My late wife and I traveled to the UK in the mid-nineties to meet friends. Among the many things we saw was the original coke fired blast furnace from the late eighteenth century at the Museum of Iron that was used to refine pig iron at a much lower cost than using charcoal. This helped pave the way for England’s rapid industrial expansion during the nineteenth century, and further eroded England’s landed aristocracy by the capitalists. As more farmers migrated to the cities for work the face of poverty changed with a host of new social problems including pollution, greater disease due to crowding, and unemployment.
Putting aside the long-running debates about whether communism, democratic socialism, or capitalism is the best form of government for industrialized societies, this blast furnace aided the production of evermore goods and had a positive impact on much of England’s, and later other, populations (e.g., more food, better housing, and eventually, better public health). This led to greater inequality with a rising middle-class and greater profits for industrialists. Nevertheless, no one from the working-class to the one percent wants to return to the pre-industrial era. Industrialization is seductive.
Human population began a more rapid expansion as a result of greater access to energy and discovery, then exploding in the twentieth century. You can see this expansion of population and production in the two charts, below. Unfortunately, near vertical curves are not sustainable.
You know the rest, we have destroyed much of our environment and warmed the air and waters such that we are now in the sixth extinction, which will more adversely affect us as the twenty-first century unfolds. We are already seeing the following consequences of industrialization and climate change.
Yes, we should continue our pursuit of renewable energy, but we must cut back production and come to terms with a much lower standard of living–micro-industrialization. If we do not, nature will do it for us. It is still possible but it is not looking good.
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” -Carl Sagan
Which for us?
Since few people are looking up I thought I would update some of my earlier accounts regarding climate change. We’re racing off a cliff! Since 2017 the average global temperature has risen from 0.8°C to 1.1°C in 2021 and it is increasingly unlikely, given division in the U.S. Senate, that any substantive climate change legislation will be enacted. China, India, and Australia also appear committed to the substantial use of coal in the foreseeable future.
The causes of the existential process of climate change can be broadly summarized in the following four charts.
You can access the interactive features of this graph here.
The development of industrialization; and improved farming, shelter, education and public health led to an explosion in the human population growth rate. However, the rate of population increase has been slowing since about 1960 even though the actual population size continues to grow. Most demographers see human population leveling off near 11 billion by the end of this century. For a detailed discussion of future population growth, click here.
However, these demographic projections, though accurate for decades, fail to consider the effects of climate change and the current sixth extinction. Instead, the human population is likely to peak and then begin to decline later in this century for reasons provided by the U.S. CDC.
You can access the interactive features of this graph here.
The growing number of people and their ability to produce more with industrialization powered by petroleum produced an explosion in goods, and later, services. Gross domestic production (GDP) grew both in total dollars and per capita (meaning as people became more affluent on average they bought more things).
CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry are – in comparison to other greenhouse gases – easier to estimate. Most of our CO2 emissions come from the burning of coal, oil and gas for energy. At the country, regional and global level we have good data or can provide reasonable approximations of the quantity of energy produced, and the sources of this energy. (Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions’ [Online Resource])
However, this graph does not include total GHG emissions because we don’t know about methane and nitrous oxide emissions prior to 1990:
A large share of methane and nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture, land use and waste. Getting accurate data for all countries, and extending back centuries on the emissions from livestock, soils and different land types is much more difficult. Even if we know how much food is produced from agriculture, and we have standard emissions factors of how much greenhouse gases are emitted per unit of food (for example, per kilogram of rice), this can vary a lot depending on the location, soil type and specific farming practices. We explored this in detail in our article on the differences in the emissions of different food types: depending on the production system, beef in one location can emit more than 10 times as much as beef produced elsewhere. So, unlike CO2 from energy, emissions factors for agriculture and land use can be highly variable. (Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions’ [Online Resource])
Together, global population and GDP increases led to increases in GHG emissions. This growth is exponential, meaning things started slowly and then sharply increased. In this case 1950 was the inflection point, as shown in the first three charts.
You can access the interactive features of this graph here.
The result is an increase in the global average land-sea temperature since the start of record keeping in the 19th century. This fourth graph is not as consistent as the priors because there are short-term climactic changes which ameliorate the greenhouse effect; however, by 1980 short-term differences in climate became overwhelmed by GHG emissions.
How many people the Earth can sustain indefinitely is uncertain, but it depends on how much energy is available and how much people consume per capita. The Earth could sustain fewer people maintaining the current standard of living enjoyed in the developed countries, whereas far more people could be sustained by people living more as they did in the 19th century. Thus we face two existential choices: we can drastically cut our energy demand and rely solely on renewable energy, or we can continue using fossil fuels and risk a severe population crash. Either way, human population will decline over the next 80 to 150 years, but it would be better to manage this decline by people deciding to have fewer children in the age renewables and micro-industrialization.
Developing all the data to produce the graphs, above, took many people and a lot of scientific expertise and administrative skills. However, interpreting these charts is not all that hard. It’s implementing the global policies to change the way people in the developed countries live that are so formidable. We have not yet evolved the capacity, for the most part, to deal with other than our day-to-day wants.
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” -Carl Sagan Which for us? -Stephen Fielding
“It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value.” -Stephen Hawking
I have updated and reorganized some of my pages on this blog into a four-part essay in order to present a better flow to my thoughts on industrialization, climate change, and health. So, if you’ve read them in the past, you might peruse them in the new order; they might provide some new insights. Start here, then click on the header tabs for the subsequent three parts.
Some images of our environment from prior posts, below.
Let me begin by thanking those of you who follow my blog. I started it nine years ago with my late wife, Susan. Back then our focus was birds, particularly those whose populations are in decline. The idea was, and still is, to present attractive photos of the natural environment to remind people of what we are losing. More recently, I’ve expanded my focus with human-made structures so viewers can consider how these might impact our environment.
You will also see a new layout for my blog. Do send me comments about your likes and dislikes so I can consider any changes.
Read my, The End of the Mass-produced, Industrial Era? about the interrelationship between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, first, and then click the link, above. I hope you will forward this link to others. Then view the just released documentary, Endgame 2050, available on Amazon Prime. You can also view it on YouTube. There, everything I and others have discussed about climate change and the time remaining to address this crisis (about 10 years, maybe less) are nicely illustrated. One caution, the film is very disturbing.
It will come as a surprise to many that if we all ate vegan it would not only be good for limiting cruelty to animals, keeping our arteries clear, and reducing our cancer risk; it would also be good for the biosphere. You can find an article discussing the health risks of meat production in the New York Times Magazine.
Okay, what’s going on here? We know you can reduce the risk of cancer and coronary artery disease by eating vegan (i.e., high fiber and low saturated fat), but what’s my grandkids got to do with it? Raising animals takes up far more land and water than raising plants, and it also releases far less greenhouse cases.
I was out two mornings ago in 16 degree weather all layered up wearing my spikes looking for flowing water, snow, and ice. Now that we are entering mid-March I’ll be lucky to get another opportunity to photograph these. Right now the temperature is 40 degrees and it is expected to hit near 50 on Wednesday before getting colder again. Ice and snow are good subjects for black and white film not only because ice and snow often lack color, but because they offer such a variety of shapes and textures, which is what black and white is all about. I also find these images to be very quieting
To get the finest grain and sharpest images I’m using Ilford’s Delta 100 and FP4 125 films. For those scenes with flowing water I use a 10 stop neutral density filter. This enables me to shoot using very small f stops, and shutter speeds ranging from 25 seconds to 21/2 minutes, rendering an ethereal look to the water. I lent a selenium cast to these shots to provide a cooler, more wintry look.
I placed the camera on a tripod for all of these shots. I used both my medium format (120 film), and single-lens reflex (35mm film) cameras. The former’s images are in square format and located at my: on-line gallery.
The Trump Administration released the U.S. Climate Report this past Black Friday, hoping that it would get little press. That is not how it is playing out since it has been all over the news. Focusing on the U.S. only, it parallels the conclusions of the recently released IPCC Report. Written for a general
audience, these data are dizzying to most of us. I recently saw the 1973 film, Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston. It is a fictionalized account of a world suffering from the greenhouse effect and overpopulation. Everyone (except the wealthy) are suffering from heat, disease, and a lack of food. In fact, the only food available to the masses is an assortment of “soy” wafers.
The predictions in the U.S. report are bleak. Unbeknownst to me is the fact that the Northeastern United States is warming faster than the rest of the lower 48:
The seasonal climate, natural systems, and accessibility of certain types of recreation are threatened by declining snow and ice, rising sea levels, and
rising temperatures. By 2035, and under both lower and higher scenarios (RCP4.5 and RCP8.5), the Northeast is projected to be more than 3.6°F (2°C) warmer on average than during the preindustrial era. This would be the largest increase in the contiguous United States and would occur as much as two decades before global average temperatures reach a similar milestone.
The only way I can describe our predicament is that we are in a slow motion “nuclear war” that will change the face of life on our planet. Yes, we can minimize the destructive effects of climate change, but we had better start now, according to the scientists.
As a follow-up to my July 9, 2018 post, Climate Change & Health, I will be publishing several WordPress pages from this conference presentation, the first beginning in mid-October. These will tie together much of the data on climate change that I have already discussed. However, I will provide a more detailed discussion of climate change and public policy, along with a bibliography of recent books on the subject, and a wide array of links to scientific databases and publications.