Thursday, December 29, 2005

Enviromental Management

Michael Crichton delivered an interesting speech to the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy. It centered on enviromental management and more specifically scare tactics. He starts with an anecdote about researching for his novel State of Fear:

Some of you know I have written a book that many people find controversial. It is called State of Fear, and I want to tell you how I came to write it. Because up until five years ago, I had very conventional ideas about the environment and the success of the environmental movement.

The book really began in 1998, when I set out to write a novel about a global disaster. In the course of my preparation, I rather casually reviewed what had happened in Chernobyl, since that was the worst manmade disaster in recent times that I knew about.

What I discovered stunned me. Chernobyl was a tragic event, but nothing remotely close to the global catastrophe I imagined. About 50 people had died in Chernobyl, roughly the number of Americans that die every day in traffic accidents. I don’t mean to be gruesome, but it was a setback for me. You can’t write a novel about a global disaster in which only 50 people die.

Undaunted, I began to research other kinds of disasters that might fulfill my novelistic requirements. That’s when I began to realize how big our planet really is, and how resilient its systems seem to be. Even though I wanted to create a fictional catastrophe of global proportions, I found it hard to come up with a credible example.

So here is an intelligent man, a doctor, who finds his presumption about enviromental disasters challenged. What does he do? He looks up the data.

The initial reports in 1986 claimed 2,000 dead, and an unknown number of future deaths and deformities occurring in a wide swath extending from Sweden to the Black Sea. As the years passed, the size of the disaster increased; by 2000, the BBC and New York Times estimated 15,000-30,000 dead, and so on…

Now, to report that 15,000-30,000 people have died, when the actual number is 56, represents a big error.

I am tempted to make a snide comment about the NYT here but I'll refrain. He went on to cite a report that said the greatest harm was done by the misinformation; the curse of the self fullfilling prophesy if you will. Once the research on Chernobyl, shook him out of his blindness he examined other predicted disasters. Y2K, the "population bomb", poison by pesticide, cancer brought on by a whole host of things like saccharine and food coloring (remember the red M&M scare?), his list goes on. Can I add a bugaboo from my childhood, acid rain? For at least a year I was scared to go out in the rain. Living in the Pacific Northwest, that meant I spent a whole year of my kidhood afraid to play outside.

Well Y2K fizzled, population numbers have hazardously declined in many parts of the world, DDT could stamp out malaria if given a chance, the list goes on. I still live in the Pacific Northwest and 23 years later acid rain hasn't gotten me yet. Crichton goes on to point out that the enviroment is not a linear equation. If "a+b=c" and we change the value of "a" we don't necessarily produce "d". Rather if we change "a" who knows what will happen? Not the enviromentalists.

First the clearcutting of rainforests were hazardous, now trees may not be the solution:

In the effort to slow Earth's rising temperatures, even a well-intentioned proposal could backfire, scientists said Wednesday.
One suggestion has been to grow more trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, the gas blamed for trapping heat. More trees mean more carbon dioxide removed from the air.

New computer simulations, however, indicate that establishing new forests across North America could provide a cooling effect for a few decades to a century, but that after that, they would lead to more warming.

Global warming can mean whatever Greenpeace says it means. Steven Guilbeault, Greenpeace director made this clear:

"Global warming can mean colder, it can mean drier, it can mean wetter. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Huh? No. I thought warming meant you know, warm, as in not cold. I bring all this up not because I want to trash enviromentalists, because I think thier goals are laudable. That is, if thier goals are a planet that it is a pleasure to live on and good stewardship of what we have been entrusted with. I get the feeling though if some bright scientist ever got cold fusion to work and we could power our homes with a tablespoon of seawater; we'd start hearing about the plight of red sea algae and how it's loss would bring untold doom on our heads.

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