Humanist Perspectives: issue 163: Global Warning!

Global Warning!
by John Nixon

In 1962 a book was published in the United States which was to have a profound effect on how we view the world in which we live. That book was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The book was one of the first by a scientist to warn of the impact on our health of the growing use of synthetic chemicals in our environment, with particular emphasis on the use of pesticides. Basing her opinions on carefully documented research, she was the first to identify the danger of indiscriminate use of DDT. Carson’s book became an instant best seller, while at the same time it was pilloried by the chemical and petrochemical industries as exaggerating the threat and of misrepresenting data to suit a preconceived agenda. In the ensuing decades Rachel Carson has been proven correct in most aspects of her research. Today the use of pesticides is heavily regulated and DDT has long since been banned.

In 1972 another important book on the environment was published, but this one did not receive as much publicity as perhaps it should have. Limits to Growth was issued as a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the Predicament of Mankind. The Club of Rome comprised a group of thirty scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and others who, with the aid of computer experts at MIT in the USA, attempted to predict the future for mankind on this planet using extensive computer modeling. The report in effect sounded a global warning based on forecast average rates of consumption of non-renewable resources, population growth and depletion of arable land. Using known global reserves at that time it was predicted that we would run out of petroleum by 1990, natural gas by 1992, zinc by 1988, silver by 1983, gold by 1979, copper by 1991 and nickel by 2023. By 2000 all arable land would be in use to produce sufficient food for the global population, after which there would be a growing deficit of available land leading to increasing malnutrition and widespread famine. Various “what if?” scenarios were modeled assuming, for example, a five-fold increase in the then known reserves of minerals, and that population growth rates would be slowed by various percentages. Such assumptions succeeded in delaying Armageddon, as it were, but would not eventually prevent the ultimate breakdown of civilization as we know it and the possible destruction of mankind.

We all know now that, for a variety of reasons, the most pessimistic forecasts of the Club of Rome have not been realized. In 1972 the report did not foresee the widespread use of birth control, which has been a factor in reducing future population growth. Nevertheless the estimated global population doubled in only forty years (from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion in 1999). Likewise the discovery of new oil reserves has delayed the onset of “peak oil” (the point at which global oil consumption exceeds the capacity of known reserves to sustain that consumption rate). Furthermore the growing trend to recycling of materials of consumption was not foreseen at the time the report was produced. The impact of alternative technologies has likewise distorted some consumption rates — for example the substitution of fiber optic cable for copper wiring in communication networks and the replacement of metal by plastic components in automobiles.

Limits to Growth was arguably a case study in the risks inherent in predicting the future when dealing with complex dynamic systems associated with global economics, natural resources, food production, population growth, and so on. At the same time it attracted widespread public attention for perhaps the first time to the intrinsic problems stemming from uncontrolled population growth and limits to non-renewable resources and arable land. For that reason it served a useful purpose.

Another factor that was apparently not addressed in the report was the effect of global warming and climate change resulting from the accumulation of greenhouse gases (principally methane and carbon dioxide). Although it is recognized that historically there have been recurring natural cycles of global warming and cooling ever since the last ice age ended some 10,000 years ago, there is now overwhelming evidence that the increasing consumption of fossil fuels by humans has contributed significantly to the current accelerating warming trend. This conclusion was unanimously endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their report issued in February 2007, and more recently by that prestigious body of scientists, the Royal Society in Britain. The consequences of this warming trend, if left unchecked, are difficult to assess. By any measure, however, they could have a profound effect on sea levels, weather patterns, agricultural productivity and the survival of many species of plant and animal life.

In addition to the concerns revealed in the Club of Rome report, we have in recent years been exposed to a blizzard of warnings concerning other factors, especially threats to human health. Links have been established between cancer in humans and an array of products such as PCBs, asbestos, and tobacco, to name a few. We have become accustomed to periodic warnings concerning possible pandemics, including HIV Aids, SARS, avian flu, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease, not to mention contamination of food and water supplies by E coli, botulism, hepatitis, Legionnaire’s disease, Norwalk virus and others. Of particular concern is the growing threat in our hospitals from mutating bacterial infections leading to superbugs that are resistant to all known antibiotics.

There has been much publicity lately (long overdue in the opinion of many) on the alarming increase in obesity, particularly in young children. This has long been evident in North America, particularly in the USA, but is now appearing in developing countries such as Indonesia, where obesity was previously virtually unknown. Contributing factors are evidently diet (excessive calorie intake brought on in part by the proliferation of junk food and sugared beverages) combined with an increasingly sedentary life style for which television, video games and the internet are largely to blame.

Over and above all these dangers to human health and existence are the man-made threats resulting from religious extremism and concomitant terrorism, the spread of the “failed state syndrome” and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to unstable regimes such as North Korea and Iran. The problem of safe storage of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants that can remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years presents a challenge to which we do not yet have a foolproof solution. The increasing risk of maritime spills of oil and other hazardous chemicals represents a growing threat to the viability of ocean life, in addition to the severe effects now being registered on populations of cod and salmon from decades of relentless and uncontrolled overfishing.

Out of all this has come a growing realization of the fine balance of Nature and of the interconnectedness of everything that we see around us. Examples include the mountain pine beetle infestation that is currently decimating vast tracts of forest in British Columbia and Washington State. The accelerating infestation has been blamed on recent warmer than normal winters that have allowed more of the beetle larvae to survive the winters. The consequent reduction in forest cover decreases the number of trees available to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the build up of this greenhouse gas, which in turn helps to fuel the global warming trend. There are also fears that further climate warming will melt permafrost in Canada’s north, thereby releasing large volumes of methane gas presently locked in the frozen muskeg. This in turn will exacerbate the warming trend, thereby closing the vicious circle.

Remedial measures attempted by humans have at times had unexpected adverse consequences. As an example, salmon farming enterprises proliferated in recent years on the British Columbia coast in an attempt to offset the recorded decline in wild salmon stocks. Many of these farms have been located close to the migration corridors of wild salmon. Unfortunately raising farmed salmon in confined quarters has encouraged the spread of disease among the fish, thereby requiring the massive use of antibiotics in the feed, which in turn may have harmful effects on the ultimate consumers. More worrying perhaps is the proliferation of sea lice in the fish pens. Some of these lice have escaped from the farms and have infested juvenile wild salmon starting their migration to the open ocean, which some believe will have devastating consequences on juvenile fish mortality.

Based on a long litany of negative prognostications it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of mankind, indeed of all life forms, on this planet. But we must not give up hope. The key to human survival can be summed up in the words “make do with less”. There will have to be a very significant change in the attitudes of individuals, industries and governments. Education will be key to ensuring that the message is spread far and wide.

We are all in this together; floods, famine and disease do not respect international borders, ethnic origin, culture, language or religion. Massive investment is needed in exploring and developing alternative green energy sources, such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal. Infrastructure in developing countries must be improved to speed distribution of food, medicine and supplies to rural populations. All of us need to maximize our recycling of materials of consumption, and to reduce consumption in general. Reduction in family sizes, particularly in developing countries, is essential if there is to be any check on global overpopulation. This in turn requires increasing public education as well as government cooperation on a massive scale to disseminate birth control information to remote and often illiterate peasant communities in third world countries.

Have we already passed the point of no return? I hope that we have not, and that there is still time to ensure that our children and grandchildren will continue to enjoy an acceptable quality of life on this truly beautiful and wonderfully complex planet.

John Nixon is a semi-retired professional engineer, living in West Vancouver. He received his high school education in Britain before emigrating to Canada, where he obtained a B.Eng. degree from McGill and an MBA from York University.