Civilization: Is It Worth the
George M. Woodwell
I n 1946 the world faced the troubling thought that the new weapon that had destroyed two Japanese cities had raised the potential stakes in warfare to mutual annihilation. John Sloan Dickey left a high position and a brilliant career in the Department of State to take the presidency of Dartmouth College. He opened that first post-war year with an address to the College under the title: “Cassandra Sits in High Places Today”. We have been successful now over nearly seventy years, albeit at prodigious expense, in preventing another intemperate use and restricting the hazard, however menacing, to mere threat. Meanwhile, a host of other changes have occurred in fact that have moved the world as a whole several increments toward the devastation we once envisioned as uniquely associated with a global nuclear catastrophe.
Today’s daily global news is a triumvirate of major crises of government, economics, and environment. A world that was until recently thought to be large enough to sustain virtually any experiment in government or industrial economic development has suddenly proven vulnerable far beyond expectations or wishes of political or economic leaders. The crises are linked through environmental failures in ways that tax our best minds and assure that we are building a potentially new world of misery and chaos.Worse, the changes are rapid, accumulating, and potentially irreversible in time of interest to those now living. Seven billion of us today, nine billion tomorrow, are entering a new world that is increasingly unattractive.
There is nothing subtle about the changes that are bringing this new world. They are Hurricane Katrina, strengthened by a super-heated Gulf of Mexico to the point of destroying New Orleans; BP and its pollution of the Gulf of Mexico, the largest single pollution event in history and one of the most devastating; the destruction of the boreal forests of the Athabasca Tar Sands of Alberta for oil to drive the global fossil fuel-based industrial world; the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters that each removed thousands, possibly ten thousand, square miles of land from safe human occupation; the sacrifice zone of the Southern Appalachians where coal has been mined, the mountains pushed into the valleys and the land left barren, useless in agriculture or as habitat for people, the streams poisoned with acid; the Bhopal Accident in central India that killed outright in one evening 2-3,00 Indians in December, 1984; the heat of summers that raises the death tolls of nations such as France and Germany in 2003 to a total of as many as 30,000; similar heat and drought is said to have killed 50,000 Russians in 2010 when fires in the boreal forest kept Moscow under a cloud of smoke for weeks; and they include the lives of thousands of substantially enslaved Mexican and other workers trapped in menial jobs in a poisonous industrial agriculture in the US for a lifetime. These are corporately generated waste lands, waste waters, and waste lives , sacrifices to a totalitarian trend in a political-economic system that is destroying itself while undermining the life support system of the planet and corrupting the purpose and potential of a rich and advanced civilization.
The entire earth is caught in this corporate scramble for profits. It is most conspicuous in dealing with fossil fuels. The raw materials are drawn from publicly-owned resources, extracted from the earthly crust using various techniques that affect the sites in various ways, often profoundly. Easily available oil and gas supplies have been exhausted. Newer supplies are sought now at greater depths and by new techniques such as high pressure fracturing to release both oil and gas from tightly-packed shales. This ”fracking” involves serious contamination of large quantities of water at great depths and on the surface as well as destructive surface activities. Hazards from spills are serious and spills are common as occurred in a deep water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Coal mining on the surface devastates extensive areas as does the surface mining of tar sands and oil-bearing shales. Those areas can usually never be restored, at least in time of interest to us. They, too, are industrial sacrificial zones, impoverished, even poisoned in the extreme, that are released into public care, well off the accounting records of the industries. Profits, of course, depend on avoiding as many costs as possible. Costs that can be pushed into the public realm increase profits.
But then there are the wastes produced in the use of the coal, oil and gas.. The wastes are primarily, but not only, carbon dioxide and methane. These two gases are accumulating in the atmosphere and, through the warming of the earth, poisoning the world. The effects also are not part of the financial accounting of the industries. And the industries, aware of the problem, want to keep it that way and have worked diligently to deny any problem. Meanwhile profits accumulate and government, ever sensitive to the sentiments of business and run by politicians whose re-election hinges on money to run political campaigns, sustains the process. But the product, a degraded global biosphere, is clearly not what one might call sustainable use of the biosphere. The climatic disruption is especially acute in the Arctic where there are large deposits of organic matter accumulated over thousands of years in tundra soils and in marine sediments of the coastal zone. The thawing of the Arctic increases the rates of decay of all organic matter and potentially releases the methane accumulated through slow decay over thousands of years. The total amounts available are prodigious, enough to overwhelm any human potential for controlling the crisis of global climate.
Civilization stands on a triumvirate of systems that must function together complementing one another in the interest of public welfare. They are:
1. A Governmental System that assures the human birthright to clean air from the first breath forward throughout a lifetime, clean water, food and a place to thrive in peace and safety. That latter, peace and safety, has been protected in every culture by some form of the golden rule well known in our own legal culture as the Principle of Sic Utere. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. Use what belongs to you in such a way as to protect the interests of others.
In the nominally democratic nations we elect, from the public, individuals to work in government to set the rules under which we live in equity with one another, have equal access to resources, and to protect the public welfare in general. (Some nations operate outside such norms with a “bunch of thugs in power”. These ABOTIP nations are outlaws, not models.) Protecting corporate profits at the expense of human morbidity and mortality is not forthrightly a governmental purpose.
2. An Economic System that offers the tools for negotiating the necessities of life in a finite world. The economic system requires firm regulation by government to deflect the persistent dream that the free market is adequate to protect human rights and common property such as air, water, and land as well as human aspirations. It is essential to realize and accept that the purpose of business is profit, not human welfare. Many fail to realize that the free market system has produced slavery persistently in the past and produces it in the present when allowed. It has also produced a chain of corporate disasters, all fed by greed. It is entirely possible to establish corporate interests and businesses that serve, and are required to serve, the public welfare. J.G. Speth in his recent book America The Possible (Yale 2012) treats the topic in detail. He points to the lax regulation of corporate purpose by pointing to a corporation chartered in Virginia under the title: “License To Kill” with the purpose of using tobacco to kill 400,000 people a year.
3. An Environmental System that is intact and functional in maintaining a biosphere that is self-sustaining and stable as the habitat of all life. Such an objective requires continuous insights from science as to what is functional and what is not.
These requirements seem simple enough as the core expectations of civilization. But they are not now met, locally or globally. And the New World entrained and already emerging promises far more difficulties than we have seen so far….as the basic laws of a biophysically limited Earth are compromised to accommodate political and economic interests.
The core failure here is the corruption of governmental purpose by political and economic interests largely focused on profits. The growth of the corporate culture now dominates. It has grown so large and wealthy as to constitute what the political philosopher Wolin at Princeton has called “inverted totalitarianism” . The Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court only closes the loop and reinforces the trend. It has put the government in the hands of corporate interests whose primary purpose is financial profit, not the public welfare. Corporate interests argue in self-interest that poisoning the world is a small issue, necessarily secondary to profits, for, of course, if profits fail, so does the business.
Can we change this course from a cascading disaster to a New World we can admire and enjoy with pride as we pass it on to our children?
1. The Wolin insight defining the inversion of structure as corporate totalitarianism is appropriate and, once identified, must be corrected. It is a fundamental change, essential in an ever tighter world. Money must be taken out of politics and the core purpose of government restored. Sic utere applies at all levels.
2. In a finite world the basic laws of biophysics are immutable. We can return to recognizing and defending the physical, chemical and biotic integrity of the biosphere. Several big changes are necessary, two immediately:
a. Reverse the trend in climate and return over the course of the next century to the 1900 level of heat –trapping gases in the atmosphere, about 300 ppm carbon dioxide.. (It can be done as I show below.).
b. Correct trends in industrial activities that lead to chemical corruption of the biosphere. (Close industrial and municipal cycles to contain wastes specifically to preserve the physical, chemical and biotic integrity of the biosphere.) There can be no more sacrifice zones, giant mines, or callous industrial corruption of atmospheric or marine chemistry as we bring the fossil fueled age to an abrupt close.
What will it take to reverse the climatic disruption? At this late date it is a major challenge for a world that has so long steeped itself in the indulgence that nothing need be done. Now, with a world crisis underway, the change is the only sensible course.
Here is what can be done now.
The annual accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is between 4 and 5 billion tons. That is the amount to be removed from current emissions to stabilize the atmosphere at the present carbon dioxide concentration now approaching 400 ppm. That residue, 4-5 billion tons of carbon, is about 50% of the total annual release of 10 billion tons as shown in the table below. It can be removed, reduced to zero, within a few years by global action in. The first step is clear and simple: stop further deforestation of primary forests, globally. Such a step desirable in any case for these forests are one of the earth’s great wonders. They have many functions in running the biosphere and should be passed intact to our successors.
Second, reforestation of normally naturally forested zones to the extent of 1-2 million square kilometers will store a billion tons of carbon annually. Again, there is nothing but good for the world in such a change. That leaves at most 1,5-2.5 billion tons of carbon to be removed by reducing the use of fossil fuels immediately, a 20-33% reduction on a global basis. It can be done almost immediately by firm steps in conservation without great harm to any aspect of human welfare and with many immediate advantages.
Total Emissions of Carbon into the Atmosphere Annually ~10
Components Burning Fossil Fuels: ~8.5
Residue accumulating in the Atmosphere Annually 4-5
NB about 50% of total emission is absorbed into
oceans and terrestrial vegetation..The residue
accumulates and is the current problem.
Potential for Correcting
Stopping deforestation: ~1.5
Reforestation: 1-2 million. sq km 1-2
Residual to be removed from fossil
fuel emissions now to reach
stability now: 1.5 – 2.5 or
20-33% of the remaining 7.5
emissions under the least
Table 1. Annual Global Carbon as Carbon Dioxide in billions of tons of Carbon.
Such a step will meet the objective agreed to by all the nations in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change .The Convention has been ratified by all nations including the US, so it is universal law.
But we must go farther almost immediately to return over the next decades to the approximately 300 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that existed in 1900, only slightly above the 280 ppm that had existed for 800,000 years before we started the current excursion of atmosphere and climate. That means an abandonment of fossil fuels starting immediately and extending over the next very few decades with the objective of
reducing the atmospheric burden. Speed it important to deflect the Arctic carbon bomb whose fuse is already burning. There will be pains in such a transition, environmental, economic, and governmental pains. But the alternative is an open-ended, accelerating disruption of the earth with all the sequelae of drought, storms, heat, hunger, disease, sea level rise, civil unrest and human misery. The New World, if we reach for it effectively, will be a treasure.
The transition will entail:
-An immediate shift away from fossil fuels toward energy conservation and renewable sources of energy using technologies already available.
-Immediate steps to produce conveniently available solar powered hydrogen as a way of storing energy and moving it around.
-A massive program to put solar hot water panels on every roof nationally and around the world to provide hot water for all purposes including heating needs.
-A parallel program with solar electric panels and simple technologies for using the power.
- Developing fleets of solar charged small electric vehicles for short-distance travel including commuting.
- Develope local agricultural production along with local markets for food.
- Institute major programs for closing municipal cycles of water, wastes and energy.
The possibilities are infinite and the pleasures, too, But the core change is in recognizing that the biosphere is, first, a living system, the product of evolution just as the rest of all life. And it requires our close attention and care.
I came on a book by Diane Dumanoski recently. She wrote, “For some, including the distinguished physician and science essayist Lewis Thomas, the picture taken of Earth from the moon left little doubt that it was a living whole that inspired reverence and wonder: [Lewis Thomas wrote) ‘Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the Earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground dead as an old bone. Aloft floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising Earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos… It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun’.
“It is absurd:” she wrote “to insist upon the sanctity of humans while denying the sanctity of this larger life that enfolds us. Of the overarching process that gives the Earth its green vitality and has done so for a longer time than the human mind can conceive, is there not sacredness as well in the living Earth?”