Pollution and the Environment

In this chapter I discuss the fact that humans are now a major factor in the ecology of the globe, and how we are befouling the nest we live in, most especially by causing major increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I dictate solutions to these problems.

Of Book

(Copyright July 31 2006)

I read a great deal pro and con about “endangered species”: species whose habitat has been so perturbed by human activity that they are in danger of becoming extinct. Sometimes it seems as if these endangered species have better protection than human species. Thousands of jobs and whole communities are supposed to disappear to preserve the habitat of a few hundred spotted owls. The construction of a new telescope in New Mexico has been held up for years to preserve a habitat for a squirrel. It must be a particularly lily-livered squirrel. Every other kind of squirrel I’ve ever seen seems to absolutely thrive in, and become total pests in, habitats dominated by humans.

For all my bemusement at the stridency with which the dedicated environmentalists defend the snail darter, the alligator, the whatever, I have to say that they make a valid point. Humankind has increasingly become no longer a small perturbation on the global environment, but has major impact in an ever-increasing number of dimensions. Something like a third of all the fresh water that falls on the US in the form of rain is used in some human activity before it returns to the ocean or re-evaporates. No wonder our rivers are sewers!

No, my concern is not for the trivial endangered species. My environmental concern is for Ichi-ban, Numero Uno: us. We are the endangered species. We are altering the planet by our wastes. We are altering the planet by our destruction of plant life on which we symbiotically depend in ways that we don’t yet realize. We know that we depend on photosynthesis by green plants to convert the energy of sunlight into food, even when we get it second, third or fourth hand. But we also depend on photosynthesis to consume carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen for us to breathe.

In addition, carbon dioxide is a major “greenhouse gas”. It is transparent to the bulk of incoming solar radiation, which is heavily concentrated in the near infra-red and visible regions of the spectrum. The absorption of the solar radiation helps heat up the earth, which in turn establishes a balance between heat input and heat output by radiation of longer-wavelength infra-red radiation. However, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane are opaque to this longer-wavelength radiation; they absorb it, preventing the globe from balancing its heat loss to its heat input from the sun. The globe responds by increasing in temperature to radiate more long-wavelength infra-red, so that it can get rid of enough heat even if the greenhouse gases absorb some of what it emits. This of course goes on now, and has for millennia, regulating the temperature of the planet as a function of the incoming solar radiation and the “natural” concentrations of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere.

The carbon dioxide concentration itself is the product of a balance between the processes producing it and the processes consuming it. Increasing production has to be matched by increasing consumption, or the concentration in the atmosphere increases. And it is this natural balance that humankind is now perturbing in a very significant way.

At the same time that we are emitting enormous quantities of carbon dioxide by an economic structure that depends on combustion of fossil carbon for its energy supply, humanity is trashing the forests of the globe, temperate forests as well as rain forests. Not only that, but we are also turning the oceans into our cesspool of last resort. And the oceans are an even larger reservoir of plant and animal life to help clean up our atmosphere. The oceanic plant life consumes dissolved carbon dioxide and evolves oxygen; much of the marine animal life (that feeds on the plant life) consumes dissolved carbon dioxide to form the calcium carbonate that is a principal constituent of their shells or bones. The ocean floor is littered with their skeletons, ultimately becoming limestone that permanently removes carbon dioxide. The layers of limestone rock hundreds of meters thick over the globe were all formed in this way, and are mute testimony to the ability of the oceans to remove carbon dioxide. The enormous reserve capacity of the oceans to dissolve and dispose of carbon dioxide must surely be the only reason that more than 350 years of exponentially-increasing carbon combustion hasn’t already turned the planet into a furnace like Venus.

Into this vital absorber and converter of our most important waste product, we discharge heavy metals, organic toxins, and the ultimate pollutant, oil. I think it is time we started worrying a little bit more about the health of the billions of tons of microscopic plants and animals that we are depending on to help keep the balance of the atmosphere that our lives depend on, and worried a little bit less about the spotted owl.

A capsule history of humankind and its wastes can be written “out of sight, out of mind”. In the Middle Ages, cities were cesspools in which the recycling of human excrement onto or into the ground contaminated the well water coming from a water table only a few feet below. Bacterial contamination was the principal problem, leading to efficient transmission of numerous diseases. The earliest solution to this problem was to collect the night soil and dispose of it elsewhere; hence the ubiquitous “chamber pots” (and chambermaids to empty them into “honey wagons”). Out of sight, out of mind!

The invention of the flushing toilet and its companion, the sanitary sewer, was a truly great milestone. For the first time in history, humanity no longer had even to look at its turds; just flush them away with a flick of a lever. Out of sight, out of mind!

Presently, however, a foul odor and even fouler sights began to emanate from the streams into which the “sanitary” sewers emptied their effluent untouched by human intervention. And cities downstream began to complain that the same stream that was their water supply was the sewer for the city a few miles upstream. And so was invented the sewage treatment plant: settling and filtration removed most of the solids, aerobic bacterial action converted most of the rest of the goo (mainly to carbon dioxide!), and chlorination killed the bacteria after they had done their job. The solids were trucked off somewhere else (out of sight, out of mind!), and more or less potable water went off downstream. Although most cities in the US heartland that were on rivers (water supply and sewer) had the full bore sewage treatment plants by the 1930’s, many coastal cities with the ocean to dump into didn’t have anything but filtration (if that) as late as 1990! They could achieve the “out of sight, out of mind” solution by running their discharge pipes far enough out to sea that the outgoing tides would flush their immense toilets for them.

On the whole, the “out of sight, out of mind” solution has worked very well to prevent widespread plagues and epidemics resulting from the recycling of bacteria from “unsanitary” disposal of sewage into the water supply. “Sanitary” landfills have proven to be suitable depositories for sewage sludge, if a bit noxious for those who happen to live downwind. Certain beaches and clam flats on the seashore have had to be declared off limits because of their high concentrations of coliform bacteria. However, the successful implementation of this system has made the modern metropolis possible. In the 1930’s, one measure of the the degree to which “civilization” had reached the boondocks of the world was the prevalence of what was politely termed “indoor plumbing”.

Nowadays, however, the problem is no longer only sewage disposal. It now includes taking out the trash. Unfortunately, “taking out the trash” today means getting rid of enormous quantities of hazardous, toxic, and carcinogenic materials as well as tons of paper and cardboard. Here again, we have historically relied, and still rely today, on the “out of sight, out of mind” method. My wife thinks the trash is gone when she puts it out of sight in the kitchen trash can. I think it’s gone when I put it out on the curb in the rubbish barrel. The community thinks it’s gone when Waste Management, Inc. carts it away to some landfill God only knows where.

The EPA occasionally declares one of these landfills to be a “hazardous waste site” to be “cleaned up” because of the toxins or carcinogens that may be in it. When they get around to it, they dig it up, dirt and all, and cart it away somewhere else! Where did all the stuff they took out of the Love Canal site go? Don’t ask; “out of sight, out of mind!”.

Not to mention the other modern pollutant, radioactive waste: “low-level” and “high-level”; what are we doing with it?

The so-called “environmentally-safe” disposal sites for all this stuff are supposedly constructed with water-tight bottoms: dig a big hole, line it with clay covered by a watertight plastic sheet, with a sump and drain to a pumping system. Fill it up with your hazardous waste and cover it over with a watertight cover to keep the rain out. As fast as the liquid drains into the sump, pump it out and dump it back into the top of the pile. As long as the plastic liner remains intact and the clay doesn’t mud-crack up, you keep the stuff from getting into the ground water supply. To be sure that it isn’t getting into the ground water, you sink test wells all around the site and sample and analyze the water for contaminants.

The life of a plastic liner? Who knows? twenty years, if you are lucky, given the corrosive nature of some of the stuff that these sites are holding. When the plastic liner is gone, you have to dig up the whole site, transport the witches’ brew to a freshly prepared site, and then rebuild the clay and plastic liners to receive fresh junk from somewhere else. There has to be a better way.

Then there is the lesser problem: the non-biodegradability of most of today’s non-hazardous waste. Way back in ancient history, before World War II, most of the trash was paper or cardboard and tin cans or glass bottles; it was either burned in an incinerator, or piled in a landfill and covered with dirt. Bacterial action decomposed the paper and cardboard, reducing the volume to a small fraction of what it had been, and the cans rusted away. The volume of non-degradable glass was minimized by bottle-deposit/bottle-return systems for beverage containers. Incinerator ash was much smaller in volume than the original rubbish and could be discarded in a much smaller landfill. Food wastes (“edible garbage”) were typically collected separately and fed to the pigs. With all this, the “dump” for a major city was not nearly as big as it is today, although New York typically barged its trash to sea and used the bottom of the Hudson Canyon for its dump.

Today, a very large component of the trash is plastic, which does not biodegrade. What is worse, since we don’t want to look at our rubbish, we encapsulate the rest of the trash in non-biodegradable PVC bags before we put it out on the curb. The bag prevents the bacterial action on the otherwise-degradable contents. PVC itself poses serious problems in incineration, since it can simply depolymerize to vinyl chloride, a potent carcinogen; unless that is burned in the final stages of the incineration, it can vent as a vapor to the atmosphere. If it is burned, as it should be, it forms hydrochloric acid, HCl, which eats out the chimney of the incinerator. Moreover, the HCl contributes to the acid rain burden.

All of these problems, however, are essentially local. The pollutants emanating from properly-operated landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment plants, and hazardous waste sites are usually confined to the immediate vicinity; they can remain for a time at least successful applications of the “out of sight, out of mind” principle of waste disposal. They would not be my first priority as dictator in reversing humankind’s rape of the environment.

No, the real problem is our global perturbation of the atmosphere, the ultimate “out of sight out of mind” repository. The destruction of the ozone layer and the ever-increasing venting of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere have far more potential to make the earth uninhabitable for all of us. In my view, moreover, they may well be connected. In the last decade of the twentieth century it was demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that chlorofluorocarbon gases (“CFC’s”) vented from “aerosol bombs” and refrigeration machinery rise to the upper atmosphere where they decompose liberating chlorine, which destroys ozone molecules (triatomic oxygen). Ozone absorbs short-wave ultraviolet from the sun that is harmful to life. The effect of reduced ozone concentration is to permit more of this harmful radiation to reach the surface. The consequences of this increased harmful radiation are more skin cancer for humans and who knows what damage to the plant life.

The biggest impact upon the ozone layer has been in the Antarctic, where the destruction process is vastly accelerated by the presence of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. These apparently offer favorable sites for ozone molecules and chlorine atoms to meet and react. This one-two punch reduces the ozone content of the upper atmosphere in wintertime by a factor of two or more (the “ozone hole”). A similar effect, to a lesser degree, occurs in the arctic. While we certainly recognize that ozone depletion is potentially troublesome, we have to date acted as if the ozone hole itself is a minor problem that does not particularly affect us. After all, nobody lives in Antarctica.

However, the colder ocean waters near the polar boundaries of the temperate zones are by far the most productive biologically, because cold water can dissolve much greater quantities of gases from the atmosphere than warm water. I have already outlined the role for phytoplankton in consuming carbon dioxide, and furnishing food supply for animal creatures that consume additional carbon dioxide for making bony shells or skeletons. All this happens in colder water at a far greater rate than in warm water. Whales travel to Hawaii for mating in the winter, but they don’t eat; there is nothing there for them to eat. They travel to the Gulf of Alaska in the summer and fall to gorge on the bounteous harvest of krill and arthropods and all the other species that the oxygen-rich and carbon-dioxide-rich frigid waters bear.

All of these plants and animals live in the top few feet of the water column, through which ultraviolet light will penetrate. If destruction of the ozone layer extends far enough from the polar zones to these nearby subpolar regions, the amount of harmful short-wave solar ultraviolet reaching the surface of the ocean there will increase. Who knows how sensitive the phytoplankton are to increased short-wave ultraviolet? I don’t, and neither does anybody else.

But the scenario of increased short-wave ultraviolet (resulting from ozone loss) killing off phytoplankton, reducing the ability of the most biologically-productive waters on the globe to scavenge carbon dioxide has sufficient potential to tip the scales of a system in precarious balance that I think we should not risk it. And quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me that a mere fifty years of our use of CFC’s has had the potential to affect the atmosphere over 5% of the earth’s surface in a major way: not by percentage points, but by a factor of two. That’s not a perturbation; it may be the largest single component in an intricate networked system.

There was some years ago a world-wide congress devoted to getting agreement to limit the production of CFC’s. Agreements were reached that the developed countries would cut back on production by factors of order two, with the idea of eventually phasing them out completely. This has been successful to the extent that global atmospheric content of CFC’s has stopped increasing, and has begun to decrease slightly. I don’t think that this is enough. These things have extremely long lifetimes in the upper atmosphere: a quarter century or more. If the entire world went cold turkey today, there would still be ozone depletion occurring in the year 2025 from residual anthropomorphic CFC’s.

There are two major sources of leakage of CFC’s: aerosol spray cans, and unsealed refrigeration machinery. Household refrigerators and air conditioners need not be major sources of leakage, since they are hermetically sealed. All that is necessary to prevent any leakage at all is to require that they be equipped with exhaust nipples through which the refrigerant can be pumped out and stored for recycling when any service is performed on the unit or before it is discarded at the end of its service life.

The aerosol spray can has become a smaller source in recent years, since many manufacturers have switched to “environmentally safe” propellants, which usually means propane or butane. These may be environmentally safe, but they can be fatally hazardous to consumers; propane and butane are highly flammable. Use one of these handy-dandy little devices while you are smoking, and you may find that you are giving yourself a hair-spray with a major-league blowtorch. Use one too vigorously to spray insecticide in a kitchen that happens to have an open-flame pilot light in the gas stove, and you may blow the side wall out of the house.

The truth of the matter is that not one of these gadgets is essential to a happy and productive life. They are “convenience products” designed to permit us to be a little lazier than we otherwise would have to be. The convenience they provide is not worth the cost to the environment that results. I would in a single ukase outlaw the entire genre, cold turkey. Bring back the “Flit Gun” for insecticide (a hand-powered atomizing spray device that worked just as well as the aerosol can, for those of you that don’t remember pre-World-War-II America). Generations of Americans enameled the porch furniture with a brush and paint can. Not only don’t we need spray cans of enamel, but their elimination would also get rid of a major tool of the graffiti artist, saving millions of dollars in the cost of eradicating his handiwork. It would take all of thirty seconds more to lather with shaving soap in the morning instead of using an aerosol can. Gourmets of the world unite! Outlaw plastic whipped cream!

Admittedly, this would be a terrible economic dislocation to the people employed in this industry, and I would provide them with wage and salary maintenance for up to one year, as well as provide investment capital for the industry to convert its factories to the manufacture of other varieties of dispensers for similar applications. I am sure that inexpensive electrically- powered or hand-powered dispensers could quickly be developed for every single present use of these devices.

This brings us to another major source of leakage of CFC’s: unsealed refrigeration units, such as automotive air conditioners and many large industrial units. These have compressors driven by shafts powered externally, such as a pulley on the fan belt for an automotive air conditioner. The refrigerant CFC’s under pressure in the compressor slowly leak out past the rotary shaft seals. Automotive air conditioners typically require recharging with refrigerant every couple of years or so, oftener in hot climates. The CFC’s which escape and must be replaced permeate to the upper reaches of the atmosphere and contribute to the ozone destruction. Although most manufacturers have switched to refrigerants in which chlorine is replaced, in whole or in part, by bromine. I would guess that in the end, bromine will be damaging to ozone as well, so that won’t really solve the problem.

Part 2 of my ukase would prohibit the recharging of any unsealed refrigeration unit with halogenated refrigerants. Either it must be replaced with a sealed unit like that in a household refrigerator, or some alternate non-CFC refrigerant must be used. For large industrial systems, either ammonia or sulfur dioxide could be used. They were, in fact, the refrigerants of choice for the first fifty years of mechanical refrigeration systems. Both of these refrigerants, by the way, have highly pungent odors easily detected in small concentrations. The stink gives early warning of leaky seals needing replacement, before any significant loss of refrigerant has taken place. The smell and the potential toxicity of these gases makes them undesirable for household refrigerators, which is why they were replaced by CFC’s. However, Sears Roebuck manufactured and sold sulfur-dioxide-charged unsealed household refrigerators as recently as 1947. I know; I repaired them.

For automotive air conditioners, the belt-driven compressor would be replaced by a sealed unit with an internal induction motor like the household refrigerator. The pulley on the fan belt would drive a constant-speed high-voltage alternator to provide power for the induction motor. A potential advantage of this arrangement is a greater degree of flexibility in locating the compressor under the hood.

Much of the technology development that has been carried out to date in response to the ozone-depletion problem has been to search for other CFC’s which are lower in chlorine content, so that more of them could be released to the atmosphere for a given amount of chlorine deposit. I would firmly reject this approach as not solving the problem, merely postponing it. If we reduce the chlorine deposit per CFC molecule by a factor of two and the world-wide usage of CFC’s continues to grow at 10% per year, in seven years we will be right back where we are today.

This brings us to the 500-pound gorilla of atmospheric pollution concern: the exponentially-increasing discharge of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that results from a world economic system that depends on the combustion of fossil carbon to provide energy. US energy consumption doubled in 34 years between 1953 and 1987 (World Almanac 1989 p172); in 1987, 89% of US energy consumption resulted from combustion of carbon-containing fuels. This still only represents a rather modest average annual increase of about 2%. The population doubling time is recently about 50 years, an average increase of 1.44% per year. Consequently, three quarters of the increase in our energy consumption simply stems merely from the fact that there are more of us to consume energy. Even if we were to cut our per-capita energy use in half over the next thirty years, we would only increase the doubling time of our energy consumption to seventy years, a mere blink of an eye on a geological time scale: not a solution, only a postponement, again.

Extrapolating backwards in time, assuming similar annual rates of increase for energy consumption, we can reach the conclusion that one half of all the carbon dioxide deposited in the atmosphere to provide energy for our society since the European settlement of this continent has been vented in the last thirty years or so! If similar rates of growth of energy consumption continue into the next century, the amount of carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere in the next thirty-four years will equal the total released to date. And what happens as the less-developed countries increase their use of energy derived from carbon combustion? They have a much bigger population than we do, and a much faster rate of population growth; if their per-capita use of energy remotely approaches our own, the rate of increase will be even faster than that I have projected above.

Will the oceans and the forests be able to handle this plus our doubled burden in 2025? Perhaps they will. But, projecting to the year 2059, the burden will double again. Maybe by then it will be a race to see which disaster befalls us first: converting the planet to a sauna or running out of carbonaceous fuels to burn.

Malthus predicted that the population of the world would ultimately be limited by our outstripping the food supply. He didn’t reckon on humankind’s ability to use fossil energy to increase many-fold our capacity to produce food. Ultimately, however, if we continue to depend on carbon combustion, the Malthusian prediction will be borne out: we will either outstrip our supply of carbon, or we will outstrip the capacity of the planet to dispose of the combustion products.

I see only one ultimate solution: to wean our society away from dependence on the combustion of carbon for energy. Notice, I did not say wean us away from the use of energy. Without the use of energy to multiply our capacity to do work, we cannot support the population we have now, to say nothing of the population of the globe in the upcoming century. No, the only solution is to convert our society to the use of the only primary energy system capable of meeting our needs that does not release carbon dioxide: nuclear power. Wind or solar energy have been touted as possible “renewable” energy sources. Unless we paper the entire desert with photovoltaics, solar can’t come close to cutting the mustard. Unless every hilltop and shallow ocean basin is covered with windmills, wind power won’t either.

Beginning about the year 2010, I would decree that over a twenty-five year span the use of carbon combustion as a source of energy would be eliminated. This would have to be done in manageable stages, however. First, starting now, existing electric power plants would be converted to burn natural gas, which has only one atom of carbon per four atoms of hydrogen. It releases far more energy per molecule of carbon dioxide formed than any other carbonaceous fuel. That will buy us time, by slowing the rate of increase in carbon dioxide emission. Second, a phase-in of nuclear power plants to replace the fossil-fueled plants would commence. Initially, these would be nuclear fission plants. At the same time, I would vastly step up the engineering effort to develop fusion power plants, with the idea that these would be the primary energy source in the latter half of the 21st century. The relatively long delay in starting this program results from three factors. First, there are plenty of other things on my plate, problems more pressing in the short term that have to be addressed first, as I have outlined in previous chapters. Second, the conversion will be an enormous shock to the economy, which will have to absorb numerous other shocks and get healthy again. Third, although this is perhaps humanity’s most serious long term problem, we probably have fifty or one hundred years to solve it; we can afford to wait a little while before tackling it.

The public and private transportation system of the country would be converted from gasoline- and diesel- power-based to electric. All vehicles would be battery-powered, but the batteries would be housed in a trailer towed by the vehicle. The technology to accomplish this exists today, and is cost-competitive. Fuel-cell hydrogen-powered vehicles may become cost competitive in the future, but not soon enough. When the battery was discharged, the vehicle would pull into a service station, where a trailer full of discharged batteries would be exchanged for a trailer full of charged batteries. (For a fee!) The discharged-battery trailer would be plugged into a charging station served by the electric power grid to be recharged for the next customer. Even if the range was only fifty miles at highway speeds, the service stations would not have to be any closer together than they are on the turnpikes now. Exchange would not take as long as filling the gas tank does today.

All railroads would be electrified, which would restore a significant cost advantage over truck transportation for long-distance shipping; they would not have to use up payload to lug batteries around. Piggy-back would become the norm, combining the flexibility of battery-operated truck transport for local collection and distribution with the low cost of rail for the long-distance portion of the journey.

The conversion would be in slow stages, however. Existing vehicles would be permitted to remain on the roads to complete their service lives. Manufacturers and importers of vehicles would be required to convert their product mix to electric at the rate of 10% per year for the first few years, scaling up to 20% per year by the fifth year. By the eighth year, only electric vehicles would be sold. This slow introduction will be made necessary by the lead time necessary to build the power plants to provide the electricity to charge the batteries.

Existing service stations would be required to set up facilities to exchange and recharge battery trailers. Their market for gasoline will evaporate anyway as the existing vehicles make their way to the junkyard. Electric heat would replace combustion heat for all residential, industrial and commercial uses. In most parts of the country, heat pumps operating on solar-heated-water heat reservoirs would be used for wintertime residential heating. Electricity will be costly, since large profits will be needed to provide funds for investment in building the system. Hence, “McMansions” will become much too expensive to heat and cool, and will most likely be divided into multi-family housing.

This would be a very ambitious program, requiring billions of dollars of investment. To begin with, electric power today only accounts for one-quarter of US energy consumption. We would need three times the generation capacity that we have now to convert the country over to the use of electric power as the primary energy source. The reason that we would not need four times the capacity is that electric energy once produced is converted into mechanical work with much greater efficiency than achieved by internal combustion engines.

Second, this expansion would be entirely nuclear. Our nuclear power capacity would have to increase by fifteen times, as approximately one fifth of our present electric supply is nuclear. Further, as I have said, the ultimate primary energy source will be fusion power, that essentially uses the tritium and deuterium in the oceans as the fuel. Since there may well not be sufficient U-235 to fuel all the fission reactors, they will be breeder reactors, to create plutonium fuel to stretch the supply. Necessarily, this will mean all power plants and nuclear infrastructure will be operated under 24/7 military security to prevent pilferage of nuclear materials. This will be another function of my vastly-expanded military.

I can hear the screams of “unsafe!”, “far too dangerous!”, “conservation!”, “solar power!”, “make do with less!” from the bleeding hearts when I announce this program. What everybody preaching “conservation!” and “improve energy efficiency!” seems to have forgotten is that we went through this once before, in the 1970’s with the OPEC energy crisis. At that time, the energy efficiency of virtually every electric appliance or device was increased from ca 70% to 90% or better. All the inexpensive gains have already been made; the law of diminishing returns applies to attempts to increase efficiency to, say 95%. It will cost more than twice as much, but the energy savings will only be one-quarter as great. No, we will not conserve nor innovate our way out of this one. Therefore, it will be necessary to undertake a serious re-education program to correct the abysmal ignorance of the American public about our dependence on energy in the first place, and on the relative hazards of the various forms of energy that we now use.

The first announcement will therefore be deliberately designed to be a shock. I will suspend all use of fossil fuel energy in the US for a period of one week. All gasoline and diesel powered transport will be halted. All fossil-fueled electric power stations will be shut down. Nuclear-generated electric power will be distributed, allocated to residential consumers on a “rolling-blackout” basis, because there won’t be enough to go around. Nobody will be able to go to work; there will be no work, since every job now depends on fossil fuel. The only food available will be that which is already on the supermarket shelves. People will have to travel on foot to get it, and much of it would have to be eaten raw, since only those with electric stoves will be able to cook. Even they will have energy only for a few hours a day. All use of gas heat or oil heat will be terminated; since it will be in late winter, people may get pretty cold. They will be invited to assemble (on foot) at the only warm places in the country: armories, gymnasiums, auditoriums, etc., which will be electrically heated by power from the nuclear plants. While there, they will be educated into the dimensions of the problem, and why nuclear is the only choice. They will be re-educated about the safety of various kinds of energy now. Most people are not aware, for example, that “safe, clean, natural gas” is by far the most hazardous.

Not a single member of the public has ever died in the US as a result of the operation of a nuclear power plant, but a hundred or more citizens are killed every year as a result of natural gas explosions. Five houses blow up every winter in my state, and half of them are not even connected to the gas line; it leaks into the cellar from broken pipes in the street. The reason for this disparity? Nuclear power plants are operated by college-trained engineers; gas companies are operated by, and are at the mercy of, ditch diggers.

Most people are not aware that the mining of coal kills more than a hundred workers every year, and destroys the lungs of thousands. Far more people died from the fact that the shut-down of Three-Mile-Island required generation of more electricity from coal than were harmed by the accident itself.

Half a dozen pleasure boats blow up every summer along the Atlantic coast from explosions of gasoline fumes. Gasoline leakage from underground storage tanks of filling stations has blown up any number of buildings, to say nothing of polluting the ground water in innumerable communities.

Contrary to the popular belief, nuclear power is in fact the safest. I would use the opportunity created by my “energy shock” to educate the citizenry of that fact. Then I would give them a choice. They could either accept my plan for converting the country to nuclear-powered electricity, or disconnect themselves from the electric power grid in every aspect of their lives. They could protest as much as they liked, as long as they didn’t make any use, at home, at work, or in any other way, of electricity. And that would mean essentially going back to the dark ages, because the usage of combustion energy would be phased out. After the electric-powered system was in place, all use of combustion energy would be outlawed, including candles and kerosene lamps. I suppose they could emulate the Amish, using horse-drawn carts for transportation and windmills for mechanical energy. They would have to grow all their own food, because everything that was in the markets would have required electric energy to grow it and transport it. They would, I suspect, soon learn how inadequate solar power is for furnishing heat in the wintertime, unless they moved to the sunbelt. They could not work anywhere in the mainstream economy since all those jobs would depend on electric energy produced by nuclear power.

Our society cannot exist without energy. Our planet cannot support the continuing increase in carbon combustion that will be required by increasing population if we do nothing. It will take at least a quarter-century to make the conversion in the US alone, and perhaps a century for the whole globe to convert. Again, the only weapon we will have in forcing the rest of the world to follow our lead is economic. If you fellows want to sell your goods in our market, you will have to start the process of replacing energy from carbon combustion by energy from nuclear fission and fusion.

You will notice that I have not mentioned “acid rain” among my concerns about the atmosphere. Acid rain is a byproduct of carbon combustion, principally sulfuric acid from the sulfur in coal, and nitric acid from the nitric oxide formed in the combustion process using air as the oxidizer. Eliminating carbon combustion in all forms essentially eliminates acid rain. It is, moreover, the only way to eliminate acid rain; the billions of dollars we are going to be spending to reduce sulfuric acid emissions from coal-fired power plants only postpone the problem. Reducing sulfur emissions by a factor two at best only puts the problem off for a generation, when our use of energy will have doubled again. Actually, it will take reducing sulfur emissions by a factor four to reduce acid rain by a factor two, since sulfur is only half the problem, at most.

Of course, converting the energy system of the country to nuclear-fission- or fusion-generated electricity will greatly increase the problem of disposal of nuclear waste. Even if the system is fully converted to fusion, which does not have radioactive reaction products, the fusion reactors themselves will become radioactive because of the bombardment of reactor components by neutrons emitted in the fusion process. When they must be scrapped at the end of their service lives, the bombarded materials will have to be disposed of as radioactive waste.

Moreover, we still have to consider the disposal of many other kinds of hazardous waste, chemical carcinogens and the like. The quantity of these will increase as our population increases. Again this is a problem which we are handling now, in a more or less imperfect way, which will get worse and worse as time goes on. Consequently, I would treat the twin problems of nuclear and hazardous waste together.

This would be based on the principle that these materials be stored in geologically-predictable strata in which no contact with ground water was possible. By far the best such strata are those where ocean floor is subducting under continental crust, headed for the viscous molten mantle of the earth. These strata are too deep for any contact with ground water. The direction of motion is known to be down; the rate of motion is known to be several inches per year. They will never reach the surface again for more than a hundred million years. Therefore, I would drill wells 40,000 feet deep into these strata along the California coast, into which concentrated nuclear and other hazardous wastes would be loaded, following which the well would be refilled with concrete to seal it. The ultimate “out-of sight-out-of-mind” repository. It will be an expensive solution, and politically impossible in any other climate than my dictatorship, but it is the only solution that guarantees that no human will ever see these materials again.

All the rest of the trash will be divided into recyclables, and burnable rubbish. All articles containing any metals would be required to be recycled, to recover the metals and to prevent them from leaching from dumps into the ground water supply. All glass and plastic products would have to be recycled. Paper and cardboard would be recycled. The remainder of the rubbish would be non-recyclable paper, building materials and food wastes. Because I would have already eliminated essentially all of the combustion that presently pollutes or atmosphere with carbon dioxide, it will be safe to use incineration to reduce the volume of these materials that eventually goes into landfills.

Ultimately, therefore, I will have solved the most pressing problems that the burden of our wastes is imposing on the planet. The solutions will be expensive; they will inconvenience many people, and have very serious economic impact on many people and industries. Unfortunately, I believe that we have no choice. If humankind is to have a future on the planet at all, to say nothing of continue to expand in population, we cannot continue as we have in the past. Since one US citizen imposes ten times more burden on the environment than the average of persons world-wide (because of our high level of consumption of everything), the change has to start with us.

A very large side benefit of getting us off our oil addiction (and one of equal importance to saving the globe) is that I will then be able to lean on the Moslem oil-producing states. They are now using our own money to fund a religious war against us. The fact that we presently can’t get along without their oil means that we have to tread rather carefully in dealing with them. Once we are free of our dependence on their product, I will have no hesitation in telling them, “OK Buster, welcome to the new world order. You either rein in your terrorists, and stop waging war against us, or I will declare war against you, and see to it that you don’t ship another drop of oil. I control the oceans, and will expropriate whatever you try to ship, and sell it on the world market. Furthermore, if that doesn’t work, and you still want to enjoy martyrdom in a jihad, I will be happy to help you. And please note, nuclear weapons will not be my last resort.” I will have advised all of our allies of my intentions as I start the conversion from oil to nuclear power, so that they may reduce their reliance on oil as well.

Venezuela will get the same treatment if their tin-pot little satrap is still making trouble. Since all of Venezuela’s oil exits through a few-mile-wide mouth of Lake Maracaibo, blockading it would require very little naval force.

There is still one other problem, however. In addition to perturbing the atmosphere by spewing vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel combustion, we have also drastically disturbed the capacity of the oceans to absorb it. The oceanic absorption goes somewhat like this. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is in solution-evaporation equilibrium with dissolved carbon dioxide in the surface (“mixing”) layers of the ocean. Increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere results in a corresponding increase in the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide in the surface layers of the ocean, until the (concentration-dependent) rate of evaporation again equals the rate of solution, on a time scale of weeks to months. The dissolved carbon dioxide in the water is the fuel for photosynthetic conversion to oxygen by the biomass of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is consumed by zooplankton, which in turn is consumed by fish, shellfish, whales. etc., all of which have bony shells or skeletons, made principally of calcium carbonate. When these creatures die, their shells or skeletons, being heavier than water, sink to the bottom of the ocean. The calcium carbonate is made by reaction between calcium ions and carbonate ions formed in the solution of carbon dioxide in seawater. In a fraction of the cases, the carbon-rich carcasses of the creatures also sink into the anoxic deep ocean, where decomposition does not result in the formation of carbon dioxide.

Thus the chain of events described above converts carbon dioxide dissolved in the mixing layer to calcium carbonate deposited on the ocean floor (where it eventually becomes limestone.), or biological carbon in the anoxic deep ocean (where it eventually becomes coal or oil). When dissolved carbon dioxide in the mixing layer is removed, its concentration therein is reduced, reducing the amount of evaporation into the atmosphere. Evaporation no longer equals solution, so that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere decreases until the rate of solution again comes into balance with the new lower rate of evaporation. The export of biological carbon to the ocean floor therefore indirectly reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The enormous deposits of limestone and extensive coal beds and oil deposits around the earth are mute testimony of the ability of prehistoric oceans to remove carbon dioxide from the surface ocean and from the atmosphere and sequester it in solid form.

The land areas of the globe are basic net emitters of carbon dioxide, and the oceans are the basic absorbers. They convert carbon dioxide emitted by the land into the global atmosphere to limestone, coal and oil at the bottom of the sea.

The emission process by combustion of fossil fuels is the one the earlier discussion in this chapter has focussed on. Measurements of the important fluxes suggest that the natural fluxes of carbon from the land and ocean total 151 gigatonnes per year , (P J Falkowski, et al, Science, vol 290 p 291, (2000)) to which we add 6 gigatonnes by combustion (M J Battle, et al, Science vol 287, p 2467 (2000). Some of the present-day values of oceanic fluxes and of the amounts stored in the various reservoirs have been estimated Jorge L Sarmiento “Sinks for Atmospheric Carbon” Physics Today Aug 2002 pp 30-36). In particular the flux of carbon to the deep ocean from sinking dead biomass is presently estimated as 11 gigatonnes per year. In a following article entitled “A Possible Alternative Cause for Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Increase”, I present arguments that human despoilation of the oceans has drastically reduced this deep-ocean export by as much as a factor two in comparison to pre-industrial times. That is, if it is 11 now, it was 22 gigatonnes then.

In other words, while we have increased the emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by six gigatonnes a year, we have reduced the sequestering by twice that, eleven gigatonnes per year. Ergo, two-thirds of the problem of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the degradation of the removal process. If we don’t fix that, it won’t matter what we do to stop the emission; carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will still keep rising because the oceans can no longer absorb the natural emissions from the land .

I don’t want here to go into the detailed arguments I advance there, but basically they can be summarized in the words “Few fish in the ocean die of old age anymore” We bring them out on land, where the consumption of their tissues by oxygen- breathing humans (and pets!!!) releases their carbon to the atmosphere, and acid rain dissolves their carbonate shells and skeletons, returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Every fishery in the globe is depleted, some to the extent of near-extinction. Removal of the large predators has opened an enormous ecological window for invertebrate jellyfish, which now consume half of the plankton in the ocean and do not sink to the bottom when they die.

The good news in this tale of woe is that it would be a lot cheaper and a lot quicker to restore the health of the oceans than it will be to convert the world to nuclear power. Because the lives of many fish are reasonably short, just putting a complete stop to all forms of fishing would in a few decades restore the biomass, and the rate of export of carbon dioxide to the deep ocean. But as I said, I won’t be dictator of the world, only the United States. But I would decree that there be no fishing of any kind by anybody in our national waters, out to the edges of the continental shelf.

The signs of global warming are already around us: higher ocean water temperatures, more strong hurricanes, blizzards, natural-disaster-scale lighting/thunder/downpour summer storms, rising sea levels due to glacial melting and retreating. Even if we accomplish all of the above, it will be fifty years before we get significant decreases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and begin to reverse the effects noted above. It will be necessary to make some changes to adjust ourselves to cope with the problems.

First of all, I would decree that a mile-wide strip along every seacoast be classified as a “littoral zone”. The construction, maintenance, and repair or replacement of all infrastructure (roads and bridges, levees, jettys, groins, utility lines, communication lines) within a littoral zone shall be the responsibility of the property owners therein, allocated in proportion to the area of property owned. It will not be the responsibility of the municipality, the county, the state, or the Federal government. Second, all structures in the littoral zone must be covered by “windstorm insurance”; this insurance will cover all forms of damage associated with windstorms; wind, wind-driven water, flooding, etc. Such insurance must be purchased from private carriers, and the premiums will not be subsidized. Premiums will be determined actuarially by zip code, and will reflect at a minimum the cost of removal of an irreparably-damaged structure, and the repair of the property’s share of the infrastructure. Because the cost of infrastructure repair may be much greater than the value of the structure, annual premiums for this insurance in high-risk areas (eg barrier-island properties) may well be greater than the value of the structure. Such costs may well be too great for the majority of people and businesses presently in the littoral zones, and may well lead to abandonment of the property. Ownership of abandoned property will revert to the Federal government.

The screams of the bleeding hearts are already ringing in my ears. “Only the rich will be able to afford sea-shore property!!!” “Your are denying access to the ocean to all but the very rich!!!” Not so. Municipalities and local governments will still maintain public beaches. Moreover, I will decree that private ownership of oceanfront property commences at 100 horizontal feet inshore of the high-water mark. Public access to all beach areas below that limit is permitted and encouraged; public rights-of-way to the beachfront will be maintained at least every mile along the seashore.

My message will be, “Live by the ocean if you want, but don’t expect the rest of us to pay for storm damage that you expose yourself to.” The one mile strip, as recent hurricanes have shown, is an extremely high-risk area, in which storm-surge flooding and wind damage is frequent and catastrophically damaging. This is not a place where people should build houses, high-rise apartment buildings, office buildings or hotels, and expect the rest of the country to cover their windstorm losses.

Similarly, flood-damage insurance must be included in homeowners’ insurance policies, with unsubsidized premiums determined actuarially by zip code. Because some low-lying areas in flood-prone zones flood frequently, premiums in these zip codes will be high, and discourage people from living there. To which I say “Good! These areas have rich alluvial soils, and farming or gardening would be a far better use for them.

To summarize an overlong chapter: Our continued existence on Earth demands that we stop destroying it. We are no longer a minor perturbation on climate, ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere. I have outlined several steps that I would take as dictator to start reversing our past raping of the environment. Since our wastes are only part (though a disproportionate one) of the problem, I would demand that the rest of the world do likewise if they wanted to sell goods in out market.

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