The Phyical World
The depth of our worldview informs our relationship with the universe at every level. The deeper our worldview, the more it encompasses, the greater our depth of understanding of the cosmos will be, and in turn, the greater our appreciation for our place in it. The physical world is the ground that supports all of the human structures we construct and it is essential we obtain an Integral understanding of it if we are to understand the natural and human worlds.
The resources of the physiosphere can be assessed in a number of ways, but for our purposes here, we will consider them as mineral (tin, copper, gold, etc.), energy (oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, and sunlight), clean air, ozone, and clean water (whether for drinking, raising crops, or maintaining the ocean’s fishing stocks). There are generally two opposing views toward the state of the world’s physiosphere. Environmentalists claim, with a good deal of data to back them up, that Earth has finite resources of minerals, oil, and coal. Their assumption, which isn’t so farfetched, is that these things will eventually run out, and that we can’t easily replace them when they do. I refer to the alternative view as the eco-optimist perspective.[i] Unsurprisingly, environmentalists tend to have a Postmodern worldview while eco-optimists are rather evenly split between those with Modern and Traditional worldviews.
The eco-optimists counter the argument of scarcity by explaining that not only have we been finding plenty of minerals, but that the price of them keeps dropping. They also point out that the known reserves of coal could last nearly 200 years, and the reserves of oil look like they will last for at least 35 to 50 years. By and large these points are accurate, but the problem that the eco-optimists fail to address is that these resources become more expensive to find each year we continue depleting them, and that their extractions become more expensive, as well. Additionally, the eco-optimists tend ignore the use to which these resources will be put and the externalized pollution they will create — pollution that someone will have to deal with. The process for mining gold or lithium, for instance, is extremely land intensive and toxic. And continuing to use oil and coal as energy sources only ensures that greenhouse gases will be released, causing problems with clean air and global warming.
The process of industrialization has required the depletion of non-renewable resources. The use of these resources, either as energy sources or as raw materials for manufacturing products, results in pollution. This pollution then becomes a part of the physiosphere, creating a realm that the ancients did not foresee. To Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, we might add Soot, Sludge, Toxins, and GHGs (greenhouse gases). Pollution is not simply waste. In an ecosystem, the waste of one organism becomes the food of another. Pollution is waste that cannot be used by any organism or ecosystem.
In economic terms, pollution is referred to as an externalized cost. Internalized costs are those that are carried by the producer of a product and are included in its price, being passed on to the buyer. Externalized costs are those that are borne by someone other than the producer and are not included in the price of the product. For example, as economist David Korten explains, “…a giant chemical company externalizes production costs when it dumps wastes without adequate treatment, thus passing the resulting costs of air, water, and soil pollution into the community in the form of additional health costs, discomfort, lost working days, a need to buy bottled water, and the cost of cleaning up what has been contaminated.”[ii]
Waste from our many nuclear reactors is another unfortunate example of an externality, as it is so deadly that it must somehow be safely contained for thousands of years. In a more typical example, the internalized costs of making and selling a widget would be manufacture, overhead, rent, packaging, shipping, and stocking. The externalized costs would be the wastes from manufacture, the waste that the shipping or packaging material becomes after use, the GHG emissions of the trucks used to transport the widgets, and the widgets themselves after they have outlived their planned obsolesce. All externalities become part of the physiosphere, and at some point will need to be dealt with. Unfortunately, the cleanup rarely falls to the people who actually put these externalized wastes in the environment in the first place.
On most issues, the eco-optimists and environmentalists are often sharply divided in their assessments of the state of the world, and fresh water (potable or otherwise), air quality, and global climate change are only some examples of where they differ. Environmentalists point out that there is a drastic shortage of clean drinking water in the world and an increasing population is likely to strain the limited supplies. Eco-optimists counter that societies with the cleanest and most plentiful drinking water are found in the industrialized nations. As one might guess, they feel it is obvious that industrialization is the key to solving not just problems of clean water, but all of the environmental problems the world faces. Moreover, they feel that Earth and all its ecosystems will be able to recover from any damage that we might do, or that this damage can be repaired by new technology.
Environmentalists, of course, believe that it is the process of industrialization itself that is causing all of the problems in the first place. The best among them are recommending alternative means of industrialization that eliminate externalities.[iii] Eco-optimists tend to fear that this could completely slow down the world economy and upset the chances for the world’s poor to ever have the lifestyle of developed nations. Of course, seasoned environmentalists will point out that it requires nearly three-fourths of the world’s resources to maintain the developed nations in this lifestyle, and that these nations only represent 10 percent of the planet’s continually expanding population. Their estimates indicate it would take roughly three to four Earths, all producing as many resources as our one does now, to allow the whole planet to live like those of us in North America and Western Europe do.[iv]
As for the state of the world water supplies, your opinion will be influenced not only by what data you review, but the worldview with which you approach it. The very idea of there being anything resembling a water crisis on a planet that is 71 percent water seems absurd at first glance. But since 97 percent of this supply is salt water, and only about .65 percent of it is available to human use, .62 percent as groundwater, the dilemma becomes a little easier to understand. The main problem is that the Earth’s water resources are not equally divided and that the areas which tend to have the fewest reserves, or precipitation, also tend to be home to the poorest countries. Complicating this, the poorest countries are also the ones whose populations are most likely to increase in the coming decades. These are the very nations most at risk today and most likely to experience a crisis in the future.[v]
Clean air is another divergent topic between environmentalist and eco-optimists. There is no doubt that industrialization and urbanization worsen the air quality. Any industrial process that releases wastes into the atmosphere is decreasing air quality. This applies to our SUVs as much as it does to the oil refinery or textile plant. Likewise, the air quality of a region tends to go down with the increase of urbanization.
Environmentalists contend that large quantities of waste released into the air decrease the sustainability of various ecosystems as well as lowering the quality of human life. They often point to the urban areas of developing countries like Mexico City and Bangkok, noting the amount of lead in the air that enters the human system and affects physical and mental development. Eco-optimists counter this argument by claiming that the countries that have the cleanest air are now the ones with the largest industrial base. They explain that it is only when a country reaches a certain per capita income that it develops the technology, affluence, and civil society capable of instituting the laws necessary to balance environmental concerns against industrial desires. They also claim that industrialization, in and of itself, leads to more efficient and less polluting technology.[vi]
While it is true that the air quality of Western nations has increased, thanks to both environmental laws and more sophisticated technology, we need to keep in mind that the Western world only accounts for some 10 to 15 percent of the world’s population. While the Earth’s systems have been able to handle our industrialization, we cannot automatically assume that these systems, nor our human populations, can handle the stress created by the rest of the world’s nations (China and India in particular) going through the same industrialization process. This is even more unlikely given that many of these developing nations will be adding significantly to the world’s population as the century progresses.
Eco-optimists are correct when they connect increased affluence from industrialization to a feedback loop engendering greater environmental protection and more efficient technology, but they fail to mention that many, if not most, of the developing nations where the environment is in a state of crisis lack the very root conditions that allowed the Western countries to accomplish this “magic trick.” Without democracy, the rule of law, and a firm civil society, developing nations are unlikely to follow the same path as their Western industrial predecessors. And with populations considerably larger than the Western countries, they are likely to require far greater amounts of industrialization, creating far more pollution, airborne or otherwise. While air quality is getting better for some of us, it is terrible for most and likely to remain so, or worsen.
Global warming is the most divisive issue between environmentalists and eco-optimists. Global climate change is a predicted response of the Earth’s climate systems to the increase in human-made gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that are released into the atmosphere. These gases heighten the greenhouse effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the surface temperature of the planet. The greenhouse effect is the natural tendency of the Earth’s atmosphere to trap the heat of the sun’s energy, which helpfully keeps the planet warm enough for life. Without the greenhouse effect the planet would be about 50 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than it is now. However, if it were not for evaporation and other climate processes the surface temperature would be a stifling 130 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the 55 degrees of recent geological history.
For nearly three decades there has been a heated debate as to the validity of the global climate change theory and the evidence collected to support it. Today, in the face of repeated reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even the staunchest eco-optimist is forced to admit the reality of global warming.[vii] The only people who are seriously arguing that it is a hoax are those being paid substantial sums by the oil and coal industries or those who desire the undue attention granted them playing devil’s advocate on conservative media outlets.[viii]
The evidence for global warming and climate change due to human activity is compelling, to say the least. The average temperature of the planet has risen over the last century by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit and will continue to rise between 2 and 11 degrees as this century progresses, depending on the level of GHG emissions. While 1998 has so far been the hottest year on record, eleven of the past twelve years were the warmest recorded since 1850. We also know that the average world precipitation has increased, and that coastal waters have risen approximately four to eight inches, depending on region, over the last 150 years. This rise in sea level will undoubtedly continue and could increase by as much as two feet by the year 2100. Levels of GHG emissions have increased by 26 percent since 1990. Of these greenhouse gases, the US produces nearly 19 percent of the total, while maintaining less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Furthermore, in 2012, half of the ice in the arctic melted decades faster than previously predicted.
We also know from satellite surveys that the amount of infrared radiation escaping the planet has decreased by 30 percent between the 1970s and today. We know from ice core samples taken in Antarctica going back for some 800,000 years that every time there was an increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there was a subsequent rise in the surface temperature of the planet. Additionally, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 over this time averaged 270 parts per million (ppm), while today it is over 400ppm.[ix]
The question is not whether global warming is happening, but what we can do to limit its effects. With a system as complex as the global climate system, with so many subsystems and inputs, determining the exact effects of global warming will be as difficult as predicting the possible consequences. However, the precautionary principle suggests that we should endeavor to behave as though the worst-case scenario were the most plausible while we work to ascertain the exact nature of the situation. Eco-optimists generally tend to recommend just the opposite, suggesting that we continue with business as usual, quite literally, until we know with absolute certainty to what extent human activity is affecting the global climate. Unfortunately by then, it may be too late.
Although there is no single definition, the precautionary principle is exactly what it sounds like. It is the notion that when information is limited and future consequences are not clearly predictable, we should prudently proceed with caution when implementing a new social plan or technology. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber explain, “The reason that scientific uncertainty is the fulcrum for the precautionary principle is that the harm associated with technological innovations is often impossible to prove at the time the new technology is introduced.”[x]
When you are driving down a country road at night, you naturally use the precautionary principle. Your vision is limited and you are aware that the road can suddenly change, or that animals can leap out at you from the trees, so you moderate your speed. This is not the principle we use when implementing new technologies, but it should be. When it comes to new technologies we assume they are innocent until proven guilty. This isn’t caution; this is blind optimism.
Eco-optimists and industrial advocates often complain that the precautionary principle would stifle economic growth and hinder innovation, leading to a decline in the progress that humanity has been experiencing for the last century. Can the precautionary principle be abused? Certainly. But blind faith in technology is also an abuse. It is an abuse of the scientific principles that lead to it.
Science is based on hypothesis and experimentation. If we don’t know what the likely effects of a new technology are, then we should proceed slowly with its implementation, using research and experimentation to guide us, particularly if that technology affects or creates a complex system. As complex systems are notoriously unpredictable, they pose greater potential dangers in the long run, even when short-term consequences seem small. Global climate is a perfect example of this.
How do the various aspects of the physiosphere interact with humans on the personal, cultural, and social levels? How do we personally experience the changes to the physiosphere that we are engineering? Part of the answer to that question will depend on who you are. Do you live in a developed country or in a developing nation? Do you live in the city or in the country? Do you live in a coastal region that might experience flooding? Are you a farmer whose crops might be susceptible to severe changes in weather patterns? Are you light-skinned and more susceptible to skin cancer from increased ultraviolet radiation due to ozone depletion? Do you have enough wealth to separate you from the worst of the pollution, or are you so poor that polluting companies can dump their waste in your communities? Does your government support laws to protect natural resources and prevent irreparable damage to the environment? All people will have a different experience of the world around them and this will be mitigated by the culture they inhabit and the social structures in place around them.
Experience will play a large part in determining the way we feel about the changes in the physiosphere and our use of Earth’s natural resources. For the average American, we see so many benefits from doing things the way we do that the advantages of the particular path we are on seems to fully justify the risks, dangers, and problems it causes. For others in the world, this isn’t so apparent. Global warming is a perfect illustration of a threat that our brains aren’t really designed to deal with well. It’s a nebulous danger whose worst consequences seem to be decades away. Emotionally, it isn’t the sort of subject that raises our immediate concern the way a burning building does. And the recommended courses of action to combat it requires significant personal, social, and cultural changes.
Eco-optimists frequently state that the economic cost of combating global warming would destroy our free market economy. This pessimistic prognostication flies in the face of what we know about the complex system that is our global economy. One of the things that has repeatedly proven to stimulate economic growth is widespread investment in new technologies. One need only look at the worldwide economic boom in the late 1990s. Originating from US government research, vast infusions of private investor cash expanded a nascent Internet into by into a burgeoning worldwide Internet industry. A similar widespread investment, public and private, in alternate energy technology might affect our national and global economies in a similar fashion.
This investment in new energy technology is essential to stave off the worst case effects of global warming, as well as the reduction in air quality, created by our existing electricity generation systems. Currently, 39 percent of the energy in US comes from coal, while 27 percent comes natural gas, 19 percent from nuclear power, 7 percent from hydro power, 1 percent from oil, and 6 percent from an assortment of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.[xi] Most experts believe that shifting the balance of our energy sources away from those that create GHG to those that do not pollute the environment will take several decades, even with a concerted effort to do so. And doing so will require new technology. Whether that takes the form of a new generation of safer pebble-reactor nuclear power plants (that would still leave behind deadly radioactive waste), or carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology that would clean and capture coal exhaust and bury it deep in the Earth (where we have no idea how it would react geologically), or the expanded use of solar energy to eliminate the need for a rural power grids (which would be less useful in expanding urban areas), to building more wind mills (assuming the locals don’t invoke NIMBY zoning laws to preserve the views of their landscapes and oceans).
Not surprisingly, the breadth of our worldview informs our emotional and intellectual responses to a subject like global warming and the possible technological solutions to alleviate it. It also informs how we will personally act in the face of such a problem. If we can imagine a different personal response, can we then imagine different cultural responses and different social structures? The elements that make up the physiosphere are resources, but how we see and use them depends not only on their nature but also upon our own. We are learning, through events like the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming, to see that the way we use the resources of the planet will determine what sort of planet we live on. It’s not merely our personal lives that change, or our cultures and societies, but the physical world we all inhabit.
Contemplation of the Physical World
What is your relationship with the physical world? How does the physical world impact your life? How does the way you live your life impact the physical world? Look around you. What things from the physical world have made their ways into your life? Everything made of glass, brick, stone, steel, aluminum, or plastic was at one time part of the Earth. How did the processes of changing these materials into your house or car or TV change the world? How do you think that the pollution from our human world is affecting the physical world we live in?
How do you contribute to pollution of the physical world? Do you think you should change your behavior in any way to reduce the pollution you create? How do you think you could do this? Do you believe that global warming is occurring? If so, what is your understanding based on? If not, why do think it is not happening? How you feel your worldview informs your appraisal of such things as pollution and global warming?
When you think about the physical world, what occurs to you? How do you envision your interaction with it? Do you live in a city, or do you live in a place that allows you direct contact with aspects of the physical world? Do you live near the ocean or a large body of water? Do you live near a geologically-active area? Do you think of the weather as part of the physical world? Have you noticed changes in these aspects of the physical world over the course of your lifetime? How do you respond to these changes?
How do you think the physical world affects you personally? How does it affect your family, your community, and your country? How do you think that you affect the physical world as opposed to other people in the world? Do you think your family affects the world differently than other families in the world? What about your country? How do you think the physical world and the way you and others relate to it affect your culture? How would you imagine it affecting other cultures in different parts of the world? How does the geography of your country relate to its culture and to the society you live in? How does the weather of your region affect your society and culture? How do these things affect the way your country relates to others nearby and far away? How do you think your worldview colors your perception of these things? Can you imagine how people with different worldviews might respond to these questions?
Action: Set aside a special period of time to do nothing for an hour but examine and contemplate some aspect of the physical world. If you live near an ocean you might spend some time on the beach contemplating how the world’s oceans affect the global weather patterns. You can also spend some time reading up on your excursion beforehand. Maybe there is a mining operation near you that you can visit to see how resources are removed from the Earth. Take some time and think about how you can better experience the physical world and then take some time to do so.
[i] For an example of a well-regarded eco-optimist see the work of Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg (http://www.lomborg.com/) particularly his books The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Cool it – The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming (Random House, 2007 and 2010). For an example of a respected environmentalist, see Letser Brown’s work with The World Watch Institute (http://www.worldwatch.org/) especially their yearly report, The State of the World 2015 (Island Press, 2015) being the most recent. Also see the work of Bill McKibben, particularly Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth (Milkweed Editions, 2007) and his environmental advocacy organization 350.org (http://350.org/)
[ii] David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, p. 76
[iii] See Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins’ Natural Capitalism.
[iv] Edward O. Wilson, “The Bottleneck,” American Scientific, p. 84. While Wilson uses the figure of four Earths, I have also read three and three and a half in other sources. This discrepancy can probably be attributed to which criteria are being used to create the analogy. Regardless, it still more than the one planet we have at our disposal.
[vi] Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, p. 164
[viii] See Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s Trust Us We’re the Experts, chapter 10, “Global Warming is Good for You.”
[ix] For a brief and easily digestible introduction to the issues of global warming and climate change see Lee R. Kump and Michael E. Mann’s Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming (Pearson Education, 2009). For regular updates in the facts of global warming see the Environmental Protections Agency’s web site at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/index.html as well the regular reports from the International Panel on Climate Change at http://www.ipcc.ch/. For information by actual climate scientists on developing issues, controversies, and rebuttals to climate change deniers see: http://www.realclimate.org/ and http://www.skepticalscience.com/.
[x] Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We’re Experts!, p. 124
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