Administrator’s note: For this post, I’m glad to be able to feature a guest article by Emily Spence. Emily’s essays on a variety of social and ecological topics appear regularly on progressive websites such as Countercurrents.org, Information Clearing House, and Thomas Paine’s Corner.
This article relates closely to a question we’ve discussed recently on GIM: Would solving energy be enough, in itself, to end our ecological woes, or would such a technological advance bring with it a new set of unsustainable environmental challenges? Emily’s article provides insights which help considerably to clarify this and related issues. Many thanks to Emily for making it available. — JF
By Emily Spence:
During a hot breezy day one summer, my great-grandfather sat on a shady hill alongside of a river that runs through Syracuse, NY. Happy to enjoy such a beautiful moment, he watched young children plunge into the cool refreshing waters and, then, come out to dry themselves in the sunlight and wind. Thus, the idea of the electric hand dryer was conceived.
He developed the first generation prototype and sold the patent for ~ $100 K., a tremendous sum around the turn of the century, so that it could go into production for the good of humankind by removing the need for the same dirty hand-towels being repeatedly employed by different people. In addition, he was happy as he could now afford, due to his lavish fiscal gain, to take Apama, his daughter crippled from Polio, to visit top specialists in many faraway locations.
Suffice it to say that I sometimes look at dryers in public restrooms and wonder whether it is better to use electricity (most of which derives from fossil and nuclear fuels) to dry one’s hands or paper towels (that destroy trees). It is like asking whether one wants paper or plastic bags at the grocery store, as we know that both harm the environment.
However, there’s more to the “story” than just sanitation concerning the hand dryer’s benefits. This is because, from its underlying principles, design and purpose – air recycling methods in grain silos (to cut down on moisture and mold so as to greatly increase yield), parts of refrigeration and air conditioning, along with other advancements, were conceived and became incorporated in manufacturing protocols for a wide variety of products.
Especially the silo improvement seems a considerable gain. This is because the new aeration techniques ensured that huge amounts of excess grain from high crop seasons could be stored for many years. Thus, events like the great Irish potato famine of 1845 would no longer wind up killing huge swaths of people. At the same time, cutting down on the spread of microbes trapped in hand towels would yield the same results. Likewise, refrigeration would facilitate safe food supplies and air conditioning would prevent heat stroke, along with other afflictions.
The long and short of it is that, while these types of fairly recent innovations (like the ones provided by progress in drug fabrication and medical procedures) would aid many people, they also would allow more to survive (and, subsequently, reproduce) than in previous centuries. Meanwhile, the huge population keeps growing… and keeps using more and more resources (electricity for air conditioners, manufactured goods, fuel for transportation of people and commodities, etc).
Yet, at a certain point, the whole process in its current configuration will, certainly, collapse as there is not an infinite supply of oil, coal, electricity and goods to serve ever expanding needs, including the ones related to the billions of people climbing out of poverty (currently living in shacks) so as to purchase their first cottages with wall outlets, cars and so on. At the same time, they will want all the trappings (a myriad assortment of products) that go along with their new economic improvements. Further, they will want families in any size that they choose (like the one billion + Chinese, who are, currently, in a heavy revolt against the one child per family policy).
In this sense, researchers, who warn that we are behaving like bacteria in a petri dish, do pose a somewhat accurate analogy in terms of its applicability to humanity . Moreover, we DO know the manner in which those dish experiments end.
Indeed, it’s not as if we haven’t been forewarned for some time (i.e., by Thomas Malthus in 1798, Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins and many others) about the consequences of our species being motivated to always have more (more personal belongings, more population, more yield from each farm plot, more spacious homes, more cars per household, more travel, more shopping outlets, more fiscal gain for one’s own individual family, and so on). As such, we’re, collectively, winding up with some of the horrific predicaments described in a wide variety of environmental reports .
Of course, one tragedy in this overall situation is that humankind is poised to obliterate a large number of other species in the wake of our desire to have ever more. (If they are not killed by being turned into commodities, they will be destroyed collaterally, such as by the effects of global warming .) Another, perhaps worse one, is that we could have avoided most of the looming starvation, suffering, panic, spread of pandemic diseases, lack of water in some regions, fires, floods and misery had we, previously, adjusted our population and consumption patterns on a willing basis rather than, as always, let “nature take its course.” Yet, it always has, in the final reckoning, done so, hasn’t it?
So, in the end, our unwillingness to, deliberately, cut back on our trend to employ everything for which we can find some use and the booming population explosion will, likely, have dire consequences. Consequently, the limits in our overall resource expenditure and population can be expected to be achieved by devastating measures — ones not of our deliberate choosing.
All this in consideration, one of the saddest accounts that I’ve read concerned a Kurd stealing a loaf of bread that was being dropped from an aircraft flown overhead by US troops during the Gulf War. He took it from the hands of an elderly Kurd woman, who he overpowered by force. She had caught it first and meant to feed her husband and herself with it. The grabber took it because he had eleven children and a wife. (Can one imagine being faced with this parent’s dilemma?)
Subsequently, the old woman, her mate and a number of the thief’s children died from lack of nourishment… So, is this the world that we are increasingly bringing into being? Will people have to guard their food and other provisions from robbery by desperately needy others? Will many people, ultimately, wind up like the crowd in Donner’s Pass ? (In the meantime, global food production IS dramatically diminishing due to changes in weather related to global warming, subversion of crops to biofuel, the advancement of more virulent pests and other impingements.)
At the same time, the humane and workable models proposed by Amilcar Herrera  and others with regard to equitable distribution of absolute necessities — such as health care, food supplies and other resources so that all presently existing humans can survive AND thrive well — would constitute sound economic patterns to implement except for one factor. This is that uplifts in human welfare, like the benefits derived from the hand dryer, ultimately lead to a more rapid population surge. Consequently, it seems that our assisting ever more people to achieve adequate sanitation, adequate nourishment, clean water supplies, access to medical intervention and goods, while wonderful AND NECESSARY in themselves, creates the means for more people to breed in ever greater numbers.
This in mind, what a deeply grim shame that we seem bent on more thoroughly destroying the planet and each other, and just can’t seem to stop without the natural world handling the affair in its typically horrid and brutal fashion. (I hope that I am wrong on this point, but it almost seems as if the earth is a lifeboat floating in a sea of space and a whole bunch of humans are simply going to have to be abruptly thrown overboard by “Mother Nature,” as there just isn’t going to be room in the future for us all.)
This in consideration, when will people, finally, learn that we, imperatively, MUST change and why does it always take monumental calamities before we, finally, decide to do so? As such, I grieve for our children, our children’s children and all of the multitudinous species that are lined up, one after another, to irrevocably disappear.
Meanwhile, I realize that the key to any successful modifications in advance of major catastrophe entails widely educating people beyond the provision of worldwide, Earth support concerts. It means reaching out, with more depth, to many more individuals so that they get unglued from focusing on TV sitcoms, the latest fashions that can be acquired at the mall and other gratuitous fatuous pastimes.
As an acquaintance recently wrote, “The Earth [is] spinning inexorably without caring who inhabits her. We need a new species of individuals, without religion, hatred or borders if this is possible. In the meantime, enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.”
 Please refer to: Human Nature, Technology & the Environment.
 One balanced and compelling overview, particularly in the section relative to David Pimentel’s and Mario Giampietro’s conclusions, is located at: Overpopulation – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
 An overview is supplied at: The Sixth Extinction, by Niles Eldredge, Ph.D.
 For a summary of the related events, please see: Donner Party – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
 To access Dr Herrera’s research findings, please see “Catastrophe or New Society” at: Clyde Sanger -from Tomorrow-Tamer, by way of http://idrinfo.idrc.ca/Archive/ReportsINTRA/pdfs/v5n2e/109418.pdf.
Image source: EFDA-JET