The Bet

 

The Malthusian catastrophe simplistically illu...

The Malthusian catastrophe simplistically illustrated. For Malthus, as population increases exponentially while food production can only increase linearly, a point where food supply is inadequate will at some point be reached. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development‘s Brundtland Report (1987), Our Common Future, defined sustainable development‘s path as

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It sounds simple. But how do we judge “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”?  In fact, the Bruntland Report drafters believed the present was robbing the future due to our consumption (largely due to our rising population). The idea that we are spoiling the earth with our numbers and the earth/mother nature responding harshly is anything but new.

In the third century, Tertullian wrote,

“Most convincing as evidence of populousness, we men have actually become a burden to the earth, the fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us, there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints, since the earth can no longer support us. Need we be astonished that plague and famine, warfare and earthquake come to be regarded as remedies, serving, as it were to trim and prune the superfluity of population.”

In the 18th century Thomas Malthus wrote,

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”


In the 20th century Paul R. Ehrlich wrote,

Image credit: Amazon


“[within a decade] the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” – Ehrlich, 1968

 

In 2000, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development codified a new charter to guide the transition to sustainable development. It stated:

The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.
United Nations, Earth Charter, 1987

In 1980, the late Julian Simon, an economist, famously posed a bet to environmentalists that the price of any raw material would decline indefinitely. (The price of a material indicates its abundance, the more abundant it is the cheaper it is.) Ehrlich took the bet. Ronald Bailey wrote about it in his book EcoScam, “In October 1980, Ehrilch and Simon drew up a futures contract obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich the same quantities which could be purchased for $1,000 of five metals (copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten) ten years later as 1980 prices. If the combined prices rose above $1,000, Simon would pay the difference. If they fell below $1,000, Ehrlich would pay Simon. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07 in October 1990.” The bet has now been documented in a book by Paul Sabin.

New York Times writer, John Tierney made his own bet on oil prices in 2005; “not because I knew much about Saudi oil production or the other ‘peak oil’ arguments that global production was headed downward. I was just following a rule learned from a mentor and a friend, the economist Julian L. Simon.” That rule was to have ‘skin in the game.’

As the leader of the Cornucopians, the optimists who believed there would always be abundant supplies of energy and other resources, Julian [Simon] figured that betting was the best way to make his argument. Optimism, he found, didn’t make for cover stories and front-page headlines. – John Tierny

Yes, our lives are sustainable. Despite the finite nature of everything we use. Stuff become resources when we (as a species) decide that the previous useless stuff now has value when used for energy, food, fertilizer, beauty, circuit boards, etc. And that realization occurs when we exchange ideas. Because we trade goods and services, the cross-fertilization of ideas happens as part of commerce.

As I have written before, it will be technological change (caused by trade) that makes the world more habitable for all its species, and not decisions to go without. Consider:

  • Land was freed up from agricultural production not by eating less meat, but by using machines for farming (since machines don’t need pasture).
  • It was the discovery of how to use coal, instead of wood, to power machines that saved forests, not from deciding to use less wood.
  • More land was freed up by making each acre more productive via synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not by fasting once a week.
  • Whales were saved from extinction, not by lowering the amount of whale oil one bought, but by people buying the newer and more affordable kerosene (derived from coal) for lighting.
  • Even habitats can benefit from trade. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador’s forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming.

In the 1970s, Ehrlich and Barry Commoner simply repackaged the classic Malthusian catastrophe into a formula to make it look sciency: I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology).

Well two can play at that game: I = P × A/T.  There, it’s all sciency.

I recommend the post, “Peak Everything” by Ronald Bailey.

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Guest Commentary: National Wildland Fire Management Policy and Firefighter Deaths…more rhetoric, no solutions

This is a version of an Op-Ed by Kenn & Susan McCarty that appeared in the Lake County Record-Bee.

Susan is a 16-year wildland firefighter veteran and a former United States Forest Service Hotshot Firefighter. Kenn is a 33-year fire service veteran and is presently a fire hand crew supervisor for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Continue reading

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Burned Policy

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves….” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2.

Still Playing With Fire

Coeur d'Alene National Forest, Idaho. Photo taken between 1909 and 1920. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Coeur d’Alene National Forest, Idaho. Photo taken between 1909 and 1920. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

It is summer so wildfires are in the news, and this year’s Yarnell Hill and Rim Fires are partially used to hype man-caused global warming. Our fire problem has been a long time in the making. It did not happen overnight. We will not fix it overnight, perhaps we never will.

On August 15th 1979, I had just started my first permanent position with Cal Fire. On that day a four-man crew from Nipomo Forest Fire Station responded to the Spanish Ranch Fire about thirty miles east of Santa Maria. Three of the Nipomo crew (Captain Ed Marty, and firefighters Ron Lorant and Steve Manley) died on the fireline that day. Firefighter Scott Cox succumbed to his burns 202 days later.

Later in my career, I taught at Cal Fire’s Fire Academy. We have there a list of firefighters who died in the line of duty. This year, nineteen more names were added to the list of fallen comrades. The Yarnell Fire joins such infamous fires as Mann Gulch, Inaja, Loop, Rattlesnake, South Canyon, and others. The stories of how our comrades died at these fires are part of our lore.

I can comment on fire policy since I have responded to wildland fires and helped in quelling them, and I taught fire modeling in the Advanced Wildland Fire Behavior course as part of a cadre of instructors during the 1990s.

***

Our present fire policy began in 1910 with the “Big Burn,” a fire that killed at least 85 people and burned more than 4,700 square miles in Idaho and Montana. It is the second largest fire in U.S. History (the Peshtigo Fire was 5900 square miles and killed 1,500), and 12 times bigger than the Rim Fire which, as of this writing, is nearly 400 square miles.

On August 10, 1910, the region was in the midst of a severe drought when fires broke out and were reported as spreading rapidly on the Blackfeet, Cabinet, Clearwater, Flathead, Kaniksu, and Lolo National Forests. Over time they merged. On the 20th high winds caused a “blow up.” The Forest History Society says “that towns and timber alike perished, heroes were made, legends were born, and history changed forever.” They quote Forester Edward G. Stahl as recalling, “that flames hundreds of feet high were ‘fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.’”

“[F[lames hundreds of feet high were ‘fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.’” – Forester Edward G. Stahl recalling the Big Burn

Arizona State University Professor Stephen Pyne is a recognized expert on wildfire; in 2001 he spoke of the lessons of the Big Burn. “The next three chief foresters [of the Forest Service] – William Greeley, Robert Stuart, and Ferdinand Augustus Silcox – were all personally on the scene of the fires, had counted its costs, buried its dead…Silcox wrote [toward the end of 1910] that the lesson of the fires was that they were wholly preventable. All it took was more money, more men, more trails, more will.”

The year 1910 saw the triumph of that management philosophy over another. It should surprise no one that the rancorous debate occurred due to, in the words of Pyne, “politics, personalities, and professional pride.”

The debate’s loser, Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger argued for what was known as “The Indian Way.” Pyne put Ballinger’s argument this way, it was better to have “fires of choice than fires of chance” because “light burning by the American Indian, after all, was what had created the forests for which everyone [in 1910] now lusted.”

The winner, Gifford Pinchot, the Father of the Forest Service, believed as Silcox did. Indeed most foresters of the day believed that fire had no place in the forest. In their opinion, using fire was anti-conservation. Patrolling, putting out fires, and educating people to be careful was the way of the future.

By 1935, Silcox (now Forest Service Chief) conceded that their policy to put out all fires by 10 a.m. had left national forest lands in worse shape than they had been a generation before. The Society of American Foresters publicly announced that fire was required for certain species, most notably longleaf pine.

To this day, fire has not been reintroduced to any great extent. Fires normally clear away undergrowth and widen space between trees. Without it, those fuels build up. Fire probably will never be used in a meaningful way to create wildland landscapes that resist major fires. For one thing, people such as me now live in what is called the Wildland-Urban Interface, making fire’s use more difficult. For another, there are rules and regulations regarding air and water quality that blunt fire’s use.

Clearing and thinning of trees and undergrowth to remove the “fire ladder”—plants and woody debris that can allow fire to climb into the tops of trees—and widen spacing between trees would help reduce these catastrophic wildfires. But, that probably will not happen due to distaste for logging of any sort.

As sickening as it may sound, there may be nothing you and I can do except prepare for the inevitable. At the family level, clear flammable vegetation, mow down grass, and have an evacuation plan and meeting place decided on. Keep a bag with toiletries, clothes, and cash ready in case you are told to leave (there is a preparedness checklist at www.ready.gov). The South Lake County Fire Safe Council has good suggestions on preparedness. At the county level, we have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan that assessed our risks. Not surprisingly, much of the plan focuses on Fire Safe planning for new developments. Many of our existing roads and driveways do not meet the minimal requirements. My plan, in case of a major fire, is to grab my wife and our cat and walk into the lake; our road, as many in Lake County, is without an outlet and too narrow to accommodate incoming fire equipment and outgoing cars.

The fault for catastrophic wildfires, lies not in our global warming ‘stars,’ but in our politics.

Fires 1960-2012

Acres burned due to wildland fires, 1960-2012. Source: National Interacency Fire Center

 

 

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