Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Global Warming & The Future: Part 2

I've got good news and bad news.


While humans used to be at the mercy of disease and weather, today's technology can cope with these threats quite well. The Black Plague that killed between 30–60% of Europe's population in the 14th Century, for example, could now be curred with antibiotics. The Irish Potato Famine around 1850, that killed over a million people, could today be prevented with chemical treatments and resistent strains of potatoes.

And while hurricanes will always do considerable harm, modern weather warning systems now give people plenty of notice and as a result have minimized the death toll and damage to property.

This is a US government NOAA map showing the projected path for Tropical Storm Danny in 2009. Sophisticated satellite monitoring and aircraft reconnaissance in combination with computer programs can now predict the path, speed and strength of hurricanes. Unthinkable only a few years ago, this system provides accurate warnings and gives people time to prepare and get out of harm's way. (NOAA)
In the last 100 years according to the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) , infant mortality rate in the US has dropped 90% and the maternal mortality rate (mothers who died in childbirth) has declined 99%. During the same time period life expectancy has doubled.

TOP: The DeWitt Clinton, 1831, (one of the first railroads in the US) traveled at 24 miles per hour (39 km/h) on 16 miles (26 km) of track from Albany to Schenectady, New York. BOTTOM: The Japanese Shinkansen AKA 'Bullet Train' (photo taken in 2012) can travel at speeds of 149–199 mph (240–320 km/h) on 1,483.6 miles (2,387.7 km) of high speed track.

After riding the DeWitt Clinton train in 1832, a passenger wrote "Among the astonishing inventions of man, surely that of the locomotive steam engine hath no secondary rank. By this matchless exercise of skill, we fly with a smooth and even course along once impassible barriers, the valleys are filled, the mountains laid low, and distance seems annihilated...as if by some invisible agency flown the distance of 16 miles in 40 minutes..."
(Quotation from wikipedia.org/wiki/Albany_and_Schenectady_Railroad)

In the last two hundred years the pace of industrial and technological  development has surpassed our understanding of the effect that this development has had on the Earth's environment.

In 1900 there were about 8,000 cars in the United States. In 1950 there were 25 million cars.  In 2009, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were  over 254 million cars in the US. Today worldwide there are over one billion cars. And automobiles are just one example.

TOP:  Ad for the 1905 automobile Knox. It sold for $1350 with a leather top, equivalent to $33,968 in today's money, the cost of the Cadillac SRX in the photo below. As you can read in the ad above, this 1905 car had a single cylinder 8 horse power engine and could go 27 miles per hour (43 km/h). BOTTOM: 2010 Cadillac SRX with a 6 cylinder, 308 horsepower engine with a top speed of 130 miles per hour (209 km/h). Over the last 100 years cars have become much cheaper, faster, more comfortable, safer and more reliable. (wikimedia.org) 

TOP: In 1900 there were 144 miles (232 km) of paved roads in the US. Unpaved roads were often impassable in bad weather or certain times of the year as in the photo above. BOTTOM: Today there are 2,615,870 miles (4,209,835 km) of all weather highways in the US.
In another example, a scientist has suggested that humans now move more earth  than is moved by the natural forces of the Earth.

TOP: Famous photograph of the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA. The plane, known as the Wright Flyer, flew 120 feet (37 m) at a speed of 6.8 mph (11 km/h) carrying one person. BOTTOM: State-of-the-art Boeing Dreamliner today. It can hold over 200 passengers, travel at about 650 mph (about 1000 km/h), with a range of about 7,650 nautical miles (about 14,150 kilometers). In 1900 there were no such aircraft; today there are about 40,000 commercial planes and about 34 million scheduled flights per year. (wikimedia.org)
Quantity has a quality all its own.
(This quotation cannot be definitively attributed to anyone.)

The problem is not the technology itself, but rather the rapid expansion of that technology and its environmental impact.


In Part 1 of this blog: Global Warming & The Future of Civilization, I made the case that this threat to civilization is quite real. And our future, especially the future for our grandchildren and generations to come, depends on our actions now.

For example, while oil companies have continually doubted whether humans are contributing to a warming trend on the Earth, they are also looking into using new shipping lanes through the Artctic Ocean, once this ocean melts sufficiently to allow tankers through -- probably by mid-century according to estimates.

Sea levels are rising -- that is just a fact. How much of this rise comes from human activity is still being debated, yet it is clear, we are affecting the Earth's natural cycles to some degree.
Sea level rise is expected to continue for centuries...On the timescale of centuries to millennia, the melting of ice sheets could result in even higher sea level rise.
The irony is that while technology has caused these problems, technology can provide the solution by helping us design with the environment in mind. Eventually we will create accurate computer modeling systems for the environment, world weather and sea current patterns that will guide us. As I wrote in a published Letter to the Editor at the Raleigh News & Observer, Raleigh, NC  about 20 years ago, the future could be the "age of design" when all aspects of a product are considered in its design -- the manufacturing, usage, disposal -- all of which could have a minimal impact on the environment.

While global warming may be caused in part by our advanced technology, technology will also provide us with the tools to understand the effects of global warming and how to design for the least environmental impact. This photo shows the wide array of US government NASA satellites that monitor conditions on the planet -- something which was unthinkable about 50 years ago. (NASA)
So the good news is that unlike past history, today we do have the power to solve these problems. 

With great power, comes great responsibility.

And since we do have the power, the central question now becomes one of will. Do we have the political will to insist on efficient automobiles that do not pollute, for example?

The following experimental cars, concept cars and futuristic designs show how we can design for minimum environmental impact. They also document that the quest for such designs has been ongoing for 80 years.

Visionary inventor Buckminster Fuller designed and built this experimental auto, the Dymaxion car in 1933. It was one of the first aerodynamic passenger automobiles. Roomy, it could hold 11 people, get 30 mpg (very good mileage for the time) with a top speed of 90 miles per hour (140 km/h).

Patent drawing filed in 1933 for the Dymaxion Car by Buckminster Fuller. (US Patent Office)

Called, L'Oeuf (The Egg), this compact concept car design was built in 1942 by French designer Paul Arzens. It could go 80 km/h (50 mph) and was electric. Also called L'Oeuf Electrique (The Electric Egg) it was constructed of Plexiglas mounted on an aluminum chassis. (wikimedia.org)

Honda 3R-C concept car, shown at the Geneva International Motor Show in 2010. This single passenger electric vehicle allows amble storage and is designed for safety and 'zero emission commuting'. (wikimedia.org)

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