Today, the problem of saving the world. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Two items in a recent issue of the Financial Times: one
centered on James Lovelock, the other on the English Village of Ashton Hayes.
Both are about ecology and the environment.
In the first, a reporter meets Lovelock over lunch. He's the person who gave us
the Gaia concept. That's
the notion that the biosphere is a large living organism
of which we're one part. So too are fish, animals, insects, bacteria -- as well
as the air and water we all live in. Gaia behaves in some ways just as we do.
Wound it and it heals; threaten it and it protects itself.
Lovelock believes that Gaia is under threat, and that it's in the process of
removing the source of that threat, namely us. With foresight and some luck,
Lovelock thinks that twenty percent of us can survive starvation brought on by
warming and other damage we've done.
To accomplish this, he says, we absolutely have to switch to nuclear power production
immediately. "What about the waste?" the reporter asks him.
"You can bury the waste in my garden if you're worried about it," he answers
(clearly putting his priorities in order.) Lovelock points out that Gaia will
survive and it'd be nice if its survival continued to include a human presence.
Okay, there's one view. The other view centers on Garry Charnock who recently
engaged the people of Ashton Hayes
in a plan to make the village carbon neutral -- to reduce the net production of
carbon dioxide to zero. Villagers were generating some thirteen tons of CO2
per household each year. The British average was ten.
Together, they instituted huge changes while they agreed there would be no finger-pointing.
The changes have included measures to reduce commuting, vastly increased and imaginative
forms of recycling, rain-harvesting for water supply, and not-so-minor things like
remembering to turn off the appliances.
And, in the first year, such benefits as thirty percent utility bill reductions increased
community fervor. Still, Ashton Hayes alone is a drop in the bucket. Its real value is
as a laboratory where we can learn which green ideas make sense and which do not.
In fact, the very zeal of ecological advocates has been the greatest single obstacle
to environmentalism. Blindly
banning DDT led to huge increases in malaria.
High-minded enemies of nuclear power paved the way to terrible environmental damage. In Ashton Hayes,
ideas are being tested, then retained or rejected. The project is being driven, not
by blame, but by curiosity and hope.
So here are two views: Lovelock's is the more grim, but even it harbors a dimension of
hope. I have a colleague whom, when I raised the question of the environment, quoted
Isaac Asimov to me: "Some problems don't have solutions, they have only outcomes."
Well, the ecological problem will certainly have an outcome. But we'd better not forget
that we still have power to affect that outcome. The game is not over yet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
F. Harvey, Apocalypse Soon. and R. Blackhurst, Village Greened. Financial Times,
Life & Arts, Sat./Sun. April 28/29, 2007, pp. 1-3. (My thanks to Carol Lienhard who
pressed these two articles upon me.)
Gaia wounded: NASA photos below show erosion of the Betsiboka Estuary in Madagascar. The estuary once
allowed ships to travel inland. As a result of uncontrolled inland logging the channel is
now clogged with silt and no longer navigable. Details
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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