Where to Now

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I don’t think the newspapers regularly carried stories with headings like Humanity At Risk, but this phrase is an apt description of the conclusions in the latest scientific report from the United Nations environment program.

Strong investments to increase supply and reduce demand, particularly through efficiency improvements, help to alleviate concerns over freshwater availability in much of the world. Still, growing populations and
economic activity continue to strain resources, particularly in the developing regions. Globally, the population living under severe water stress continues to rise, with almost all of this increase occurring in those regions exhibiting continued population growth.

The report tries very hard to be cheerful, with its colourful presentation and cartoons, but as almost all reviews indicate, the message is chilling. Wonderful! With this awareness, there is an opportunity for change.

History shows that much can change, expectedly or unexpectedly, over short periods, and it is unlikely that most trends would continue unabated for decades without changing course.

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Anonymous said,

    Actually “back in the 1970s … the newspapers” did carry “stories with headings like Humanity At Risk”. The problem then, as now, is that policy makers in the superpower USA ignored their clear message.

    One widely publicized example (back then) is (now) described on the web at dieoff.org slash page25.html which quotes a 1992 book by Tom Tietenberg:

    “… THE BASIC PESSIMIST MODEL … published in 1972 under the title The Limits to Growth.
    Based on a technique known as systems dynamics, developed by Professor Jay Forrester at MIT, a large-scale computer model was constructed to simulate likely future outcomes of the world economy. The most prominent feature of systems dynamics is the use of feedback loops to explain behavior. …
    Three main conclusions were reached by this study.

    The first suggests that within a time span of less than 100 years with no major change in the physical, economic, or social relationships that have traditionally governed world development, society will run out of the nonrenewable resources on which the industrial base depends. When the resources have been depleted, a precipitous collapse of the economic system will result … the economic system consumes successively larger amounts of the depletable resources until they are gone. The characteristic behavior of the system is overshoot and collapse …

    The second conclusion of the study is that piecemeal approaches to solving the individual problems will not be successful. … an alternative vision based on … higher level of resources … the collapse still occurs, but this time it is caused by excessive pollution generated by the increased pace of industrialization … In this model the removal of one limit merely causes the system to bump subsequently into another one, usually with more dire consequences.

    As its third and final conclusion, the study suggests that overshoot and collapse can be avoided only by an immediate limit on population and pollution, as well as a cessation of economic growth. …

    Why were these conclusions reached? … The dominant characteristic of the model is exponential growth coupled with fixed limits. … Because of the dominance of positive feedback loops, coupled with fixed limits on essential resources, the structure of the Limits to Growth model preordains its conclusion that human activity is on a collision course with nature …

    THE BASIC OPTIMIST MODEL … Because Herman Kahn and his associates did not think …[that]… the Limits to Growth model …[ws]… accurate … they presented an alternative vision in a … 1976 …book titled The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World … based in large part on the continuing evolution of a form of technological progress that serves to push back the natural limits until they are no longer limiting … technologies … can provide the transition to solar energy, making the case that solar energy can ultimately sustain a high level of economic activity. The list includes technologies that use coal, either directly or indirectly (such as gas produced from coal); those which exploit the vast world reserves of shale oil; nuclear power (fission, in the near term, replaced subsequently by fusion); and new solar technologies including windmills, photovoltaics, and ocean thermal power …
    The Kahn model … is not a computer program that simulates the future. Rather, Kahn and his associates devised scenarios they believed to be plausible …”.

    Consider for example energy. The issues were clearly stated 30 years ago, but are only now coming to the point of war in the Middle East.

    Forrester’s “fixed limit on essential resources” clearly applies to Cheap Oil, the vast bulk of which is in the Persian Gulf. Now that we are at the peak of production, with decline for a decade or two before collapse, we see that the leading technological power (the USA) is trying to get military control over the huge profits to be made over the last couple of decades of Cheap Oil,
    is not spending money and resources on the relatively expensive (and therefore less profitable short-term) alternatives (nuclear etc) advocated by Kahn.

    Effectively, the short-term profit capitalism that controls the USA has decided against the Kahn solution, and has ignored the Forrester warning about the resulting long-term collapse.

    Tony Smith

    PS – If this is too long etc, please feel free to delete it.

  2. 2

    nige said,

    Just to comment on this. I read Kahn’s “On Thermonuclear War” (first published 1960) as a teenager and then requested his other books via the local library.

    Kahn’s book “The Next 200 Years” is if I recall, a small slim paperback and I don’t think there was much data in it to make his case.

    The key book for environmentalism is Herman Kahn and Julian Simon, “The Resourceful Earth – A Response to Global 2000” published in 1984 (Kahn died in 1983 while it was still in the press).

    That volume is massive and contains hundreds of graphs and tables of data which really make a convincing case that environmentalism exaggerated the facts.

    I read that perhaps twenty years ago and don’t have a copy handy. But I think it dealt with everything.

    Even things like species extinction are being grossly exaggerated – species are always becoming extinct as the fossil record shows. It’s nothing new. As new species come along, old ones die off. It that wasn’t the case, there would still be dinosaurs around, and the world would be a lot less healthy for humans. The whole reason why saber toothed tigers and other wild beasts were hunted to extinction was to make life bearable, not out of ignorance or selfishness!

    Most of this environmentalism is a replacement for religion. The rate of rise of sea levels, etc., is slow enough that low lying areas can build up defenses in the meanwhile – far more cheaply than cutting CO2 emissions.

    Better still, switch to nuclear power. The effects of low doses of external gamma radiation, especially if delivered at low dose rates, are actually beneficial to human beings as they stimulate DNA repair mechanisms like P53 and cut the cancer risk (it’s only internal high-LET radiation like alpha and beta particles from ingested Sr-90 or Pu-239, or extremely large doses/dose rates from gamma rays, that cause a net health risk):

    See the monumental report on effects of low dose rate, low-LET gamma radiation on 10,000 people in Taiwan by W.L. Chen,Y.C. Luan, M.C. Shieh, S.T. Chen, H.T. , Kung, K.L. Soong, Y.C.Yeh, T.S. Chou, S.H. Mong, J.T.Wu, C.P. Sun,W.P. Deng, M.F.Wu, and M.L. Shen, Is Chronic Radiation an Effective Prophylaxis Against Cancer?, published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2004, page 6, available in PDF format at


    ‘An extraordinary incident occurred 20 years ago in Taiwan. Recycled steel, accidentally contaminated with cobalt-60 ([low dose rate, low-LET gamma radiation emitter] half-life: 5.3 y), was formed into construction steel for more than 180 buildings, which 10,000 persons occupied for 9 to 20 years. They unknowingly received radiation doses that averaged 0.4 Sv, a collective dose of 4,000 person-Sv. Based on the observed seven cancer deaths, the cancer mortality rate for this population was assessed to be 3.5 per 100,000 person-years. Three children were born with congenital heart malformations, indicating a prevalence rate of 1.5 cases per 1,000 children under age 19.

    ‘The average spontaneous cancer death rate in the general population of Taiwan over these 20 years is 116 persons per 100,000 person-years. Based upon partial official statistics and hospital experience, the prevalence rate of congenital malformation is 23 cases per 1,000 children. Assuming the age and income distributions of these persons are the same as for the general population, it appears that significant beneficial health effects may be associated with this chronic radiation exposure. …

    ‘The data on reduced cancer mortality and congenital malformations are compatible with the phenomenon of radiation hormesis, an adaptive response of biological organisms to low levels of radiation stress or damage; a modest overcompensation to a disruption, resulting in improved fitness. Recent assessments of more than a century of data have led to the formulation of a well founded scientific model of this phenomenon.

    ‘The experience of these 10,000 persons suggests that long term exposure to [gamma]radiation, at a dose rate of the order of 50 mSv (5 rem) per year, greatly reduces cancer mortality, which is a major cause of death in North America.’

    For Hiroshima-Nagasaki data supporting the fact that low level gamma radiation cuts down cancer risks, see the most recent two posts at http://glasstone.blogspot.com/

    Growing populations and economic activity really need to be used to sort out the problems in an unbiased way. Unfortunately, the mainstream approaches start with a prejudice dating back to 1957 when the facts were not known (P53 was only discovered twenty years later). The culture clash between fashionable politics and scientific facts always result in fashionable politics winning, and people needlessly dying and suffering as a consequence.

    “History shows that much can change, expectedly or unexpectedly, over short periods, and it is unlikely that most trends would continue unabated for decades without changing course.”

    I hope you are right. Unfortunately, they will probably make changes for the worst. Like spending enough to bankrupt the world by building giant CO2 extractors which will be completed just about the time the oil, gas and coal runs out, and so will never be used. That’s the story of how politics always works when it uses “common sense” to tackle complex problems: it is not merely “too little too late”, but “completely crazy”.

  3. 3

    Kea said,

    Thanks Tony and Nigel. Yes, clearly some people in the 1970s had a clear vision of potential disaster. But from my personal memories of living by the sea, in a sparsely populated country, and in a very un-intellectual community, there was no consciousness of any such thing.

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: