September 19, 2017

The twenty-ninth day

Review of Lester Brown’s summing-up of the state of the Global environment. Published by W. W. Norton & Co., Inc, New York, 1978.

From The Ecologist Quarterly, Summer 1978.


In 1971 and 1972 a series of books including Paul Ehrlich’s Population Resources and Pollution, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth and our Blueprint for Survival shook the world out of its complacency regarding the future of our industrial society and indeed of the biosphere itself. Their impact however, on world consciousness has not been sustained. The Club of Rome has back-pedalled yet a little more with each successive report and this has reflected the general trend of writings on this subject. As a result the old complacency has returned. For this reason Lester Brown’s excellent book The Twenty-ninth Day is very timely. It may help bring us once more face to face with reality.

The book deals with all the major trends that are bringing us ever closer to disaster; the growing gap between population and food supply, deforestation, desertification, pollution and its effect on climate and energy and resource depletion. On each subject he introduces a wealth of new data, that drive home the urgency of the situation that we face.

The United States: Agricultural Future

According to David Pimentel each year more than one million hectares of arable cropland in the United States are lost to highways, urbanisation and other special uses, a loss that is partially offset by the addition (primarily through irrigation and drainage projects) of 500,000 hectares of newly developed cropland per year.

Also soil scientists analysing the relationship between soil loss and formation calculate the T-factor (or tolerable rate of soil loss), which ordinarily varies from 1 to 5 tons per acre. In a survey of Wisconsin soils, 70 per cent were found to have a soil loss greater than the tolerable level. On these soils with a T-factor of 3.6 tons, the actual loss was 8.4 tons, more than double the tolerable rate. The annual loss of agricultural topsoil in the United States has been estimated by Pimentel, at 30 tons per hectare, or some three billion tons per year. Three independent studies help put this loss into perspective; they indicate that United States corn yields have declined by an average of “four bushels per acre for each inch of topsoil lost from a base of 12 inches of topsoil or less.” These trends, as Brown points out,

“do not suggest that the United States and Canada will themselves experience food shortages, but they do suggest that the world’s ever-growing dependence on the North American export surplus is risky.”

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The Depletion of the Ozone Layer

Brown also cites interesting data in the Pollution section. For instance he considers that the depletion of the ozone layer is already affecting health by increasing the incidence of malignant melanoma (a particularly severe form of skin cancer). Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, a Harvard dermatologist testified before a Congressional committee that this disease, which is rising rapidly in all countries at a rate of between 3 and 9 per cent per year and the death rate from which has doubled in the last fifteen years, is definitely linked to ultraviolet radiation (presumably increased by the depletion of the ozone layer).

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The Economic Cost of Ecological Disruption

Lester Brown points out how the biological damage caused by our industrial activities is also beginning to affect our economic life. “Extensive deforestation in the Western Himalayas” he writes,

“leads to record floods and destruction in Pakistan. An earthquake in the Peruvian Andes wreaks damages far greater than those suggested by the Richter scale reading because extensive deforestation paved the way for massive earth and rock slides following the initial tremors. The price of soyabeans multiplies as the global fish catch declines. A dust storm in Northern Colorado closes schools for two days because the growing world demand for wheat led farmers to plow marginal lands that should have been left in grass.”

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The Economic Cost of Pollution

Pollution caused by our industrial activities is also beginning to affect our economic life. This was made clear in a United States House of Representatives study dealing in particular with the impact of pollution on crop productivity. Experiments in Riverside, California showed that air pollution caused a 38 per cent decline in lucerne alfafa yields, 32 per cent for blackeyed beans, 42 per cent for lettuce, 72 per cent for sweet corn and 38 per cent for radishes. In California air pollutants are estimated to cause 25 million dollars of crop damage per year. In addition to this it appears that the grape production in upper New York State is threatened by polluted air carried eastward from factories in northern Ohio and Indiana. Yields in Chautauqua County of the Ives grapes has fallen from four to five tons per acre to two tons. Concord grapes have also been seriously affected all over the east. Yields of Ponderosa pine in Southern California and Western Poland have also been reduced apparently by pollution from 20 board feet per tree between 1910 and 1940 to 5 board feet between 1944 and 1974.

It seems clear, though Lester Brown does not say so explicitly, that the new costs incurred as our industrial activities give rise to biological destruction of this sort is probably already an important component of today’s chronic inflation. Economists are supposed to be able to internalise such externalities, however, it is clear that they cannot do this with any great precision. Lester Brown points out how modern economists simply cannot understand today’s inflation and quotes British economist Joan Robinson who admits that “economists cannot answer it”. Will anyone learn to do so? Prime Minister Trudeau predicts that “the Keynes of inflation will not be an economist. . .” but will be instead “a political, philosophical or moral leader inspiring people to do without the excess consumption so prominent in the developed countries.”

It is not just inflation but economic trends in general that our economists are now unable to understand. He quotes Walter Heller, former Chairman of President Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisors, who stated in his Presidential address to the American Economic Association “We (economists) have been caught with our parameters down”. As Lester Brown comments,

“Many, economists among them, admit that economics may no longer be able to explain the workings of the economic system. Arthur Okun, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, greets this prospect by lamely claiming that economists understand what is happening at least as well as anyone else does. Economist Alan Coddington is less hopeful; he thinks that economists might contribute most by remaining silent, at least until they had something worthwhile to say. The problem is not just “an occasional breakdown or shortcoming in analytical capacity, but an overall loss of confidence. It is not just that the least able are stumbling, but that the finest minds are missing the mark so widely.”

He also makes the point, often made in the pages of The Ecologist that one of the principal constraints on further economic growth will be capital shortages. He quotes James Needham, President of the New York Stock Exchange who wrote in the preface of a report published in late 1975,

“We have become increasingly concerned about the supply and allocation of investment capital and our concerns have deepened with the realization that a capital shortage is no longer a threat for the future, but a fact of the present, as inflationary pressures come to bear on the capital markets.”

In a study published in the fall of 1975, Business Week pointed out that during the decade from 1965 to 1974, capital formation in the United States had amounted to 1.6 trillion dollars and that a capital requirement of an estimated 4.5 trillion dollars would be needed for the next decade. The New York Stock Exchange estimated in its study that capital requirements for 1975—1984 would reach 4.7 trillion dollars and that actual savings would amount to about 4.05 trillion dollars, leaving a gap of 650 billion dollars to be reckoned with over the next decade. The capital requirements for the housing industry alone are about 765 billion dollars between 1975 and 1985. Pollution control expenditures are also significant. According to a 1975 report in the Journal of Commerce rising capital outlays just for pollution control expenditures resulted in a marked shrinkage in funds for maintaining facilities and increased expansion in the paper industry.”

Brown concludes with the following warning:

“The world stands on the threshold of a basic social transformation. Of that there can be little doubt. Like earlier ‘revolutions’, this one could raise us to a higher level of humanity. But unlike others, it must be reckoned with in advance. Whether the impending transformation will be orderly or convulsive depends on our foresight and will.”

Those who have been vainly issuing such warnings for the last seven years have little doubt which it will be.

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