Annals of Environmental Lawsuits

April 24, 2015

long-key-viaduct

I have commented before on some strange lawsuits generated by environmental concerns, so this one, centered on the “Overseas Highway” that linked Key West, Florida to the mainland, came as an amusing surprise:

1926 – Monroe County citizens overwhelmingly approve a $2.5 million bond issue to launch construction of an “Overseas Highway.”

1927 – A severe winter, followed by a cool summer in northern Europe, causes charges that dredging and filling for the Over-Sea Railroad bed had caused a change in the path of the Gulf Stream. Europeans charge Flagler with displacing their climate control, but the U.S. Hydrographic Bureau and the Weather Bureau find no reason to believe the Key West Extension has shifted the Gulf Stream in any way.

I found out about this while reading Water to the Angelsa history of William Mullholland and the aqueduct he built.  The Times gives it a tepid review, but as a civil engineer who was inspired to enter the profession by men like Mullholland, I found it a good read.  And then there’s that bit about the film Chinatown…  No surprise, but the historical facts are a bit different.  “Forget it Jake, it’s Hollywood.”  Still a great film though…

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Hand Waving on Climate Change

September 27, 2013


Many people think that those of us who are skeptical of the global warming crowd get all our information from the right-wing information bubble, such as Fox News.  Not I!  I just read the Statement for Policy Makers (SPM) that the UN Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts out.  Their latest Assessment Report (AR5) is out now.  Some good ones, with the translation by me in boldface:

Models do not generally reproduce the observed reduction in surface warming trend over the last 10–15 years.”

Our models have performed poorly over the last fifteen years, failing to match observed conditions.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951−2010.”

At least half of the warming that we claim has occurred ( 0.6°C to 0.7°C  from 1951 to 2010) is probably due to human activity, i.e., less than 3/4 of a degree F.

 ”The best estimate of the human induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.”

Ignore previous statement:  we think ALL of the warming is caused by humans.

Does this inspire confidence in you regarding their predictions of rapid ice melt of the Greenland ice sheet, rapidly rising seas, and general climate mayhem?


New Environmentalism?

May 30, 2012

The Pulaski Skyway spans the Hackensack Meadowlands

With accumulated time on earth, comes the knowledge that much of what goes on in society is driven by generational demographics, or what used to be called “The Generation Gap.”  It can be funny:  hippies raising broods of yuppie wannabees, conservative button-down types being railed at by their liberal children – the usual.  I groan inwardly when I see young libertarians walking around spouting slogans, thinking they’re hip and brash:  their ideas are so 18th century.  (And I do love the 18th century, you know.)

Is there a similar backlash now in the environmental movement, I wonder?  I’m thinking of three young writers, all deeply interested in the man-nature ‘interface,’ who seem to be at pains to distance themselves from what they consider a soddenly romantic or New-Age-y environmentalism; the “we must heal/save/worship the Earth” variety.

I first became aware of it reading the journal put out by The Nature Conservancy.  (I give to that group because it puts into practice my environmental golden rule – preserve habitat!)  There was an interview with Emma Marris, who has written Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World.  I don’t like that post-nature part: sounds way too much like Bill McKibben, but I like what she says:

NC:  In your new book … you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?

EM:  I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. . . . I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.

Then there is the book I just read, The Meadowlands, by Arthur Sullivan, which is about his journeys through the Hackensack Meadowlands, dismissed by New York-centric comedians for years as the armpit of the nation.  Sullivan revels in the industrialized natural history of the place, marveling that so much ‘nature’ has managed to survive in it.  He has to sell books, so he plays up the eccentric characters he meets, the stories of mob burials and toxic waste – some of it completely true – as well as the natural and unnatural topography of the place, but he produced a readable guide to an area that has fascinated me as I gazed at it from my car or train window.  He too finds nature in urbis but not in the English picturesque fashion that rus in urbis used to mean.  As Pinsky notes in his review:

Sullivan’s account of the Meadowlands is anecdotal and genial, but his book, covertly ambitious, takes up serious matters. By looking observantly, without trite moralizing, at the natural world as well as at the disposable world we build, and at the great overlap between the two, this book suggests a challenging new model for how we ought to pay attention.

And today in the NYTimes, there was an interview with Andrew Blackwell, author of a travelogue of the world’s polluted industrial sores, including Chernobyl:

I love a backcountry hike as much as anybody, but venerating nature often has as much to do with what we think is pretty as with anything else. And a lot of the time it doesn’t leave much room for humans in the picture, which I think is a problem. Humanity’s not going anywhere

Great good sense, there.  Humanity is not going anywhere, so like the Israelis and the Palestinians, we’d better learn to live together, with Nature, of which we are a part, anyway.  And let’s drop this sentimental wooing of the pristine, the sublime, and the simply pretty, which amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization for doing what we want with Nature anyway.  Unless you’re Bill McKibben, and you think the game’s over and done with…

There are an awful lot of deep and unresolved contradictions in the philosophy of environmentalism as it is processed through political advocacy and the media machine these days – no surprise that!  Perhaps these new writers, who seem alive to the humor, irony, and foolishness of these contradictions, are part of a larger trend that may be able to create a more sustainable environmental philosophy.


Sustainability?

May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ’em), ‘green products’, (I hate ’em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…


Avatar

December 26, 2009

Just went to see the new film, Avatar.  Wonderful special effects, excellent 3-D effect, and very  nicely realized fantasy world.  It was so long, I found myself saying to myself, “C’mon now, move it along, get to the final fight of the good guys and the bad guys…”  I feel like I’ve seen the story before in westerns and sci-fi movies galore over the years.  The bad invader who goes native and switches loyalties – wasn’t that what Dancing with Wolves was all about?

The interesting new twist was the incorporation of the eco-green-enviro-religiosity:  the innocent forest people in tune with the sacred wellspring of life,  a sort of Ygdrasil, the holy tree; the bad earthlings who killed the green part of their world and are willing to destroy this new one, Pandora, for a metal, Unobtainium – I like that comic touch of the name because I’ve been helping my son with chemistry lately!  If it had been 60 minutes shorter, I would have enjoyed as a piece of brilliantly done entertainment fluff, but it was soooo pretentious and predictable.

Today, Adam Cohen of the NY Times, an intelligent and thoughtful guy, gushes over the movie, saying:

The remarkable thing about “Avatar” is the degree to which the technology is integral to the story. It is important to show Pandora and its Na’Vi natives in 3-D because “Avatar” is fundamentally about the moral necessity of seeing other beings fully…

The central love story reaches its culmination with the lovers declaring, “I see you.” The movie’s ending, which I will not give away here, brilliantly drives home, one last time, the importance of how one sees things…

The ability to see Pandora’s natives for who they are is the movie’s moral touchstone.

Funny…all these statements about the movie are true (except the first one) and it was still boring.  De gustibus non est disputandum.


Crystal Ball

March 30, 2009

coal

Friedman’s column in the NYTimes today, Mother Nature’s Dow, was typical of his work – filled with “big” ideas, poorly thought out, emotional, enthusiastic, and totally superficial.  One commenter suggested that he was rallying the Global Warming troops in the wake of the article on Freeman Dyson, the world-famous skeptic, that appeared in the Times Magazine and the recent cold weather!  (Hot weather is always evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – cold weather is just a random variation…)  What really got me was the comments of this sort, which were many:

the skepticism toward climate change never ceases to amaze me. the weight given to climatologists who discount man-made climate change is horribly out of balance with those who are sounding the alarms (and have been for a good decade – with increasing intensity). we are witnessing earth’s change at a rapid rate. we already have irreparable damage to some ecosystems. now is not the time to be an ostrich. and the apathy of many people who do recognize this truth is deeply disappointing.

Yes, the planet is changing, it always is changing.  Yes, many ecosystems are being damaged, mostly by destruction of habitat as a result of human settlement.  And why does the increasing intensity (stridency?) of the “ones who know” mean that they are right?  Often that signals that a person is wrong!

fallofman

Human Beings and Original (Environmental) Sin

Among the comments I read were many that seemed to stop just short of calling for forced population control.  Humans are a harmful virus, you see.  This is part of the “religion of environmentalism” that Dyson talks about, often sympathetically.  I noticed another example of it on walk through a nature preserve near my house.  Some trees there have metal plates with messages on them about ecology that were done by local school children.  One stated that we are destroying our source of oxygen every day by a given amount (I forget the figures.)  This was a reference, I believe, to deforestation, but were these children also apprised of the growth of oxygen producers in some areas?

Having just finished reading about Cotton Mather and his role in the Salem Witch Trials, and having my head filled with thoughts about Old Time Religion, the plaque seemed a lot like an old fashioned religious motto intended to make you feel bad and remind you of your essentially sinful nature…so you could think of this occasionally after you go back to your normal life.  Yes, walkers will see this plaque and shake their heads:  “How true – out of the mouths of babes…”  And they will climb  back into their cars (maybe a Prius) and drive away.

Let’s get real.  I make a few predictions and such:

  • Human population will continue to grow for a long time, although the rate of increase is likely to continually slow.  This population will need lots of energy.  I suspect that coal, for good or ill, is going to provide a lot of it.
  • Saving energy is good for all sorts of reasons – why waste it or anything else?  But we are not likely to be 100% energy self-sufficient here in the USA, not if we don’t want our economy to grind to a halt.  Priuses and coiled light bulbs, and more efficient homes and transit will use vastly less energy, if everyone used them now, but they don’t, and by the time they do, if they do, there will be more of us.  So at best, we can hope for a slightly decreasing rate of increase in our energy consumption in the near term.
  • Stopping population growth won’t happen, and isn’t a realistic goal for any near-term, unless we are willing to resort to a police state.  At least that would have the added benefit of putting the lid on our consumer culture so that the fewer people wouldn’t continue to consume more, but I’m not looking forward to it.
  • Everyone says nice things about “sustainability” but few really think it through.  What does it mean?  How much are we willing to NOT have as we move through the 21st century?  How thoroughly can we rework our societies, and not have massive civil unrest, in our search for clean energy?  Not much, I think.  After all the “cosmetic” green stuff is worked through, short of social breakdown or revolution, we will need more energy.  I bet coal supplies a lot of it throughout the world.  Coal can produce electricity, and electricity can replace oil.

Not too pretty, eh?


Religion falling, religion rising

March 11, 2009

thing_religion

A recent study shows that Americans are less self-identified with religion than ever before.  Still, the impulse yet lives…

There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

Bill McKibben, with his anguished cry of loss for our pre-lapsarian existence, The End of Nature, comes to mind.

As Freeman Dyson points out in the review of a book about global warming from which this excerpt is taken, this is not a bad thing in many ways.  But it is not science.  He has more to say about the actual science of global warming here:  Heretical Thoughts.