Friday, August 23, 2019

Worse than The Bridge at San Luis Rey!

Thornton Wilder's 1938 book The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a classic with a lesson for today that too many know but are in denial about.  Wilder's book follows the lives of 5 different, generally unrelated people, who for a variety of reasons all end up at a rope bridge over a huge gully in the mountains of Peru.  Unbeknownst to them, they will be on the bridge when it fails, dropping them to their deaths.

Why were they there, a monk asks?  Was there some inevitability about their paths?  Were they connected by some unknown factors?  What, if anything, is the message of, or the lesson from their fates?  Even investigating the possibility of fateful forces cost the monk his life in the dour Church of his time.

But what about our time?  Are we, in a symbolic sense, headed for doom at a bridge that will fail, but to which we seem inevitably driven?  There are reasons to think this could be the case.....

Ecological self-made disaster
The world's natural resources are fragile, destructible, and limited.  In particular, good arable land and other similar resources can be exhausted or destroyed by over-use and mistreatment.  And these factors can be brought on by the demands of an ever-growing population.  Furthermore, human short-term selfish thinking makes it difficult if not impossible for us to restrain ourselves.

In this case, the problem is global warming because of our relentless burning of fossil fuels.  This is made worse by our unconstrained destruction of the Amazon forest and so on, that are the 'lungs' of the earth in this regard.  We pollute the seas, over-fish, and have agricultural habits that destroy the long-term viability of the soils.

Glaciers melt, seas rise, and this inevitably will drive people away from major population centers that, historically, were located by transport media--seas, rivers, and lakes.  If these overflow their banks, massive numbers of people will head inland....but 'inland' is already densely occupied!  And these climate-related changes are well under way and, given the nature of things, their momentum is perhaps unstoppable.

Careless resource consumption and culpable over-population are responsible.  The warning signs have been around for decades (e.g., the widely read book The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968--now 51 years ago).  We have climate-change warners now commonly going around trying to tell people of the dangers (I'll note that even these authors fly all over, contributing needlessly to the problem, to give talks at meetings, autograph their books at booksellers, and so on, though Greta Thunberg is a notable exception).  The hypocrisy, or lack of taking the problem seriously even by those who know better, is rather striking.  Or is it 'frightening' a better word: we simply can't seem to restrain our individual greed and short-term pleasures, even when faced with an impending catastrophe.

To me, this is like passengers enjoying a leisurely, fancy meal, with fine wine, in the dining car of a train that is speeding towards a bridge that's out--as in San Lus Rey.  But unlike the book's characters, we know what the story is.  Yet, even so, we cannot seem to impose the obviously required consumption self-restraint on ourselves.  It's due not only to relentlessly selfish insatiable commercialism or capitalism, but to our own individual, short-term selfishness as well, that we just seem unable to restrain.  Maybe our economic system makes that hard or impossible.  But it doesn't make it not a problem!  We know the issues, but can't seem to react properly.

Can we do anything about it--in time?  Will we?
Your guess is as good as mine.....and perhaps you're more optimistic, less a student of history, and you'll be right.  But based on human history, the odds are against that.  Disastrous societal strain seems inevitable.

Are we fated to meet at San Luis Rey, and plummet together into the rocky abyss?  Wilder's book is worth reading.....and thinking about.  But in our case, the chasm we're headed so rapidly to won't just take out 5 unlucky travelers: it will destroy billions of lives!  And it will do that with slow trauma: famines, wars, displacement, and other disasters as an essential aspect of the process.

Of course, if it pares back the human population to some few million worldwide, the rest of Nature will rejoice, because it will, once again, have a chance to evolve in a more properly orderly way.


Steven B Kurtz said...

Two winners in a row, Ken. Bravo! We've quadrupled in my mother's 95 years. Biologists call that plague phase. You might have a look at this which applies to all living systems including Homo rapacious-superstitious. The exceptions I can think of that make the rule are the tiny tail of Voluntary Simplicity and suicides.

Manoj Samanta said...

"In this case, the problem is global warming because of our relentless burning of fossil fuels."

For a blog critical of mainstream science, it is fascinating to see you promote pseudoscience. What next? Human genome is 80% functional, because a consortium of top scientists claimed so?

Ken Weiss said...

If you think global warming, and its reflection of the ballooned human population vis-a-vis resources, then you are welcome to the thought. We won't live long enough to see the level of damage we are causing. Even if we find a mainline source of energy (e.g., solar), we are overpopulating the world, plowing under good arable land, and so on. This is not pseudoscience, it is not a new view, and I cannot understand why you think it is not a serious, or even existential, problem for the earth. But you are welcome to your view!

Ken Weiss said...

More, Manoj.... I know you are thoughtful and can be a thoughtful curmudgeon, but I think you are off base in your dismissing of the issues related to climate change. Yes, we need not panic about it--except to think what we can do for our children's futures. But to me, climate change is more subtle than some global catastrophe.. If some areas now, say, arable, deseritfy, then those depending on them for food, or commerce, will have to go elsewhere---but there is no unoccupied elsewhere, so that means societal conflict. Coastal areas are heavily populated for historical reasons, and will be sources of emigrants moving away from encroaching shores--not every water-edge city can deal with the issue easily or peacefully even if, say, New York can.

If food becomes unreliable in, say, the US midwest, but northern Canada becomes more fertile, just to make up an example, do you think history doesn't show that there will be conflict over access? Without being panicky or making up disaster-scenarios, I think the human upheavals are the most imminent danger, unless we have very fast, dramatic loss of arable land or encroached coastlines..... So, to me, a pound of prevention is in order....

Manoj Samanta said...


"Global warming" is a giant scam that none of its main promoters themselves believe. After telling everyone incessantly that the oceans would engulf the coast-lines in 5 or 10 years, Obamas decided to spend $15 million to buy sea level property in Martha's Vineyard.

If you can explain the inconsistency of their talk versus action, we can go to the next level of world running out of food due to overpopulation.

Manoj Samanta said...

Here are some stats on yearly Amazon fire. Check the graph halfway down the page -

...and here is an actual photo of Obama's beachfront house. You can see the "dangerous" soon-rising sea levels -

A house purchase has the same long-term time horizon as the "sky is falling" event, and therefore, I presume, it is not "short-term pleasure" argued by your blog.

David Evans said...

When 97% of relevant experts agree on the reality of climate change, and when we can see it happening, it takes a brave man to call it "pseudoscience" without providing evidence. A brave man, or maybe a fool.

Ken Weiss said...

You can believe what you want, I guess, if you are not interested in being a realist or a scientist. Yes, climates change inherently and have done forever. But there is no doubt that there is climatic change today and that human activities have much to do with it.

Being a denier is not only a whacked-out way to act, but ignores the more serious aspects of climate change, Whether or not human pollution is responsible, climate change is or can be very demographically disruptive, and that means resource wars and other things of that sort. History is, I think, patently clear about that.

So, yes, the Earth has periodic geometeorological changes, not all by any means due to humans. But humans are here for this one and undoubtedly contributed. You can be a See-no-evil (and selfish) reactionary if you want, but even if you were right about the cause of climatic changes, you are dead wrong about the societal impact. Any of us with children or grandchildren etc should take this seriously and adjust our behavior as much as is practicable to reduce the potential disasters--even if they are only societal--that will otherwise occur.

Whatever the source of your bile, you should at least ask if it isn't more prudent to temper our use of CO2 generators etc., as if climate change were related to it.

Manoj Samanta said...

"Whatever the source of your bile, you should at least ask if it isn't more prudent to temper our use of CO2 generators etc., as if climate change were related to it."

Not really. CO2 is food for plants, and generating less CO2 will hurt the plants and therefore the ecosystem.

The following science paper (published in Apr 2019) shows that the established model of availability of nitrogen is completely wrong. The authors claimed to find vast source of nitrogen that the plants can consume. Previously the shortage of nitrogen was argued to be the "constraints on plant growth in a high-CO2 world".

I get a feeling that your understanding of climate is no different from Francis Collins' understanding of genetics, which is to assume that the "climate scientists" are omniscient just because they say so. The reality in both fields are very similar, which is that the hacks manipulate public opinion with simplified models to support their paychecks.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I am a former professional meteorologist so I do think I know a bit, at least, about climate. The social side of the issue cannot be overlooked and, yes, there are many vested interests in this, as in any 'major' idea. The problem with climate science, even if the change were as trivial or over-stated, or non-existent as you seem to suggest, so glibly I'd say, is that the price of ignoring the possibility of human-induced change is very high for our children. I see no real problem in accepting the general idea and doing something about it, and if you think human population, industry, and consumption are nothing to worry about, well, there is no law that says you have to worry, But I have grandchildren, and I think I'll opt to worry......

(let's end this 'conversation' at this point)