Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Doomsday Book, An Environmental Nightmare — Part IV

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! A miracle has transpired. Yes indeed! In a stunning reversal of a doctrinaire disregard for the findings of a vast majority of international climate scientists, our illustrious president has announced that “global warming” does indeed exist. This phrase was previously off-limits to federal government workers and barred from usage in governmental documents. That this president has finally admitted that scientific evidence should be a factor in his decision making process (after all he is self-admittedly “The Decider”), is a remarkable about-face.

Science Denier?

Remember, it is just two years ago that he endorsed efforts by Christian conservatives to give “intelligent design” equal standing with the theory of evolution; and that stance was consistent with his previously stated view as governor of Texas that students should be exposed to both “creationism” and evolution. His veto of a stem cell research bill is further evidence that his personal beliefs take precedent over scientific exploration. His views on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and faith-based initiatives further confirm the fact that his religion drives government policy. Do you think the term “science denier” might apply? He certainly will not go down in the annals of presidential history as “the science president.”

Thus, whether this was a sudden epiphany on Bush’s part that gave true recognition to science or merely an act of political expediency is unknown. Also unknown is the degree to which any endeavor to manage damaging emissions will really be pursued by this administration. Unfortunately, it is not only greenhouse gas emissions that threaten civilization as we know it. This is explained at length, and quite compellingly in the 2006 published book Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. I term it The Doomsday Book although the book’s main purpose is to provide solutions to avoid that type of scenario.

Who’s He?

For an individual selected as one of “50 Great Americans” by Marquis Who’s Who, and as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” by the Washington Post, Lester R. Brown, author or co-author of over 50 books in addition to Plan B 2.0, is virtually unknown to the public. As a MacArthur fellow and the recipient of countless prizes and awards for his works on the environment, he also was the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and is currently President of Earth Policy Institute, with a goal of providing “a vision for an environmentally sustainable economy and a roadmap of how to get from here to there.” As described in Part I of this series, Ted Turner was so impressed by Plan B 2.0’s content, he purchased over 3500 copies and sent them to heads of state and other influential policy makers.

The Doomsday Book

The book lays out a series of events that have occurred, are occurring, or are predicted to occur that could indeed create a “doomsday” effect unless world leaders and governments take action to disrupt its course. The subjects covered are so diverse, far-reaching, and surprising that the singular problem of greenhouse gas emission seems almost microscopic by comparison.

The book’s opening paragraphs provide the background for Brown’s hypothesis: “Our growing economy is outgrowing the capacity of the earth to support it, moving our early twenty first century civilization ever closer to decline and possible collapse. In our preoccupation with quarterly earnings reports and year-to-year economic growth, we have lost sight of how large the human enterprise has become relative to the earth’s resources. A century ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in billions of dollars. Today it is measured in trillions.”

Brown continues, “As a result, we are consuming renewable resources faster than they can regenerate. Forests are shrinking, grasslands are deteriorating, water tables are falling, fisheries are collapsing, and soils are eroding. We are using up oil at a pace that leaves little time to plan beyond peak oil. And we are discharging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them, setting the stage for a rise in the earth’s temperature well above any since agriculture began.”

Brown elaborates further by pointing out that as we study the collapses of earlier civilizations, “the lead indicators of economic decline were environmental, not economic. The trees went first, then the soil, and finally the civilization.” He maintains that “Our situation today is far more challenging because in addition to shrinking forests and eroding soils, we must deal with falling water tables, more frequent crop withering heat waves, deteriorating range lands, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, rising seas, more powerful storms, disappearing species, and soon, shrinking oil supplies.” He emphasizes that “Although these ecologically destructible trends have been evident for some time, and some have been reversed at the national level, not one has been reversed at the global level.”

The China Card

While the world’s political bodies have been wrestling with greenhouse gas emissions, Brown has here identified numerous other vulnerabilities that beset the world at large, not the least of which can be summed up in one word — China. Of the five basic commodities, grain and meat, oil and coal, and steel, “consumption in China has eclipsed that of the United States in all but oil.” Even in consumer goods China leads in the number of cell phones, television sets, and refrigerators. Okay, we still use more computers but probably not for very long, and even Chinese automobile consumption is increasing at a torrid pace.

If the Chinese catch up to the United States in consumption per person, and its economy increases at the rate of 8 percent a year by 2031, its grain consumption would equal two thirds of the current world grain harvest; its use of paper would double existing world production — Brown writes “there go the world’s forests.” China would use 99 million barrels of oil a day by 2031. Current world production is only 84 billion barrels per day and it is unlikely that more than that can ever be produced. Imagine the chaos that will overtake the oil market (and prices) as major industrial countries fight (perhaps literally) for oil and oil supplies. And what about India whose population is projected to surpass China’s by 2031?

Peak Oil

I doubt if many American political leaders, much less the American populace have given much thought to the kind of problems that Lester Brown is postulating. He provides elaborately detailed and convincing evidence related to his concerns in the section of the book titled “A Civilization in Trouble.” The very first problem he confronts is headed “Beyond the Oil Peak.” You may recall the six part series devoted to that subject that ran in this column starting in December of 2005.

For those unfamiliar with the topic, Brown defines it as follows: “Peak Oil is described as the point where oil production stops rising and begins its unavoidable long term decline. In the face of fast growing demand, this means rising oil prices.” Some analysts believe we either have reached that point or are destined to do so within the next few years.

The results, according to Brown (as well as my articles) will be devastating. As oil supplies wither, how and where people live, travel, work and eat will be dramatically affected. For example, shopping malls and suburban living will disappear. Within this section, Brown also addresses alternative fuels such as ethanol, a subject covered here in November and December of last year. As in my articles, Mr. Brown derides corn-based ethanol as an inefficient and cost ineffective replacement for oil. He also refers to the increases in food prices resulting from accelerating corn prices as “the line between the fuel and fuel economies has suddenly blurred as service stations compete with supermarkets for the same commodities.”

His next topic, “Emerging Water Shortages” will be the subject of an article that will appear on my blog in the near future. However, here is the essence of Brown’s concerns: “The global water deficit is recent, the result of demand tripling over the last half-century. The drilling of millions of irrigation wells has pushed water withdrawals beyond the recharge of many aquifers. The failure to limit pumping the sustainable field of aquifers means that water tables are now failing in countries that contain more than half the world’s people.”

The next section does deal with greenhouse gas emissions under the heading, “Rising Temperatures, Rising Seas.” Brown cites the dramatic increase in melting glaciers on every continent and the resulting consequence of rising sea levels and on falling crop production. For Floridians, he refers to the fact that, “Rising seas are not the only threat that comes with elevated global temperatures. Higher surface water temperatures in the tropical oceans mean more energy radiating into the atmosphere to drive tropical storm systems, leading to more frequent and more destructive storms. The combination of rising seas, more powerful storms, and stronger storm surges can be devastating.”

The next segment, “National Systems Under Stress,” covers topics such as deforestation, as usage of firewood, paper and lumber is expanding. This results in less rainfall and declining crop yields. Soil erosion is also becoming a critical issue. Brown states that “Perhaps a third or more of all cropland is losing topsoil faster that new soil is forming, thereby reducing the lands’ inherent productivity.” He points out that as a result, “Today, the foundation of civilization is crumbling. The seeds of collapse of some early civilizations such as the Mayans, may have originated in soil erosion that undermined the food supply.”

Another developing problem is “ Advancing Deserts or Desertification” — “the process of converting productive land to wasteland through overuse and mismanagement. Anything that removes protective grass or trees leaves soil vulnerable to wind and water erosions.” Brown identifies areas throughout the world — several in Africa and South America, Iran, Afghanistan, China — where “overgrazing, over-plowing, and over-cutting intensified the desertification process.”

Another most serious issue is that of “Collapsing Fisheries.” As a result of advanced fishing technologies and the creation of huge refrigerated processing ships abetted by significantly increased demand, fisheries are collapsing all over the world. Brown cites an expert scientist who maintains that since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent — “ not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but also for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.” As a result, fish as a food staple will be in shorter and shorter supply.

Additional subjects covered are Population Growth, Universal Education, Poverty, Health, Failed States, and Plant and Animal Extinction. The multiple problems facing our planet and our way of life, as outlined by Lester Brown do indeed imply a doomsday scenario. However, these problems are associated with current conditions or Plan A. Under those conditions, allowing what is essentially a “business as usual” pattern to persist, a doomsday outlook is likely. Brown is not willing to accept a Plan A mentality. Thus, in the second half of the book he presents a series of recommendations for Plan B — a “how to” list of strategic initiatives to save civilization from destroying itself. This will be covered in next month’s column.

In the meantime, I strongly urge you to go to and read at least the opening chapter of the book. It is even available for a free download. I would be surprised if that did not hook you into buying the book, just $6.99 if used, and $11.99 if new, on Amazon.


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