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A P R I L  1 9 9 8

Letters
  • Climate Flip-flop
  • Global Open Society
  • No Middle Way
  • First Lady

    Climate Flip-flop

    William H. Calvin's account of the possible coming climatic catastrophe (
    "The Great Climate Flip-flop," January Atlantic) is riveting -- and scary. Calvin suggests many thoughtful, if horrendously expensive, measures that might modulate the forces bringing about an abrupt cooling of Europe. Curiously, neither he nor any other expert in the field seems to have considered an obvious and relatively straightforward solution: the construction in space of a physical barrier to intercept incoming solar radiation.

    Although half the earth's surface receives solar radiation at all times, most of the insolation occurs over the Equator around noon. Away from the Equator and on either side of high noon the heat received falls off sharply.

    A reflective barrier -- sheets of aluminum foil, for instance -- only a few square miles in area could measurably cut the sunlight received if placed directly over the Equator in a retrograde orbit, so as to keep it over a line joining the centers of the sun and the earth -- that is, in a cum sole orbit.

    If present computer models cannot accurately predict the precise impact of such a barrier, then the barrier could be constructed like venetian blinds, which would permit control of the incident solar radiation with greater finesse.

    This may sound like science fiction, but we do have the experience and the expertise to study the feasibility of this approach. If it turns out to be feasible, its impact would be much more controllable than, say, nuclear blasts to blow up ice dams off Greenland's coast.

    Inayat I. Lalani
    Fort Worth, Texas

    William Calvin is a talented writer, but his article exhibits glaring errors. For example, referring to the timing of the last ice age, he says, "Scientists have known for some time that the previous warm period started 130,000 years ago and ended 117,000 years ago." The interglacial (warm period) did indeed begin 130,000 years ago, but it lasted 60,000 years, not 13,000. The most recent ice age began 70,000 years ago and lasted till about 18,000 years ago. The study of Greenland's glacier from which Calvin quotes at length shows that Greenland was much warmer from 130,000 to 70,000 years ago. The level of the oxygen isotope 18O in Greenland's ice is one of the most important measures of past cold and warm periods. As late as 90,000 years ago that level was higher than it is today, suggesting that the global climate was warmer even then.

    James M. Gildea
    Bernardston, Mass.

    William Calvin suggests that a "quick fix" may be possible to correct future fluctuations in the global climate. Undoubtedly, we should continue to fund paleoclimatological research in an effort to improve our understanding of the past and our predictions for the future. However, building bridges across fjords and using surfactants in the North Atlantic to enhance evaporation seem both impractical and futile. Such efforts to stabilize our environment are merely attempts to treat the plentiful symptoms of a relatively recent ailment -- overpopulation. Our money would be better spent in efforts to stabilize the world's population, reduce energy consumption, and limit the influence of human beings on the atmosphere. As Calvin points out, nontechnological human beings have managed to withstand severe and often rapid climate change during the past 125,000 years. We should not fear our climate's natural ebb and flow nearly so much as our own contribution to its volatility.

    Kevin Winthrop
    Portland, Oreg.

    William Calvin's article described how greenhouse warming could lead to a drastic cooling, a catastrophe that could threaten the survival of civilization -- reinforcing my view that predicting long-term changes in the earth's weather is an unbelievably complex job and that we should take these predictions with a grain of salt. A host of nonscientific reasons motivate the proponents of the global-warming theory to conclude that the sky is falling.

    First of all, man's ability to affect the average temperature of the earth may be insignificant, since more than 98 percent of the earth's hothouse effect is due to dust and water vapor in the atmosphere, and most of the CO2 in our atmosphere is not man-made but, rather, comes from natural sources. It's a bit of a stretch to conclude that the world is experiencing a global warming that is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, since most of the warming that occurred in this century took place before man began using enormous amounts of fossil fuel.

    Second, as Calvin points out, the earth has always experienced temperature fluctuations, and it may simply be on its way back to its average temperature. Even the impact of higher levels of CO2 on our environment is not clear; an increase in CO2 might make the earth a more productive "garden of Eden."

    Chuck Boardman
    Saratoga, Calif.

    William Calvin replies:
    Inayat I. Lalani suggests a space-engineering solution to overheating. But, as I repeatedly emphasized, gradual warming is not the only means by which the Nordic heat pump might fail and trip a catastrophic global cooling. That's why we must secure the bi-stable climate mechanism against all threats. Lalani's final sentence, concerning nuclear blasts, is a reckless exaggeration; blowing up ice dams across fjords needs only highway-construction amounts of explosive, because the exiting water does the rest of the work (that's how dams fail).

    James Gildea confuses a "warm period" (defined by temperature) with an interglaciation (defined by the lack of ice sheets over Canada and Scandinavia). The best of the ice-core records from Greenland show a sharp cooling about 117,000 years ago, effectively ending the prior warm period, but the ice sheets took a long time to return. Note that we can have ice-age-level temperatures without much ice (as happened 122,000 years ago), and we can temporarily have fairly warm temperatures even in the presence of massive ice sheets (as happened 15,000 years ago). Most of the climate flips last only a few centuries, so ice sheets do not change very much before the temperature flips back. Temperature flips are our big problem, not the ice; an abrupt cooling is like suddenly jacking up a landscape a few thousand feet into a mountainous climatic zone, causing the plants to die and be replaced first by weeds and then by colder-weather species. For modern human beings, whose population is dependent on maintaining efficient agriculture, it is a transition within a decade that is so catastrophic (given a slow temperature change over 500 years, we could probably cope). We probably cannot tolerate even a brief flip without civilization's toppling.

    Kevin Winthrop asserts that climate-saving money would be better spent elsewhere, that we wouldn't have the problem except for overpopulation, and that our ancestors survived prior abrupt coolings. But a sudden reduction in the population (the most likely result of another abrupt cooling) through war, famine, and disease would leave a world of small despotic governments, each hating its neighbors because of genocidal warfare during the crash. We may be able to head that off. Mr. Winthrop may not fear the climate's "ebb and flow," but I certainly do, given how overextended and ignorant we are. Hunter-gatherers can move, but London can't.

    Chuck Boardman confuses the issue of stabilizing abrupt climate change with the increasingly irrelevant debate about whether human beings are responsible for the past warming. Abrupt cooling is not the "prediction" that global warming originally was: what I described has happened many times before (every few thousand years), and we now know one way (gradual warming) in which it could happen again. I'm sorry that he denigrates the motives of scientists, because ignorance has traditionally given rise to expensive and miserable courses of action (consider medicine before we understood enough to craft vaccines and antibiotics). We currently do not know what has kept the past 8,000 years free of abrupt flips; we badly need to know, so that we can figure out how to augment the stabilizing mechanisms.

    Global Open Society

    In "Toward a Global Open Society" (January Atlantic), George Soros identifies a number of prerequisites that are clear and achievable, but leaves one -- perhaps the most important -- unclear. That is the idea that the liberal democracies of the world should "forge a global network of alliances that could work with or without the United Nations." He cites NATO as an example. A confusing network of alliances designed to give coherence and security to both Western and Eastern Europe already exists, and NATO is a valid but unfortunate example. The world needs policing, but not as a priority in the military sense. We need to understand that hegemonic powers and spheres of influence are still a reality in the world. That reality cuts across ideological lines to include both liberal and illiberal powers. These are, primarily, Russia, China, Japan, France, Germany, England, and the United States. The European Union may come to replace France, Germany, and England, but for now those seven nations constitute world hegemony and should therefore be in congress in order to effectively supervise the many post-Cold War adjustments being made throughout the world.

    Ken Whelan
    San Francisco, Calif.

    "A global open society" on the U.S. capitalist model, which simultaneously provides for social welfare and consensus and regulation, is an admirable idea. But it is one for which the international community and many nation-states have been striving for years. It calls in large part for the reconciliation of opposites -- free enterprise with government regulation, free expression with the preservation and "protection" of local values. This is a matter at best of delicate and dynamic balancing, at worst of trying to have and eat the same political cake.

    Jack Kessler
    San Francisco, Calif.

    George Soros's open society is not open enough -- perhaps partly because a truly open society has come to seem inconceivable. "Open" calls for nonenclosure, freedom from definitions and dividing lines, no restrictions or limitations or barriers. The George Soros-Karl Popper model is enclosed by words, wallows in internal definitions and dividing lines, and -- in establishing standards, enforcing fair labor practices, protecting human rights, and promulgating regulations to attain these objectives -- requires restrictions, limitations, and barriers.

    "As a conceptual framework, the open society is better than any blueprint, including the concept of perfect competition," Soros writes. Very true. But the basic problem is treating "open society" as a conceptual framework. It needn't be. Indeed, to be truly open, the open society must be as much the consequence of historical trends as are closed societies -- a category into which I would put our own -- all around the world. A mainly conceptual open society like Soros and Popper's seems to me more than slightly ersatz.

    In a sense the dominant trend of history since the thirteenth century has been the progressive closing of the world's societies. Perhaps George Soros should take a bit of time off to learn why, and to investigate the possibility -- and the ways and means, as well as the desirability -- of reversing this trend.

    Stephen Miles
    Tucson, Ariz.

    No Middle Way

    Paul Ehrlich and others come on like lions in arguing that present levels of consumption in the developed countries are unsustainable ("No Middle Way on the Environment," December Atlantic). They cite the 1992 "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" that global sustainability requires people in the developed countries to "greatly reduce their overconsumption, if we are to reduce pressures on resources and the global environment" (emphasis added). But at the end of their article Ehrlich et al. go out like lambs. Instead of insisting that developed-country consumption be reduced, they approvingly quote the Nobel laureate economist James Meade saying that to avoid a future collapse of the global system "it is necessary to restrain both the rate of growth of population and, at least in the developed countries, the rate of growth of consumption per head" (emphasis added).

    It is one thing to say that sustainability requires an absolute fall in developed countries' consumption. It is quite another to say that such consumption must grow at a slower rate. As a natural-resource and environmental economist, I agree with Meade that growth rates must come down. To believe otherwise would be to join those "cornucopians" of whom Ehrlich et al. are so scornful. But your readers should be aware that only a small minority of natural-resource and environmental economists believe that sustainability requires an absolute decline in consumption.

    The force of the authors' argument is greatly weakened by their failure to recognize that they have adopted two contradictory positions. Does sustainability of the global system require an absolute decline in consumption or only a slower rate of growth? They cannot have it both ways, and which way they go makes an enormous difference in thinking about the future of the global system.

    Pierre Crosson
    Resources for the Future
    Washington, D.C.


    The sustainability of the earth's natural systems is clearly a critical issue for every man, woman, and child on the planet. If we are unwilling to face up to and deal with overconsumption and environmental degradation, they may well eventually become life-threatening. However, Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues do a disservice to the debate.

    Ehrlich et al. raise many valid points and cite many startling statistics. However, few of them are new, and the authors announce them with the same scare-mongering and extremist approach that lost Ehrlich credibility in the 1970s. Obviously, overconsumption poses a threat to the environment; obviously, finite resources will be depleted sooner if we consume them faster. My guess is that few reasonable educated people today believe that the current consumption patterns of the industrialized world can continue unabated and indefinitely. Likewise, most people realize that given the acceleration of history over the past half century, extrapolation of longer-term historical trends is almost meaningless. Thus Ehrlich's "Chicken Little" approach does little to move the debate forward, and in fact only spurs the "middle-of-the-roadism" that he criticizes. Perhaps, as the overline of Mark Sagoff's earlier and more optimistic article "Do We Consume Too Much?" (June Atlantic) says, neither side has it right.

    R. Steven Maxwell
    Techknowledgey Strategic Group
    Boulder, Colo.


    I would like to comment on the difference of opinion between Paul Ehrlich et al. and Mark Sagoff. Ehrlich and his co-authors are critical of Sagoff's assertion that economic analysis of environmental issues is less important than aesthetic and moral arguments. Their reasoning is that ecosystems provide services worth trillions of dollars annually, and we need only incorporate these values in markets to correct excessive resource destruction or exploitation. Unfortunately, determining these values has proved difficult and controversial, and, as Sagoff recognizes, an important problem that economists wrestle with is how to treat aesthetic and moral values in an economic framework.

    The importance of aesthetic and moral arguments is also highlighted when we move from analyst to activist. Indeed, pricing nonmarket goods and internalizing environmental costs would lead to a more efficient economy and greater environmental protection, but we all know that the policy process is not entirely rational. Public opinion drives policy, and public concern for the environment is based primarily on aesthetic and moral values. Passage of the Endangered Species Act, for example, was possible only because politicians and the public considered its purpose to be the protection of "charismatic mega-fauna." Only more recently, as the law has become more controversial, has it been evoked to pursue grander ecosystem goals. Yes, as Ehrlich et al. point out, the objective of maintaining healthy ecosystems and their services should be paramount, but when it comes to thinking about environmental policy, we need to recognize the importance of aesthetic and moral arguments.

    Matthew Kotchen
    Ann Arbor, Mich.

    First Lady

    The origin of "First Lady" lies further back than J. E. Lighter ("Taking Notice of POTUS," October Atlantic) or William E. Thoms (Letters, January Atlantic) asserts. It was first used in 1863, in reference to Mary Todd Lincoln, by William Howard Russell, a British correspondent in the United States, in My Diary North and South. Mary Clemmer Ames, a journalist, used the phrase in 1877 to describe Lucy Hayes. But it really came into the language in 1911, when Charles Nirdlinger's comedy about Dolly Madison, The First Lady in the Land, opened at the Gaiety Theatre in New York City.

    Harold Faber
    Ancram, N.Y.

    William E. Thoms writes that "First Lady" was used in the 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing. There were, however, isolated uses of the term in the nineteenth century. According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, it appeared as early as 1834, and according to the Random House Dictionary, in 1850-1855. Brewer's Politics asserts that Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) said of Dolly Madison, "She was truly our First Lady for half a century."

    Gordon A. Tubbs
    Arlington, Va.

    J. E. Lighter replies:
    No early citation I have seen features "First Lady" as a two-word title. Instead all convey the simple, literal idea of "foremost lady (among many)." An 1834 writer observed that "the lowest mortal," once elected, "may . . . have the choice of the first lady in the land."

    William Howard Russell was quoting a columnist's reference to Mrs. Lincoln as "the first [sic] Lady in the Land." He overheard the regal Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, described as "the first lady in the Confederate States."

    More recently, Helen Hayes was publicized as "first lady of the American theater," and Kate Smith as "the first lady of American song": each pre-eminent, neither a White House occupant.

    As the recognized title of the President's wife, plain "First Lady" appears to have become newsroom lingo only after 1930. And as for the misleading Brewer's quote, not even Eleanor Roosevelt was the "First Lady" for half a century.


    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Letters; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 8-13.

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