Conservation: One of the Best Kept Secrets of the 21st Century

In 1992, over fifteen hundred of the world’s scientists—including more than half of all living Nobel Prize Laureates—signed The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. This document reflects growing concerns about the state of the biosphere:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

In an unusual joint statement of the same year, the Royal Society of London and the U.S National Academy of Sciences concurred:

The future of our planet is in the balance. Sustainable development can be achieved, but only if irreversible degradation of the environment can be halted in time. The next 30 years may be crucial.

The facts speak for themselves. The chances of contracting cancer, emphysema, or asthma are far higher now than they were a century ago. Human sperm counts in many localities are worrisomely low. Many of us suffer from premature hearing loss traceable to excessive noise. We work longer hours than our parents did and spend more time getting to and from work. We are troubled by the effects of such things as lead and dioxin on our children’s intelligence and health. We think twice nowadays before plunging, on hot summer days, into possibly contaminated rivers, lakes, or seas. We can no longer experience true wilderness. We are uneasy about poisons in our food and drinks; in our homes and workplaces; in our air, water, and soil; in our brains and livers; in our pets, domestic animals, lawns, and farms.

We are surrounded by signs of global environmental decline. Worldwide, some species of frogs, salamanders, and penguins are declining. We have apparently learned nothing from the extinctions of the dodo and the great auk, of the passenger pigeon and the moa. The continued existence in the wild of the most human-like minds we know of—those of apes and cetaceans—is in doubt. Entire fisheries are collapsing. Every hour we add 10,000 people to our numbers, acting as if there are no such things as carrying capacity and future generations; as if we have learned nothing from the environmental failures of earlier civilizations. We squander numberless resources unnsustainably, acting as if each and every resource is replaceable. We continue to produce plutonium and other long-lived poisons, even though we know that nothing on earth can be safely sequestered for millennia. We continue to litter space. When we fight pollution, we typically try to partially clean things up after the fact, instead of opting for the cheaper and healthier path of prevention. More harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun reach us nowadays, raising the specter of skin cancer and cataract epidemics. Soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation are proceeding apace. We are seeing already the first signs of human-induced climate change, doing little more than crossing our fingers and praying that dire predictions of sizzling temperatures, floods, tropical diseases, and mass migrations will prove wrong.

Many people suspect that the situation is serious, but few realize just how serious it is. I shall say nothing further about this curious gap between the near-consensus of the independent scientific community, on one hand, and the picture that emerges from prolonged exposure to the mass media, on the other hand. For the moment, let us concede that environmental threats are real and that they already exert a significant toll on the biosphere and our health, and let us move on to the best kept secret of the twentieth century.

The secret is this: These threats can be averted at a profit. I want to say it again. The steps needed to avert environmental decline will save the USA alone trillions of dollars. Environmental action, like good sleeping habits, can make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

It will take too long to demonstrate this miraculous attribute of environmental action as a whole. Instead, permit me to unearth this secret gold mine with just one environmental peril—the greenhouse effect.

The most striking thing about the greenhouse effect is uncertainty; we simply do not know how severe its consequences will be. Still, most independent scientists are apprehensive. On May 21, 1997, twenty-one leading ecologists sent the president of the USA a letter. This letter warned that the enhanced greenhouse effect must be slowed down, in view of its potentially severe consequences. Moreover, and despite pressures in the scholarly community to qualify and hedge one’s beliefs, some observers take a cataclysmic outcome seriously. Here are just two disturbing quotes: "The continued habitability of the earth is clearly in question." "Is it possible that we will someday destroy Earth’s good health and turn our home into a runaway greenhouse? Will the human volcano heat Planet Earth until all the seas go dry and lead melts in the sunlight? Are we already on the downhill path to Venus? . . . judging by our neighboring world, we are playing with fire." We may note in passing that everything pales into insignificance compared to this (admittedly unlikely) apocalypse.

The powerful coal, oil, and car industries, some economists, countries like Australia and Kuwait, America’s two most recent Republican presidents, and countless congressmen avow that cutting greenhouse gases may cost trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. This is an untruth. In a moment of candor, in 1992, Newsweek explained the suspect origins of the Amazing Bush Doctrine:

During the early Bush Administration, estimates batted around for greenhouse reductions ran from $100 billion to a mind-bending $3.6 trillion. Such calculations contained an astonishing omission. The way to control carbon emissions is to make energy use more efficient. The big numbers took into account the capital costs of new conservation technology, but not the value of the fuel saved.

The importance of this question of costs can hardly be exaggerated. If Newsweek is right, if it can be shown that cutting greenhouse emissions will save money, then the greenhouse controversy vanishes into thin air, for how can one oppose steps that would ward off the greenhouse threat and save money?

And, indeed, on September 25, 1997 the U.S. Department of Energy, in a voluminous report involving numerous reputable experts, agencies, and organizations, said in effect that America can become richer by reducing greenhouse emissions. Like earlier claims, this report was virtually ignored by the world’s mass and scholarly media. Consequently, only few people know that greenhouse actions can simultaneously protect their health and pocketbooks.

The history of energy conservation provides yet another proof that rich peoples can cut greenhouse gas emissions while running all the way to the bank. This historical lesson appears in any would-be holistic discussion of greenhouse policies, and in many introductory college textbooks. The U.S. Department of Energy study put this indisputable historical fact thus: "Between 1973 and 1986, the nation’s consumption of primary energy froze . . . while the GNP grew by 35% . . . the country is saving $150 to $200 billion annually as a result of these improvements." (italics added).

Thus, the view that curbing greenhouse gases will save consumers money is not only backed up by commonsense, not only by the views of the most respected scientific bodies of the United States of America, not only by the views of most independent energy experts, not only by the experiences of more energy-efficient nations, but by history. This is a fact: Each American household this year will save well over $1,000 thanks to VAST gains in energy efficiency. At the very least, those who claim that averting the greenhouse threat will now cost the average U.S. household $1,000 a year, or that it will cost that nation one red cent, need to show how and why the historical process of saving money through greater energy efficiencies would somehow, and quite miraculously, make an about-turn and start costing money.

But what does the U.S. Department of Energy have in mind when it says that greenhouse actions save money? This claim can be brought home through one case study. Next time you find yourself in a hardware store, look around for compact fluorescent light bulbs. The label on the one I have just bought for $11 tells me, correctly, that despite the stiff price, over this bulb’s lifetime, and owing to its greater efficiency and longevity, I shall save $39 (if I buy this bulb instead of the standard bulb still widely in use now). My human ecology text says: "Replacing a standard incandescent bulb with an energy-efficient compact fluorescent saves about $48-70 per bulb over its 10-year life and saves enough electricity to avoid burning 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of coal. Thus, replacing 25 incandescent bulbs in a house with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs saves $1,250-1,750." Energy efficiency lighting could likewise save U.S. businesses some $18 billion a year and could make an appreciable impact (through reduced emissions of CO2) on the greenhouse effect.

Let me note here that the point is neither incandescence nor fluorescence, neither heat nor light. One could carry out virtually the same analysis for home insulation, or miles per gallon, or cogeneration, or electric motors—in each case showing that the majority of energy experts are right, and that the greenhouse problem can be solved at a stupendous profit!

Some people will dismiss my choice of the best kept secret, asking: Didn’t the media of many countries cover up Nazi, Chinese, and Soviet atrocities? How many among us know the realities of income distribution in the world? Had not the U.S. and U.K. kept their publics (but not Stalin) in the dark about the Manhattan Project? Didn’t the KGB and CIA together obfuscate the permanent loss to radioactivity of hundreds of square miles in the Urals? Haven’t the media hushed up for decades American culpability in the incarceration of Mandela, assassination attempts of Castro, murder of democratically elected Allende, or the setting up of the Somoza, Pahlavi, and Marcos dictatorships? Once it is conceded, however, that secrets are known by their fruits (and not by their immorality or repugnance), one contender for the title of the best kept secret of the twentieth century surely emerges: We can heal the biosphere and ourselves at a profit.