Monday, September 24, 2018

Somebody had to invent terraces

Human history has largely been the story of destructive human impact on the natural world. Deforestation is at least as old as civilization and is specifically mentioned in Plato’s dialogue Critias. There is indirect evidence for salt buildup, resulting from irrigation, that damaged the grain fields of Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. Since the explosion of both human technology and population, our impacts have become extensive enough to alter the entire ecosystem of the Earth, ushering in a new geological age, the Anthropocene (the epoch of humans).

Nature will eventually clean up our mess. The problem is that this cleanup can take such a long time that our civilization will not be able to persist while the Earth cleans up our mess. We are like the massive dinosaurs that, at the end of the Cretaceous, required daily masses of food. When the asteroid plunged the world first into a pizza-oven fire and then into darkness caused massive disruption of food chains, life recuperated, but the dinosaurs, who could not persist through this interruption, did not.

Occasionally, however, human cultures have invented technologies that reduced our impact on the Earth. One of the best examples of this is terraces. Agriculture always causes soil erosion, the loss of the very soil on which agriculture depends. But this erosion is greatly reduced by the use of terraces. As the rain water runs downhill, it slows down on each terrace and lets the soil settle before proceeding further down the hill. Sometimes terraces wash away, but they have had the overall effect of reducing erosion. Terrace agriculture, especially of rice, can continue for centuries.

We cannot simply relax and assume that somehow human culture will solve our environmental problems. Terraces reduce soil erosion, but somebody had to invent terraces. Terraces may have been invented over and over in separate locations. It required human creativity and will.

Whoever invented terraces did not do so in order to save the Earth. They did so because they wanted to save their own farmlands from the ravages of erosion. The long-term and widespread effect was to help save the Earth.

Today, one of our biggest challenges is global warming. What can we do about it? We can invent new technologies that allow us to use less energy in order to achieve our goals or find new sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide. Human technological creativity has given us a dazzling array of such inventions, from wind generators to LED bulbs to solar power.

But these things do not simply happen. Somebody has to do them. And it requires an initial investment to get the technology started. In modern society this occurs best with government support of invention and application. And many countries are doing a much, much better job of this than the United States. Western European countries, China, and Japan are examples of places where the government invests heavily in new energy technology. Already, the people in these countries are reaping the benefits of these investments. That is, the taxpayers that supported these projects are seeing the benefits of their tax money. In contrast, the American government seems hostile toward alternative energy development. This has been the case for a long time. Most wind generators come from China and Denmark, not because Americans can’t invent good wind generators but because China and European countries have invested in wind generator development. This is part of a general Trump Administration hostility toward science. Republicans see basic scientific research (e.g., into ecology and evolution) as a threat to their beliefs, and they actively oppose applied research into alternative energy as a threat to the oil companies who give them so much money.

It is as if, thousands of years ago, ancient governments actively opposed the adoption of terraces and insisted on the continuation of soil erosion.

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