chain reaction of personal commitment, we cannot hope that our children, and their children, will enjoy a life-sustaining environment.
And of course the other species have no choice in the matter at all. Their fates depend upon the choices now by Homo sapiens. – You and me!
A period of Q&A followed the talk, during which the following points were made:
- Prof. Foley does not believe that population growth is an issue that needs much focus. He notes that population growth rates are already decreasing, and expects the global population to level out at about 9 billion by 2045.
- The real problem, he asserts, is not how many people there are, but their patterns of consumption.
- Someone asked Foley’s opinion of Al Gore, and he praised him highly, noting that Gore has been deeply committed to the environment for many years, has travelled the globe extensively in his own research efforts, has the equivalent of 3 PhDs in environmental education, and presents the facts with remarkable skill and clarity.
- It was mentioned that the three biggest subsidies at present in the US are roads, prisons and agriculture.
- In response to a question about ethanol, Foley mentioned that switch grass would result in at least 3 times more energy than corn.
- In addition, he believes that solar energy could replace 60% of our fossil fuel use – IF we can break the present political/economic gridlock.
At this point, I mentioned that there is a 6th area of environmental transformation to be considered, which is interacting with at least some of the 5 he discussed, and shared briefly some information about the greatest environmental change created thus far by humans – the change in the earth’s electromagnetic environment, which is affecting animal and human health in extremely negative ways.
Prof. Foley’s first reaction to this was to protest that the effects of EMF/EMR on Earth’s life forms is not yet a sure thing, that there is a lot of disagreement concerning this. “Ah, ” I replied, “You have fallen for the PR spin of the hired skeptics you were just talking about.” Prof. Foley understood the implications of this immediately, and promised to become informed re. this area of environmental transformation.
In conclusion, Prof. Foley lamented the fact that our frivolous lifestyle is killing people and destroying our environment, and exhorted us to see the this as a moral issue.
He suggested that when we spread the word we don’t come across as stereotype “environmentalists,” who are viewed by a lot of people as “tree huggers,” but to talk about morality, and about security.
Ain’t nobody gonna have a secure future without a healthy and sustainable global environment in which to have it.
Please think deeply on this, and let your consumption choices be guided by commitment to the things that really matter.
Note: Many environmental groups are touting switching to compact fluorescent bulbs as a great step to take to protect the environment. Unfortunately, fluorescent bulbs create an extremely unhealthy environment, as they produce high frequencies that interfere severely with the normal processes of living bodies.
Dr. Magda Havas is presently doing a research project comparing the electrical pollution produced by different brands of CF bulbs, and to determine whether there are any safe brands. A safe brand would feature a small RF filter built into each bulb.