Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Doomsday Book, An Environmental Nightmare — Part V

On January 6 th, 1942, just one day short of one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented his annual State of the Union address to the nation. Few people today have a vivid recollection of the details of that speech, and that is unfortunate since there are lessons that can be learned from it. He said, in part, “Our task is hard — our task is unprecedented — and the time is short. We must strain every existing armament-producing facility to the utmost. We must convert every available plant and tool to war production. That goes all the way from the greatest plants to the smallest — from the huge automobile industry to the village machine shop. […] Only this all-out scale of production will hasten the ultimate all-out victory. Speed will count. Lost ground can always be regained — lost time, never. Speed will save lives; speed will save this Nation which is in peril; speed will save our freedom and our civilization.”

The enormity of Roosevelt’s thinking was so prodigious as to be almost inconceivable. For example, in this historic speech, he outlined his industrial war objectives for the year 1942: to produce 60,000 planes (and more than double that number, 125,000 in 1943); 45,000 tanks (75,000 in 1943); to increase ship production to 6,000,000 tons in that current year, adding 4,000,000 tons more in 1943.

The primary industrial complex at the time was the automobile industry, and its leaders expressed doubt as to their ability to meet this enormous challenge, questioning whether Roosevelt’s goals were even doable. Roosevelt reportedly responded, “Gentlemen, you do not understand me. You will stop producing cars and will produce what our country needs from you.” — And produce they did, completely halting all car production from the spring of 1942 until the end of 1944.

As Brown’s book recalls, “In addition to a ban on the production and sale of cars for private use, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. A rationing program was also introduced. Strategic goods — including tires, gasoline, fuel, oil, and sugar — were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up material resources to support the war effort.”

As a guest speaker at a meeting of the World Bank in Washington in April of this year, Lester R. Brown, president of the WorldWatch Institute and author of the book Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, recounted the above story. Brown compared those times when the world faced the challenges presented by the combined Nazi and Japanese threats, to the even more dire potential consequences related to global warming that also endanger civilization as we know it. Public sacrifices for the sake of waging war, common during that precarious period, are strangely missing today.

Juraj Mesik of the World Bank wrote this comment about Brown’s presentation: “A leader of Roosevelt’s stature could rally his nation and the world to understand the dangers of changing weather patterns — droughts, fires, storms, refugees, depleted water supplies — that will spare no nation, no matter how wealthy.” It is obvious that President Bush has no intention of becoming that leader in the arena of global warming even if he possessed the abilities to do so. Most ironic is the fact that unlike our present president, the individual that is leading the war on global warming is the “might have been president,” Al Gore. As a result of the 2000 election, we have lost precious time — it will be eight years — until the next president, hopefully, will address this issue with the same strength of character and willfulness as did Roosevelt in that time of desperate need.

Mr. Brown’s tome, that I have identified as the “Doomsday Book,” does outline a series of issues that left unaddressed could indeed lead to catastrophic consequences, many of which have not been recognized as problematic. Consider, for example, one such issue that I strongly suspect you have overlooked — SEX. That does not refer to gender, but to sexual activity that will drive the world’s population from its current number of over 6,600,000,000 to almost half again as large by 2050, over 9,400,000,000. The organization, World Population Awareness, describes overpopulation as “the root of most, if not all, environmental and many economic issues: timber over-harvesting, loss of arable land, ocean depletion, food shortages, water shortages, air pollution, water pollution, flooding, plant and animal habitat loss, global warming, and immigration.”

Far be it for me to discourage sex. However, even the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund states, “We cannot confront the massive challenges of poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction unless we address issues of population and reproductive health.” As Lester Brown points out, this is a concern that can be easily mitigated by providing reproductive health and family planning services. He quotes a United Nations estimate that “…meeting the needs of the 201 million women who do not have access to effective contraception could each year prevent 52 million unwanted pregnancies, 22 million induced abortions, and 1.4 million infant deaths.” He says, “The costs to society of not filling the family planning gap are unacceptably high.”

The issues covered in Brown’s book, Plan B, are not only diverse, but really too numerous to list all in an article of this nature. Brown describes the three components that comprise Plan B as “1) restructuring of the global economy so that it can sustain civilization; 2) an all-out effort to eradicate poverty, stabilize population, and restore hope in order to elicit participation of the developing countries; and 3) a systematic effort to restore natural systems.”

For example, one critical problem that ties in to the “sex” issue mentioned above is the growing world-wide HIV scourge, that has, as Brown writes, “so disrupted economic and social progress [especially] in Africa.” He suggests, “At the most fundamental level, dealing with the HIV threat requires roughly [a total of 12 billion] condoms a year in the developing world and Eastern Europe. However, only 2.5 billion are actually being distributed. Yet, it would cost only $285 million a year to distribute enough to save a huge number of lives.”

He writes compellingly about attempts to eliminate poverty, however, “A strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an economy’s environmental support systems are collapsing. If croplands are eroding and harvests are shrinking, if water tables are falling and wells are going dry, if rangelands are turning to desert and livestock are dying, if fisheries are collapsing, if forests are shrinking, and if rising temperatures are scorching crops, a poverty program — no matter how carefully crafted and well implemented will not succeed.”

Brown offers recommendation on how to embark on programs that would address each of these issues, and then, unlike most visionaries who tend to ignore cost issues, he provides an “Annual Earth Restoration Budget.” This outlines the dollar cost to reforest the earth, protect topsoil on cropland, restore rangeland, restore fisheries, protect biologic diversity, and stabilize water tables. To some, the cost, estimated at $93 billion, might seem excessive. However, consider that “More than half the world’s people depend directly [or indirectly on these industries] for their jobs.”

Brown also furnishes estimated costs to “Meet Social Goals,” such as universal primary education, adult literacy, school lunch programs, reproduction health and family planning, universal health care, and closing the condom gap. Funding these issues would be $68 billion annually. These two numbers add up to a total of $161 billion a year—a staggering amount? If viewed from the perspective of saving the planet, perhaps not. Ironically too, according to an official Congressional Research Service report, dated the end of June, that amount is just under the total allocated to the Department of Defense for conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has a reputation of being a result-oriented nation. It would seem something is awry.

As might be expected, Brown does not overlook the consequences of climate change. One chapter, titled “Stabilizing Climate,” is devoted to specific recommendations that would help resolve the problem of global warming. He points out however, that while the European Union and Japan have specific plans to reduce carbon emissions and boost energy efficiency, the U.S. has made little progress in doing so. Yet the simple act of replacing all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL’s) would cut the use of electricity for lighting in half. While more costly, CFL’s use only one-third as much electricity and last ten times as long as incandescent bulbs. (Install them in your outdoor lighting along with the new timers that accommodate fluorescent bulbs.) Used worldwide, CFL’s could eliminate the need for hundreds of climate disrupting coal-fired power plants.

On a much wider scale, Brown is a strong proponent of wind power. Brown cites six reasons why wind power is so desirable and why its usage is growing so fast, especially in Europe. “It is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate benign.” Wind’s annual growth rate of 29% dwarfs the growth of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power. It is estimated that by 2020, wind generated electricity will satisfy the resident needs of 195 million consumers half of Europe’s population. As long ago as 1991, the U.S. Department of Energy noted that three wind rich states, N. Dakota, Kansas, and Texas, had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs — and that was before the advancements that have occurred in wind technology and the 100 meter tall wind turbines currently in use.

There is also a tie-in between wind power and hybrid cars—specifically the next generation of Hybrids that will include plug–in electric capacity. Brown predicts, “Moving to the highly efficient plug-in gas-electric hybrids, combined with the construction of thousands of wind farms across the country to feed electricity into a strong, integrated national grid, could cut U.S gasoline use by 85 percent. It would also rejuvenate farm and ranch communities and shrink the U.S. balance-of-trade deficit. Even more important, it could cut automobile carbon emissions by some 85 percent, making the U.S. a model for other countries.”

Another vast untapped source of energy is solar cell energy. Both Japan and Germany successfully implemented solar roof programs with installations of 70,000 in Japan and 100,000 in Germany. In addition, more than one million homes in villages in the developing world are getting electricity from solar cells. (A large new solar cell fabricating plant was just built and opened in Germany by a U.S. company, First Solar, whose chief executive officer’s parents live in Boca Pointe.) Currently, China, the world leader in this technology is planning to quadruple its current 52 million square meters of solar collectors by 2015. Spain is also a leading manufacturer of solar thermal panels, and now requires the inclusion of rooftop solar heaters on all new buildings.

Brown notes that the sun is not the only powerful source of energy. The earth itself is also a source of heat energy, mostly from radioactivity deep with the earth, in the form of geothermal energy. Many countries, rich in geothermal energy are those bordering on the Pacific in the so-called Ring of Fire — some in South America, Central America, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, Russia and China, and several other Asian countries. Here, the U.S. and the Philippines are leaders. The number of countries turning to geothermal energy is increasing rapidly.

For the U.S., Brown maintains that, “…its rich endowment of low cost wind energy suggests that wind will likely emerge as the center-piece of the new energy economy. It can supply electricity for heating, cooling, cooking, powering automobiles, and even producing steel. The United States, which gets 7 percent of its electricity from existing hydroelectric facilities, also has a substantial geothermal potential in the western states and an enormous solar cell potential throughout the country.”

Brown claims that, “History judges political leaders by whether or not they respond to the great issues of their time. For today’s leaders, that issue is how to move the global economy onto an environmentally sound path. We need a national political leader to step forward, an environmental Churchill, to rally the world around this mobilization.” He further emphasizes, “The choice is ours—yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”


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