Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pliny Weighs in on the Global Warming Debate

While the Romans did not have gasoline, they did have coal but Pliny was not talking about greenhouse gases because they had not gotten so bad in his day. He could see that something bad was going on, from his section on mining.

Now the wealth of the mines and the worth of things will be spoken of. Searching out within the layers of the earth is just recently a source of concern since elsewhere it (the earth) is being dug for riches as a career by people seeking gold, silver, amber, bronze, gems, and other delights, even pigments for wall panels. Elsewhere, reckless men seek iron, even more welcome than gold among wars and slaughter. We persistently pursue all of these things to the bowels of the earth and we live over the hole, wondering that at last it splits open or has tremors as if this is not able to be compelled by the displeasure of our sacred parents. We seek wealth in the deepest heart of earth and in the dwelling place of the dead, just as if that, which is being walked on, is not generous or fertile enough. And among these things, we also seek the least important favor of a cure; for what small thing are medicines the motive to compel this defilement, although, on the top part, the earth bestowed this on its people as there is corn and easy abundance in all things and whatever is useful.
These things destroy us; these matters drive us to the nether regions to that which is concealed and buried; these things (which are not to be found suddenly just like the mind, turning over to some futile thought would suddenly reconsider) are that which is to be the end of all things and must be used up entirely as far as greed can reach them. How blameless; how happy, rather even how comfortable life would truly be if man would covet nothing other than what was already above ground, in short nothing but what he already has.

What would Pliny say about the wars and disasters that have attended the production of oil? I dare say he might have gotten up to his gouty feet and smacked somebody over the head for that.

18 comments:

anachronist said...

How blameless; how happy, rather even how comfortable life would truly be if man would covet nothing other than what was already above ground, in short nothing but what he already has.

On the other hand there would be no civilization (I am playing a Devil's advocate, my favourite role) and no progress without people coveting more than they have. No computers, no internet, no blogs...

The Red Witch said...

I think we would have had inventions. I guess Pliny was deploring all the misery that attended the acquiring of wealth. Of course it is easy to be above it when you are a privileged and wealthy nobleman. He was deploring the wars and the killing and the destruction of the environment. I think we might be able to call him the first environmentalist.

Tracy said...

Yes, Pliny as the first environmentalist sounds accurate, red witch.

no progress without people coveting more than they have
I don't think it's coveting more, so much as coveting 'better' (But again, the concept of better is debatable, better for whom?). I think most of us agree that electricity is essential - yes, you can live without it if you really have to, but life is so much easier with it. And the industrial generation of electricity was and still is founded on coal, in most countries. If we'd have discovered solar power first, the story would be very different.

Metals, again, life without metals would be pretty difficult, to obtain them in any great quantity you have to mine them. There are two ways of going about obtaining the raw materials which are essential for our lives - one is to maximise protection of the workers and the environment, and the other is to do it as cheaply as possible. Sadly, we always opt for the latter method - because profit is the only thing that counts, apparently. It's a very short-sighted view, but selfishness always rules.

anachronist said...

And the industrial generation of electricity was and still is founded on coal, in most countries. If we'd have discovered solar power first, the story would be very different. (...)Metals, again, life without metals would be pretty difficult, to obtain them in any great quantity you have to mine them.

Solar power is connected with the previous achievements from the early electricity era which were fueled by coal. After all Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. The concentrated heat is then used as a heat source for a conventional power plant which redistributes the power. If there were no conventional power plants, though, we couldn't store and redistribute the power we get from the Sun. I know too little to guess whether the coal period could have been skipped; perhaps it could but I am not so sure.

Kristin said...

Well, I'm going to upset the apple cart and say that without mining and all the technological progress that has come with it, we'd still be in the Stone Age. There are gold mines that are more than 100,000 years old--it's probably the oldest organized endeavor in history.

We need electricity. It is what makes all of modern technology possible. We'd be lost without it.

The thing about using solar panels is that the chemicals used to make them are worse than oil or coal, specifically silicon tetrachloride. For every ton of solar cells produced, 4 tons of silicon tetrachloride are produced. Where does that go? When you just dump it (which is just what the Chinese have been doing), it releases hydrochloric acid and silicon dioxide (sand) that's fine enough to be ingested and inhaled. My dad has silicosis from working around sand and cement in his job as a contractor, and from that he got a TB-like infection (mycobacterium avium, and 40 million North Americans have it but don't know it). He's been on antibiotics for 6 months.

I'll argue that the price we'll pay for "green" energy is just as bad as it ever has been for "dirty" fuels. We may have the technology to dispose of the byproducts safely, but the will just isn't there. Why do it safely when you can do it cheaply?

The Red Witch said...

Back to the land, back to the land. :-) Gentlemen -farmers and all that.
I think what Pliny was deploring was the destruction that greed brought. Imagine, if he disliked what mining that is hand dug with wooden shovels looked like, what he would think of modern mining with the tops of mountains cut off and the giant open pits!
Does anyone really need private jets and yachts with four swimming pools, ten homes, furs and jewels? Pliny was not at all against science or innovation. He recognized that lust for these luxury items destroys our humanity.

Kristin said...

And I wouldn't say he's wrong. And the people who did the actual mining were usually the lowest of the low, something that hasn't changed much at all. It's the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor.

anachronist said...

Well, I'm going to upset the apple cart and say that without mining and all the technological progress that has come with it, we'd still be in the Stone Age. There are gold mines that are more than 100,000 years old--it's probably the oldest organized endeavor in history.

We need electricity. It is what makes all of modern technology possible. We'd be lost without it.
.

Hear, hear my dear! You won't upsed any apple cart as far as I am concerned!

The thing about using solar panels is that the chemicals used to make them are worse than oil or coal, specifically silicon tetrachloride.

I didn't know about that but I am not surprised, not at all. Usually people create a problem first and think about the consequences later. I am sorry about your dad.

Kristin said...

Hear, hear my dear! You won't upsed any apple cart as far as I am concerned!
That's good to know. LOL I just feel that such a huge push to convert to green energy overnight is a big mistake--first of all, the technology isn't up to par yet. It's getting there, but we dropped the ball back in the 80's when Reagan removed the oil price controls--the will to puruse alternate energy vanished. We're way behind where we could be and it'll be decades before solar and wind and other sources are ready for large-scale production and efficiency.

Second, they haven't thought this through completely. They're going to put thousands in PA and WV out of work if they do away with coal. Are they going to re-train all of those workers in green industries, when many of them require a college degree (that most coal miners don't have)? If you take away coal without having something to replace it with, the economies of several states and countries around the world will collapse.

I'm all for less pollution, but we need to be careful in how we do this. It's a huge change, and it won't happen overnight.

Where's Tesla when you need him?

Kristin said...

Oops, forgot to add:

I didn't know about that but I am not surprised, not at all. Usually people create a problem first and think about the consequences later. I am sorry about your dad.

Thanks. He's doing better now but still on the antibiotics. He didn't even know he had it--he was in the hospital for chest pains and the infection and lung scarring showed up on the chest X ray. They thought it was TB (which is rampant in Florida) at first and put him in isolation.

anachronist said...

I'm all for less pollution, but we need to be careful in how we do this. It's a huge change, and it won't happen overnight.

Where's Tesla when you need him?


I do share your feelings - it's time people started think over carefully any changes they introduce. The happy-go-lucky manner which has prevailed so far leads only to more problems and can ruin even the best ideas.

He's doing better now but still on the antibiotics. Good for him - I hope he will recover soon, pass my best wishes to him, please. My dad was also a miner and he also experiences lung problems - I sent him to a sanatorium this year.

They thought it was TB (which is rampant in Florida) at first and put him in isolation.

TB is rampant in Florida? Oh dear, that's serious indeed! What's the reason of it? I would never believe it possible, with such a mild climate, sun, etc.

The Red Witch said...

I think thanks to global travel, TB is making a bit of a comeback. :-(
I would hate to have to take my laundry down to the lake and beat it on some rocks. I love having a washer and dryer. Pliny is blaming the ills of the world on greed. It was a problem the Romans certainly had. Look at Caesar - he almost wiped out the Gauls to steal their wealth so he could pay his debts to Crassus.
How many million people died so he could pay for giant parties to get himself elected?
It wouldn't hurt though to aim for zero emissions industry. Pollution is a huge problem that is affecting humans now not just amphibians.

Kristin said...

I do share your feelings - it's time people started think over carefully any changes they introduce. The happy-go-lucky manner which has prevailed so far leads only to more problems and can ruin even the best ideas.
We do things without thinking of the consequences. If it seems like a good idea, we do it. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

Good for him - I hope he will recover soon, pass my best wishes to him, please. My dad was also a miner and he also experiences lung problems - I sent him to a sanatorium this year.
Thanks. :) And my best wishes to your dad, too.

TB is rampant in Florida? Oh dear, that's serious indeed! What's the reason of it? I would never believe it possible, with such a mild climate, sun, etc.
There's a lot of immigration from countries like Haiti where TB is just a fact of life. And it's getting worse, due to the number of refugees from the earthquake. And a lot of Haitians also have HIV, which makes them much more susceptible to TB. TB never actually went away, though.

It wouldn't hurt though to aim for zero emissions industry. Pollution is a huge problem that is affecting humans now not just amphibians.
True, but let's not equate global warming with pollution. Those are two separate issues. The whole global warming debate just distracts us from the real problems: pollution, clean air, clean water. CO2 is not the enemy and it is not a poison. It's plant food and a necessary ingredient for life on Earth. Without it we probably wouldn't be here. Pollution, on the other hand, is another story. Although we've been polluting since we first discovered fire, and probably long before that. We've just gotten a little more creative about it.

anachronist said...

Pliny is blaming the ills of the world on greed. It was a problem the Romans certainly had. Look at Caesar - he almost wiped out the Gauls to steal their wealth so he could pay his debts to Crassus.
How many million people died so he could pay for giant parties to get himself elected?


I quite agree with Pliny here - greed is usually the very core of all our problems since time immemorial; whether we speak about polution, deforestation,wasteful exploitation of resources or even global warming it returns like a ghastly leitmotive: people don't want to change because bad habits are more profitable in the short term.

CO2 is not the enemy and it is not a poison. It's plant food and a necessary ingredient for life on Earth. Without it we probably wouldn't be here. Pollution, on the other hand, is another story.

Definitely.

The Red Witch said...

@True, but let's not equate global warming with pollution. Those are two separate issues. The whole global warming debate just distracts us from the real problems: pollution, clean air, clean water.

It could be as you say, that we are being primed for some tax increases to fund someone else's dubious business venture. I don't see global warming and pollution as separate issues since the warming is coming from the pollution at least of the air. I hope that it is about getting people to embrace change because tumors on frogs don't seem to be enough to make people recycle and compost so maybe the destruction of all life on earth might.

Kristin said...

It could be as you say, that we are being primed for some tax increases to fund someone else's dubious business venture. I don't see global warming and pollution as separate issues since the warming is coming from the pollution at least of the air.

We've been through this before, and again I say "prove it." If there has been any land warming, it's because of development (urban heat island effect), and local land use changes, station dropouts, etc. That's temperature. But the climate hasn't changed. My area is still a cold continental climate. It gets warm in the summer and cold in the winter. It rains, it snows. Florida is still sub-tropical. The Maldives still exist. Antarctica and the Arctic are still polar. Those are climates. Temperature is weather.

(Do you watch Ice Road Truckers and see the temperatures they have to deal with? Minus 55 F? That's a long way from the melting point! But the Arctic is melting?)

We've been polluting the air for thousands of years and yet the climate continues to fluctuate from warm to cold and back again, and it always will. It fluctuated before we got here, and it'll continue to do so even after we're gone.

I hope that it is about getting people to embrace change because tumors on frogs don't seem to be enough to make people recycle and compost so maybe the destruction of all life on earth might.

Don't you think that's an extreme view to take? A nuclear war wouldn't annihilate all life on Earth, after all. Now, we might kill ourselves, but life on this planet will go on without us.

Look, I'm not against environmentalism but marrying it to global warming isn't a good idea. Again, it distracts us from the real issues. And I'm not willing to collapse entire economies on a "maybe" and then tell poor countries in Africa that they can't have electricity because they might pollute. Without electricity, they cannot advance...and the wealthy countries are well aware of that fact.

The Red Witch said...

@A nuclear war wouldn't annihilate all life on Earth, after all. Now, we might kill ourselves, but life on this planet will go on without us.

cockroaches and grass, I believe was what was expected to survive Nuclear War. That might be some life but it would still be sad. We don't need all that stuff that we are encumbered with. People matter, not things.

anachronist said...

We don't need all that stuff that we are encumbered with. People matter, not things.

I couldn't agree more if it wasn't for greed. For plenty of powerful, influencial people money and power matter far more than the future of the planet and all its inhabitants.

We've been polluting the air for thousands of years and yet the climate continues to fluctuate from warm to cold and back again, and it always will. It fluctuated before we got here, and it'll continue to do so even after we're gone.

Very true. Nothing seems simple when it comes to the climate. More pollution not always means higher temperatures around the globe. Such simplifications only make people more befuddled and less willing to do something about the environment.