The following discussion was contributed by Sam Low and Ron Parlato.
Anyone in our Class is invited to contribute to the discussion, by email
. As Sam wrote, "This is kind of
a bull session we are having - and we envisioned it as an open
discussion with others chiming in. We are certainly not passing
ourselves off as experts on anything."
|Overview: During the 25th reunion, Sam
Low encountered classmates who believed that there was no cause to
worry about environmental depletion and pollution because the
capitalist market based economy would stimulate technological
breakthroughs that would solve all conceivable problems. This
incredibly optimistic view was then — and still is — beyond Sam's
understanding. He found himself exploring the frontier between liberal
and conservative views of life. A month ago, Sam and Ron Parlato began
exploring these differences. Here is the result.
Issue: Are planetary resources limited? Do we need to husband them in
order to avoid ecological disaster? Or will new technologies emerge to
produce energy and food and other resources and allow us to clean up
our wastes to ensure that human beings can continue to accelerate
their consumption of these resources?
|I believe that while many known energy
and material resources are limited, many are not, such as nuclear and
hydrogen energy, are not. Energy efficiency increases yearly, partly
because of increased international competition, the necessity of
reducing costs to maximize profits; and partly because of consumer
desire to reduce their costs. Market forces tend to favor energy
efficiency and innovation. I therefore do not feel that there is a
concern about depleting energy resources.
These same market forces will favor the exploitation of existing
energy resources while they are available; and hence the concerns
about pollution in the Arctic tundra, etc., the continued pollution of
the air, etc. This pollution will continue unless and until
alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear, are available on an
industrial scale; and/or public demand for less-polluting energy
The question about whether or not global warming, pollution, etc.
matter at all depends on a more philosophical perspective. I believe
that man's place within the universal eco-system is value-neutral. He
is an actor just like viruses, bacteria, insects, gamma rays,
asteroids, and little green men. As such, he will be influenced as
much as influence. To ascribe a more potent or lasting or negative
role is presumptuous. Our actions have consequences, some intended,
others not. We will live within the circumstances of these
consequences, and those many others produced by factors beyond our
control. We will react to them, try to anticipate others; but in the
end will be knocked about with our fellow travelers like pool balls
clacked by random blows.
In the medium term, I believe that the human beings will be
unrecognizable within the next 250 or even 100 years. Retooling the
human genome and full and complete interface between mind and computer
will alter life in unimaginable ways. Virtuality and reality will
merge. Human nature will be altered. Given this perspective and
incredible potential, I simply cannot get exercised about
|Intellectually I believe that our
resources are limited and that their overuse, with resulting
pollution, must be controlled to ensure the future of our
grandchildren. While arguments can be made that the human genius will
overcome these natural limits by producing new energy and other
resources, there is no guarantee of this. The risk that these
arguments are false is too great for me — I advocate strong measures
to control population, pollution and consumption (within a democratic
political structure and the free market system) to both prevent
impending disaster and explore alternatives.
The free market system is based on mass consumption, profit and self
interest. It promotes a shortsighted way of looking at our planet and
its resources and will never, without a great deal of tinkering, solve
our pressing environmental problems.
Spiritually I believe that there is something in nature that reminds
us of our smallness and our hubris, that encourages us to explore
beyond our selfish needs, and that creates a philosophy of life that
is essential to our health in ways beyond the mere physical. The
preservation of wilderness and reverence for the natural world is
necessary for our spiritual survival.
While I believe that there is nothing inherently better about one life
form vs. another — human beings as compared to viruses — I think that
we are endowed with intelligence that we are required to use to the
best of our ability to control our destiny. Not to do so is to avoid
the challenge of being the thinking animal.
I also believe that human beings are potentially the most dangerous
animal to the health of our planet because we have evolved a way of
life that can destroy all other life if we are not careful. We have a
duty to leave our home planet in as good a condition as we received
Politically, I worry that those who argue for a basic "don't worry"
attitude toward this issue are protecting a privileged lifestyle in a
way that is basically mean and shortsighted. I suspect that they may
mostly be Republican in political persuasion.
- Energy resource depletion is not an issue. While many known
energy and material resources are limited, many are not, such as
nuclear and hydrogen
- Energy efficiency increases yearly because of desire for reduced
costs on the part of both producers and consumers
- Market forces tend to favor energy efficiency and innovation
- Pollution levels will decrease as energy production and use
becomes more efficient.
- Decrease in pollution levels will accelerate if public demands
for emission controls on industry, cars, increases
- The planet may warm over the next decades until emissions
decrease; but the combination of human adaptability and
technological advances will compensate for this phenomenon
- Earth elements (wood, minerals, etc.) may be finite, but new
synthetic materials will revolutionize home and office building,
clothing, etc. etc.
- In the long term, engineering of the human genome and eventual
full and complete brain-computer interface will so change human
nature and society that virtuality will replace "reality" — a change
so radical that arguments about the physical environment will have
to be complete restructured and rethought
- Development of clean energy resources should be encouraged on
all fronts by government stimulus.
- Some gains in energy efficiency are noted. These are the result
of environmental activists and government intervention. The market
would prefer SUVs — as long as they are profitable in the short
- Market forces favor short term profits.
- This is so IF energy producing and use were to become more
- Yes, of course, operating both through demand and voting for
more curbs on market excesses.
- Global warming is a sufficient threat to warrant immediate
intervention by the public and government. Not to do so will
endanger our grandchildren's future.
- All matter on Earth, whether natural or synthetic, is limited.
- This is a fantasy world which makes me wonder about your sanity
— and even your motives for proposing it.
- Nuclear energy represents a significant potential for providing
unlimited, non-polluting energy
- Nuclear energy is safe. There have been high-standard nuclear power
plants in the US and other countries (esp. France) for decades.
- There have been only two significant nuclear accidents since nuclear
energy became commercial; and the impact was relatively small. Modern
nuclear power technology has been vastly improved.
- There have been no significant events of nuclear waste leakage from
current sites, located miles deep in reinforced sarcophagi in empty,
non-seismic quarter of US desert
- Ultimately, nuclear waste will be rocketed to deep space as
commercial space flight becomes profitable.
- Hydrogen-based energy represents significant new and probably source
of power. It is non-polluting.
- Non-polluting alternative technologies exist, but have not been
further developed or deployed because of lack of demand
2. Energy Use in Agriculture
- Energy use in agriculture, already declining per unit of food
produced, will continue as genetic modification continues. Fertilizer,
pesticide use will decrease; heartier crops will reduce damage and
waste, extend shelf-life.
- Energy use will also decline as logistics, inventory systems improve
through IT resulting in more efficient distribution, higher
3. Overall Energy Use Patterns
- Consumer demand for energy will decline significantly because of
Internet sales, telecommuting, etc. Virtual meetings, enhanced
interactive communications (social, professional) will obviate the
need for travel. When full mind-computer interface is achieved within
100 years, virtual relationships will be indistinguishable from "real"
ones. In fact the entire virtual world, from sylvan forests to Bangkok
massage parlors, will be as "real" as the "real" thing.
- Industry demand for energy will go up in the short and medium term
as world consumer population demand increases; but efficiencies in
industry (robots, full mechanization) plus new energy technologies
will provide for environmentally-friendly production
- Nuclear energy produces radioactive byproducts
that are highly polluting and difficult or impossible to store safely.
The risk of a nuclear meltdown or even terrorist attack is too great
to accept at this time.
- It has cost hundreds of billions of dollars to generate 20% of our
electricity by nuclear plants today. Nuclear generation has declined
since Three Mile Island which caused the evacuation of 140,000 people.
In 20 years not a single U.S. plant has been added. No new failsafe
plants exist. Nuclear plants cost twice as much as coal or gas fired
plants and take 3 times as long to build.
- Rocketing fuel into space costs money too. Lots of money. And it
contaminates space with our greed and sense of entitlement.
- Research into better ways to produce nuclear power along with all
sustainable sources of power — wind, solar, hydrogen — should be
encouraged. This will require government sponsored research and
incentives because the free market will never support it.
2. Energy Use in Agriculture
- It takes on the order of ten times more energy today to produce a
single calorie of food with industrial methods than it did in the past
with a simple digging stick. We are less efficient when limited
resources are factored into the equation than were our Native American
brothers and sisters. Increased use of fertilizers, pesticides etc.
pollute our planet and reduce our ability to produce food in the long
run. IT? Why not?
3. Overall Energy Use Patterns
- Internet economies may exist but the overall demand for energy
will still increase, partly due to the need for mass consumption to
increase to support a market based economy.
- Virtual relationships, as opposed to real ones — and virtual travel,
as opposed to real — will continue to isolate us — "the haves" from
"the have-nots" - continuing a process toward aggressive jingoism and
a fantasy world in which we live out our lives in Soma Holidays.
- I do not agree.
- Estimates of past/current climate change may be correct; but
assumptions of future impact may be biased
- Past estimates of demographic growth, resource depletion, etc.,
have been flawed/mistaken. Population has grown much more slowly and
rate of decrease is likely to accelerate
- Assumptions about existing and new technologies must be factored
into equation — depending on how fast nuclear, hydrogen, etc. are
developed and applied, rate of climate change will be affected
- Assumptions about productivity growth, energy efficiency, etc.
must also be factored according to various scenarios - i.e.,
optimistic, pessimistic, realistic
- Past estimates of population growth may have been flawed — but
that does not mean that present or future ones will be.
- If you are able to entertain the prospect of irreversible damage
to the ozone layer — why are you not crying out for more research
and more pollution containment right now?
- More research is essential, but we know enough already to begin
curtailment of dangerous pollution that affects the ozone layer.
- Market-based recycling is a better model than legislative,
coercive models. Recycling will become a reality once the cost of
products comes down, due to the use of recycled products
- Recycling is a good stand-in for overall market-based argument
for environmental protection: environmental issues will be resolved
not through social conscience but economic self-interest
- What is market-based recycling? Where does it occur?
- European Union countries, as one example, require their
automakers to recycle the cars they sell by law. This is good
government intervention ― set standards and allow the market to find
solutions. Recycling cars at the expense of automakers forces them
to find less costly ways to make them and employ materials that can
be reused more easily and hence reduces resource depletion. It is a
beginning step in factoring environmental costs into the market
place. This has occurred through government intervention — not
through the action of the free market.
Genetically Modified Foods
- There is no doubt of the environmental benefits to be realized
from GM foods and products — less or no added fertilizer,
pesticides; longer shelf life (as above translated into fewer
transport costs); increased oxygen production, pollutant absorption,
- Given the fact that potential environmental risks (unknown
future, destructive species, etc.) are undocumented, the production
of GM foods should not be limited.
Genetically Modified Foods
- The threat to health posed by genetically-modified (GM) food is
one of the great unanswered questions of science. GM experiments may
lead to gene exchanges causing the evolution of new diseases and the
build up of new toxic compounds.
- The risk of going forward pell-mell for a technological quick
fix is greater than the risk of being careful. The emphasis on speed
in the adoption of new and untested technologies comes from the need
for the market to continue to grow in order for profits to be made
by large corporations and their shareholders.
- There is a role for government regulation in behavior change.
However, it is an accelerator of change, not a replacement for
changes in public opinion. Seatbelt regulations accelerated a
compliance which would eventually have come once public awareness
- Government intervention in environmental issues is similar.
Legislation on fuel economy standards, emissions, waste clean up,
etc. have both accelerated compliance and contributed to public
- The issue is the level of such interventions. Low prefers a far
more aggressive intervention policy — increasing fuel economy
standards, tightening emission controls, etc. I would argue for
gradualism — progressive public and private moves towards
environmental standards; and selectivity. The market is already
becoming more energy-efficient because of international competition.
It is unlikely, however, to respond as quickly to pollution.
- Seatbelt standards are a good example of the government setting
standards and enforcing compliance on a resistant industry. Consumer
activism also helped here. The U.S. auto industry has always
resisted fuel efficiency and anti-pollution measures in the interest
of profits. There is nothing inherent in the market system that will
encourage rapid R and D into resource, safety and energy
alternatives. While the market driven system of demand and response
may work eventually — it is too slow to respond to the impending
threat. It is a system based on short term rewards, profits, and the
stimulation of consumption that creates these profits. Therefore,
research in all alternative energy systems must be stepped up by the
government. And there is little time to lose.
- It will require a new way of thinking about markets and
controlling markets to avert disaster - such as ways to factor
environmental costs into the price of things. As I have said before,
European Union countries require their automakers to recycle the
cars they sell. This is good government intervention ― set standards
and allow the market to find solutions.