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December 20, 2007 | 4 Comments

What is the environment?

The environment is, of course, something that only you can save. It is something to be preserved. It has a spiritual essence. In hotels anxious to reduce their laundry bill, the environment takes shape in a picture of a beaver or otter. Global warming adversely affects the environment. And everybody talks about it.

But what is it?

Is the environment the forest glen, or the woods and other various natural habitats, or the ocean, or the places in which man does not live? No, not exactly.

Here is what it is:

The environment is everything

Yes, everything. The house in which you live, the city around you, the car in your driveway, the grass and rocks in your yard, the woodlands nearby, the air which you breath, the ionosphere where the solar wind meets the atmosphere, just everything. Including you.

One thing that the environment is not is the “stuff without man.” For there is no such stuff or place, and there has been no such place since the first homo sapiens evolved.

Even more, it is impossible for any organism, any species, to not irrevocably influence its environment. Once you—or any organism—comes into existence, even before you take your first breath, you have permanently changed the world. Every action you take, including taking no action at all, necessarily implies interacting with your environment. And there is nothing that you can do to alter this fact. You cannot even avoid changing the environment by dying: once dead, you decompose, adding greenhouse gases to the air, as well as contributing nutritious (to various bugs and bacteria, that is) elements to the soil.

Further, there is no, never was, and never will be, a “natural” state where mankind lives in “harmony” with “nature.” Nature is, after all, only a synonym of environment.

Stronger still, you cannot even say that nature is “in harmony with” or even “indifferent” to man, or to any, species. To say that it is so imbues the word nature with a sentience and purpose which it simply does not have. There is nothing there that can be indifferent, or benign, or harmonious, or hostile, or that can have any intentional design.

Since it is logically impossible that man, or any species, cannot help but influence his environment—or to state this positively: Man, and every other species, must influence his environment—it becomes only a question of how much he does so, and does he do so to his own detriment or benefit, and can he purposely direct his influence to enhance his lot, or are his actions largely circumscribed.

If you imagine that pointing out these logical facts is only a prelude to a speech about how, since the environment is everything, and that mankind cannot but influence it, it is OK to pollute it, you are sadly wrong.

It is merely to emphasize that some changes to the environment due to mankind are inevitable and irreversible, and that the best political will cannot change this. It is even likely that we are unaware of what most of these changes are; but we do know of others. The most commonly known one, of course, is that man adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and that, all other things being equal, more carbon dioxide means more infrared energy absorption in the atmosphere, hence a warmer planet.

But all other things are not, and cannot, be equal. Thus it is not clear whether this change is irreversible, and how much of it is inevitable. It is, however, a fact that it cannot be entirely deleterious (for example, plant life thrives in atmospheres with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide).

We hear a constant clamor to “Save the environment!”, especially from the perceived evils of global warming, but there is nothing to save. There is just the environment in one state or another. But the obvious connotation to these pleas is that we can define an ideal, at least in broad strokes, and it is this ideal that is to be sought. This can and has been done locally, and in limited scope: for example, we can pick up our garbage so as to, at the least, discourage disease-ridden vermin. Of course, nobody has yet attempted to define the ideal global environment, and I wonder at its practicality.

But the global ideal must be defined, and so must the extent of the inevitability and irreversibleness of man’s activity, and all this must be done before we invoke a bureaucracy that will tax and meddle and exhort and will, as history has taught us, seek self-perpetuation above all else.

December 17, 2007 | 1 Comment

You have to die of something: or, COPD deaths “skyrocket”

If you think it’s good news that the death rates by stroke, heart disease, cancer, and just plain accidents have declined last year (diabetes deaths have remained steady), then you’re not trying hard enough to find the dark lining to this silver cloud.

But, thank goodness, death rates from COPD have “skyrocketed“, so we don’t need to stop worrying! The New York Times even supplied a graph (below) as evidence of this calamity.

COPD death rates by males and females

There are two things wrong with this bleak outlook. The first is an error in logic, the second is one of bad graphics.

Can you see what’s wrong with the statistical graph? Looks like a dramatic increase in COPD deaths, right? Well, maybe. But hasn’t the population, for men and women, also increased—skyrocketed—since 1980? I have only been able to discover (from this site) the COPD deaths per 100,000 up until 2004 (not 2005 like the Times picture), but here is that picture:

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