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This Is The Way The World Ends

July 2024
15min read

A few weeks ago my eighteen-yearold son went to bed after me, leaving the lamps burning and the radio playing all through the night. I conclude from this that the human race is indeed doomed. Lest I be taken for something of a crank, let me explain that…

My son had spent the earlier part of the evening haranguing me about the destruction of man’s environment. He indicted the corporate society for polluting the sweet air with noxious automobile exhausts and corrupting the healing rivers in a frenzy to generate electricity. His familiar accusation frightened me far less than the melancholy discovery that the bill of particulars stopped short of incriminating his own carefree consumption. The world may indeed be trending toward an early end, and my son may know how to change it, but knowledge has not yet affected his behavior.

I do not claim that his few blithely squandered kilowatt-hours will shatter the ecological system of the planet, but rather that many of those most deeply outraged by the spoliation of their habitat have scarcely begun to measure the changes that would be required—not merely of General Motors but of themselves—to bring the spoliation to a stop.

In short, I am afraid that if the world is in fact ending—for any of the reasons currently heard—men and women will sooner let it end than make the changes in their ways necessary to save it. The institutional and behavioral rearrangements, the challenges to implicit value judgments, and the inversions of habit that would be required to save the environment are so serious, so devastating to popular notions of personal freedom, that we may surrender to inertia and keep on as we are even as the world dies around us.

Do we agree that the world is in fact ending? So far, at least, few of us have risen to oppose the testimony of scientists on the speed with which the common physical environment is deteriorating. But do we really believe the implications of such testimony? Judging by past performance, if we really perceived a threat to our life-style—imagining our steak reduced to wheat germ, half the horsepower subtracted from our Mustang—we would rush to challenge the prophets of doom.

But the environmental experts have so far been sheltered from criticism behind a pair of misapprehensions. First, that the technique and aims of serious conservation are simple. Second, that only Bad People—polluters, big business, etc. —will be hurt. Even those leaders who have glimpsed that something crucial is at stake have politely wrapped in soft slogans the fist of the political clout they will need to save the -natural environment. The nation, they tell us, requires a “rearrangement of its priorities,” a suggestion that remains reassuringly bland because most of us have got fairly well along into adult life without ever learning who established the priorities we have or what they are. After all, if we didn’t know they were there, how could changing them hurt us? Or we are told the nation requires active steps to improve the “quality” of American life—a supposition that disarms opponents who cannot be expected to remember that the last major effort to improve the quality of American life resulted in the Eighteenth Amendment, which outlawed drinking alcohol.

If all the criteria that are urged today as the hallmarks of sound legislation- high moral purpose, dedication to an improvement of the quality of life, and a business-be-damned animus—were indeed vouchers of legislative wisdom, Prohibition would have been the outstanding triumph of the government of free man. But these moss-covered reflections are hidden from a new generation that is prepared to undertake new Noble Experiments as readily as it accepts a new rock combo.

But the size of the problem we face is proportional to its cause: the success of the human species, a success so overpowering that it threatens not only every other form of life on the planet but ultimately even man himself. A serious program of environmental conservation must therefore reinterpret the very success of the species as a kind of failure and redirect human activity accordingly—a radical job.

Undeterred, a large and growing number of scientists insist the danger to life is real, though they may disagree among themselves over what constitutes the most pressing danger. Some, upset by significant changes in the basic chemistry of the air or transfixed by man’s delight in concocting deadly chemicals, subscribe to variants of a sort of Bang Theory- that all will end in a crash. Others, observing the relentless growth of population and the staining of the earth with the wrack and offal tossed off by human concentrations, accept a Whimper Theory—that earth’s life-giving resources will gradually be eroded until men fall before generations of bacterial predators or slay each other in a vain scramble for the remaining crumbs.

Dr. Lamont C. Cole, of Cornell University, spells out one of the more spectacular variants of the Bang Theory. He points out that the chemical industry already produces extremely powerful herbicides and defoliants, chemicals that extinguish plant life even in highly dilute solutions. Dr. Cole imagines several tankers filled with such solutions foundering in a section of the Atlantic Ocean especially rich in diatoms—the minute, single-celled algae that throw off vital oxygen while photosynthesizing organic compounds. Plankton—microscopic forms of sea life—feed on diatoms; crustaceans and fish feed on plankton; ultimately, higher animals and man depend on this same chain for their own food. Dr. Cole points out that such a herbicide accident might deplete the diatom population of the ocean beyond recovery, severing the chain of life itself.

If you are unpersuaded that this is a clear and present danger, consider a slow-motion version of the Bang Theory: the consequence of a change in the carbon dioxide content of the air as industrial man revs up his ally, friend, and prime mover, the internal-combustion engine. As any good garage mechanic knows, all internal-combustion engines are driven by the explosion of gasoline vapor and air inside the cylinders of the engine block. Whence comes the gas? From petroleum, which is itself the fluid hydrocarbon residue of countless corpses of tiny sea animals, accumulated over millions of years in crevices and pools in the earth’s crust. How did these sea animals build the hydrocarbon compounds that we are so busily exploding to drive our engines? By absorbing carbon dioxide, a gas, from the atmosphere, removing and releasing the oxygen, and retaining the carbon in their bodies. What has been happening in the past one hundred years? A tremendous share of the stored hydrocarbon compounds has already been recombined with oxygen in the process of driving giant dieselpowered oil-burning ships across the seas or two-cycle gasoline-powered mowers across our lawns.

What is the significance of this reversal of the chemistry that created the lifesustaining atmosphere? A confirmed Banger will offer a variety of alternatives, depending on how he weights the evidence that informs his prophecy. One possibility is that the soiling of .the atmosphere by the by-products of combustion will block some of the solar Heat energy passing through the atmosphere to the earth. The temperature on the earth will drop. A small drop in mean temperature produces a mighty change in climate; ergo , a new ice age. Other qualified observers point out that the earth loses heat by radiation and heat radiates less efficiently as the CO 2 in the atmosphere increases. If earth-heat cannot so easily penetrate the gaseous bubble that surrounds the earth, the earth will become hotter, not colder; ergo , not a new ice age but a new flood, resulting from the melting of the polar icecap. The oceans would rise considerably. Two hundred feet seems like a reasonable guess, a change in sea level that would obliterate New York, London, Tokyo, Calcutta, Venice, and just about every other coastal city you can think of.

The frustrating point of these and similar prophecies is that by the time we receive unequivocal warnings of what is happening, it will already be too late to do much about reducing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. The Bangers offer us an undertone of anxiety to carry with us wherever we go.

The Whimper theorists, who infer from accelerating overpopulation a threat to survival, tantalize us with a hope; but the hope hangs on social changes that will be extremely difficult to arrange and even more difficult to enforce.

Specialists in population trends, working in the wake of British economist Thomas Malthus, the original alarmist, have been worried about the vast population increase since the middle of the eighteenth century in Western Europe; more recently, throughout the world. Not that women have become more fertile, but that the humane introduction of modern public-health and medical techniques has enabled more infants to survive and reach reproductive age, and the population has increased explosively.

To help offset the accompanying havoc, the demographers have anticipated that the overpopulated, underdeveloped countries would imitate the agricultural miracles of the industrialized West. Of these, two of the most miraculous have been the development of chemical insecticides (read DDT) and fertilizers (read phosphates and nitrogen compounds). These cheery expectations have curdled since the word has gotten out that while DDT is remarkably effective as a short-term insecticide, it is even more effective as an environmental poison. To make the case even worse, it is almost impossible to limit DDT to local application, and it decomposes with tragic slowness, meanwhile interfering with the vital processes of fish and animals.

Now that the United States government has finally moved to restrict the use of DDT, others—not only those involved in the manufacture of DDT—have warned that the ban itself has serious human consequences. Spokesmen for several African countries claim that DDT is the only chemical available to protect their food supply from insect marauders. They claim that its ban would seriously reduce the already inadequate diet of their people now, without waiting for some distant time when the possible genetic effects of the chemical might make themselves felt at the human level.

The recipe devised for feeding the underdeveloped countries requires fertilizers as well as insecticides. While the fertilization problem may have seemed simple to the demographers of twenty years ago, new problems have now emerged. Fertilizers are nitrogen and phosphorous compounds stretched with inert fillers. The fertilizers do not remain in the topsoil into which they have been folded. Rainfall and irrigation leach them down into the aquifers and ultimately into the streams and rivers. These compounds are equally effective in stimulating plant life in water, where the resulting growth slows stream flow, affecting the oxygen-bearing capacity of water in which the decaying vegetation competes for dissolved oxygen with human and animal wastes and aquatic animals. Ultimately, the water becomes unfit for any but the simplest forms of life. The sad condition of Lake Erie is a famous case in point.

Another problem arises from the need to transport bulky, heavy fertilizers to these countries, which so often lack the mineral resources and/or the electric power for local high-volume production. The tonnages to be carried and the distances over which they must move, according to Professor Georg Borgstrom, of Michigan State University, present a logistical challenge greater than all of the war transport of World War II.

It is, of course, possible that technological achievements yet hardly dreamed of might enable men in the near future to supplement their food intake by artificial photosynthesis or by turning inedible organic compounds—lumber, for example—into edible form. But unless one is willing to hazard, at least in theory, the future starvation of the race (preceded, no doubt, by political turmoil on a colossal scale, supplemented by war), the only reasonable alternatives are stopping population growth or minimizing by rigid controls the demands made by a larger population on dwindling resources. Or both.

What can be done to arrest further growth of population? One thinks immediately of education and propaganda to encourage voluntary limitation on family size. So far no one knows how this job should be done, or how effective it might be, or what demographic changes it might entail. Furthermore, there would be strong resistance to the mounting of such a program at governmental expense, and not only because of the Roman Catholic Church. Racial and class considerations intrude. Malthus, in his day, was greeted with virulent criticism by liberal champions, who claimed that his advocacy of limits on population growth obscured his real intent: to prevent the dilution of concentrated wealth among growing numbers of children of the poor.

Similarly, within the United States birth control and family planning have been criticized by some black leaders as a masked attempt to stunt the growth of black population—and political muscle.

Is there any simple way out? The most direct way to reduce the birth rate would involve compulsory measures: sterilizing mothers who have produced two children, for example; or implanting, as has been suggested, some hormonal device in each male at birth that would keep him sterile until he obtained a temporary neutralizing agent, to be dispensed by the state only to those who have fewer than two living offspring. Such denial of choice could scarcely be imposed by a freely elected government until the population had already reached disastrous levels, which is another way of saying that free men would accept such a limitation on their families only after it had become futile.

It is possible to dream up part-way schemes—such as the denial of the sixhundred-dollar tax deduction for any child after the first two. But would such an attack succeed in reducing average family size? Nobody knows; it is safer to predict, however, that in a free society there would be a reaction against any official policy that discriminated so clearly in favor of the rich. The population-control measures suggested—a mixture of tax incentives and education—bulk very small against the natural fecundity of a healthy species living in acceptable conditions. In short, stabilization of the population by adjustments in the birth rate would be chancy, unpredictable.

If population growth can scarcely be curbed by the means at our disposal, man’s efforts to preserve his environment depend on lowering the demands made by each of us. While most people talk as though the environment were simply to be preserved by a process of teaching good manners to anonymous corporations, this is the easiest part of the job. If, taking the United States as our first target, we decide that the continued construction of electric generating stations threatens the atmosphere and the waterways, a limit must be placed on their construction. But if the population keeps growing, such a limit can exist only if the population is prepared to cut back its per capita use of electric power. In the United States, 90 per cent of the new power production since 1940 has gone to feed increased per capita appetites, not to provide electricity for new population.

But should the electricity allowance vary, depending on the appetite for electric power in different consumers? That hardly seems fair. How else could it be managed? How could any limit be set on the use of electric power in industry, especially if industry were constantly expanding its manufacturing processes in order to provide products for a growing population?

Because most of the current talk about environmental protection concerns the pollution of air and water by the effluents of urban populations and of industrial plants, most attention has been paid to the alleged reluctance of municipalities and manufacturers to pay the bill. Whenever I suggest that protecting the environment from a constantly growing horde of humanity will require personal sacrifice as well as a punch in the nose of General Motors, my listeners are astounded. In truth, some manufacturers have only reflex objections to pollution control, and some wholeheartedly sup- port the idea provided that their customers pay any added costs and that all competing manufacturers be similarly burdened. This would require national pollution standards for manufacturing plants, standards that would prove devilishly difficult to establish and enforce.

But establishing legal standards for plant effluents would turn out to be the easiest part of the job. It would be much more difficult to ensure that no one produced anything that could menace the environment, either in its direct use or in its eventual disposal.

Ultimately, to protect the environment from pollution by waste products generally, the manufacture of everything would have to be licensed, a cumbersome bureaucratic constraint that at the very least would severely inhibit the best of inventive capitalism along with the worst.

The unavoidable upshot of all this is that if numbers of people cannot be reduced, the natural environment will be protected only by reducing the material standards of their lives. Since the products of combustion threaten the atmosphere men breathe, the use of combustion must be kept as low as possible. This means, for only one example, that the number of internal-combustion engines must be limited and priorities assigned to their use and manufacture. If these engines in automobiles, boats, and airplanes are to be limited, then travel itself must be rationed or diverted to more efficient public conveyances. Naturally, the size of automobiles and their engines will have to be controlled along with their number.

We must recognize that the deliberate lowering of the standard of living would have to continue not only through such pleasant but relatively tangential pursuits as high-speed travel and the manufacture of nondisintegratable containers, but extend also to food, clothing, and housing. If the United States must reckon with a constantly increasing human population, it must consequently provide for a constantly increasing animal population, for our countrymen are in the habit of deriving their proteins largely from meat. The cattle and poultry, naturally, eat vegetable products in the course of manufacturing in their bodies the proteins destined for human consumption. To feed more animals would require more agriculture; which would require more fertilizers, probably more intensively used; which would cause more water pollution, among other problems.

Clothing also is largely produced from animal and vegetable fibers, wool and cotton being only the prime examples. A larger population requiring additional sheep or cotton plants would also place a heavy burden on the productive capacity of the land itself, land that, incidentally, already shows signs of erosion due to overgrazing and loss of fertility due to continuous cotton production. Increased use of artificial fibers could probably make possible the abatement of wool raising, which could then be replaced by meat production. The manufacture of artificial fibers, however, is a chemical process requiring large amounts of electric power and producing harmful chemical by-products.

As for housing, the nation has announced goals of 2.6 million units per year for the next ten years, a goal that is more than double the present pace of construction. But the figure represents the minimum number of units necessary to replace housing that is currently considered officially substandard and to provide for increased population. It is beginning to become clear that the required quantity of housing cannot be built unless standards are reduced, if four hundred million people are to live in the United States by the year 2030, only sixty years from now—one current prediction. This judgment is based on the apparent fact that the ready sources of materials needed in housing construction—such as iron, nonferrous metals, limestone, clay, sand, and stone—will have become exhausted or have been protected from further exploitation in an effort to preserve the quality of the environment near man’s habitations. This has already foreclosed the use of dredged sand and terrestrial sand pits in and around the New York area, for example. In the past these sources furnished a large part of the concrete aggregates that built New York City. The more remote the material sources, the more energy must be used to transport the materials to the place they will be used (pollution again). Eventually, sheer material shortages will cut the amount of living space allowable to each individual.

Nothing about this is new; we are coming full circle. What we look forward to is a newly poverty-stricken world, a re-creation of the world in which everyone—or nearly everyone—lived before the Industrial Revolution. Then men were poor because they did not know how to exploit the natural resources of the planet. In the late twentieth century men will approach poverty again, because the remaining natural resources of the planet cannot be exploited at the old per capita rate for a new population without irreversible damage to the environment as a whole.

It was hard enough for men to endure poverty when they had no choice; it is infinitely harder to become poor by an act of will, knowing what one has abandoned, and its luxurious lure, but choosing to set it aside.

Some seem to believe that men and women will cut down their standard of living freely, keeping it down not merely for an emergency, but permanently. As proof, they often point to groups of the young who have proclaimed their adherence to a simpler life style, believing themselves liberated from the “thing” thralldom of their parents. I may be blinded by generational suspicions, but I have been unable to shed the notion that the freedom from “things” means for most of the young rather freedom from the effort of producing them. They expect that others will provide the guitars while they will make the music.

Equally suspect is the moral refusal of some of the young to impose behavioral standards on others. Thus it has been reported to me as a profound ethical truth that in the good life every man should be allowed not merely to say and think whatever he wishes but to do as he wishes. Interference with man’s total license is life-destroying; its absence, lifecreating. My problem with this is that it constitutes an odd foundation on which to base, the reversal of environmental spoliation, for it was precisely in this spirit that the land was opened up to the rapaciousness of its ruggedly individualistic pioneers. I suspect that growing interest in ecological matters among the young will eventually overcome their lust for license. Ultimately, the voluntarists will emerge on the familiar plateau of authoritative restraint, having discovered that war on spoliation will ultimately involve the same tactics of discipline that economists and public officials developed during the military wars of the twentieth century: rationing.

The suggestion that man’s survival depends on his willingness to accept a lower standard of living, licensed and rationed, runs directly against the grain of Western history since the Renaissance. The spiral of rising expectations has been accompanied—and sustained—by rising productivity. One reason that men have been generally satisfied with theoretical equality in the face of gross actual inequality is because of their faith that generally rising standards of living will tend to mitigate the inequalities. What will happen when this possibility is foreclosed by the downward drift of production in an effort to save the environment? Must society then rest on a foundation of authoritarianism? Survivors in a lifeboat can, without relinquishing their egalitarian beliefs, cut down their equally shared water consumption from a pint to a half pint per day to preserve themselves in the hope of eventual salvation; but can any consensual method permanently halve the water ration on Life Raft Earth when the common danger is not commonly recognized and when this may leave some men with more than they can drink while others thirst?

Ultimately it seems that a serious program for saving the environment can depend on nothing other than authoritarianism, if only because the threat to the environment itself is announced to us not directly yet but largely through authority. The problems of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, radiation, eutrophication of water, scarcely affect our senses. We must be told of the dangers by authorities, and the predictions of future trends depend entirely on the soundness of the forecasts of those people who may know more than the common run of men, but who have in the past often been wrong.

Will young people continue to treasure a program for conserving the environment when they find that it pinches their equally treasured right to do exactly as they please? And that it derives from the very authority that, above all other sources of knowledge, they distrust? Will it not seem more reasonable to them to expect that if authority knows so well what will happen, authority will also devise ways—painless, of course—to avoid fate? That it will extract nourishment, fuel, water, and air from the environment by ways not yet envisioned? Will it not be easier to believe that the present population forecasts will be no. more reliable than tonight’s forecasts of tomorrow’s weather?

Rather than accept life on terms totally inconsistent with the values we have inherited from generations past, will we not prefer to dance to the old music right out to the edge of the world, and then over it?

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