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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
14 September 2001

Imagine Peace

I had a fine stumper about boiling water this week, but it seems silly now with those images and stories of war and terror and heroism so fresh. I've been thinking of John Lennon's song Imagine (). He asks us to "imagine all the people, living life in peace." Is it really possible? Can all the people of the world have peace without oppression? Is there enough for everyone? Can everyone be rich? It's a question worth asking as we wait for justice. I don't really expect the answer, but I do expect honest assumptions, hard thinking, and your opinion from the heart.
It was hard being a teacher at school this week in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. But I found it harder not to be at school. We keep up a good face and do what we must, a group prayer, mass and volume experiments, Hike Club to a perfect swimming hole. The poet Robert Frost says of life, "It goes on." My school is a community at peace, but we are small and exclusive. Can everyone find peace and share the good things? That's my stumper for this dark time, and I hope our eyes can see. Love, not hate. Please share your thoughts.

- Treebeard    

A moment of silence to mourn lives lost and hope for world peace...

Is real peace possible? Can we all be rich? If being rich means having more than the rest, then it's not possible, just like we can't all be above average. But if it means having enough? Biologists speak of carrying capacity, the life an area can support. But trade and technology change that for humans. Agricultural yields keep rising, and trade creates new wealth. Water is a world scarcity, even here at home, but cheap power and desalination could even change that. At least up to a point. I don't know the answer, but it's a good question in these difficult times.


Julie read this answer and was surprised by my optimism. That's not my usual demeanor. I know that agricultural yields rise, but so do the environmental and health costs. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider at home and around the world. We share the planet with other species that aren't helped by world trade and technology. I think optimism is the right response at this time. With only a few lines of text for my answer, I don't have to get into the less-optimistic details. But I have more room for second thoughts here on the Web.

After I wrote my stumper answer, I watched a PBS TV documentary about the African Sahara. The Taureg people in the Sahel region south of the Sahara spend months crossing the desert by camel caravan to an oasis city by a shrinking lake that produces salt. Without that trade, the salt would be worthless. As it is, it produces wealth for two communities. That's how trade can produce wealth and jobs. My worthless excess is your valued commodity, and we both come out ahead when we deal.

The irony is that trucks are replacing camels in the salt trade. PBS says that "Tuaregs are acting as guides to Western adventure tourists and oil and gas operations promise far greater riches than gold and ivory ever could. Political unrest has gripped the region." Technology and trade can also eliminate wealth and jobs and stress the environment. Wealth is such a tricky human concept. That's why it's so hard to apply ecological concepts like "carrying capacity" to human society. It gets even harder when the only local commodity to trade in the global market is cheap human labor.

After writing my answer, I found a Website on Revisiting Carrying Capacity by William E. Rees of The University of British Columbia that reads like a direct rebuttal:

Conventional wisdom suggests that because of technology and trade, human carrying capacity is infinitely expandable and therefore virtually irrelevant to demography and development planning. By contrast ... most so-called "advanced" countries are running massive unaccounted ecological deficits with the rest of the planet. Since not all countries can be net importers of carrying capacity, the material standards of the wealthy cannot be extended sustainably to even the present world population using prevailing technology.

I calculated my ecological footprint on the Web. It's too much, and so is yours if you're reading this on the Web. We can't all live like this. At least not yet.

Fresh water is a particular problem around the world. Read Marq De Villiers' Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource for the global picture, and Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert for the home story. But keep an open mind. I know the second book is only part of the story about water politics in the American West. William L. Kahrl's Water and Power tells more of the real story about Los Angeles and the Eastern Sierra water they took. Julie and I lease a cabin from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in Lone Pine, California, so I have a special interest in this story. Kahrl's book is great history writing, and the reason I'm reading history lately rather than science fiction. The global water problem will not be easy, but I have hope. Trade and technology will help.

We took a school field trip to the Goleta Sanitary District wastewater facility last week. What a great trip. With tertiary treatment, they can produce clean recycled water from our waste water, but it only has limited use for highway and golf course irrigation. We could use all that recycled water over and over, but we don't. No one wants to drink recycled water of course, though it's probably just fine. But water has many other uses than drinking, so why don't we use it all? It's partly a local political problem, since more water means more growth here in summer-dry central California. It's also an infrastructure problem, since it takes another pipe under the streets. Blue is fresh, green is sewage, and purple is recycled, but we don't get the purple when we build new houses. I can hear people in the future saying "Can you believe they used to use drinking water on their lawns!"

I guess I really am an optimist in the long run. As a naturalist and amateur geologist, I take refuge in geological time. A few million years, and what's the difference? I've always loved science fiction futures. Cheap fusion power will change everything, including unlimited desalination for fresh water. People living in arcologies will save the land for other species. Space colonies will provide an alternative agriculture, and a new world for refugees. All this will make war and terrorism and counter-terrorism obsolete. It will leave the desert empty so I can fulfill my real ambition and be a crusty old desert rat.

Hey, this is the 21st century, we will make our own future!

I received many responses to my stumper. I thank you all. Cynthia sent this for the last word:

Can everyone be rich? It depends upon how wealth is defined. Can we ignore each other's suffering? We cannot. We are intertwined in a weave made tight and complex by technology, economy, environment, and all the vicissitudes of contemporary life... Never forget that children are watching, that hope is not optional, and that hope must fuel real deeds. And let us see clearly, with these dark-time eyes we now have, the unspeakable wonder of an ordinary morning.

Here are some Web links for your own research. These aren't my usual haunts on the Web, just a few sites that made me think. I'm sure there are many more.

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