|Surviving Human Nature|
Humans die from calamities of their own making. The changes we are causing in the Earth's biosphere will return to harm some of us individually and collectively through unwelcome changes in weather, climate, food and water supplies. The cost of these adverse changes will continue to grow and will exceed the cost of effective remedial action. An indulged European, American or Canadian is still living on borrowed money and a debt from environmental degradation that is yet to be paid.
In the USA, NASA has become of fund of information on the status of the planet, specifically launching satellites that monitor the important parameters of climate change. Their online climate change newsletter provides current data and perspectives. NASA's Global Climate Change website is produced by the Earth Science Communications Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
If you were an environmentally conscious God watching human behavior, you might be properly annoyed - who gave them the right to burn all that fossil fuel, pollute the air and water, cut down all those trees, kill all those animals, pave all those forests and farmers' fields? Why didn't they move closer and walk to work everyday? Of course, God is likely to have a longer-term view and while lamenting the current folly of humans will probably recall that planet earth undergoes continuous change and from time to time, cataclysmic events alter the entire planet. Perhaps our folly is seen as just another natural phenomenon - what if 200 years from now, God enters a note into her journal: " Humans on Planet Earth had the chance to get it right but they didn't make it - main problems: self-destructive, short term planners and tragically selfish -soiled their own nest."
Climate change associated with global warming means that the earth retains more of the sun's heat over time. The increased heating of greenhouse gases is reduced by increased reflection of the suns' energy reaching the earth by clouds and particle pollution in the atmosphere. Without particle pollution, the heating effects would be greater. The planet's thermostat had been set at a pleasant average temperature of 59 degrees (F) for the last 10 thousand years or so and is now changing dramatically. The warming effect of greenhouse gases is reduced by particle pollution and clouds that block incoming infrared radiation. Without particle pollution, global warming would be more obvious. According to NASA, " 2013 tied with 2009 and 2006 for the seventh warmest years since 1880; 2014 and 2015 have continued the trend of rising global temperatures. Scientists emphasize that weather patterns always will cause fluctuations in average temperatures from year to year, but the continued increases in greenhouse gas levels in Earth's atmosphere are driving the long-term rise in global temperatures."
The model of atmospheric dynamics that has emerged from a high tech, multidisciplinary study of the planet is complex. Important players in atmospheric dynamics are:
1. The sun that supplies the energy.
2. The atmosphere regulates input and output of the sun's energy
3. Oceans store and distribute heat while supplying water to the atmosphere.
4. The green biomass in the ocean and on land supplies oxygen and consumes carbon dioxide.
5. Ice fields subtract water from the oceans and store it at temperatures below 0 degrees C.5. Humans change all the variables except the sun.
Glass covering greenhouses admits light and heat energy but blocks some of the infrared heat energy that is radiated back. The green house stays warmer than the external environment. In the atmosphere, a similar effect occurs. Greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These gases act like the glass covering a greenhouse, letting sunlight in but blocking some of the infrared radiation from the earth's surface that carries heat back into space. The gases act like a blanket wherever their concentration increases. Local concentrations increase local heat and increased differences between hotter and colder regions drives weather events into more extreme ranges.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important gas and is produced from the burning of fossil fuels, and the burning of forests. The concentration of CO2 was 280 PPM before the industrial revolution and is over 400 PPM (Aug 2015). The 1990s, the US produced 23% of global CO2 emissions, Western Europe 14%, former Soviet bloc 20 %, China 12%, India 4% and Japan 5%. High emission countries pump out over 3 metric tons per capita - the US produces 5.2 metric tons per person. Low emission countries produce less than 1 metric tone per capita. Most of Africa, South America, and Asia are below 1 metric ton per capita. If you include Brazil, Indonesia and Germany in the industrial heavy-weight polluters, they account for 56 % of the world's population, 59% if its economic output, 58% of its carbon-dioxide emissions and 53% of its forests.
An Ideal World ?In an ideal world, everyone would seek personal wealth, heath and well being, but at the same time would strive to restore the health of planet earth. Smart people realize that no personal benefit will survive long in a world that is ailing, polluted and careening toward more man-made disasters. The really sad part of our current predicament is that all the right ideas have been around for decades and have been clearly articulated in many forms by a host of intelligent people. The right ideas involve unselfish and compassionate behavior. The right ideas involve long-term planning, conservation and a deep commitment to preserving the natural world. Without a healthy natural environment, there will be few or no healthy humans.
In the past three decades, working as a physician, I encountered more and more patients who want to flee from city life, air pollution, and chronic illnesses which they suspect comes from polluted environments and bad food. One professional man, for example, explained that he and his wife had moved to a semi-rural suburban community and commuted to work over 20 years - they went to separate destinations and drove two cars. They were driving to a city that grew out to meet them. The population tripled. When they started commuting, his journey took less than 30 minutes; 20 years later, the trip each way took 60 minutes on average; sometimes, when the traffic was bad, they each spent 90 minutes or more in the car, one-way. Both had become progressively ill. Both decided they would move to a small town and never commute again.
The decision to drive one or more cars every day, long distances to work may have been a common one among working couples in North America in the past 40 years. Cities grew larger. The development of suburbs often placed homes far from work places; massive road construction encouraged extravagant car use. In retrospect, it was clear to this couple that it had been a terrible mistake and they should stop commuting. Their mistake had health and economic consequences for them personally and for every other inhabitant of planet earth.
Even the best of our infrastructure was built in a hasty manner to last only a few years and is deteriorating as we speak. Most human settlements have a temporary look. A glance at almost any street in the modern world will tell you that our housing, transportation and communication paths are still primitive and temporary. We still string wires on poles in a makeshift manner. The poles and wires look ugly and fall down with the slightest provocation. I watched as local technicians for the cable company replaced bundles of copper wire with a small fiber optic cable, a distinct improvement in the information path, but they still hung the fiber optics from aging wooden poles, competing for space with a profusion of old-style telephone and electricity wires. Buried fiber optic cables and wireless communication would rid the land of these ugly and archaic wire networks but involve technical difficulties and expense that remains to be overcome.
Tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes are real-life tests of the infrastructures and human constructions routinely fail. Affluent countries such as the US and Canada have limited ability to compensate victims of natural calamities and rebuild, but most countries of the third world are unable to recover housing and services.
I am convinced that the age of "do-whatever-you-want" is over. One major task in the 21st century is to rebuild human infrastructures that work better and last longer. At the end of the 20th-century, the issue of quality versus quantity, hotly debated at the beginning of the century, takes a new twist. Humans have become expert at short-term, hasty and improvised technologies that are cheap to replicate. The short-term technologies are often irresponsible and consume resources that are difficult or impossible to replace. We need new ideas in high quality materials, architecture, construction, and transportation. We need to build a more substantial and enduring infrastructure. We need sustainable agriculture without toxic chemicals. We need enforceable birth control, excellent pre- and post-natal nutrition, and superb education for new children.