the whole shebang

November 1, 2006

If you depend on florescent bulbs to change the world, prepare for huge disappointment – Part 2: The myth that lightbulbs can change the world

Filed under: Environmentalism — wholeshebang @ 10:18 pm

[ Go back to PART 1 ]

(Note: I split this article into 3 posts for sanity…so everyone should comment to Part 3)

2: We are distracted by small potatoes while real global-warming causes are ignored

If you think this is just a cynical view that people can’t make a difference, it has nothing to do with that. I am all for individuals making changes in their everyday lives. I recycle, I reuse, I cut up six-pack rings so birds don’t get strangled.

This is about the biggest causes of global warming, and how they are getting ignored. This is about how politicians use “global warming” as an issue to beat each other up, while none of them are doing anything truly useful about it. This is about fast and widespread habitat degredation combined with third-world population explosion. And we need to do something about it now.

The danger of environmental politics in modern countries is that while we need to devote supreme education and effort and vast monetary and human resources to the real causes right now to effect huge change fast (which we are not doing), the population is exploding at an exponential rate and so is widespread environmental destruction.

While we get sidetracked by lesser causes and some politicians pat themselves on the back for reducing auto emissions and pushing energy-efficient appliances (noble goals by themselves), massive environmental degradation (which could effect global warming more than greenhouse gasses), famine, and some widespread natural disasters will increase at alarming rates and put our world and our lives in serious trouble within the next decade.

For all the numbers on the energy we could save by switching to compact florescent lightbulbs, there are coming worse damages so large and widespread as to make CFL-related enegry savings (and related programs) seem like middle-ages piddly-poo.

It’s not that we shoudn’t encourage CFLs and alternative fuels. It’s that we are making these a central issue while we have massive and very imminent problems breathing down our necks. Politicians can not afford to play the partisan drumroll on peripheral problems. Let the companies who make better devices (like GE and Toyota) do what they do best, and market the newest energry-saving devices. Our public needs to know the real issues and understand them. Our government needs to be doing something else, and it needs to take major action now.

“Environmentally conscious” mistakes:

By making 1 topic or regulation in a modern country the focus of politics, we have often gone in totally the wrong direction because we did not have all the information. While politicians gain political power by jumping on the latest unproven bandwagon (example: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), scientists are still debating whether “global warming” as the media understands it even exists. Quite a few are pointing to changes that occur naturally over hundreds of years. They say that we’re at the bottom of an upswing from a recent low-temperature point and that over several hundred years our average yearly temperature should rise by about 100 degrees. (If that ‘s true, that would wipe out life as we know it, but I don’t want to think about that.) Again, on the flip side, global warming could increase the pace of natural changes.

Regardless if the concept of global warming (in regards to greenhouse gasses) is overblown or not, we need to reduce greenhouse gasses and all sorts of other nasty substances. We need to reduce pollution and agricultural runoff that poisons our air, drinking water and food supply, exposes us to increasing ultraviolet rays, kills animals and plants, and causes invasive plants to grow out of control. There is no doubt about that. However, we have already made the mistake of pumping massive amounts of tax money into replacing one specific greenhouse gas with another. We reduced chloroflorocarbons that destroy the ozone layer only to replace it with another that does the same thing. (Typically, while Al Gore is still reaping the popularity benefits of An Inconvenient Truth, Mr. Gore and the media is avoiding reporting our gargantuan blunder.)

We waste valuable resources that cost people billions of dollars and could otherwise be used on more urgent issues when we bulldoze full-steam ahead without proven facts. This isn’t just a “mistake” it’s actually harmful. We can never get that money back, and what the world is really going to have to pony up to very quickly will cost a heck of a lot more money.

Let’s talk about the biggest looming issue — Third-World population growth and massive environmental degradation.

What does the world population have to do with anything?

The world population in Third-World countries is exploding. Even the most conservative numbers have the world population increasing by another half-billion people in only 8 years, and it will continue to grow faster as time moves on.

To understand this, you have to understand what is meant by “population growth rate“. Our current growth rate is about 1.3% soon to be 1%. You’ve heard the adage about a penny. 1 cent doubled every day for thirty days is $1,342,177.20. This is because a growth rate based on percentage results in an exponential increase, not a linear one.

You can reference an introductory environmental textbook for some startling facts based on simple trigonometry:

  1. In about 5 days, the growth in the world population is equal to the number of Americans killed in all U.S. wars.
  2. It takes only 1.6 years to add the 129 million people (as of 2001) killed in all wars fought in the last 200 years.
  3. It would take only 16 years to add the population of China (1.25 billion people as of 1999).

[Source: Environmental Science: Working with the Earth (2001), G. Tyler Miller, Jr., Thompson Learning]

Here is where the confusion starts. Due to various factors (less babies in well-developed countries, famines caused by environmental degredation, wars, and now terrorism), the growth rate is actually slowing down. This is where people are easily misled. While the rate may very well slow down, the actual hard numbers still increase exponentially. Why? Because current growth is based on a percentage increase of current numbers, which are larger than the years before.

This is why even a penny with a steady growth rate can grow so quickly. Once you had that 1 million dollars, how fast would your money grow if the percentage rate of growth slowed? Pretty darn quick. Because that growth rate is a percentage of the current amount, not the penny you began with.

If you’ve ever taken a Trigonometry class, you’ve had the problems that say, would you rather have an account with $7,500 and a growth rate of 4%, or $8,000 and a growth rate of 3.7%. And the higher amount of money with the lower growth rate is the better deal over a certain period of time, say 10 years.

(I just threw some example numbers up there and didn’t even check them, but the point is there are problems like this that you get in class. I’m sorry I have no memory for numbers and don’t feel like pulling out the math books. But you can use natural logarithms and different percentages and years to find the amounts and rates at which the above will be true or false.)

There is some point, at some lower percentage rate, over some period of time, at which the trend will eventually reverse itself and the actual increase in hard numbers will begin to slow. The turning point is a delayed effect. We seem to be nearing that point now, and whether we will ever reach that point, or how long it takes, depends on how fast the growth rate shrinks and how soon. The rate is subject to unpredictable spikes and dips due to various causes, such as ethnic cleansing. For now, while the growth rate shrinks (soon to hit 1% if we don’t have a spike) the actual increase in hard numbers will still be growing exponentially. Unfortunately, the massive environmental consequences are hitting now and are due to get quickly worse if we don’t effect massive change in our economic, environmental, legal and political environment.

What are some future projections?

The most conservative projection still has the population increasing steadily by 3 billion people over about 40 years:

“The world population increased from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion by 1999, a doubling that occurred over 40 years. The Census Bureau’s latest projections imply that population growth will continue into the 21st century, although more slowly. The world population is projected to grow from 6 billion in 1999 to 9 billion by 2042, an increase of 50 percent that will require 43 years.” [Source: World Population Informtion (2006), United States Census Bureau]

Math in Daily Life posts some conservative statistics:

“Even at these very low rates of population growth, the numbers are staggering. By 2015, despite a low expected 1% growth rate, experts estimate there will be 7 billion people on the planet. By 2050, there may be as many as 10 billion people living on Earth.”

Depending who you listen to, between 43 and 44 years, the world’s population will increase by 50% or more, folks! (Some less conservative estimates have us doubling in 53 years, based on us sustaining a 1.3% growth rate for only a little while longer.)

Besides people starving and dying, what does that have to to with the environment?

EcoFuture says this:

” For many people, the population problem is a problem of “those people,” in distant undeveloped countries…Unchecked population growth in the Third World means depletion of water resources. It means famine. It means suffering. It pushes populations to clear rainforests. It pushes populations to go out and graze on land that cannot sustain cattle, and that leads to expansion of deserts worldwide. We all have a stake in the global environment.”

While most people consider these to be far-off problems that only affect them peripherally, we have already had similar, lesser problems here in the United States. How many people who live in the large state of Florida, for example, are aware that the Everglades, still the most massive swampland in the U.S., used to cover the entire lower half of Florida from coast to coast and that by land-clearing, house-building, and agriculture alone we managed to reduce it to only a fraction of what it once was? Thousands of birds and other animals have become extinct in Florida alone, including some that exist nowhere else in the world.

The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina were the result of low-level coastal-swamp filling and draining and the building of an entire city wholly on an ocean-bordering swamp. The drainage-and-levee system prevented the ocean from regular minor flooding that replenishes the protective swamps with silt deposits to support the vegetation and therefore protect the swamp, which used to absorb the massive energy of super-storms by allowing the ocean to flow in in a natural way. This destruction led directly to the major flooding disaster that killed thousands of people.

What is happening in Third-World Countries is far more ominous.

One massive problem is that multi-national corporations engage in clear-cutting rainforests, pollution, unchecked development, and other destructive activities in countries which have no power to protect themselves or whose residents are too busy with the business of not starving. Some attention has been devoted to that, but not nearly enough.

The other is what large populations of native Third World peoples, even acting in small groups, can destroy in a short period of time.

For example, there is a stretch of land on the coast of Africa, recently bordered by swampland with coastal trees similar to our Mangrove and Cryprus. These trees protected the land from erosion by ocean tides, protecting a tropical smorgasboard of forest, rich earth, and abundant wildlife. I have to apologize right here for not remembering the name of the country or which African coast (eastern or western), because I heard about this maybe only 2 years ago, though I tried looking online to find it. This coastal swamp’s most striking features were the lush, protective trees with their huge roots spreading out at the ocean’s edge and digging into the land and the ocean floor at the shallow waters. An abundance of aquatic life spent its life under the roots of the big trees, and the land was not eroded away.

Only breif decades ago, pressed by famine and the booming population, local tribes spread into the area and cleared trees for agriculture to provide a food supply. Within only 30 years, the entire area was turned from swampland, forest, and rich, black earth entirely to sandy desert. Ironically, there is now a severe shortage of water, but as the winds and tides quickly steal the sand the people are at risk of flood. The food supply is all but gone.

While this may illustrate how quickly even unchecked, non-industrial activities can lead to famine for the locals, you must realize the other danger that afflicts us all. This story is being played out in forests and jungles throughout the Third World and even in developed countries. The massive loss of trees and other greenery, then wildlife, including insects necessary for the continuation of yet more greenery, severely reduces the number of plants turning carbon dioxide into life-giving oxegen. Unchecked, the effect on global warming and air pollution will be something we will live and die with for decades and decades to come.

[ Go to Part 3 ]



  1. […] Pingback by If you depend on florescent bulbs to change the world, prepare for huge disappointment – Part 2: The myth that lightbulbs can change the world « the whole shebang — November 1, 2006 @ 10:18 pm […]

    Pingback by If you depend on florescent bulbs to change the world, prepare for huge disappointment - Part 1: CFLs aren’t for everybody « the whole shebang — November 1, 2006 @ 10:32 pm

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