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Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

Posted May 02, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes

There are few more polarizing issues than environmental ones: climate change, the feasibility of alternative energy, and, in recent news, Earth Day. My 2016 Earth Week was spent scrounging for recyclables for a school project in which my son built a robot statue out of milk jugs, cereal boxes, and empty yogurt cups. From where I sit Earth Day is a good thing, a message of "don't be so anthropocentric that you think you can just throw your crap anywhere and let Mother Nature take care of it."

The original 1970 Earth Day was by contrast marked by apocalyptic predictions and fear-based thinking. Americans were surrounded by grim reminders of industrial pollution, such as the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the labeling of Lake Erie as a "gigantic cesspool," and heavy smog in urban areas. The original Earth Day saw the prediction of mass starvations, worldwide famines, the extinction of 80% of all living animals, the reduction of ambient sunlight by 50%, 45-year lifespans, and the elimination of all crude oil, all by the year 2000.

All of these predictions fell well short, of course. The 1970 prognosticators were concerned about pollution and fossil fuels but were mostly anxious about overpopulation, a topic that arouses little fear 46 years later. If anything, our world is looking to be in better shape. We're seeing significantly higher crop yields using the same amount of land, lower staple food prices, and no more DDT; we have at least as much fossil fuel to last us for about another century, maybe; and population looks to level off within the next few decades. The Earth Day doomsters, particularly Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, exercised faulty and outdated logic in assuming that Negative Impact = (Population)(Affluence)(Technology). What they didn't plan for is that technology has the power to boost positive inputs like food production and medicine, and we've learned effective strategies to reduce pollution along the way.

The problem with predictions is that for every correct one, there are countless more that are dead wrong, even those based on rigorous data and scientific extrapolation. So-called futurists predict like it's their job, often assigning a target date to the year, and are typically wrong. Consider, for example, Arthur C. Clarke's predictions for the 21st century. The occurrence of a technological singularity is still a hot topic in AI communities, and most thinkers--building on the assumption that Moore's Law will continue unabated--agree that self-improving artificial general intelligence will occur within the next 50 years or so. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong acknowledged the uncertainty in predicting advanced AI by stating that his "current 80% estimate [for the singularity] is something like 5 to 100 years." Now that's how to make a prediction...

This isn't to say that long-term thinking isn't valuable or honorable. In grad school I became intrigued by the Long Now Foundation, a non-profit working to foster slower/better thinking rather than the prevailing faster/cheaper activities of modern times. Aside from hosting seminars and advocating a five-digit date structure (ie, 02016 for 2016) to anticipate the Year 10,000 problem, the group keeps a record of long-term predictions and bets made by its members for fun and accountability. They're also constructing a clock designed to run for 10,000 years with minimal maintenance using simple tools, and are working on a publicly accessible digital library of all known human languages for posterity.

While the Long Now's activities may seem radical, most examples of true long-term thinking are, given our blindly rushing existence. Shortly before his death, Kurt Vonnegut proposed a presidentially appointed US Secretary of the Future, whose sole duty is to determine an activity's impact on future generations. The Great Law of the Iroquois famously mandated that current generations make decisions that would benefit their descendants seven generations (about 140 years) into the future. The difficulty, of course, is satisfying ourselves in the now as well as in the future. As environmental skeptics point out, it's nearly impossible to plan out our fossil fuel dependency and use for the next decade, let alone for the next hundred years.

Perhaps our best bet is to view the future in terms of possibility. To paraphrase Clarke's first law of prediction: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he's almost certainly correct."

Image credit: futureatlas.com / CC BY 2.0

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#1

Re: Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

05/02/2016 12:04 PM

That sign -- "Actually, the end isn't near. So, there's time to, like, think and talk things through." -- makes me think 'Too bad Earth Day Founder Ira Einhorn and his girlfriend Holly Maddux didn't have that conversation'.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Einhorn

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Re: Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

05/02/2016 4:08 PM

In light of the predictions made on Earth Day 1, one wonders just how much that is believed today is true.

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Re: Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

05/02/2016 9:39 PM

What I have learned about climate change is that if the weather changes in California or Washington DC for what the locals perceive as being worse than it was before it's not only climate change it's worldwide climate change and everybody should be doing everything they can to stop it right now.

BUT,,,, If the weather changes to more favorable conditions anywhere else in the world it's just a local weather anomaly and not worth mentioning to anyone even if it has been gaining positive momentum in that area for 30 - 50+ years.

The next big concern is that the planet might get too green due to the warmer weather and additional CO2 that plant life just loves to soak up for us.

Things are getting greener.

Dangerously green.

Could be the end of some deserts as we know it.

The global garden could explode at any moment.

Global Garden goes into overdrive.

Present deforestation methods might not be able to keep up.

Deforestation efforts loosing ground

Mass starvation may become a thing of the past.

Excess food crop production looms.

I would go on but it's too depressing...

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#4

Re: Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

05/03/2016 8:25 AM

"don't be so anthropocentric that you think you can just throw your crap anywhere and let Mother Nature take care of it."

Someones old truck wheels - nature handled it this time. I hear what you're saying.

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#5

Re: Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

05/09/2016 10:54 PM

"...just throw your crap anywhere and let Mother Nature take care of it."

While I don't advocate the practice, experience has shown that Mother Nature WILL take care of it, just not in the way we expected, and frequently mot in a way that is beneficial to humanity.

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#6

Re: Earth Day, And Problematic Predictions

05/10/2016 11:46 AM

One last jab at this, for what it is worth. This weekend I spent the days on my fat bike rolling into intact oil wells long ago abandoned, and now inaccessible by car, near my home to photograph for posterity what is left of the old jack and catch tanks, many of which were just wooden tubs. Very large tubs, but little more than that held together like a barrel with metal hoops. What I found most interesting was everyone of the sites had at least 1 very large tree growing very close to the wellhead, which, from many years of observation, is ALWAYS an area saturated with petroleum. Even current practices release enough oil here to turn the ground around the head in a 3' circle a dark shade of brown.(based on my observation of several hundred producing wells) The packing on the top of the head must allow the rod to move up and down, so some oil is definitely leaking out on every pump. The abandoned roads still have few trees growing on them, just long grasses and a maze of blackberry bushes seem to be able to grow here, but the oil saturated pump sites - lots of beautiful trees there.

So, does that say anything about the hazards of well liquids spilling on the ground? Obviously, not an impediment to plants. Pix available to validate my claims.

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