Tag Archives: environment

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.

7

Enjoy the rest of your day.

Online Learning: Accidentally Green

This is where I admit I’m a little bit of a green freak. I use an electric lawn mower, an electric weed eater, and an electric leaf blower at my house, partly because they’re less expensive to fuel and maintain, but mostly because it allows me to avoid the wasted fossil fuels and absurd emissions of small gasoline engines. I can’t afford an electric car on an academic’s salary, but I did manage to find an electric scooter that I could afford, and I ride it to work any time the weather’s not too horrible…and as an old motorcycle lover and bicycle nut, I have a ridiculously liberal definition of “not too horrible” for riding. So yeah. Green freak. That’s me. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.When I first started working with the BLS Program in 2004, our primary goal was not to provide a green method of delivering our classes. In fact, it was the least of our considerations. We were mostly concerned with meeting the needs of the nontraditional students who wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the leisure to make it to regularly-scheduled classes on campus. The people we thought about were working 8-to-5 and weren’t served by the evening offerings on campus. Or they were working parents and couldn’t afford childcare to go to class. Or maybe they worked in some field with unpredictable hours, such as emergency services, or the medical field, or the airline industry, or even the good old restaurant business (and we have since had students in all of those fields). Whatever they were doing to pay the mortgage and support their children, we wanted to make classes that they could complete from home, in the hours they could manage to carve out of their schedules. From what I hear from our students, I think we’ve been pretty successful at that goal.

What we didn’t plan was the myriad ways in which our online classes are so much more resource-conserving than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here are a few that come to mind.

No Driving — Instead of having each of our students burn a few gallons of gasoline getting to class (a lot of them are pretty far from campus), we use a few watts of electricity to deliver their classes electronically. They can participate in their classes anywhere they can get online, whether that’s at home, at work on a quiet night shift, at their favorite coffee shop, or from their hotel room while they’re traveling on business. It goes even further than that, because many of our faculty also teach their classes from home. Given that we have faculty who live in the Triangle, in Charlotte, and even out of state, that adds up to a lot of driving avoided by teaching and taking classes online.

No Buildings — We don’t need big spaces to gather faculty and students in the same room, so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money and resources building, heating, cooling, and lighting classroom buildings. That means fewer buildings and more green space for everyone, and it adds up to a substantial savings in terms of resource usage. Even with smart climate-control systems, classroom buildings take a vast amount of energy to heat and cool, and because of their scale, they have to be heated and cooled around the clock, even at night when no one’s around. By delivering our classes online to our students, we help reduce the pressure to build and maintain more resource-hogging classroom space. In fact, an online class full of students using their laptops at home, even if they leave them on all the time, still uses less electricity than it takes just to run the nighttime security lighting in a classroom building.

No Paper — Using online discussion boards, and writing, receiving, critiquing, and grading essays online saves reams of paper (literally) for each online class. My writing-intensive class has ten discussion boards, a prospectus, an essay, and a final revision. With twenty-five students in that class, assuming one full page each for the discussion boards, two pages for the prospectus, and ten pages each for the essay and revision, that’s (*does some math*) eight hundred pages that aren’t getting printed. Add in a syllabus that doesn’t have to get printed and handed out to the class, and that one 25-student online class has saved two whole reams of paper. Multiply that by the twenty-four classes we are offering this semester, and that’s a nice, heavy case of paper that isn’t getting deforested, pulped, packaged, shipped, and most likely ending up in a landfill somewhere at the end of it all.

So, less driving, less construction, less heating and cooling, and less paper. As a green freak, I gotta say that’s not too shabby as an accidental side effect. And here we were just trying to make it easier for you to go to class in your pajamas!