Monday, August 2, 2010

Sustainable Living, Human Environmental Damage and Climate Change

Sustainable living by societies is about managing environmental resources without overexploiting what initially appeared as inexhaustibly abundant. As mankind migrated across the globe waves of extinction and over exploitation of environmental resource followed. Ancient societies have collapsed many believed to have been triggered by the destruction or exhaustion of environmental resources. Normal fluctuations in resource levels between years or decades tend to mask the signs of depletion of resources, as the current heavy rains have done in California. The complexity of ecosystem makes it difficult to know, understand and predict the consequences of human actions. Some water can be pumped from the groundwater basin and diverted from rivers without significantly impacting the water balance and ecology of the area. However, diverting all the water, over pumping the groundwater until the land subsides will destroy the ecology and watershed.

Mankind does not learn restraint easily. This is classically illustrated by “The tragedy of the Commons,” by Garreth Hardin was published in Science, December 13, 1968. The concept from the article that has survived is that what is a free and common resource is abused. Hardin said “Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” Because of fluctuations in “renewable” resources it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that California depends or any other resource that a society depends on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view. Despite knowledge that there are always droughts after wet years, Californians and the Western States maintain policies for rural and urban/suburban use of water and water allocations drawn up during the wet El Nino years. These are assumed to be the “normal” water allocations. In California agriculture is entirely based on profligate use of irrigation water, the vast three crops a year agri-industrial empire of this semi-arid state is based on irrigation. Water costs less than the real resource cost, so farmers plant and grow as much as their water allocation and any groundwater available can produce as the state continues down the path of ruin. Our technology and engineering have allowed us to mine the water and allow the west to expand beyond the carrying capacity of the land and the water. Vast amounts of energy are needed to deliver unsustainable amount of water to farmers and the southern cities of the state. Hard choices and restraint will be delayed until ecological and financial bankruptcy.

The "American Clean Energy and Security Act” also know as the Waxman-Markley energy bill is dead. The bill included a cap-and-trade global warming reduction plan designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. It set an overall cap on such carbon dioxide emissions that decreased over time reducing what can be emitted. This was intended to push utilities and industry to release less carbon dioxide by utilizing cleaner energy sources or increasing efficiency of the existing ones. However, it probably would have achieved it’s goal by exporting carbon burning, jobs and business and the bill is probably dead because of unintended consequences to the economy. It is unclear what impact if any this failure will have on the earth’s ecology. Climate change is constant. As seen in the geological record, throughout earths’ history climates become hotter or colder, wetter or drier, more or less variable because of natural forces like volcanic eruptions, changes in the orientation of the earths axis, variation in the heat put out by the sun (it is not constant), changes in the continents. There have been ice ages millions of years ago, the often cited “Little Ice Age” from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, climate disruptions caused by volcanic explosions, vanishing of the rivers and lakes from the Sahara leaving it a desert. Archeologists, geologists, and the human record tell us that the climate of earth is constantly changing, but there does not appear to be a single cause that explains these changes. In each change of the climate there are those societies that fail and those that thrive. The idea that we are experiencing global warming caused by man seems a little arrogant. To think that mankind, like the Sun has the power to change the climate or prevent climate change is a na├»ve view of the world and the forces at play. Certainly, mankind is engaged in exploiting and overexploiting the earth’s resources and there will be local ecological collapses. How we harness technology, trade and the human capacity to adapt to changing environment to respond to these changes will determine the fate of our society and others. The future will tell us if a society that has depleted its resources can survive the further depletions of resources and environment due to changes in climate.

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