Fears of flying into the future

Climate change, peak oil, 4GW, social decay, ecological collapse, economic collapse, pandemics of new and old diseases … The doomsters seem to have taken control of our newspapers, as the list goes on and on, raising the question “How can civilization survive until next week?”

Imagine picking up the morning paper, coffee cup in hand. You open it and see nothing but good news. The headline story tells of a cat rescued from a tree. No stories about decaying social systems (social systems, like fruit, begin to decay after creation). No accounts of problems caused by increased wealth — no disruptive social changes, no new pollutants (replacing the old ones, like from burning coal and horses in the streets). No wars.

Would this be a good thing? No. It would mean that you died and are now in heaven. Resource scarcity, climate change, war, social instability … these represent the condition we call “life.” For thousands of generations humanity has confronted these problems as we climbed from scavengers to become the dominant species on this planet.

But what about the pollution of our environment, brought about by industrialization and increasing wealth? This is largely a myth in today’s developed nations, and a passing phase in the emerging nations. Consider life in the capital city of an emerging nation…

The city itself is overwhelmed, engulfed by changes with which it has not learned to cope, and which are scarcely understood. Some were inherent in the trebling of the population, some consequences of industrialization. Particles of grime from the factory smokestacks produce impenetrable smog which reduces visibility to a few feet … Much of the city stinks. The city’s sewage system is at best inadequate and in the poorer of neighborhoods nonexistent. Buildings elsewhere are often constructed over cesspools which, however, have grown so vast that they form ponds, surrounding homes with moats of effluvia. … And the narrow, twisted streets are neither sealed nor asphalted. People lock their windows, even in summer, but they have a lot to keep out: odors, dust…

This is London circa 1880 (a slightly altered quotation from William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, The Last Lion).

These ills were not cured by elevating the consciousness of its people, but by increasing their income. Wealth has changed London in the first half of the twentieth century as it changed Singapore in the second half (In Ian Fleming’s 1955 novel Moonraker, MI6’s secret agent 0011 vanished into the “Dirty half-mile” of Singapore; today Singapore citizens consider US cities as crime-ridden holes compared to their well-run city-state).

But at least in the simpler times of Victorian England they lived closer to nature. Their food was less-processed, what we call “organic”, since the modern agrochemical industry was yet unknown, with its artificial preservatives, colorings, and other adulterants. In fact this meant (again quoting Manchester) that…

The groaning tables on Victorian Christmas cards groaned beneath platters of food that would be condemned as unfit by modern health officials.

In one sense the people of Victorian England lived even closer to nature than those in modern China and India.

In 1842 a royal commission found that the average professional man lived thirty years; the average laborer, seventeen. By the year of Churchill’s birth {1874} about fifteen years had been added to these…

Pushing back on the many doomster nightmares is like pushing back on a cracking dam, as these stories multiply — driven by our fears about the future of our rapidly changing world (just like fears in the 1950’s of world conquest by the commies, or the even more bizarre — to us — fears of our 19th century ancestors). Past progress provides many Americans with little confidence about the future.

As an exercise we can examine one doomster fear, seeing the complex reality under the simplistic agitprop (like any mass movement, these have a heavy political component). Since Peak Oil suffers from over-exposure, the new hot doomster meme is Peak Water. Like peak oil, this is a valid concern grossly exaggerated by the media.

Water is scarce in several ways.

  • Poor people lack clean water. Lacking clean water, adequate food, and basic public health infrastructure defines poverty. (Most of America’s poor have clean tap water, obesity is their most common illness, and excess consumption of drugs/alcohol their greatest public health problem. Real poverty, the third world kind, is of a different nature).
  • Poor nations tend to seriously pollute their water, unable either to afford primary sewage treatment or to enforce regulations on agricultural and industrial emissions.
  • The above two factors are exacerbated by rapid growth in population and/or industry (e.g., India and China).
  • Both rich and poor nations suffer groundwater pollution from agricultural chemicals. Farm interests have political power in many developed nations exceeding the numbers of farmers or farmings economic role (largely due to “rotten boroughs”, like the outsized representation of heartland states in the US Senate). This is, of course, a far more serious problem in emerging nations (see this story about India).
  • Water demand exceeds supply in many areas, even in developed nations, usually due to mispricing it. The demand for under-priced goods almost always exceeds the supply. Aquifers (large ground water reservoirs) are being drained — much like global oil reserves. (such as the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains)
  • Water is physically insufficient in a few areas (e.g., Saudi Arabia, a desert with one of the fastest growing populations on Earth).

None of these appear terminal for either humanity or the global ecosystem. Most of these will probably work themselves out.

  • Growing wealth will allow fantastic reductions in pollution by emerging nations, even greater than seen in the US and Europe during the past 50 years.
  • As water becomes scarcer, political and pricing mechanisms in developed nations will force more rational use and continually reduce pollution.
  • Exhaustion of aquifers will force development of other agricultural resources (e.g., currently idle land, aquaculture), or changes in diet (e.g., Americans eating less meat, which would improve our health).

Thanks to GI Wilson, who suggested this subject and provided many links to valuable information about it.

For more on this subject

Keeping It Clean“, Chemical and Engineering News (23 April 2007) — Note the concern about arsenic contamination of drinking water. A real but hardly a new problem, since arsenic occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust. For more on arsenic see this USGS publication.

FM posts about shockwaves, things we worry about:


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about the American spirit, the American soul:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  2. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation, 13 January 2008
  3. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  4. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  5. A philosphical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  6. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  7. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  8. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
  9. Symptoms of a fever afflicting America’s culture, 5 November 2008
  10. All we have to fear is our optimism, 12 November 2008
  11. The corruption of a nation is usually hidden, but sometimes becomes visible, 21 November 2008
  12. The war for America’s soul, 23 December 2008 — Our changing attitudes to “It’s a Wonderful Life”
  13. This crisis will prove that Americans are not sheep (unless we are), 8 January 2008
  14. About security theater, a daily demonstration that Americans are sheep, 25 January 2009
  15. We close our eyes to torture by our government. The Brits are stronger., 9 April 2009
  16. Sources of inspiration for America’s renewal, 23 April 2009
  17. Are we citizens? Or peasants?, 21 May 2009
  18. A famous guest speaker visits the FM site to tell us that we are not weak — we are strong, 8 June 2008
  19. A great artist died today. We can gain inspiration from his words., 26 June 2009
  20. A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009

13 thoughts on “Fears of flying into the future

  1. No need to guess, as it is easy to test this. Go to a retirement community and ask some physically active folks in their 70’s. Perhaps they would rather be house-bound or even invalids, like so many of that age in 1970. Or a middle class neighborhood of African-Americans if they would prefer Harlem or Watts (increased wealth moves the lower quintiles up as well as the rich, at least it does in American). Or someone with a modern prosthetic limb — those hooks worked pretty well.

    Increased wealth produces many effects. Some frivolous. Some harmful. Many desirable. They all come together in the same package.

  2. Still thinking about peak oil. It seems somehow more critical than any other shortage. Pollution can be cleaned. Food and water and minerals, or substititues for them, can be found. All done by machines. Until the tanks run dry, or the batteries go dead, or the lights go out. Energy seems like the one thing that we couldn’t do without..
    Fabius Maximus replies: agreed, with the note that we face no shortages of energy — but of liquid fuel, as oil has no equivalent substitutes in cost and utility.

  3. Fortunately energy is one resource that is truly abundant and will never run out. Forms will change but the law of the conservation of mass and energy says that the total is, and remains, a constant.

    The only resource shortage is intelligence. With intelligence we can tap the abundant energy resources all around us. In the future, energy, whether it be electricity or portable energy (typically petroleum based now but hydrogen based in the future), will be increasingly available to all, in all parts of the world, and will be cheap, moving to zero cost.
    Fabius Maximus replies: yes, but these sentiments are those of a visionary or historian. Over generations these problems work themselves out, one way or another. But if we fail to prepare, the effects on us and our children could be severe. Note, as above, Peak Oil is a shortage of liquid fuels — not energy in general. For example: nuke-generated electricity does not help, without massive, slow and expensive replacement of our transportation fleet with battery-operated vehicles.

  4. “But what about the pollution of our environment, brought about by industrialization and increasing wealth? This is largely a myth in today’s developed nations.”

    Pollution’s effects on health are a myth in developed nations? Am I reading that correctly?

    “A third of male fish in British rivers are in the process of changing sex due to pollution in human sewage, research by the Environment Agency suggests. A survey of 1,500 fish at 50 river sites found more than a third of males displayed female characteristics. Hormones in the sewage, including those produced by the female contraceptive pill, are thought to be the main cause. The agency says the problem could damage fish populations by reducing their ability to reproduce. It said its study highlighted the need for water companies to develop new treatments. There has been concern for some time that chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, are causing fish to change sex.” “Pollution ‘changes sex of fish“, BBC, (10 July 2004)

    Do you have an opinion on whether depleted uranium causes Gulf War Syndrome?
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have read such articles for years, and find them worrisome but so far inconclusive. The potential threat is that we consume — as medicine, food additive, or pollutant — something which has horrible effects which we do not understand. Perhaps mental or behavioral. Think of lead poisoning in Rome, something beyond their ken. That is why I, and most of us, support intensive study of these things, increased regulations on effluents, and improved waste treatment. Only time will tell if we have moved quickly enough with these measures.

    As for the fish, the data to date seem fragmentary and inconclusive. There are studies suggesting that this is not a danger. While the scientists work it out, we can only wait.

    Re: gulf war syndrome. Neither GWS nor depleted U are in my field of competence, but I see nothing conclusive about the cause(s) of GWS or about unknown dangers of depleted uranium. Both imo deserve well-funded testing, due to the long history of such things being concealed by both government and industry.

  5. Regarding water – an excellent thread because adequate water’s deficiency does seem to cause significant societal disruptions. Additional thanks to GI.

    Regarding depleted uranium – I’d guess that Aerojet General personnel (who probably milled much of it for GAU-8 bullets) would be showing effects by now if any were present and information was openly and appropriately compiled and presented.

  6. DU from exploded munitions is a potentially a major problem and we are just starting to see the effects.

    Firstly DU is pure U238. It appears radiologically relatively safe because it is an Alpha particle emmiter, which is easily blocked, but it is chemically toxic. The problems, when it is actively used in weapons and hence turns into fine dust and aerosols (when it burns), are four fold:

    (1) Uranium (and oxides) dissolve into salts and can enter the water table.
    (2) Fine dust can get entangled with the environment, particularly sandy dusty ones. This can then spread beyond the impact area. Needless to say it is breathed into the lungs.
    (3) It can (weakly) enter the food chain, )mixed evidence for this).
    (4) Fragments can embed in the body.

    In any case U238 can accumulate in sensitive organs, with the Alpha particles causing severe damage to local cells, increasing the risk of cancer, birth defects, etc. Additionaly, like many heavy metals, it is chemically poisonous. It goes without saying that children and foetuses are far more vulnerable.

    The risk to the population depends on many variables, amount used, concentration levels, land type, rain levels, etc, etc. But in Iraq we have used (and still are using) 400 tons of the stuff, with some areas (such as Basra) getting very high local concentrations.

    The risks remind me of DDT. Used carefully and selectively, it is quite safe to the environment and people, greatly out weighed by the positive effects. Used indescriminantly in large amounts it causes demonstratable and severe damage. I suspect that DU, used in such large amounts, will show some very nasty affects, which will (due to latency) appear over the next few years.

    The thing is we have no effective models of the possible medium and long term damage. No one has ever put out so much of the stuff in this form into the environment before. Models based on workers have no real relevance (ie controlled environment, lack of burned oxides in the air, monitored, etc). No one (particularly children) have ever been exposed to such high levels in the general environment before.

    I give a thought experiment: Imagine a dirty bomb made of DU going off in a Western city. What would the reaction be? Yep, you got it, panic, evacuation, massive clean up efforts, careful monitoring of children, the area closed off for months (maybe years). Easy to take risks with other people’s lives, bit harder when it is closer to home.

    I should add this is a terrible waste of valuable U238, we are going to desperately need this for energy in the future (400 tons – thats power for years).

  7. “Damn the torpedoes, you CAN’T guarantee that any will hit us.” Absent 110% indisputable proof that new technology will rape our wives and cripple every canibal in the congo, it WILL be tried.

  8. We have gone though these cycles before (I used DDT as an example, lead in petrol is another). A new technology is developed. It is initially used as intended, in targeted selective ways. It is sucessful and risks are low. ‘Mission creep’ then rolls in. It becomes the ‘solution’ to everything. Usage goes ballistic and it’s applied to things far beyond the original design parameters.

    Years later, the side affects become all to real and significant damage starts to appear. The users deny anything is wrong. Research flies backwards and forwards. A desperate rear guard action occurs to preserve usage. Finally, when the damage is all to apparent to even the most imbecilic, usage is stopped. Unfortunately far too late for all those poor sods whose lives are ended or wrecked.

    400 tons, how many tanks did Iraq have? The trouble is they use DU in just about every weapon system now, not just anti-tank stuff.

    To answer Fabius’s basic point, the problem is that its not that we have a fear of the future, it is that we do not even think about it. And far too often, when we occasionaly do, we have a fuzzy, rose coloured view. As Aussies say “she’ll be alright mate” and carry on the same path regardless, right to the edge of the cliff. This means we simultaneously take amazing, avoidable risks and also pass up on incredable opportunities for progress. We either design and make the future or it will make us.

  9. The debate over DU is complex, and probably over heads of most of us here. This Wikipedia entry has links to the various studies, for anyone interested. Most of the studies seem to indicate minimal danger, and few effects on the exposed groups that have been studied.

    Most of these fears about new substances turn out to be grossly exaggerated, after years or decades of study (e.g., DDT, silicon breast implants). But not all.

  10. Fabius, people (without extensive training) are very poor at probabilities and hence, evaluating risk/reward. Cognitive psychology has really opened the door on this area (have a look at the book Inevitable Illusions by Palmarini). So we overreact to low level risks, such as nuclear power and underreact to much higher risks, such as coal power (more deaths, more radiation, more waste, CO2, etc).

    Where we are particulary poor is in evaluating new things. We have the tools to do it, but it is greatly underfunded, especially compared to the money spent on marketing and lobbying. Optimists (she’ll be alright) easily get carried away by the hype, cautious skeptics are far more wary (thats the basis of the scientific method afterall).

    I stand for one step forward, then one step forward … Not one forward, two back, one forward, one diagonal, one sideways ….

    Some examples from recent times:

    – DDT – ok (even great) in small targeted uses, very bad when sprayed everywhere from planes.
    – Silicon inserts – actually ok. But a mass hysteria happened, which is an interesting psychology in itself.
    – Lead in petrol. We have known for over a century that lead is very, very bad, especially for children.
    – Asbestos. We knew the risks of that one for 40 years.
    – Latest generation of tranqualisers, that do not work, except that they can actually increase suicidal depression (nearly lost a friend over this one).
    – Fluorocarbons. Great, until we all started getting fried.
    – And the big one. CO2.

    In all these cases (except silicon) the warnings had been made for decades. Lots of money and effort were spent denying that anything was wrong and that the economy would collapse if it was banned or controlled. Only when it becomes so incontrovertable that an IQ of 65 understood the problem was anything done. Then, as usual, we all find there was a big fuss about nothing in regards to the problems of control/banning/alternatives (anyone miss dioxins?).

    There is no problem we cannot fix if we face it honestly, but if we deny and lie …..

    This, in basic terms, is OODA applied to non-military issues. Take out the 1st ‘O’, then the whole loop fails.

    Applying science means we can avoid over/under reacting, but only if it is an integral part of the system, funded and respected properly (which brings us neatly back to my great love, OR).

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