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Wrong. The long-evolved green agenda is suddenly outdated -- too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-side for the scale of the climate problem. Far from taking a new dominant role, environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new task. Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system -- climate dynamics.
Would you elaborate on that a bit?
SB: There was a period of a sort of triumphalism say two years ago, when Al Gore's movie came out, An Inconvenient Truth. Al is a hardline environmentalist, and he won big, he got a Nobel Prize, he got the Oscar, and a lot of people were rightly alarmed by the movie and started rethinking things. The environmentalists themselves did not rethink much. [LAUGHS] I think they felt like they were exonerated on an issue that they'd been beating on for a couple of decades. Lo and behold, what they were warning about has come to pass, and they were right, and everybody else was wrong, and now all they have to do is push ahead.
But it's not that simple, and traditional environmental approaches are now being called into question. Environmentalists routinely say, "Nuclear is bad." Well, in terms of climate, nuclear is good. Environmentalists routinely say that genetically engineered food crops are bad. Well, in terms of climate and for a lot of other reasons, genetically engineered food crops are good -- in fact, quite Green.
And I don't know how the hell we're going to get out of the quandary caused be "Green" being equated with "liberal" or "Left." In Germany, for example, environmentalists are called "Watermelons" -- green on the outside, red on the inside; they're basically lefties. This kind of thing only exacerbates the split public view on climate. You can see a lot of it is split right down the liberal-conservative line, because a lot of conservatives who might otherwise take climate change seriously can't abide the idea of having to first admit that Al Gore was right about something. [LAUGHS] Gore is well aware of that, and so he tries to play down the political aspect of his own position in all this, but he's stuck with it. So at any given time you've got a lot of conservatives thinking they should be anti environmental issues, such as climate, because they're anti-liberal, and that confuses things. There's been a few efforts to improve that, but not enough.
I guess the other major issue that I see is that the scale, scope, speed, and stakes of climate change require way better science and very active engineering, and environmentalists have been kind of choosy about which scientists they deign to listen to, and pretty much against any large-scale engineering. That has to change, as we are facing serious engineering issues, and just being anti new technology, or anti exotic chemicals, or anti a gene being brought from one species into another species because "that's not natural" (it is natural, but that's another story) -- is an inadequate response to the technology. All this has to change for environmentalists to help with the kind of problems we're now facing.
My guess is that it will go several ways at once. There are already a large number of environmentalists who are quietly, sometimes noisily, pro-nuclear. There are some that are catching on that cities are Green things -- we used to think that villages and rural life was the epitome of Green, but we had that backwards. So there's movement. But I think the severity of the issues we're facing is going to need a lot more movement, and the approach that I espouse in the book is not a Romantic one. Do not be driven by Romanticism, or sentiment, or stories about how you think the world works. Try to figure out what actually does work, and then follow that even if it's against some sense of what's right in terms of natural systems. Natural systems are way more self-engineering than we acknowledge, and we need to figure out how they do that, and then step up to it and join the process.
JM: It's interesting to me to hear you highlight what is a counter-intuitive relationship between farm and city in terms of Greenness. In the book, you discuss, how climate has been a human artifact for a very long time, and the overwhelming impact that agriculture has had on creating that artifact. That was something I had never thought about before, and found revelatory. You illustrate how the human hand in shaping climate in big ways goes back a very long time, with farming in a way a culprit.
SB: The main villain from the Green standpoint is agriculture. It is the most radical thing humans have done to the landscape, to natural systems, to the earth, ever. Depending on how you count, something like 30% to 40% of the ice-free land area is devoted to one form or another of agriculture. Those are parts of the world, then, that don't, in a sense, participate in Gaia. They're not doing the usual balancing of microbially created gases and clouds and rain and the rest of it.
A paleoclimatologist named William Ruddiman has looked very closely at what seems to have been happening over the long time frame, 7,000 to 10,000 years. He's found some anomalies in the climatological record that are instructive. One astounding statement he makes in his book, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate, is that we should have had an Ice Age 2,000 years ago, and it may well be that the reason we didn't is us. The reason it hasn't happened is methane -- you get this from ice cores, and it looks like the amount of methane in the atmosphere started going up when it should have been going down. Ruddiman postulates that this happened, basically, when basically rice farming came in -- wet rice farming. Then he explored an earlier anomaly with CO2, and that seemed to bear relation to when agriculture in general first came in. Those are major pieces of what they call geo-engineering, direct human intervention in climate. If we'd done it intentionally, we would be preening ourselves for "Look how smart our civilization is; we were able to head off an Ice Age!" But it was just dumb luck.
Now we need to shift from that kind of dumb luck to taking charge of that kind of transformative activity. We need to understand it more completely than we have, and then intervene at that scale with the realization that it's happened before, so we're not completely at sea about what may happen. But it's whole new territory.
In fact, climate hasn't been natural for quite a while. The other shift in thinking that is difficult for a lot of people is caused by the realization that in developed countries, people in rural areas and even in suburbs use a whole lot more energy, are much less efficient, than people living in town. Basically, the most energy efficient way you can live is in Manhattan in an apartment, and take the subway to work and the elevator to your office.
JM: It's pretty damn hot today, I'll tell you, in Manhattan on the subway.
SB: [LAUGHS] I just spent some time in Southeast Asia, where it's hot all the time, and you see that as soon as people get some money, they buy an air conditioner. I realized that as the developing world becomes the developed world, which is happening very rapidly, its inhabitants are going to want a lot of grid electricity to feed the air conditioners that they are going to install just as soon as they can afford them. These are not people you are going to persuade to suddenly become very efficient and abstemious about energy, because they've finally got a bit of money, and they want to do the same things with energy that we do, and they see no reason why they can't.
But the main reason cities are Green in the developing world is not so much the energy differential, but the fact that there are 1.3-million people a week in the world who are moving into cities. They are leaving behind villages, and they're leaving behind subsistence agriculture, which was a poverty trap and an ecological disaster. As soon as those subsistence farms shut down, the wildlife comes back, the natural growth comes back, the water comes back. A whole continent starts to green-up as people move into town. In aggregate, the migration to cities a huge event.
JM: You make a survey of a lot of literature on the rapid urbanization of the world and on the ecology, if you will, of squatter cities. This again was eye-opening to me. Would you talk a bit about what you see going on there?
SB: The U.N. has really led the way in reconfiguring how we think about squatter cities. A sixth of humanity lives in slums and in squatter cities, places that people start living in near town, or in town, in order to be close to jobs. They live in shanties, and they don't often have the sanitation or electricity, or they steal electricity. Until about ten years ago, the standard view was that these were terrible problems, and that we must keep the people back on the land, and we have made various efforts to do that. These all failed, because people will move toward opportunity, toward jobs, toward participating in the cash economy -- so they go to town. One family member goes to town and kind of makes the case, then more family members come, and so on.
Some demographers and city planners are now saying that it is squatters who are building the world's cities. The largest amount of construction, in bulk terms, is being done by people building and improving their shanties. The shift is from treating this as a problem that must be somehow be fixed to understanding that it is actually a solution. And it's not just a solution in environmental terms. It's a solution in economic terms, because cities create wealth, they do it at every scale, right down to the rickshaw economy of just a couple of rupees a day; for people who have been outside the cash economy on subsistence farms, to get a couple of rupees a day is a big deal. They immediately have fewer children. They are able to get medical care and education for their children in town, and go to great efforts to make sure that happens. Instead of seeing these squatter cities as a huge, horrifying populace of people crushed by poverty, what people see now is a huge, zesty populace busy getting out of poverty just as fast as it can -- moving pretty damn rapidly, with lots of resourcefulness. Much of the most radical use of cellphones in the world these days is in the developing countries, where they turn cellphones into cash machines and put them to all sorts of ingenious uses that we're still catching up with in the developed world. And they often have a better cell signal than we get in California. [LAUGHS]
JM: The transformational role the cellphone is playing in the economic mobility of people in developing countries is fascinating.
SB: If you are growing crops out in the bush and want to sell them, you used to go through a sequence of middlemen between you and the market in town. With a cellphone, you can find out yourself what cassavas are selling for in town. That cuts out the middle people, because you knows what the real price is, and you may well truck it into town yourself. The cash economy follows the cellphone towers, and they're not only transferring knowledge -- they're transferring actual money. The remittances of a family member overseas who has a job in Europe or North America are sent back via cellphone. Banks are being reinvented banks around cellphones, as has how work is found. It used to be that typically in the informal economy of these squatter cities, when a job situation arose, you'd go and you'd wait in line somewhere, and hope for the best. Well, now you can wait on line in a cellphone, and be doing something else useful instead of just standing around getting hungry. And on and on. Basically, the $10 cellphone -- which is what they get down to in these areas -- is becoming the most revolutionary instrument there is. Pretty cool.
JM: Very cool. Would you explain the evolution of your views on nuclear power? You devote a very important section of the book to what one might call its promise rather than its peril. I think that, for many environmentalists, that will be a heresy.
SB: Yes. It would be fun to go out and collect the conversion experiences various environmentalists have had on this subject. What did it take to change their mind about nuclear?
Essentially, we've had to readdress an issue that we thought about 10-15-20-25 years ago; we pretty much had our stand and stuck to it. But when one goes and catches up on information, and has climate change so much in mind, it's an invitation to consider nuclear power in a different light, because it doesn't put out greenhouse gases nearly as much as the other energy forms, and is, in that sense, renewable. So you now see people who've had a strong feeling against nuclear changing their minds. I'm one of those, although to tell the truth I had a mild feeling against nuclear. I just thought that it was irresponsible to put onto future generations, quite a large number of generations, the issue of dealing with nuclear waste.
But the fact is, I borrowed the thinking on that. I didn't pay close attention to the information, and hadn't really thought through the talk that the stuff has to be isolated for 10,000 years, because any amount of it getting out would be terribly deleterious. That talk doesn't hold up at any level. What I realized, after a visit to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is that all those projections assume that people are about the same 10,000 years from now, and they have the same vulnerabilities and the same technology and the same worries -- and that is so deeply impossible that the whole argument falls apart. It is based on a very, very strange idea of stasis in civilization.
That was the start with me. But others? Many younger environmentalists are comfortable with nuclear, because they weren't around when everybody got concerned about Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. They weren't around for the Cold War. They haven't crawled under a school desk to duck-and-cover under the specter of nuclear weapons. They just see nuclear as another technology, and they're young, so they like technology. They master cellphones and everything else faster than the grownups do, and don't see any reason that nuclear can't be something they master. So you'll see in the online forums, treehugger.com and so on, there's often a generational disjunct between older environmentalists saying nuclear is like original sin and the younger environmentalists saying, "No, nuclear looks like it works pretty well. It's got a couple of design issues; we can probably fix those -- let's get on with it."
Everybody's got their own story. Mine was a combination of climate and then thinking differently about what 10,000 years means in terms of people, and then starting to look at the data and realizing I've been lied [LAUGHS] to by my fellow environmentalists for years.
JM: If I read you correctly, you've found that the science really doesn't support the fear of radiation that has been bred in us.
SB: Yes. The deep dread of radiation is a peculiar one and a strangely selective one. Because radiation is used in medicine quite extensively and rather radically. In fact, there are starting to be concerns, genuine concerns that I support, about people getting too much radiation through CAT scans and x-rays and radiation treatments for cancer, and so on. That is really serious radiation, and it completely overwhelms what we allow our nuclear energy industry to do. Any nuclear energy site must emit no more than 15 milligrams a year to the public. But every woman who gets a mammogram is already getting twice that. We allow our astronauts 25,000 milligrams per shuttle mission. The background radiation in parts of Iran is 11,000 milligrams. Bear in mind that the amount of effort that has to be made in order to keep nuclear sites down to 15 milligrams coming out a year is huge. There's hundred of millions of dollars, billions of dollars being spent to do something which is probably -- well, is completely unnecessary. It's just the wrong scale, by quite a lot. So, radiation is our friend in medicine and our enemy in nuclear energy? That doesn't make sense.
JM: In discussing the accident at Chernobyl, you quote Robert Baker of Texas Tech, who, after close study, concluded that, "The world's worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities."
SB: Yes, that's an agriculture story right there. Basically, they evacuated the area around the Chernobyl reactor. There's people living there now, and they're fine. But the fear factor was such that, according to one U.N. report, in the area of that part of Ukraine and that part of Europe, 250,000 abortions were had by women immediately following the Chernobyl event, and those were probably all wasted deaths. There's been no birth defects detected anywhere from Chernobyl, and indeed, there were no birth defects detected anywhere from Hiroshima or Nagasaki, where extensive research was done. People are imagining they're going to have children with fin feet or something, and that just isn't how it works. But then some of the biologists went in and started examining the animals in the area. Not only is the wildlife swarming back; some of them damn near glowed in the dark, but seemed to be healthy -- in fact, were healthy! A couple of guys from Texas went over there, Baker and Ronald Chesser, and they spent ten years in what's called the Red Forest, where all the pine trees died from the radiation. They're looking at mice and these mice are highly radioactive, yet completely healthy, having embryos that are completely healthy. They were just seeing ground truth that there was way less damage to animals in the area than we had imagined would be the case.
There's a whole body of theory that there is no lower limit to radiation in terms of cumulative damage. The people who hold that theory -- not widely regarded by scientists but widely listened to -- said, "There's going to be 500,000 cancer deaths from Chernobyl." The United Nations sent seven different agencies, and they came up with an aggregate report that said the most might be 4,000 deaths from Chernobyl, and that would be among the 600,000 people most exposed. Well, that's undetectable. Statistically, it's not an event that epidemiology could detect, because of that 600,000, 100,000 to 200,000 are going to die from cancer anyway -- because we all do, we all get old and cancer mostly gets us. Will some of them die earlier because of getting some of the radiation from Chernobyl? Yes. How many? They came up with a number of 4,000, but a conservative number may well be lower than that.
How many people died from Chernobyl? Well, the number is 57 -- nine children and a number of workers, many of whom were heroic. But we just had more people die in Russia in a dam power plant this week: it's up to 76 now, or something like that. Yet no dread seems to associate with that larger number dying from that, or the 5,000 at Bhopal. So there's something spooky and irrational and superstitious going on with radiation and with nuclear in general, but I think we're gradually getting over it.
JM: Many environmentalists also take a similar tack -- you might call it (I think you do in the book) an "original sin" approach -- to genetically engineered foods.
SB: I think the term "Frankenfoods" is revelatory in the sense that. First, it's a great coinage. Immediately, it raises all the fears you really want to raise, that this is some kind of Frankenstein monster that some evil scientist is conjuring up. Part of my brief, I guess, is that this is all, in a way, a set of Romantic notions, just as Mary Shelley's story about the Frankenstein monster is one of the great Romantic stories, written at the height of Romanticism. The classic Romantic message is, "Do not go against Nature" -- or, as religious people might say, "against God" -- "by putting genes from one organism into another; that's an abomination." (Let me add a footnote that's not in the book, which is that recently the Vatican came out quietly with a report saying that genetically engineered food crops for the developing world are an important moral imperative, and pay no attention to our Pope who thinks it's somehow wicked.)
JM: [LAUGHS] Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain.
SB: Right. In this area, as in nuclear, as people get closer to the real data and take a pragmatic approach to it, then they start to realize that the notion that there's something unnatural about moving a gene from one organism into another in order to get some benefits is actually the norm in most of nature. In microbes they're swapping genes around all the time, and it happens in the so-called "higher organisms" a fair amount spontaneously anyway. Indeed, if you want to be worried about some particular form
US ecologist Stewart Brand has written an extraordinary and thoughtful book on climate change, urbanisation and biotechnology. He urges us to embrace nuclear power as a means to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, and urges us to embrace genetically modified crops as a way to help feed the world's ever-growing population.
James Lovelock wrote, "only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy." Wind and solar power, being intermittent, 'remain supplemental, usually to gas-fired plants', as Brand notes. He points out that. France has an efficient process for licensing nuclear reactors' construction and operation, taking just four years to the USA's 12.
Brand says that we need a Plan B, because current efforts to cut carbon emissions are failing, so we need to explore geo-engineering options, like albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections.
Brand writes, "the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about. We've starved people, hindered science, [and] hurt the natural environment." As he notes, "GE crops help mitigate greenhouse gases and are more ecologically benign than non-GE crops."
Based on the International Council of Science's review of 50 independent assessments, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded in 2004, "Currently available genetically modified crops - and foods derived from them - have been judged safe to eat. . Millions of people worldwide have consumed foods derived from genetically modified plants (mainly maize, soybean, and oilseed rape) and to date no adverse effects have been observed."
Four separate reports from our Royal Society confirm that there is not a shred of evidence of risk to our health from GM crops. The EU's research directorate summarised the results of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself (not by private industry) conducted over 15 years: not one found evidence of harm to humans or to the environment. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded, "There is a moral imperative for making GM crops readily and commercially available for people in developing countries who want them."
Yet Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth oppose GM foods, even golden rice with added vitamin A. FoE founder Dave Brower said, "All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent." Good intentions cut no mustard: as Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health pointed out, "The ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children."
Brand concludes that we need science, engineering, nuclear power and genetically modified crops. We in Britain must ensure that we make it and grow it here.
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Awakens to find a she cat asking to be mates. He blinks his eyes and swallows. He glances around. "Um....I am not interested. I am very sorry. I am aiming more for med cat. Sorry. My brother Flightwing? Ask him. He is in the hunting grounds with my sister Warscrream." He yawns and falls back to sleep.
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