Sunday 17 October 2010


or Vaclav Smil, Bill Nordhaus, Shawn Garvin.
or The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handle.
Up, Down, Appendices, Postscript.

Briar RoseBriar RoseWhen I get the blues I often turn to fairy tales. This week it was Sleeping Beauty aka Briar Rose (which latter I prefer) because I have a connection with the number 13. I know that in some versions of it there were 7 fairies bringing presents not 13 but OK, poetic licence. It is this 13th fairy who fascinates me. Of course, the usual focus is on repressed or interrupted femininity, so there are not so many images of this witch floating around and the musing was stalled and incomplete. But then it so happened that I was talking to some women who had never heard of the Hag nightmare; and jogging my memory moved the musing on somewhat.

Most of the rest is obvious, except maybe where it ended up. I got an invitation to the next cycle of Oikos presentations and found myself thinking of some of those I have loved as well as I was able to, and the bourgeois protections against love which have been in play, particularly (it sadly seems) among the clergy and spiritually adept.

Spiritual condoms!? Are you nuts? :-)Spiritual condoms as it were.

Among my friends it is accepted wisdom that police brutality stems from fear. Fear which operates at various points and levels too, as is obvious f'rinstance in Toronto cop Adam Josephs aka 'Bubbles' recently suing YouTube for defamation of character. I thought his behavior during the G20 was defamation enough.

I don't know what kind of fear is built into this particular latex. Maybe the operating principle is not fear at all. If it were though, it might be the fear, even secular, or even especially secular, that there is no love. That even the infinitesimal force, the so-tiny-it-cannot-be-measured offset in the odds that still clings to the notion, like the clouds in Caetano Veloso's amazing vision of Terra, simply does not exist. Maybe that's it.

Blair, West Virginia, just 16 miles west of Montcoal (being the site of the Big Branch explosion in April), not far ...
West VirginiaWest Virginia
Turns out there are two Blairs in West Virginia: 25654, south of Charleston, & 25414 not far from Washington. I can't see how to link directly to Google Earth, but here is Google maps more-or-less focussed on Blair (the one we are talking about).

The existing Dal-Tex mine visible to the north and west of Blair was closed in 1999 following a U.S. District Court order. One wonders what 'closed' means in this context. It was run by Hobet Mining, a subsidiary of Arch Coal.

Arch Coal Steven LeerArch Coal Steven LeerArch Coal Steven LeerArch Coal John EavesArch Coal Kim LinkArch Coal Kim LinkThe head honcho of Arch Coal, at 800+ grand a year up front, is CEO Steven Leer, the main-man, at 600+ grand a year up front, is COO John Eaves.

Way down the food chain is Kim Link, the spokeswoman. What's she make? 60 grand flat? Less? Her story is interesting. Here's one quote that struck me, “Southeast doesn’t churn out diplomas, they turn our marketable graduates.” (I think it's a typo, I think she said, "Southeast doesn’t churn out diplomas, they turn out marketable graduates.") So, being a corporate communications officer is not so removed from, say, stripping? And here's another ... ach, read it for yourself in the NYT: July 14: Project’s Fate May Predict the Future of Mining, & October 15: E.P.A. Official Seeks to Block West Virginia Mine.

EPA Lisa JacksonEPA Shawn GarvinEPA Shawn GarvinAnd here's Shawn Garvin's report of September 24th: Recommended Determination of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region III Pursuant to Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act Concerning the Spruce No. 1 Mine, Logan County, West Virginia.

At 84 pages, the report is not difficult to understand - it even locates the proposed mine in time and space. What I can't find is a concise overview of Mountain Top Removal (MTR) itemizing all the other mine locations and time scales. It is easy to see just from the Google Earth image above that there is and has been lots of it going on. It would be helpful to be able to attach names to all of the bald spots in this image and beyond and beyond. Don't you think?

And I'm not sure why there was a two-week delay before the news hit the NYT?

Whatever ... I'd say this Shawn Garvin has got balls as big as cement trucks eh? We will have to wait and see if Lisa Jackson backs him up? And then if Obama does? I wouldn't bet on it just now but just getting this far is a kind of victory.

The 10/10/10 fiasco has really put me into a tailspin. I actually took on two of the nitwits who insist that it was a 'HUGE SUCCESS' via email. One at 350 itself and one at the Climate Action Network here in Canada. Not particularly satisfying since neither of them would go beyond asserting, again and again and with no evidence except that Bill McKibben said so, what a 'HUGE SUCCESS' it had been. And eventually both of them just decided not to continue the conversation.

I wish I was on a beach in Brasil someplace with my brown girlfriends to rub my back, and some of their kids I could teach how to swim. :-)I think I deserved better but what the hell, who cares?

I am weary, gentle reader. Be well.


OK, here's the rest of my musing on Briar Rose and The Hag:

by Henry FuseliMercutio:
     O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
     This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
     That presses them and learns them first to bear,
     Making them women of good carriage.

        Romeo and Juliet - I,4

by Henry FuseliMacbeth:
     How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
     What is't you do?

        Macbeth - IV,1

     And let not women's weapons, water drops,
by John Galliano     Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural hags!
     I will have such revenges on you both
     That all the world shall- I will do such things-
     What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
     The terrors of the earth! You think I'll weep.
     No, I'll not weep.

        King Lear - II,4

by MneomosyneBottom:
     ... it shall be called Bottom's Dream,
     Because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
     Latter end of a play, before the duke:
     Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
     Sing it at her death.

        A Midsummer Night's Dream - IV,1

Shakespeare knew his stuff on hags. And Lear, remember, did not make good on this brag that he would not weep (V,3).

Just a note on Henry Fuseli's two paintings: Neither of them exactly hits what I am thinking of. The first might if the dwarf sitting on her chest were female. And the second might if the face of the hag were looking at the child instead of upwards into some unspecified (spiritual?) light. One detail that certainly fits, and gives (me at least) a frisson of horror, is her thumb and finger on his thigh.

I mentioned Vaclav Smil & Bill Nordhaus at the top. I was going to scan Chapter 4, Environmental Change, from Smil's 2008 book Global Catastrophes and Trends - The Next Fifty years but it was too much trouble. You can get it at the library, in Toronto there seems to be a lot of interest - 100 holds on their 24 copies - you would have to be patient. You can pick up a not-so-cheap copy for yourself at Abe's - I have so far resisted the temptation of owning one. Budgetary constraints y'unnerstan'.

Vaclav SmilCharles Perrow's review wraps up with, "I learned a lot from this sometimes cranky, often cryptic and very opinionated book."

Maybe if you are writing for American Scientist that's as far as you can go. But it is certainly damning for one scientist to be calling another 'opinionated' wouldn't you say? Even if he is only a Sociology prof at Yale?

Take a look at the picture of Vaclav Smil. Click on it to see the larger view. My wrap up would be that he writes just about as he looks - sour as a protestant minister, arrogant, axe-grinding snob ... here it is in the OED: supercilious - haughtily contemptuous in character or demeanour; having or marked by an air of contemptuous superiority or disdain.

I read the book. I read chapter 4 twice. At first I was pleased to see a non-alarmist view. I had a positive impression going in - I think James Hansen or someone mentioned him with approbation. Then again, maybe it was McKibben ...

Well, you would have to read it to see - maybe I will scan it later ...

One point, Smil doesn't mention the reduction in agrarian productivity associated with increases in temperature. Some of the alarmist boys and girls are saying a 10% reduction in, say, the rice crop, for each degree. I only wish Smil had said something about it.

Or that he had not so consistently (though not exclusively) taken the least alarming scenario.

But it does shed some dim light on my wonderings about the powers that be and their private climate change fantasies - maybe they are only reading Vaclav Smil on the subject?

Bill Nordhaus is mentioned because Smil uses him as an economist. Norhaus had some thoughts about growth back in the 70s - Is Growth Obsolete?. He seems to underestimate the costs of climate change dramatically.

A-and finally, here's a bit of boobage for y'all. The Montréal police and courts are hounding Rémy Couture and his Inner Depravity:
Rémy Couture Inner DepravityRémy Couture Inner DepravityRémy Couture Inner DepravityRémy Couture Inner Depravity


1. Kim Holshouser Link, Southeast Missouri State University Alumni, 2009.
2. Project’s Fate May Predict the Future of Mining, Erik Eckholm, July 14 2010.
3. E.P.A. Official Seeks to Block West Virginia Mine, John Broder, October 15 2010.
4. The Worst Is Yet to Be, Charles Perrow, January-February 2009.

Kim Holshouser Link, Southeast Missouri State University Alumni, 2009.

Managing the public relations, Web communications and corporate giving for Arch Coal, Kim Link never has a “typical day.” The Southeast graduate’s time can be spent corresponding with news reporters and investors, or she might be assisting the chief executive officer in developing an internal presentation for the company’s 3,600 employees. Each day is different.

A native of Cape Girardeau, Kim attributes much of her success to her time at Southeast. Whether it’s the personal attention she received from professors or the network of friends she developed, Kim speaks highly of her alma mater. For her, Southeast’s small classes required her to participate and understand the material. This translated into higher learning and better grades.

“Southeast didn’t/doesn’t churn out diplomas,” she says. “They turn our marketable graduates.”

When asked to give advice to current and future students, Kim said students should get involved and learn balance. Referencing new studies, she says one’s emotional quotient, EQ, is just as important to obtaining business-world success as is his or her IQ.

“Socializing is a learning experience just as much as the academic side of college,” she says.

She definitely practiced this idea at Southeast with her participation in the Emerging Leaders Program, Homecoming Steering Committee and her sorority, Delta Delta Delta. These activities also led to some of her favorite college moments.

“From the moment I joined Tri-Delta in the fall of ’88, every day and every weekend was special,” Kim says. “Among the best times was Homecoming week. Making floats, meeting alumni, having dances…I really enjoyed every minute.”

Kim and her husband, Brian, and their young son, Will, live in St. Louis. Kim also completed a master of arts degree in communications at St. Louis University in 1998.

A true supporter of Southeast, Kim is a great example of how students can and do “Experience Southeast…Experience Success.”

Project’s Fate May Predict the Future of Mining, Erik Eckholm, July 14 2010.

BLAIR, W.Va. — Federal officials are considering whether to veto mountaintop mining above a little Appalachian valley called Pigeonroost Hollow, a step that could be a turning point for one of the country’s most contentious environmental disputes.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit in 2007 to blast 400 feet off the hilltops here to expose the rich coal seams, disposing of the debris in the upper reaches of six valleys, including Pigeonroost Hollow.

But the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration, in a break with President George W. Bush’s more coal-friendly approach, has threatened to halt or sharply scale back the project known as Spruce 1. The agency asserts that the project would irrevocably damage streams and wildlife and violate the Clean Water Act.

Because it is one of the largest mountaintop mining projects ever and because it has been hotly disputed for a dozen years, Spruce 1 is seen as a bellwether by conservation groups and the coal industry.

The fate of the project could also have national reverberations, affecting Democratic Party prospects in coal states. While extensive research and public hearings on the plan have been completed, federal officials said that their final decision would not be announced until late this year — perhaps, conveniently, after the midterm elections.

Environmental groups say that approval of the project in anything like its current form would be a betrayal.

“Spruce 1 is a test of whether the E.P.A. is going to follow through with its promises,” said Bill Price, director of environmental justice with the Sierra Club in West Virginia.

“If the administration sticks to its guns,” Mr. Price predicted, “mountaintop removal is going to be severely curtailed.”

Coal companies say politics, not science, is threatening a practice vital to local economies and energy independence. “After years of study, with the company doing everything any agency asked, and three years after a permit was issued, the E.P.A. now wants to stop Spruce 1,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “It’s political; the only thing that has changed is the administration.”

While the government does not collect statistics on mountaintop mining, data suggest that it may account for about 10 percent of American coal output, yielding 5 percent of the nation’s electricity. The method plays a bigger economic role in the two states where it is concentrated, Kentucky and West Virginia.

The proposal to strip a large area above the home of 70-year-old Jimmy Weekley, Pigeonroost Hollow’s last remaining inhabitant, was first made in 1997 by Arch Coal, Inc., of St. Louis. The legal ups and downs of Spruce 1 have come to symbolize the broader battle over a method that produces inexpensive coal while drastically altering the landscape.

Spruce 1 started as the largest single proposal ever for hilltop mining, in which mountains are carved off to expose coal seams and much of the debris, often leaking toxic substances, is placed in adjacent valleys.

After years of negotiations and a scaling back of the mining area to 2,278 acres, from its original 3,113 acres, the Spruce 1 permit was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2007 and limited construction began. But this spring, the E.P.A. proposed halting the project.

The announcement caused an uproar in West Virginia. The E.P.A. held an emotional public hearing in May and stopped accepting written comments in June. Arch Coal has objected publicly, but did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

The Obama administration’s E.P.A. has already riled the coal companies by tightening procedures for issuing new mining permits and imposing stronger stream protections. But environmental groups were worried in June, when the agency approved a curtailed mountaintop plan in another site in Logan County, W.Va. Now, as negotiations between the E.P.A. and Arch Coal continue, the Spruce 1 battle is being closely watched as a sign of mountaintop mining’s future.

Feelings run high in the counties right around the project area.

“Spruce 1 is extremely important to all of southern West Virginia because if this permit is pulled back, every mine site is going to be vulnerable to having its permits pulled,” said James Milan, manager of Walker Machinery in Logan, which sells gargantuan Caterpillar equipment.

The loss of jobs, Mr. Milan said, would have devastating effects on struggling communities.

Maria Gunnoe, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and a director of SouthWings, which organizes flights to document environmental damages, said that if Spruce 1 went forward, “it’s going to mean the permanent erasure of part of our land and our legacy.”

“We can’t keep blowing up mountains to keep the lights on,” said Ms. Gunnoe, a resident of nearby Boone County who has received death threats and travels with a 9 millimeter pistol.

Mr. Weekley, whose house is in sight of the project boundary, remembers the day in 1997 when he decided to fight it. Nearby mining under previous permits had filled his wooded valley with dust and noise.

“You couldn’t see out of this hollow,” he recalled. “I said, Something’s got to be done or we’re not going to have a community left.”

He and his late wife became plaintiffs in a 1998 suit claiming that the project violated environmental laws. A ruling in their favor was overturned, setting off litigation that continues.

Mr. Weekley said that he had rejected offers of close to $2 million for his eight acres and that he had seen the population of the nearby town of Blair dwindle to 60 from 600, with most residents bought out by Arch Coal.

A rail-thin man who enjoys sitting on his porch with a dog on his lap, Mr. Weekley uttered an expletive when told that coal industry representatives, including Mr. Raney in an interview, referred to the upper tributaries filled in by mining as “ditches” that can be rebuilt. In fact, some of the streams to be filled by Spruce 1 are intermittent, while others, including Pigeonroost Creek, flow year-round.

“I caught fish in that stream as a child, using a safety pin for a hook,” Mr. Weekley said. “If they get that permit, there won’t be a stream here.”

In documents issued in March, the E.P.A. said the project as approved would still smother seven miles of streambed.

Filling in headwaters damages the web of life downstream, from aquatic insects to salamanders to fish, and temporary channels and rebuilt streams are no substitute, the agency said. The pulverized rock can release toxic levels of selenium and other pollutants, it noted.

The effects of Spruce 1 would be added to those of 34 other past and present projects that together account for more than one-third of the area of the Spruce Fork watershed, the agency said.

The debate over Spruce 1 and other mountaintop mine permits has been a source of division and anguish among local residents.

Michael Fox, 39, of Gilbert, is a mine worker who like many other miners here thinks the objections are overblown. “I have three kids I want to send to college,” Mr. Fox said.

One former mountaintop miner who says he now regrets his involvement is Charles Bella, 60. He is one of the remaining residents on Blair’s main street, along the Spruce Fork, which is fed in turn by Pigeonroost Creek.

“I know it put bread on my table, but I hate destroying the mountains like that,” Mr. Bella said.

E.P.A. Official Seeks to Block West Virginia Mine, John Broder, October 15 2010.

WASHINGTON — A top federal regulator has recommended revoking the permit for one of the nation’s largest planned mountaintop removal mining projects, saying it would be devastating to miles of West Virginia streams and the plant and animal life they support.

In a report submitted last month and made public on Friday, Shawn M. Garvin, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator for the Mid-Atlantic, said that Arch Coal’s proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County should be stopped because it “would likely have unacceptable adverse effects on wildlife.”

In 2007, the Bush administration approved the project, which would involve dynamiting the tops off mountains over 2,278 acres to get at the coal beneath while dumping the resulting rubble, known as spoil, into nearby valleys and streams. The Obama administration announced last year that it would review the decision, prompting the mine owner, Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, to sue.

In its review, the E.P.A. found that the project would bury more than seven miles of the Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch streams under 110 million cubic yards of spoil, killing everything in them and sending downstream a flood of contaminants, toxic substances and life-choking algae.

Kim Link, a spokeswoman for Arch Coal, said in a statement that the company intended to “vigorously” challenge the recommendation.

“If the E.P.A. proceeds with its unlawful veto of the Spruce permit — as it appears determined to do — West Virginia’s economy and future tax base will suffer a serious blow,” Ms. Link said. She said the company planned to spend $250 million on the project, creating 250 jobs and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues in a struggling region

“Beyond that, every business in the nation would be put on notice that any lawfully issued permit — Clean Water Act 404 or otherwise — can be revoked at any time according to the whims of the federal government,” she said, referring to the federal law under which the original permit was granted. “Clearly, such a development would have a chilling impact on future investment and job creation.”

The E.P.A. said the construction of waste ponds as well as other discharges from the Spruce No. 1 mining operation would spread pollutants beyond the boundaries of the mine itself, causing further damage to wildlife and the environment.

Arch Coal had proposed to construct new streams to replace the buried rivers, but the E.P.A. said they could not reproduce the numbers and variety of fish and plant life supported by the indigenous streams.

An E.P.A. spokesman said that Mr. Garvin’s recommendation was a step in a long process and that the agency’s Office of Water and the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, would review his report and thousands of public comments before making the final decision, likely before the end of the year.

The Sierra Club applauded the E.P.A. for “staring down Big Coal and industry lobbyists.”

“This mother of all mountaintop removal coal mines would destroy thousands of acres of land, bury seven miles of streams and end a way of life for too many Appalachian families,” the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, said in a statement.

The Worst Is Yet to Be, Charles Perrow, January-February 2009.

GLOBAL CATASTROPHES AND TRENDS: The Next Fifty Years. Vaclav Smil. xii + 307 pp. The MIT Press, 2008. $29.95.

Prolific writer Vaclav Smil characterizes his latest book, Global Catastrophes and Trends, as “a multifaceted attempt to identify major factors that will shape the global future and to evaluate their probabilities and potential impacts.” Smil is fluent in many languages of the East and the West, and his voluminous citations demonstrate an impressive command of the literature. His two major themes are sudden, catastrophic events and unfolding trends that are catastrophic in their accumulative consequences.

The past 50 years have been exceptionally stable and unusually benign in global terms, Smil says, but this will change. The risks of what are, in his view, the two most likely cataclysmic future threats—nuclear war and pandemic influenza—can be substantially reduced, he believes. He does not see terrorism as a great risk. He also notes that mega-eruptions of volcanoes are quite rare and that the risk of a near-Earth object striking our planet is even more remote and can be handled. Instead, it is unfolding trends that worry him most and occasion the book’s most striking observations.

Energy is a key variable affecting many trends. Smil’s substantial discussion of this topic connects only loosely to the theme of catastrophe but well illustrates his debunking posture toward scary headlines and faddish “solutions.” He gives short shrift to renewable energy. For example, he considers “massive biomass energy schemes” that have been proposed recently to be “among the most regrettable examples of wishful thinking and ignorance of ecosystemic realities and necessities.” Conversion of enough farmland for the production of biofuels is out of the question, he says—we would starve. Wind power will be only a marginal and unreliable source of energy. As for energy from nuclear fusion, it is a mirage, on which the United States has spent a quarter of a billion dollars a year for the past 50 years. Large-scale expansion of nuclear power plants would face significant opposition, Smil says, because of concerns about safety and the lack of permanent waste-storage facilities. (He does, however, note with approval Edward Teller’s proposal to build a nuclear power plant completely underground with enough fuel to last its lifetime.) And he sees no realistic possibility of a hydrogen economy for many decades.

Smil offers substantial evidence to back up his claims. He does not mention opportunities for increased energy efficiency, cogeneration and conservation, presumably because he considers them too insignificant. The world will do fine with gas, coal, dams and nuclear plants, it appears.

Other key trends about which Smil is pessimistic include mismanagement of national economies and demographic changes. The book, which was released on September 30, 2008, presumably went to the printer before the dimensions of the current financial crisis were widely recognized. Nevertheless, it predicts unfolding, slow disasters of economic deterioration, impoverishment and disease, and it contains no glimmer of hope that the nations of the world will be able to stem them.

It takes Smil but a few pages to dismiss Europe as a world power and foresee its misery. At its peak in 1900, Europe accounted for about 40 percent of global economic product; by 2050, it may account for as little as 10 percent. It has had a population implosion—the fertility rate there, now 1.5 children per mother, is well below the replacement level of 2.1 children and is unlikely to rebound meaningfully. Europe’s neighbors are countries whose populations are largely Muslim and are rapidly expanding; their citizens are moving to Europe for economic opportunities, and once there, they are not being assimilated. To survive economically, Europe will be forced to replace its working-age population with Muslim immigrants. By 2050 such immigrants could make up more than one-third of the total population, and Smil appears to imply that they will be an explosively discontented segment. By then, Europe’s economic role may be to serve as “museum of the world”; twice as many Chinese tourists as American tourists will be flooding such destinations as Rome and Paris.

Japan will fare no better than Europe. In the 1980s it was seen as an unbeatable economic titan; now its population is shrinking to the point that whole villages have been abandoned. By the middle of this century it will have become the most aged of all the aging high-income societies, with few pensions and too few workers to provide for the elderly.

As for China, Smil treats the skyrocketing of its economy with considerable irony:
What a remarkable symbiosis: a Communist government guaranteeing a docile work force that labors without rights and often in military camp conditions in Western-financed factories so that multinational companies can expand their profits, increase Western trade deficits, and shrink non-Asian manufacturing.
Yes, China produces more than 90 percent of Wal-Mart’s merchandise, and in 2005 China accounted for 26 percent of the U.S. trade deficit. By 2025 it could be the world’s largest economy; but because of its size, the per capita income level will still be only one quarter of that of the United States. China’s population is aging rapidly (with almost no pensions), and the sex ratio is unfavorable (too few females). Income inequality is quickly increasing, and the degradation of the environment is extreme. With 20 percent of the world’s population in 2005, China had only 9 percent of the world’s farmland and 7 percent of the world’s freshwater. All of the world’s grain exports together would fill less than two-thirds of the country’s projected demand for food. It is already the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In Smil’s analysis, it will not become a superpower in the next 50 years.

Will this mean that the United States will remain on top? Because no other state seems ready to take its place, perhaps so. In chapter 3, Smil portrays the United States as experiencing inglorious, albeit gradual, retreat, although in chapter 5 he appears to have second thoughts about the matter. By some projections, China will nearly be able to match the United States in military spending by 2020, but in Smil’s view China’s aforementioned weaknesses make this unlikely. In any case, he considers America’s military power to be already essentially irrelevant.

In chapter 3, Smil says that “rapid, nonassimilating Hispanicization” in the United States is possible, and is “a clear reason to worry.” (In chapter 5, though, he calls attention to research suggesting that immigrants from Mexico assimilate only slightly more slowly than the average rate.) America’s unfavorable trade balance (a $716.6 billion deficit in 2006) is “unsustainable,” he says. The United States’ decline in manufacturing exceeds that of Europe and Japan, so its high-tech manufacturing abilities cannot make up for losses in more traditional sectors.

The United States does lead in science and in electronics. But it will soon have to borrow just to feed its own people. It is afflicted with an aging population, multitudinous social ills and rising income inequality. This generates a disturbing prediction:
There will be too few well-off people in the considerably smaller post-boomer generations to buy the stocks (and real estate) of aging affluent baby boomers at levels anywhere near peak valuations.
From his home in Canada, Smil goes on and on about the culture of gluttony in the United States. It is the “most obese and physically unfit nation in Western history,” he says, and its displays of private excess are accompanied by spreading public squalor. All of this is true, of course, and leads him to declare that the country is “living on borrowed time and yet has no imminent intentions to do otherwise.”

But humankind’s fortunes will have less to do with the economic policies and strategic moves of nations than with transformations brought about by climate change, environmental destruction and even antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Much of chapter 4, “Environmental Change,” is dauntingly technical, but this material rewards close attention. It is evident that we have a great deal of knowledge about these topics, but the complexity of the interactions between environmental factors is so great that we end up with absolutely contradictory findings in many areas.

Smil is blunt in his criticisms of the global-warming pessimists, saying that we simply don’t know enough about the complex interactions and feedbacks that may take place to be able to reliably quantify the likely consequences of the warming that is occurring. His estimate is that there will be a temperature increase of 2.5 degrees to 3 degrees Celsius over the next hundred years, a figure that is about at the midpoint of recent projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Apparently the industrialized nations in the Northern Hemisphere have the wealth and technical capabilities to handle this increase, but poor countries in the global South, which are already carrying an unmanageable load, will find it quite burdensome. (Smil’s usual concern with the interaction of variables is not in evidence in this case. Does he think that the multitudes who cannot cope will quietly disappear?) Although he stresses the difficulty of estimating future sea levels, he says that “a cautious conclusion” would be that they will rise about 15 centimeters by 2050—“clearly a noncatastrophic change.” He concludes surprisingly that the market impacts of a moderate warming will be “a trivial sum in all affluent countries” (which prorates to about $180 a year per capita), citing in support work by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus. (Other respected economists disagree.)

Smil’s analysis of climate change is more complex and nuanced than that supplied by even sophisticated journalists and essayists. Thus we learn that our actions have already changed the global nitrogen cycle much more than the carbon cycle (which gets all the attention), and that those changes will create problems more intractable than the ones resulting from excessive levels of carbon dioxide. Losses of biodiversity and invasive species have impoverished our ecosystem and have had major economic consequences. (Presumably these are not included in the “trivial sum.”) Finally, the chapter on environmental change takes up the problem of antibiotic resistance. I will spare you the depressing details.

I learned a lot from this sometimes cranky, often cryptic and very opinionated book. Smil dismisses the headlines created by the climate doomsayers. The naysayers he doesn’t even discuss. But by enriching our understanding of the complexity of nature and society, he shows that we have much more to fear than accumulating carbon dioxide and drowning polar bears. For those of us living in the world’s most affluent society, climate change and other looming catastrophes will hasten our twilight. This book helps prepare us to think seriously about the future.

Charles Perrow is an emeritus professor of sociology at Yale University.

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