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The Environment Before Computers (14/06/2010, 09:50:21)

Ted Floyd, June 2010

In the beginning there was no computers. Man domesticated animals, grew crops, clothed himself and built shelter. In his spare time he played music, created art, learnt to read, write and count. The heavans inspired his imagination and intelect. All these great achievements were made without computers.

While advancing through the ages there were numerous environmental blunders. Will the computer help to create a green and sustainable future?

Early Environmental Blunders

The pollution and the destruction of the environment is not a new problem. Historical records describe many examples of pollution causing big problems many years ago. Often a great civilization was weakened by the collapse of the environment and invading armies were then able to attack and destroy the ancient city.

The earliest ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia relied on irrigation to grow food. An extensive network of canals carried water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the deserts where fields of wheat and barley flourished.

High up in the river catchments, trees were cut down allowing erosion to denude the hills and detached soil was carried by the rivers to the irrigation canals where silt was deposited, blocking the canals. Constant maintenance was required to desilt the canals. If the silt built up and choked the canals, food production ceased, thus weakening the city, allowing foreign armies to invade and destroy the ancient civilization.

The build up of silt is still a problem in modern rivers. Shipping lanes in harbours can become clogged with silt and regular dredging becomes necessary to allow large ships to enter ports. Occasionally water storage dams on rivers become filled with silt. This occurs when forests are cut down allowing erosion to occur on bare soil. This is very similar to the problem in ancient Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago. We are slow learners.

Large areas of the Middle East were productive farmland producing food for Rome. Erosion destroyed large areas of agricultural land leaving bare rocks on the hills and villages covered by silt in valley floors. “A land of milk and honey” is no longer the paradise Moses looked for. Good farmland has become desert in Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan Syria and other nearby countries.

The Romans enjoyed drinking wine. The wine made them drunk and lead from pewter tankards poisoned them. Were the mad rulers of Rome poisoned by the lead in their vintage wines?

“Mad as a hatter” and “mad hatters tea party” vividly describes the fate of hard working hatters of many years ago. Lead in the wine poisoned the Romans and mercury in fur poisoned the hatters who became mad. A mixture of rabbit fur and mercury was chewed by the hatters when making felt for hats.

Lead pollution is still a problem in cities today. Children are sensitive to lead pollution when lead in soils and dusts are ingested. Lead poisoning affects the brain, reducing intelligence and causing behavior problems. Old paint and petrol contained lead. It is fortunate our children are not as mad as the rulers of Rome.

Sherlock Holmes in his thrilling “who done it” mysteries in the 1890s, often had difficulty finding his way along the streets of London during a “pea souper”. Fog and smoke combined together to produce smog in London. The use of smoke producing dirty coal is now banned in London by Acts of Parliament.

In many modern cities, air pollution forms a brown haze in the sky. Cars are the biggest contributors to smog pollution. In special atmospheric conditions, chemical reactions occur in sunlight forming ozone and photochemical smog.

Close to my home in Sydney when Sherlock Holmes walked the streets of London the Glebe Island Abattoir provided steaks to hungry families. The steaks tasted nice but the pollution in Sydney harbour was indigestible. During clean up time of the abattoir, the water in Rozelle Bay was red with blood and occasionally you could see the carcass of a cow float by. The abattoirs were closed down in 1916 and moved out to suburbs further away from the densely populated suburbs of inner Sydney.

Before the motor car was invented, city streets were covered with horse manure. City engineers were worried the streets in growing cities would become buried in piles of horse droppings. The invention of the motor car solved the problem of horse pollution, but is the motor car more environmentally friendly than horses?

The birth of environmental awareness.

Before the 1960s very little information was known about the environment. There were no books, no university courses, no government departments and only a few community organizations.

Since the 1960s many books have become available on many aspects of the environment. Every week a new book on the environment is now published. One of the first major reports was “Silent Spring”, written by Rachel Carson in 1962. She described how pesticides were killing native animals, especially birds. This book was a very early wake up call.

Paul Ehrlich wrote “Population Bomb” in 1968. Ehrlich was very controversial when he explained how it would become disasterous if the world's population continued to grow. Ehrlich also explained how an affluent population would cause even more problems.

“Limits to Growth” was published by the Club of Rome in 1972. Exponential growth of the worlds economy was considered to contribute to the collapse of the world's environment. This was a very thorough study using economic models to predict the future. Many of the results were frightening and the book was controversial. It was respected by many influential people, but most economists considered it to be rubbish. Many of the predictions of doom have not occurred. The predictions were self defeating because they stimulated positive changes, preventing economic and environmental collapse.

The popular book “Small is Beautiful” (1973), was more optimistic. EF Schumacher proposed intermediate technology (appropriate technology) that would help build a better world by raising living conditions in poor nations and reducing pollution in highly developed rich nations.

Information in a modern world.

Most universities now have specific courses and degrees on the environment, conservation and sustainability. The growth in students and subjects is coupled to research.

Governments like to look as if they are doing things. Most governments have a Department of the Environment and a Minister for the Environment who spend most of their time covering up environmental disasters.

Every citizen now has the choice to join a large world wide organization like Friends of the Earth, or a small local group who work on local issues. These groups are the backbone of the grass root movements needed to set the political agenda. Environmental change needs to be popular. If positative environmental changes are unpopular they become a political death sentence for governments.

Everyone now knows what is happening to the environment. News and documentaries on radio and TV, newspaper reports, magazines, books, and demonstrations by active environment groups all tell us the sorry stories.

The fast growing new medium for information is the computer Internet. Young people now often use the computer as their main source of information and older people are learning quickly how to Google.

People now complain of information overload. Computers are also blamed for spreading information of dubious quality.

What is going wrong?

We know there are environmental problems. Information is quickly spread all over the world. Many universities and government departments do excellent research. In every democratic election, ambitious politicians tell us how they will save the environment.

Many things are going wrong. There are a significant number of people who believe there are no problems. Greenhouse denial has become a significant and dangerous force.

Overconsumption is an important factor in the decline of the environment. Is it realistic to reduce consumption? We have a business world that wants to produce more and more so that it can make greater profits; we have a political system in which politicians promise us more and more; we have an economic system which specifically studies how more can be produced; and we have an advertising world which tries to fool us completely into believing we want more, when we probably don't want it at all.

Most modern economic theories including economic rationalism, depend on growth for the survival of nations. Many economists do not understand the severity of environmental decline. Economic rationalists predict reduction in growth will destroy a nation's economy.

Exponential growth cannot continue for ever. Exponential growth in the world's population is now seen to be impossible and attempts to reduce population growth have achieved some success. Growth of the world's economies need to slow down to accommodate environmental constraints.

The computer world is growing exponentially at a rapid rate. How long can this continue?

About Ted Floyd

FLOYD, EDWARD JEFFREY (TED), environmentalist, researcher; BSc in Agr., Sydney U., 1968. Investigation officer Soil Conservation Svc., Wagga Wagga, Australia, 1969‑73; analytical chemist NSW Dept. Mines, Sydney, 1974‑80, U. Sydney, 1981‑83, U. NSW, Sydney, 1984‑91; convenor Friends of Earth, Sydney, 1992‑98. Author: (brochures) Energy Efficient Housing, 1994, Think Globally, Walk Locally, 1995, Water Is Life, 1996, Soils, Catchments and Creeks, 2007, Creekcare, 2008. Mem.: Australian Soil Sci. Soc. Avocations: hobby farming, city walking.