Friday, March 27, 2009

Intro Environmental Science versus Reality

This is the first posting of what will likely be a long effort, my deconstruction and refuting the numerous illogical, skewed, and biased arguments found in a college textbook on Environmental Science.  This particular one is Third Edition, by M. L. McKinney and R. M. Schoch.  

I read through this book, and answered a few questions that were asked to me by a student taking the class who had to use this book.  The student knows I am a chemical engineer and environmental attorney, and wanted clarification on several subjects.  I was happy to answer his questions.  The questions made me curious, and I read the book with growing dismay at the level of distortion and blatant agenda of the authors.  Each of the major points, and quite a few minor points, I will give in these blogs, with my response based on facts.  The students who take these classes are bright, and are eager to understand and learn, but it is giving them an unfair and biased view of the world to let them see only one side of the issues.   Most students will not learn about the other side or sides, for one reason, they do not have the curiosity, for another, they trust college professors to teach them the truth, and for another, even if they are skeptical and have the curiosity, they do not have the time.   I hope this series of blogs is helpful in those respects. 

I will start at the beginning, on page 5, where it is asserted "many environmentalists consider human population growth, or, more precisely, the impact of humans on the environment, to be the single most important issue that the world currently faces."   The authors then have a diagram, showing interactions of humans with the environment (lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere).  They further state that "raw elements of the natural environment pass through human society to produce the global environment in which we currently live.  For all practical purposes, there is no pristine wilderness remaining anywhere on Earth."  

This is very misleading, if not outright absurd.  Is it true that many environmentalists consider the impact of humans on the environment to be the single most important issue the world currently faces?  No doubt, there are many in that camp who would agree.  But that leaves off the more important questions, doesn't it?  Questions like attacks from terrorist groups, threats from new diseases, threats from impacts of asteroids, threats from major solar eruptions, threats from super volcano eruptions, and the cataclysmic threat from the sudden breaking away of a portion of the Hawaiian island that will result in a titanic tsunami of more than 1000 feet height.   The relative impacts of each of the threats listed above would show that impact on the environment is not nearly as important as the others.  

As to no pristine wilderness existing anywhere on Earth, that is far from the truth.  I have had the good fortune in my life to travel to many places on the Earth, and seen firsthand many of its areas.  Northern Canada is very pristine.  So is much of Alaska.  The Grand Canyon has a few trails, but the vast majority is pristine.  The jungles and subtropical areas of Brazil are virtually untouched.  The fact is that most humans live within a few miles of a coast.  The interior of most continents are sparsely settled.  North America, particularly the U.S.A. is well-developed, but vast areas of Australia, China, Russia, and South America are essentially pristine.  

Next, the authors assert that man's depletion of environmental resources is one of the two types of environmental disturbance.  The other type is discharging waste into the environment.  Further, the authors state that environmentally friendly ways to address these problems are explored, meaning ways to utilize resources productively without pollution and environmental damage.    I will come back to this as a recurring theme, to provide balance to the discussion. 

The authors then mention a very bleak post-industrial age that will occur unless man lessens its detrimental impact on the environment.  This shows a level of hopelessness and disregard for man's abilities that I will attempt to put right. 

Next comes an assertion without foundation or facts to back it up:  that cleanup of waste and pollution are the most expensive way to solve environmental problems.  Next they assert that a holistic approach is needed that will be much better and less expensive.  Again, no factual backup is provided.  

The real complaint that environmentalists have is stated next, those being 1) human population is too high, and 2) resource consumption, or material goods is too high.   This is the recurring theme throughout the book, that if only we could remove some or most of those horrible humans, the rest of us would be so much better off!  And secondly, even after removing most of those horrible humans, we must reduce the consumption by those remaining humans.  Are these authors advocating eugenics, to kill off undesirable people?  If so, by what yardstick are humans to be measured for the decision on remaining alive, or being killed?  And, what material goods are to be allowed, and who decides, and who enforces this?   

The authors go on to assert the Big Three of the environmentalists' mantra: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.   By Reduce, they mean that the amount of natural resources must be reduced, that is, the flow of resources used by mankind.  By Reuse, they mean using something more than once rather than throwing it away.  And by Recycle, they mean convert a used item into a new item, rather than placing the used item in a landfill then mining more natural resources to produce another similar item.   Each of these Big Three are fundamentally flawed, and I will discuss this. 

Reduce.   One example given in the book is that logs are cut in sawmills, which is wasteful because sawdust cannot be used as lumber.  This is very misleading, because few wood products today are made from solid wood.  Only very few, and very expensive items are solid wood.  Most are wood veneers, a thin layer of wood that is peeled from a log using a specialized wood peeling machine.  The veneer is attached to a backing made of plywood.  The plywood is made from wood chips and an adhesive.   Where saws do cut wood, the sawdust is collected and pressed into shapes such as a fire-log for fireplaces.   The inconsistency is apparent, as environmentalists want to ban wood-burning fireplaces due to the smoke and CO2 emissions, yet if left in the forest, the trees will die and decompose into CO2.  

Reuse.  An example of reuse is to use metal eating utensils rather than plastic ones.  The idea is that metal knife, spoon, and fork can be washed and reused, but plastic ones will be thrown away after one use.    Another is to substitute worn-out tee-shirts for paper towels.  Rather than buy paper towels, one is to use an old tee-shirt that can be washed with other clothes.   The absurdity soon appears, as the same people advocate not washing clothes until a full load accumulates.  Otherwise, the thinking goes, one is wasting water and energy while washing a partial load.  Therefore, one should wipe up a kitchen spill with the old tee-shirt, and toss it into the laundry basket for a few days until wash day arrives.  This is highly unsanitary and would lead to health issues, not to mention smelly odors.   It is far better to buy and use a paper towel, and throw it away to maintain proper health and hygiene. 

Recycle.  This is the well-known means of discarding waste goods into separate containers that can be collected and taken to recycle centers.  In many areas, recycling containers are provided by the city or town for paper, glass, plastic, and metal.  Some go so far as to have containers dedicated only to aluminum cans such as soft drinks.    What many people do not realize is that recycling has little impact on raw material usage.  With paper, for example, there is a glut or overabundance of used paper that cannot be recycled.  The reason is that many paper products will not function properly if too much recycled paper fiber is added.  Another is glass.  Recycled glass cannot be used for many purposes because of purity issues.  Plastic also cannot be recycled into the same products, but sometimes can be made into other products.   Finally, metals are not all the same and separating them can be very costly.  

Next, the authors gloss over one of the most discredited positions of environmentalism:  the exponential growth rate.  They even mention two of the books that were gross exaggerations, and predicted outcomes that never came to pass and likely never will.  The Population Bomb by Ehrlich, and Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome.  According to the Population Bomb, the world was to reach its limit of humanity by some years ago, which clearly did not happen.  The Club of Rome book, Limits to Growth, was equally wrong in all its predictions.  It predicted exponential growth in several key areas, all leading to the destruction of mankind.  One was population, another energy use, another raw material use, another water use, another was financial capital, and finally the growing mountain of pollution or waste.  Not a one of these came to pass.  

The facts are quite different.  Food never ran out, as was predicted, instead we pay farmers to not grow food to prevent price collapses.  Water has never run out and never will, as it is cleaned up in the oceans and recycled naturally by the heat of the sun and falls as rain or snow.   Resources not only have not disappeared, they have actually grown less expensive over time, indicating an abundance rather than a shortage.  Population is not growing exponentially, in fact, many countries are shrinking in population.  Japan recently issued a request for its citizens to go make babies.   A wonderful book on the population growth topic is America Alone.  

Thus ends the first installment.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 

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