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This Is The Way The World Ends
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Dr. Lamont C. Cole, of Cornell University, spells out one of the more spectacular variants of the Bang Theory. He points out that the chemical industry already produces extremely powerful herbicides and defoliants, chemicals that extinguish plant life even in highly dilute solutions. Dr. Cole imagines several tankers filled with such solutions foundering in a section of the Atlantic Ocean especially rich in diatoms—the minute, single-celled algae that throw off vital oxygen while photosynthesizing organic compounds. Plankton—microscopic forms of sea life—feed on diatoms; crustaceans and fish feed on plankton; ultimately, higher animals and man depend on this same chain for their own food. Dr. Cole points out that such a herbicide accident might deplete the diatom population of the ocean beyond recovery, severing the chain of life itself.
If you are unpersuaded that this is a clear and present danger, consider a slow-motion version of the Bang Theory: the consequence of a change in the carbon dioxide content of the air as industrial man revs up his ally, friend, and prime mover, the internal-combustion engine. As any good garage mechanic knows, all internal-combustion engines are driven by the explosion of gasoline vapor and air inside the cylinders of the engine block. Whence comes the gas? From petroleum, which is itself the fluid hydrocarbon residue of countless corpses of tiny sea animals, accumulated over millions of years in crevices and pools in the earth’s crust. How did these sea animals build the hydrocarbon compounds that we are so busily exploding to drive our engines? By absorbing carbon dioxide, a gas, from the atmosphere, removing and releasing the oxygen, and retaining the carbon in their bodies. What has been happening in the past one hundred years? A tremendous share of the stored hydrocarbon compounds has already been recombined with oxygen in the process of driving giant dieselpowered oil-burning ships across the seas or two-cycle gasoline-powered mowers across our lawns.
What is the significance of this reversal of the chemistry that created the lifesustaining atmosphere? A confirmed Banger will offer a variety of alternatives, depending on how he weights the evidence that informs his prophecy. One possibility is that the soiling of .the atmosphere by the by-products of combustion will block some of the solar Heat energy passing through the atmosphere to the earth. The temperature on the earth will drop. A small drop in mean temperature produces a mighty change in climate; ergo , a new ice age. Other qualified observers point out that the earth loses heat by radiation and heat radiates less efficiently as the CO 2 in the atmosphere increases. If earth-heat cannot so easily penetrate the gaseous bubble that surrounds the earth, the earth will become hotter, not colder; ergo , not a new ice age but a new flood, resulting from the melting of the polar icecap. The oceans would rise considerably. Two hundred feet seems like a reasonable guess, a change in sea level that would obliterate New York, London, Tokyo, Calcutta, Venice, and just about every other coastal city you can think of.
The frustrating point of these and similar prophecies is that by the time we receive unequivocal warnings of what is happening, it will already be too late to do much about reducing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. The Bangers offer us an undertone of anxiety to carry with us wherever we go.
The Whimper theorists, who infer from accelerating overpopulation a threat to survival, tantalize us with a hope; but the hope hangs on social changes that will be extremely difficult to arrange and even more difficult to enforce.
Specialists in population trends, working in the wake of British economist Thomas Malthus, the original alarmist, have been worried about the vast population increase since the middle of the eighteenth century in Western Europe; more recently, throughout the world. Not that women have become more fertile, but that the humane introduction of modern public-health and medical techniques has enabled more infants to survive and reach reproductive age, and the population has increased explosively.
To help offset the accompanying havoc, the demographers have anticipated that the overpopulated, underdeveloped countries would imitate the agricultural miracles of the industrialized West. Of these, two of the most miraculous have been the development of chemical insecticides (read DDT) and fertilizers (read phosphates and nitrogen compounds). These cheery expectations have curdled since the word has gotten out that while DDT is remarkably effective as a short-term insecticide, it is even more effective as an environmental poison. To make the case even worse, it is almost impossible to limit DDT to local application, and it decomposes with tragic slowness, meanwhile interfering with the vital processes of fish and animals.
Now that the United States government has finally moved to restrict the use of DDT, others—not only those involved in the manufacture of DDT—have warned that the ban itself has serious human consequences. Spokesmen for several African countries claim that DDT is the only chemical available to protect their food supply from insect marauders. They claim that its ban would seriously reduce the already inadequate diet of their people now, without waiting for some distant time when the possible genetic effects of the chemical might make themselves felt at the human level.