Somewhat Sciency Friday: Saving the Environment Edition

Three things I thought you might find interesting today, starting with the shortest:

Don't pass the gas.
When you get crude oil, there is usually a natural gas pocket that goes along with it. Most drillers just burn it off. According to the World Bank, the gas burned off last year was enough to supply 27% of the US need for natural gas (~$40 billion dollars). Geez, if you you're gonna burn it, you might as well burn it in a usefull way. I should add that producers wouldn't get $40B, it costs money to collect it. (Via C&EN) (Thanks for indulging my juvenile title :) Oh, and my juvenile spelling, too)

China brings out the big guns on polluters.
Yeah, I'm not serious, and neither are they; although they may think they are. China's parliament is "considering" raising the maximum fine against water polluters 10 times higher to a whopping $130,000. That's peanuts here or there. It seems like this is all for show. C&EN (what a great magazine!) helpfully notes that in 1998 China's Cabinet enacted a comprehensive plan to clean up Taihu Lake but sewage and industrial pollution have still been rising. Guess we shouldn't expect too much.

While you follow that C&EN link you should check out their article about the virus alledgely killing off honey bees and chemical immune stressors.

I'm pumped about a green and joyless future (why science isn't everything)
In the best seller The World Without Us (#7 per NYTimes) Alan Weisman suggests that we reduce our population back down to 1.5 billion by having less kids (1 per couple) so the earth can sustain us well. In other words, creating a controled population crash as opposed to an uncontrolled one due to lack of resources/global warming. He said (on To The Point) that we should at least be able to have a conversation about this. He's right, we should at least have a conversation. But we shouldn't do it.

Here's why. Any plan to regulate or even create an incentive for reducing the size or existance of families is one that forgets humanity and joy for the sake of cold scientific calculation. This one child plan is wonderful in that it has the force of logic and reason. But as I read somewhere (I'm sorry, I can't remember where), the problem is that it is merely logical. To consider decreasing family so there are no siblings so that the environment can be saved makes me wonder why in the heck are we trying to save it, and for who? This fringe of environmentalists seem to have a general contempt for the entire human race. The arguement that we should care to what happens to the environment without any considerations for ourselves is to resort to nihilism. Actually, it's beyond that; it's putting the world seperate from us and on a higher plane of value. This thinking implies that there is no intrinsic value in humanity, but the ecosystem does have value. I can't prove that we do have value, it's not something that can be proved or disproved, it's a value you hold. People spend too much time debating the "facts" when what they are really arguing about are the goals and values. We should try to come up with solutions that get us to most people's goals as best we can (e.g. How about encouraging more adoption?). This is why science can be a dangerous tool in some instances: it fools people into thinking that cold calculations or scientific study are the only way to come to an correct conclusion. The distiction that needs to be made is that that science isn't wrong, it simply can't answer all of our questions.

PS Weisman's book is primarily about what would happen if there were no people on Earth (how fast our works would or would not decay); it's quite facinating from a science-only standpoint.


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This fringe of environmentalists seem to have a general contempt for the entire human race.

Oh, rubbish. What happens when a population exceeds carrying capacity? Mass death. Can you imagine the horror of a spontaneous population reduction from around 7-8 billion to around 1.5 billion in the space of a single generation? We'd be hard pushed to bury the dead. That is what those of us who favour voluntary population reduction are trying to avoid - the slow, hideous, lingering death of four-fifths of the worlds population. Both world wars, the Black Death and the Spanish Flu all rolled into one would look like a church picnic by comparison.

And of course people have value. The idea that anybody is suggesting otherwise is a ridiculous strawman.

So, which would you prefer - having one child who lives a long, happy, sustainable life, or having several children, most of whom who starve to death or die of some hideous illness before reaching majority? Is it better to have a single living offspring, or several graves to tend?

China's also announced a ban on lead paint in toys for export to the U.S. ... and the prospect of this being enforced is probably about the same as it is for the pollution fines. There might be a drop in the number of lead-tainted toys turning up over here, but it would probably be due to pressure and inspections from the toy companies.

I liked Weisman's book, and I agree there was perhaps too much Malthusian desperation regarding population. At the same time, I haven't really heard a good solution to the population problem. There is so little dialogue many people are probably not even aware of it. I do think that it is not unreasonable to at least try to determine what an ideal human population is for the planet, both for the nonhuman species but more importantly, for the people themselves. Breeding out of control until there are 20 billion people hanging about is a resort to nihilism. Maybe I am missing what is so outrageous about determining a rough ideal number of people and then enacting policy to encourage that the population is kept near that number. And if we don't use logic and reason to derive that number what should we use, illogic and guesswork? Gut feeling? I personally hate the idea of the government telling me how many kids to have, and would likely bristle at anything like China's one-child policy. But at the same time should there be tax benefits to having children, or for choosing not to have them? In an overpopulated world, are individuals an asset to society as a whole or a liability? Tough questions, for me at least, and ones which are seldom answered to my satisfaction.

By Fnord Prefect (not verified) on 14 Sep 2007 #permalink

I totally agree with you. There is a huge problem and we do need to figure out what to do about the population. I think (as you seem to partially agree), that 1 child programs aren't the way to go about this. Plenty of European countries aren't replacing their population and they have no policies in place. In fact, they have policies encouraging fewer children. It seems to me therefore, that the solutions to future population problems

Dunc, First, I never said we shouldn't do something. Your soomsday senario of 6 billion dead in one generation doesn't seem to be backed up by any facts. Do any credible predictions suggest such a drastic decline? Not that I know of, so you present a false choice. It also leaves out facts like the world birth rate is almost half what it was in the 50s and is projected to fall further (UN). Not that this ensures that everything will be hunky-dory but things aren't as dire as you make them out to be.

Certain resources will run out before others and they generally aren't essential ones and they'll get quite expenive before they run out. The population decline would/will be painful but not likely catastrophic. One-child policies, besides not working are the result of small thinking, but also of focusing on the doomsday senario as opposed to focusing on solutions. We need solutions that work AND work for people. Spewing bile onto a blog page doesn't seem to get us anywhere.

I second the "rubbish." The first species to benefit from a smaller human population will be our own. Third World women are not stupid. They would rather have control over their fertility, and no more children than they can take proper care of (because we all know women do most of the child-rearing and often the bread-winning as well). The demographics of the West should give us a clue--when women have the choice, they choose to have only one or two children, if any. It's what women want, they just need the tools and the right to do it.

The population question is remarkably close to a non-issue, really. Birthrate is consistently seen to greatly reduce when a society achieves a high standard of living. Standard of living is almost directly proportional to energy usage. Most environmental damage is directly related to energy usage.

So the GOOD answer is to spend our best efforts developing energy sources that don't destroy the environment. Something like effective solar and/or nuclear fusion, that are used to make hydrogen which can power mobile power units using fuel cells. Other options such as tidal, wind, geothermal, etc.

If we can achieve that kind of technology, then we could also raise the standard of living of all on Earth to a reasonable level without destroying the climate, etc. Birthrates would fall and the population would level off and perhaps even fall back, naturally, gradually, and without Malthusian disaster. No great coercive family planning programs are, or would be necessary.

It's really all about clean power.


By Philip Boncer (not verified) on 14 Sep 2007 #permalink

To consider decreasing family so there are no siblings so that the environment can be saved makes me wonder why in the heck are we trying to save it, and for who?

Can I say, as an only child, that this is a load of horseshit. It's racism writ narrow, that our only legitimate connections are with those that share most of our genes.

Great insight on the green and joyless future. Environmentalism can be a refuge for misanthropes, and that shouldn't be the totality of the movement. If we can't talk about a green and joyful future, then we're doomed to fail.

Drug companies pay money when they submit a drug application for marketing. In return, the FDA has to review the submissions within a set period of time. The compromise that was made would have $225 million over 5 years go to the agency to hire drug reviewers and put safety programs in place (~150 million for devices, too). As I mentioned before, they would have run out of money real soon without it. A lot of people think that this is a real bad idea (taking money from industry to pay reviewers). I don't and here's why: 1) they get the money whether they approve or not. Saying yes doesn't get you more, and saying no doesn't cut you off. 2) The money isn't specifically for certian reviewers; it goes into a big FDA pot and they use it where they need it. 3) If taxpayers had to foot the bill, the FDA would be woefully understaffed.