Monday, August 6, 2018

Traffic jams ---> Trophic jams

We live in State College, PA, a small university town.  Well, it isn't nearly as small as it was when we moved here in 1985; Penn State enrollment has gone from around 30,000 when we got here to something like 50,000, and the town has grown to keep up.

How did that happen?  In essence, by sacrificing farm fields, turning them into condo centers, fine suburban-style cardboard 'mansions' with big grassy lots, 2-3 car garages (so everyone could drive a few miles to the nearest grocery), and so on. Even in this fairly small town, during the day, there are cars going through most intersections most of the time, even in the residential tracts.

To get from here to anywhere you need to get on I-80 or I-95, or some other throughway, where there is an endless chain of nearly stationary cars and trucks, hour after hour, mile after mile after mile.  Even when not obstructed by an accident or construction, the traffic is so heavy that it's not at all unusual for very slow, or creeping, or stopped traffic jams  tolitter the route.

The global traffic jam....
This same situation is happening all over the country, all over Europe, all over Japan and much of India and China.  It is even happening in parts of Africa and Australia.  This is 24/7.  The endless rivers of steel, rubber, and petrochemicals is like a river, and as Heraclitus said you can't step into it twice:  in no two moments is this same stream actually the same.  The cars and people and their arrangement are different--and, of course, we are never using the same gasoline twice: once used, it is burped into the atmosphere.

When you've been around more than a few decades, you'll start to realize that the current situation isn't 'normal'.  In a decade or two, or three, you'll think today was good and you were used to it, but that what has become normal, the jam of all jams, is what's really intolerable.

The traffic jam is, of course, due to the unconstrained growth of population, and its per capita consumption.  And this traffic jam, in turn, will have its longterm side effects in terms of the resources it uses up.  And that is going to lead to another kind of jam.

The global trophic jam
As we pave and build condos and shopping malls over what has for  millions of years been millions of acres of fertile land, we reduce the potential food production for us and other creatures, plant or animal.  Our sewage and waste claims more in water and land areas.  And we seem unable to prevent there always being more of us.  That means more paving, more building, and altered climate.  This means less fertile land for growing food--a trophic jam.

Climate is changing, and at least some of this is due to human-induced global warming.  Ostrich-like deniers, note: Climate change is happening regardless of why!  This will moisten some arid lands, and even more it will dry out currently fertile lands, in large amounts.  It will raise water levels on coasts and in rivers.  Since before the industrial age, settlements--now cities--were built on waterways for trade and so on, many or even most major cities will be threatened by water rise.  This will drive people inland, to cover over even more arable land.  Those living inland should realize that they will not be able to keep this inrush out.

Some areas, like Northern Canada perhaps, will become wetter.  But hardly anybody lives there.  Other areas, the rich farmlands, will become drier and likely many will become arid.  Nations that rely on food for their people or for trade, will have to look elsewhere--and if all of human history is any guide, this trophic jam will inevitably lead to attempts at military conquest.  If the breadbasket has shifted, say, from the US to Canada, and there's real food pressure, does anyone doubt that military expeditions won't head northward?

Our relentless, unconstrained traffic jams are irritating, especially to the impatient (like me) or those who want to spend time with their families, or bowling, rather than sitting in traffic.  But these headaches may be dooming us to stomach aches--the kind one gets when there isn't enough food.

One can be a climate denying ostrich, or a rosy believer in science and engineering, but if what we here and many others who know much more than we do are making these warnings, they are not all Chicken Littles.  Yet, like the swarm of lemmings, we are headed for the cliffs.

Apparently, today at least, we can't tell, or don't care to tell, the connections between traffic and trophic jams.


Ken Weiss said...

A new PNAS paper predicts that earth systems may get so out of control that they become a kind of positive feedback loop, creating what the authors call a Hothouse Earth. Sunday's NY Times Magazine is entirely devoted to the history, already decades old, of attempts to persuade people in power that global warming was real and called for serious, indeed urgent, action.

We don't listen. The news is there for all to see. But we want our cars, overseas-manufactured gear, distantly-grown food all year round, power mowers, blowers, and weeders, and so on. We know the problems. Hand-wringing makes us feel good and conscientious....but then we put down the paper or log off the news media, and get in our air-conditioned car to go shopping.

We are all to blame. We know it. We don't care, or we can't control our short-term selfish drives. Is there any other explanation?

Ellen said...

Should you lecture before you yourself have resisted the urge to have power blowers, air conditioning and distantly grown food? Can you offer any solutions?

Ken Weiss said...

I do not claim to be a saint or not to be hypocritical about this, and you have a point. We don't abuse these things as much as some do, but it is difficult, in the US at this point, not to be part of the problem. For example, we use a power mower (electric which is a tad better, I think, than gasoline), because our push mower can't deal with thick grass. We gave away our snow blower, since our hilly driveway and sidewalk seemed too dangerous at our age.....but we pay someone to get the snow off. We rarely use our leaf-blower and, if you can believe it, actually rake the leaves!

But we do sometimes use our A/C. We heat the house more, probably, than sustainability would allow. We use computers (as now!), and so on. We are not claiming to be above the problem: we don't live in a rustic hut in the woods.

It's possible to live sustainably, as it's been done for millennia is various places in our history. But challenges were clear even in classical Greek and Roman etc. times, and the road to un-sustainability was already being traveled.

The problem is a collective one. As I concluded the post: "We are all to blame"

Do you have an answer? At its root, the major problem is huge over-population by humans.