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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Recollections of Environmentalist Kool Aid in Elementary School

Last night, Harmony and I were reminiscing about the environmentalist Kool Aid we drank in our elementary days.

People are misguided in thinking that they wield authority over the earth's processes.Both of us remember feeling quite worried that in a couple of decades, the earth would be quite uninhabitable, what with the evil corporations dumping their garbage into the oceans. We'd hear about how 50 acres of rainforest are destroyed in the time it takes you to raise your hand to ask to use the restroom. Undoubtedly, some evil corporation killed 60 baby seals so you could watch TV when you got home. Mwahaha, the evil corporate CEO probably even dined on live baby seals too! Both of us remember feeling hesitant about eating canned tuna because, supposedly, dolphins died in the process of catching the tuna. But the chief sin of all: not cutting your six pack holders before throwing them away!

What is interesting is that neither of us remember hearing much about global warming. Back then, the cool thing to be worried about was ozone layer depletion. We'd tell our moms to use pump hairsprays instead of aerosols. I believe styrofoam was also bad, but I'm not sure why. Somewhere along the way, the fad switched to global warming fears.

What would be the consequences of ozone layer depletion? Ozone helps block ultraviolet radiation. Perhaps we'd see a rise in cancer incidences with ozone depletion. Or perhaps we wouldn't. Perhaps increased exposure to UV rays could be good for you. After all, it's not as if ultraviolet radiation is some evil sentient being set on causing harm to everyone in the universe. UV light can be used to sterilize surfaces, disinfect drinking water, and can be used in treatment of skin conditions. I am not saying that ozone depletion would lead to worldwide clean water wherever you go, or no more skin diseases; I'm just saying that one should not jump to a knee-jerk reaction about UV this or that. Not all radiation is bad; in fact, I would say that we benefit from radiation much more than we are harmed by it. Perhaps more on that subject in a later post.

I believe that the earth is going to do what the earth is going to do, and that people are a bit misguided to think that they wield such authority over the earth's processes. The planet is an immensely complex and chaotic system. You'd be foolish to say that action A will lead to result B, 100%, every single time. One forgets that action A is also influenced by factors C through Z and beyond. Attempting to establish causality between action A (say, driving cars) and result B (say, global warming) is educated guesswork at best, demagoguery at worst. My point is that since the earth is such a complex system, it's virtually impossible to establish firmly (or even halfway firmly) that humans are or aren't the cause of meteorological trends. So what should we do? Go on with life. You by yourself cannot have much effect at all on the earth's processes.

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13 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Ewokgirl

    My issue with the concept of global warming is that there isn't enough data to truly back up the fears. It could just be a cycle of the planet, but we really can't know because data keeping track of temperatures only goes back about 150 years. Personally, I'm not too concerned.

    However, I should state that I do believe we need to be responsible about how and what we consume because I don't think we should rape the earth of all it's resources just because we can. I have to get that in lest anyone think I'm saying to do whatever and not worry about the planet.

    Oh, and I guess I'm lucky. I think I'm about 10 years older than y'all, and I don't recall any socially-responsible messages or scare tactics in school. I never had to worry about dead dolphins when I ate my tuna sandwich. ;-)

  • Ginny

    What I remember from school was messages about drugs. "Dopes do dope." LOL! The funny thing is that it is true.

  • Harmony

    I definitely remember thinking that we would all be dead or miserable by now, because of all the awful things we were doing to the Earth. In fact, I think I remember sometime in 6th grade hearing a figure of about 20 years that we had left. That was 14 years ago. Somehow I think the Earth will survive more than 6 years just fine, excepting Divine intervention of course. ;-)

    Ewokgirl:

    It's interesting you say that, because the fact is that we actually live really environmentally-friendly lives! We recycle nearly as much as we throw away, we use fluorescent bulbs, our primary vehicle gets 40 mpg, and we save water from our showers to use for washing dishes and watering the lawn.

    But we don't do it because environmentalists say we should. We do it A) because it saves us money and B) because it's a responsible way of living.

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    When I was young, global cooling was the big fear. There was going to be a great ice age.
    I'm all for living responsibly, and consuming responsibly, but the problem is- what does that mean?
    Is it more responsible to have light bulbs with mercury or incandescent bulbs that maybe last a shorter time, but are less toxic to the environment?

    Is it more responsible to heat with food (corn) or electricity? How can we burn up food for fuel when so many people have nothing to eat?

    Is it more responsible to drive a prius with its excessive cost of production, or drive a used car and keep it out of the dump?

  • JunkMale

    Headmistress,

    I've often thought about those questions myself. Our rule of thumb might be a bit selfish..."What's in it for us?" If there are money savings to be had, then we will probably be more inclined to do it. For example, CFL bulbs and saving water, neither of which we use/do for environmental reasons. However, I will add that, as Harmony said, we do recycle almost everything we can, even though we do not directly observe savings from that. And of course, we are driven by common sense as well...if the cheaper choice is one that we perceive as being the more harmful, we'll pick the other option(s). (I can't think of any examples right now though, sorry)

    We also take pride in the fact that our primary car gets almost 40 mpg while not being a hybrid :D

  • Captain Underpants

    Hi,

    I'm kind of a random reader, I'm not totally sure how I found your site! I'm sorry to reply to an older post, but I can't resist and environmental theme :-)

    I'm a graduate student in Environmental Studies, my bachelor was Environmental Sciences (the difference being biology, physics, chemistry and economics, generally!).

    I'm always intrigued to hear the opinions of others on environmental issues, as you may imagine we all tend to agree that climate change is a huge and real issue in my field, and very much linked to our current behaviour, especially in North America.

    Ozone depletion was a big issue, especially because of CFC's, which were eventually and fairly swiftly brought under strict controls. As a result, we are seeing much less ozone depletion, and the "hole" in the ozone "layer" is much less severe. Rather than being a flip-flop, I see that as a real triumph of recognizing an issue, taking responsibility and having really positive results. I should point out that we are seeing record cancer problems, but I agree very much that they are difficult to attribute to one source.

    Also, atmospheric ozone helps us (especially Australians and New Zealanders) reduce exposure to cancer-causing rays, ground level ozone is a chief component of smog and is definitively a biological hazard.

    And finally, the old chestnut, climate change! We actually have climate data from ice cores giving us a very good idea of temperatures tens of thousand of years into the past. And, while there have been dips and raises in global temperature in geological time, what is often overlooked is that never has this happened in such a short time frame, making adaptation extremely difficult.

    As I'm sure is obvious this is a topic near and dear to my heart, I would love to hear your take on my comments. And please, feel free to challenge and ask any questions about anything, it's refreshing to discuss the topic with some people who may not see things my way!

    Marianne

    ps, a an environmentalist, it has always boggled my mind why people are not on bard at least for the money saving attributes of efficiency! I don't need everyone to think that saving the earth is important, just to be efficient, for any reason! So, thanks for using CFL's :-)

  • Harmony

    Marianne:

    Thank you for your comments. :-)

    Here is my beef with global warming/climate change: a lot of scientists agree with the model - but a lot don't. I don't know if you've ever been to the Headmistress' blog (she commented before you), but she does an excellent job doing research into what the dissenting scientists are saying.

    That's not to say that we aren't experiencing warming right now (although yesterday JunkMale made the comment that a little bit more global warming wouldn't hurt - our peach tree would certainly thank you for it!), it's just that the doomsday predictions don't really ring true (IMO). We have a weatherman in our area who is very well-respected. He set out to do some research into global warming in order to report back to his listeners. He concluded that it's foolish to be on either extreme side of the argument.

    I remember one lecture in college (I studied polymer chemistry, but I think this particular class was a general engineering course) where the professor warned all of us students that data are all too easy to manipulate to give you the desired results. He warned us against believing sweeping, dramatic statements from scientists - like the ones coming out from both sides of the global warming argument. My own experience in my chemistry labs is that his advice is SO true. I remember a conversation I had with a foreign PhD student whose lab paper I was proofreading. She said that her professor had told her that she needed to come as close to the accepted formula as possible, EVEN if that meant throwing out data points that didn't agree. I saw her data before and after she had altered it. The before data didn't just look like the formula with a few outliers - it looked like a totally different formula. I think that, more than anything else, proved to me what my professor had said a few years earlier: data is all too easy to manipulate. Her data was based on a fiber extrusion model, which I believe is much less complex than the predicted future climate of the entire Earth. So I hope you'll forgive me for not believing a word that any scientist says in this debate unless he honestly admits that we don't really have a clue what's really going to happen. :-)

  • JunkMale

    Marianne,

    (if you only address one portion of this response, I'd like you to address the bottom paragraph)

    Since it's such a complex system, the environment of the earth lacks the control of a sterile lab environment. I would assume that it's very difficult to establish rock-solid causality between factor A (reducing CFC output) and outcome B (slowing ozone depletion) in the backdrop of a complex and constantly changing system such as the earth. Strict control of the lab environment is something we cannot have when the lab is the earth.

    The earth is our home and it's the only one we have. We probably shouldn't go around releasing CFCs again in an attempt to establish causality. Nor should we just wantonly waste and pollute as much as possible to see if we can make the earth's average temperatures go up. Even if it's not bad for the earth, it's bad for your health.

    I wonder why personal health is not emphasized more when harping about pollutants and whatnot? It always seems to be "the earth, the poor earth" and not "your health your poor health." Perhaps personal health is mentioned just as much, but I'm not recalling those parts of the articles?

    I was wondering about ozone though. Okay, so stratospheric ozone is overall good because it helps filter out UV rays which are harmful in large doses. But ground level ozone is bad, because we humans live at ground level. So what to do? Is there any evidence that the reduction in CFC output, while slowing stratospheric ozone depletion, increased ground level ozone concentrations? I would be very interested to see data regarding that plotted all three of these versus time: approximate worldwide reduction of CFC output, stratospheric ozone concentration, and ground level ozone concentration.

  • Captain Underpants

    HI again, thanks for your responses!

    Harmony, your comments made me think of a saying my economics prof once told me: figures can lie and liars can figure! It's true that manipulations occur in science, though I don't care to imagine that environmental scientists in so many fields would fudge their data. I think what environmental scientists are trying to say is that it is very likely that we are experiencing drastic climate issues around the world due to our consumption behaviour, but the public has a hard time accepting very probably as a reason to change behaviour.

    I totally agree that extremism makes it very difficult to proceed in any kind of a unified fashion. I sometimes feel like I'm on damage control for people who call themselves environmentalists who are clearly reading one source of information and letting their emotions dictate the rest. Unfortunately (for me, anyways!) I have to be very careful calling myself an environmentalist because I usually have to say that I don't feel the world is doomed, that I don't think humans should go extinct etc etc. I appreciate very much not feeling that way here!

    No one can know what's going to happen, but I believe strongly in the precautionary principle that if we can change things for the better, then why not just do it? There is a lot of complex systems thinking needed for environmental thought and sustainability issues, but they are often related in ways that seem simple. For example, Let's say that burning fossil fuels is bad. So, we want to reduce our dependency on it, and we develop ways to do that. One way is alternative energy like wind and solar, another is improving local food systems and food security with community gardens, more local small farmers etc. This way, we reduce shipping food my truck and freighter. So, in working towards this we get less dependence on foreign fuel, more local food security, better air quality and better food quality. In my mind, the environmental benefits are incidental to the greater and more immediate benefits to people.


    Junk Male, I want to first point out that I'm not an atmospheric chemist, who might have the specific numbers you are looking for. I will take a stab at your questions though! Different molecules have varying capacities to destroy ozone in an upper atmospheric situation, so CFC's were found to be particularly destructive, compared to other gases. Water vapour is considered a greenhouse gas actually, but a very weak one and naturally occurring, so we turn our attention to GHG's that are introduced and much more potent. You can surely ind out the GHG equivalent numbers for various gases in our atmosphere.

    Ground level ozone is not directly related to atmospheric ozone, and the CFC issue was generally a stratospheric or upper atmospheric problem only. Ground level ozone is created at ground level, where it has a chance to interact with other pollutants and particles to produce health issues. Here is a link for a quick look at ground level ozone sources: http://www.airqualityontario.com/science/pollutants/ozone.cfm

    We can use lab experiments to determine links between CFCs and ozone, and make connections from the introduction to worldwide use of CFC's and ozone depletion. Here is a link which may have the info you are looking for (it was a quick google search so hopefully its helpful),
    http://www.fsl.noaa.gov/outreach/education/samii/SAMII_Activity3.html

    And finally, YES with the health issues! Local food, less pesticides and herbicides, less crap spewed in the air and less junk leaching toxic cocktails into soils and water are all extremely important health issues. I know that it is easy to find enviro's who are all about saving the earth for the earth's sake, but that doesn't make what they have to say less important. Just because someone does it for the earth, or health or economy I never could understand why it's not obvious that we all want the same thing. It seems like sometimes it's a matter of pride. I can link you tonnes of articles about environmental issues for health. My own thesis is about sustainable housing and how that can mean all kinds of things. The guy who lives in a home made hippie suspended sphere (actually exists!) may not have much to offer the world in style and likely social adoption of his home, but he can say lots about local materials and living small.

    Phew. I better take a breath and think about said thesis :-)

    Have a lovely day.

    Marianne

  • Harmony

    We're with you 100% on the local agriculture thing! You can't get much more local than your own backyard. ;-)

    "Just because someone does it for the earth, or health or economy I never could understand why it's not obvious that we all want the same thing. It seems like sometimes it's a matter of pride."

    I think for some Americans (am I right in believing you are not American based on your spelling of tons/tonnes?) - the feeling is that those who are doing it 'for the earth' really have another agenda, something more along the lines of 'let's tax those evil Americans into ruin'. This feeling is helped a lot by the focus of environmentalists (or our perceived view of their focus) that they are only concentrating on developed nations. What's being done about countries like China or India that are much more polluted than we are? Why focus so much on Europe, and especially America, if the goal is a cleaner Earth? All of our efforts here will be for naught if China and other countries like it keep polluting on the scale they are. I also think a lot of older folks would (quite rightly) point out that fifty years ago the fear was Global Cooling. If the scientists weren't right then, what makes them so sure they're right now?

  • Captain Underpants

    There really is a different flavour to home grown food...some kind of wonderful quality to it...mmm. I'm up in Canada, I guess I did leave some hints. I still have snow cover here, but my seed order is in and I'm excited about the upcoming growing season!

    The idea of taxing Americans to death is a new to me, do you mean that other nations might want that, or enviro Americans?

    I understand that scientists make wrong predictions, and that might make some people feel wary about believing more predictions, but the improvements in scientific procedures, from data collection, data sensitivity and analysis are leaps and bounds beyond what we had 50 years ago. Science gets better with time, and more accurate and more reliable. I think a problem environmentalists need to address is the idea that being a critical thinker is valuable to science...when someone says "studies show that..." I want to know, which studies? Who did them? How robust was it? I think a lot of information is disseminated by the media as "scientists say.." and then any nut with a lab coat can go off and say whatever (s)he wants. I worry about the bad rep for environmental science both from counterproductive environmentalists and from sensationalists. And also, I think scientists can hurt themselves too, trying to be taken seriously I wonder if sometimes they feel forced to come to definitive conclusions. That seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy!

    I remember thinking about whether I want to concentrate my efforts on the developed world or on the developing world. While there is a lot of wok to be done in the developing world, the ratio of work to results is much greater here in North America especially (Canada being pretty much number one for wasting water and right up there with everything else, per capita). The idea that North America consumes about 80% of the world energy with something like 20% of the population (please forgive my rounded numbers) we have the wealth and the opportunity to modify our behaviour without risking our lives. North Americans use WAY more fresh water, and spew way more pollutants into the environment per person than developing nations. While it is definitely true that Nations such as China have appalling environmental records, they also have sweeping social issues. It seems irresponsible to require a standard of the developing world which we ourselves, in our generally wealthy situation, cannot attain.

    The developing world is full of people who deserve to live well. Right now, the first world's example of "having it all" would be apocalyptic if the rest of the world adopted our version of living well. I really believe we can keep our standard of living up in a much more efficient way, leaving us plenty of leverage and support we can offer developing countries in their growth, in a way that helps avoid crises that seem plausible on the horizon.

    In my fairly limited experience with individuals "doing it for the earth" (and for me it's people that have no other agenda, like social equity, health etc) , they just seem really out of ouch with how to interact with society. They don't seem like they want people to fail as much as they just don't seem to like people. I don't even think I know anyone like this, they just seem to be the ones that form splinter groups, put green or earth in their group title and go sob around cut trees. While I think activists definitely have a place in society, I also like to think that most every enviro I know is also a functioning member of society. I worry it's the fringe people that get the most attention.

    One last little thing, I'm a dual citizen (by birth) and I don't think Americans are evil! George W. Bush claiming that for the first time in a long time there was an increase in wetlands in America seems pretty bad though...because that was the year he included golf course water hazards as wetlands. That's...definitely a little frustrating! :-)

    Marianne

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    I thought I left another comment, but it seems to be gone? Did I imagine it? quite likely.

    The April Reader's Digest has a very interesting article on going green. I posted one part of it to my blog. Turns out- eating locally grown food and certain popular forms of recycling are two things that are not really as 'green' as we might like to think.=)

    Of course, if the locally grown food is in your own backyard, that's different. And I agree it does taste better.

    You can get it online. I'd be interested to see what you think.

  • JunkMale

    Headmistress,

    I think your last comment was just the second one that you submitted for this post. I certainly haven't been deleting your comments, so perhaps you really did imagine things, or perhaps something went crazy with the 0's and 1's.

    Anyways, my thoughts on that Reader's Digest article are turning out long enough to make in to a separate post, so look for that tomorrow.