Blog 10: Plan B 4.0 Preface and Ch 1

The beginning part of Plan B 4.0 is a bit slow compared to the rest of the book. Essentially author Lester Brown is just setting the foundation for the rest of the book and as such there wasn’t a whole to agree or disagree with. That said, there were many interesting facts.

Plan B 4.0

The most fascinating was “But instead of continuing to decline, the number of hungry started to edge upward, reaching 915 million at the end of 2008. It then jumped to over 1 billion in 2009.” (pg 4) This fact is so interesting because it comes in the same time frame as record lows for people living in poverty. In other words, even though fewer people are in poverty now than ever before the number of people going hungry continues to rise. This has severe consequences that were adequately laid out in the reading.

Another important quote from the reading is “The risk is that this will increase hunger and political instability, leading to even more failing states.” (pg 9) It’s important to note that the consequences of inaction are not contained to the environmental realm. If there is famine across a continent there will be rebellions, revolutions, and anarchy leading to, in all likelihood, worse rulers than before and even more suffering. The geopolitical consequences are, I’d argue, even more important than the environmental consequences.


Something I do disagree with was “The market does not respect the carrying capacity of natural system. For example, if a fishery is being continuously overfished, the catch will begin to shrink and prices will rise, encouraging even more investment in fishing trawlers. The inevitable result is a precipitous decline in the catch and the collapse of the fishery.” (pg 17) This is a pretty half-baked attempt at economic analysis. On its face, yes that is a problem. It’s known as the tragedy of the commons and occurs when it’s in each actor’s self interest to contribute to depleting a common resource even though the actual depletion of the resource is in no one’s best interest. Think about half of a leftover cake on the counter in a house with several kids. Each kid may not want another piece of cake tonight and would rather have it tomorrow, but since they each can’t be sure there will be any tomorrow they get a piece now to ensure that get a slice. This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but sums up the basics. However, in the situation Brown describes he leaves out several important economic forces. First, if the catches are shrinking there won’t be an increase in investment in fishing trawlers. A smaller catch at a higher price won’t be much different, and indeed could be less revenue, than a larger catch at a lower price. In addition, one fishery’s catches shrinking won’t a large enough impact on the price to spur new investment. Third, now more than ever companies have to be concerned with corporate responsibility. Customers have shown that they are willing to boycott companies who are irresponsible in their activities and are willing to pay more money to support a brand that has a good reputation. All of these considered, this minor point is embellished at best.

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Blog 9: Orr Biophilia vs Biophobia

David W. Orr

In stark contrast to the last several readings I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It tackled a thought provoking question in a fair-minded way, making it persuasive. That’s not to say I agree with everything written, and he seemed to backslide a bit toward the end, but agreement is not required for enjoyment.

Right off the bat David W. Orr articulated an observation that I’ve been supporting in the last several blog posts: “In varying degrees humans have always modified their environments. I am persuaded that they generally have intended to do so with decorum and courtesy toward nature – not always and everywhere to be sure, but mostly.” (pg 188) I think it’s unfair to smear those who support, say, genetically modifying crops as anti-environment. It’s simply a different point of view toward the environment. Perhaps a person looks at the good that can come from genetically modified crops and decides it outweighs the harm it causes nature. Another person may look at the bad that can come from genetically modified crops and decide that it outweighs the good that can come from them. Neither has to be “good” or “evil,” reasonable minds can disagree. By putting this quote so early in the reading it signaled to me that Orr views the debate in the same way and that he was prepared to give a well-thought defense of whatever position he holds along that spectrum.

I did have a minor disagreement toward the end of the reading: “What we love only from self-interest, we will sooner or later destroy.” (pg 199) I think an important part of promoting sustainability is making more people feel self-interest toward the environment. If they feel connected to it they are far less likely to act in ways that actively harm it. For example, quite a few of the most environmentally supportive people I know are hunters. This seems contradictory on its face but it does make sense. Not only are these hunters are spending weekends or longer out in the elements and interacting with nature intimately but if they do things like litter or support the clearing of a forest for a factory that is going to lessen the enjoyment they get from hunting.

A confusing part of the reading was in his conclusion when he asserted that “[n]or do I doubt that our descendants will regard our obsession with perpetual economic growth and frivolous consumption as evidence of theologically induced derangement.” (pg 210) This seemed to me to come out of nowhere and was completely out of tone with the rest of the reading. After spending a dozen or more pages crafting a well-articulated support of his opinion he defaults to an ad hominem attack on anyone who dares to disagree with him or spend their money on things that he deems frivolous. It really doesn’t make much sense to me.

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Blog 8: Shiva Biodiversity

As is quickly becoming a theme with the excerpts we read, I found the excerpt from Vandana Shiva’s Tomorrow’s Biodiversity a little melodramatic. She brought up several points that I agree with – more than I expected after reading the opening few paragraphs – but once again I felt that the argument was weakened by writing in the “STOP TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS OR WE ALL DIE” style that has apparently become fashionable. If we were in danger of extinction then obviously we would want people sounding alarms but the meat of her argument doesn’t support that, therefore a more measured “or else” should have been used in my opinion.

Dr. Vandana Shiva

The part of the excerpt that I agreed with most was “Only one per cent of all the genetic material of higher organisms is known to relate to the form and function of the organism. We are still ignorant about the role of the remaining 99 per cent, but, in our usual human arrogance, instead of referring to our 99 per cent ignorance, we refer to the 99 per cent ‘junk’ DNA.” (pg 42) You see this attitude constantly in science and it’s a real detriment to the scientific method. There are several quotes from classical thinkers about how little we, as humans, know but my favorite is one by Socrates: “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.” At every point in history the people of that time thought that not only they knew a good deal about the world around them but they assumed that they had corrected all the errors of past generations and everything they thought they knew was correct until the next generation comes around, corrects them, and the cycle begins again. One wonders what we think we know that will turn out to be patently false.

One part of the excerpt that I particularly disagreed with was “The extinction of a species means not just the loss of that particular species, but also a threat to the other species that are supported by it through ecological processes. When one plant becomes extinct, with it disappear the twenty to forty animal and insect species that rely on it.” (pg 45) While on its face this seems perfectly reasonable, logically it must be wrong. Shiva noted four pages earlier that the current extinction rate is 27,000 species per year and that that is 1000 times the natural rate. However, that means that before humans started greedily committing biological genocide there were 27 species going extinct each year which should mean, by her logic, that those 27 species wipe out over a thousand other species that are dependent on them and, in turn, those 1,080 species cause the extinction of 43,200. In just a few years out of millions we’re already above the human-caused extinction rate. This leads me to think that plants and animals are more resilient about adapting than we give them credit for.

The most interesting part of the reading was definitely on page 49 where Shiva lists some startling statistics about monoculture. A few examples:
“In Europe 80 per cent of all farmland is sown to just four crops.”
“In the UK three varieties of potatoes make up 68 per cent of the crop; one variety makes up the remaining 32 per cent.”
“In Sri Lanka, 2,000 varieties of rice were cultivated in 1959, but only 5 major varieties today.”
Even if these numbers are cherry picked or massaged in favor of her argument they are high enough to still be shocking if you allow for a bit of error. They’re so shocking that when I first read through the list I didn’t believe them but after reading up on Shiva she seems to be a fairly credible source. Just unbelievable.

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Blog 7: Silent Spring

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is one of the more influential books of the 20th century. It was read by senators, presidents, and industry leaders and influenced environmental policy in the more than fifty years since – a picture of Carson even hung on Al Gore’s wall during his time as vice president. Its publication was the catalyst for the modern environmental movement and likely the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. I had heard of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring over the years but never actually read any of it until now. In today’s political climate just about every environmental issue that comes to the fore is bitterly partisan and contested and reading through these excerpts I can see why.

Similarly to previous readings, the biggest problem I have with Rachel Carson’s excerpts is the unnecessary sensationalism. We’ve had over 50 years since her book was published to review its accuracy and by all accounts she was, to some degree, right about pesticides and DDT in particular. Given that her position was right why does she feel the need to cheapen her argument by writing nonsense like “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides.'” (pg 155)? In my opinion, it would be far more persuasive if she had acknowledged the benefits and uses of pesticides and then presented her research on why we should be careful with how much we use. By taking the Luddite-esque position of “if you use pesticides, you’re killing everything” she portrays herself as an unrealistic radical and that perception taints everything else in the book and frames the situation as a black and white issue with no middle ground – either you’re saving the earth or killing it. In the long run I think this approach hurt the environmental movement because it attracted people that agreed with that us-versus-them mentality and put industry on the defensive. After the publication of Silent Spring, chemical companies began mailing monthly newsletters to media outlets detailing the benefits of their chemicals and began a campaign to discredit Carson. Perhaps they would have done that either way, but her uncompromising position and use of language like “grim specter” (pg 152), “chain of evil” (pg 153), and “chemical death rain” (pg 159) took away all other options.

Carson testifying before the Senate.

However, she does bring up good points in spite of her vitriol. “Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture – the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop. Such a system set the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations.” (pg 157). This is the meat of her argument. She concedes that there is no doubt that farmers face insect and pest problems so saying that they should stop using insecticides and pesticides is unrealistic. Explaining why they have those problems, giving them alternatives to those pesticides, and explaining why they should use them is the way to go, as she does here.

Towards the end of the excerpt she finally reaches more of a civil tone when she states that “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.” (pg 159). That is something that at least could be discussed and debated among reasonable people. Even if you believe, as she clearly does, that any use of insecticides or pesticides is, on balance, bad for society you must take stock of the state of the world and remain in the realm of possibilities – which banning all chemicals is not. Had she used a tone as reasonable as she did in the last few paragraphs of the excerpt throughout her book perhaps instead of having a polarized, partisan split between those who care about the environment and those who care about technological advancement – two positions that are not, despite our current political climate, mutually exclusive – we could have found some middle ground where reasonable businessmen and reasonable environmentalists endeavor to find a balance between the two.

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