SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: In Earth, A Tenant's Manual, distinguished geologist Frank HT Rhodes, President Emeritus of Cornell University, provides a sweeping, ACCESSIBLE and informed guide to the home we all share, showing us how we might best preserve the Earth's livability for ourselves and future generations.
Having published widely on subjects of geology and education, in his newest book, Dr. Rhodes offers a comprehensive look at the structure of the planet, an analysis of how it is being depleted, and a roadmap for sustainability. In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Mann library in September, 2012, Dr. Rhodes highlights the main points raised and discusses how new resources, new priorities and policies, and new knowledge can lead us to a sustainable future.
MARY OCHS: Welcome, welcome. I'm Mary Ochs. I'm the director of Mann Library, and this is part of our Chats in the Stacks series, which is a series of book talks we do with faculty authors every semester. And just to let you know, our next talk will be with Elaine Wethington and Rachel Dunifon from the College of Human Ecology. And they will be discussing their new book, Research for the Public Good, applying the Methods of Translational Research to Improve Human Health and Well-being. So that one should be an interesting talk as well.
I'd like to recognize someone in the audience today. Mary Morrison is right over here. Mary is--
Mary Morrison is the chief supporter of the Mary Morrison Public Education Fund, which helps us put on these talks every semester. So many thanks to Mary. You've noticed there's refreshments in the back. Feel free to go up and get refreshments during the talk or afterwards, and you'll have a chance to chat with our author. So I'm going to hand the microphone off to-- I have to get this right-- The Ronald P Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Kathryn Boor.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Mary. And I'm so pleased that you all were able to join us here this afternoon for this wonderful presentation. And I must say that one of the very greatest pleasures of my position as Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is the opportunity such as this one here today to introduce scholars, whom I've long respected and admired.
Some of those individuals for whom I've had this privilege have been forward-thinking scholars whose achievements have extended the boundaries of human knowledge and our understanding of the world around us. Others have been leaders in society, whose tireless efforts on behalf of the greater good have led to advances in the way that we live today and have shaped, for the better, the tomorrow that we leave to our children.
Still others have focused their efforts much closer here to home, and they've worked tirelessly to build and to strengthen Cornell, so that future generations will continue to enjoy the benefits of the critically important work that we do right here.
Today, however, it is my pleasure to introduce someone who has managed to achieve all of these remarkable accomplishments in a single career. In this regard, Cornell President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences, Frank HT Rhodes, is entirely unique. When Frank stepped down as the 9th president of Cornell in June of 1995, he was the longest-serving chief executive in the Ivy League, having led the university from 1977.
Now, during those years of his leadership, Frank oversaw the transformation of Cornell University into the modern, leading-edge research institution that we know today. During his tenure as president, research funding at the University more than tripled, with major new initiatives in supercomputing, nano-fabrication, and biotechnology, paving the way for Cornell to continue to lead at the forefront of scientific and technological breakthroughs well into the 21st century.
Under Frank's leadership, Cornell completed a $1.5 billion capital campaign. We achieved tremendous increases in the diversity of the student body and faculty, and we witnessed the construction of several major new facilities on campus, including the Cornell Theory Center, which was renamed the Frank HT Rhodes Hall in Frank's honor in 1995.
But the reach and the impact of Frank's influence stretches far beyond Cornell University. As both a member and former chair of the National Science Board during the Reagan, the George HW Bush, and Clinton presidencies, Frank played a significant role in the direction of US science policy in the late 1980s and '90s.
He also helped to shape national education policy as a member of the president's educational policy advisory committee and as chair of the governing boards of the American Council on Education, the American Association of Universities, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
More recently, Frank served as a member of the expert team that advised on the founding of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, otherwise known as KAUST, in Saudi Arabia, where earlier this year, he was named as the inaugural trustee emeritus.
As a scholar and as a scientist, Frank's achievements are equally impressive. He's a graduate of the University of Birmingham, England, and from which he holds four degrees. Frank is a former Fulbright scholar and Fulbright distinguished fellow, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and former president of the American Philosophical Society.
He holds dozens of honorary degrees, and is the recipient of numerous awards for his leadership and education, and for achievement in his primary scholarly discipline, which is geology. Frank has published widely in the fields of geology, paleontology, evolution, and the history of science and education.
He joins us here today to discuss his latest book, and I hope you've had a chance to see it on the back table back there. And that book is entitled Earth, A Tenant's Manual. This book provides a comprehensive and sobering assessment of the impact and negative influences of human activities on the earth.
Although this book does raise serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of humanity as a species, it also offers hopeful, concrete suggestions on ways we may become more responsible stewards of this, the only planet that we call home.
Eminent thinker, public servant, academic leader, devoted Cornellian-- although each of these terms accurately describes Frank Rhodes, none fully captures the man that I've come to know, a man whom I respect and admire, not only for his remarkable career achievements, but also for his great personal warmth, his wisdom, and his genuine kindness. It is therefore my honor and distinct pleasure to introduce to you a true gentleman scholar, Frank HT Rhodes.
FRANK HT RHODES: Thank you, Kathy. I'm so [INAUDIBLE].
Dean Boor and friends, I want to thank you, Dean Boor, for that far too generous introduction, and to say that all those wonderful things you described were really spearheaded and achieved by other people, including [INAUDIBLE] and Norm Scot, who were responsible for much of it, and other friends here in this room.
So it is good to be here, especially good to be present with Mary Morrison. She and I go back to good FCR days and working together. And I thank you, Mary, for your support here. It's wonderful to see so many old friends.
The topic that I'm proposing to talk about is one that is very much at the forefront of our thinking, but I'm especially encouraged to talk about it in a community such as this. There's a recent occasion of which I did a talk of this kind, and the chairperson said, "I'm happy to introduce Frank Rhodes. Some of you have heard him speak before. Some of you are hearing him for the first time. Those of you who haven't heard him speak before will be looking forward to hearing him."
And I want to say that it's a great comfort to me that some of those who have heard me speak before are here today. And I welcome them especially. I want to tell you three stories, if I may. And each is a story with a moral. There's an old definition of a parable as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. And these are parables of a kind. Each of them has something to teach us.
And the first one concerns an isolated, lonely Island in the Bering Strait, off the coast of Alaska, St. Matthew Island. It's very small. It's about 30 miles by four miles wide, and is completely isolated. And in 1944, the US Coast Guard stationed a detachment there. And a number of reindeer, 29 of them, were brought in to supply meat for them.
Those reindeer thrived, and the Coast Guard left, so that they had a reindeer paradise to themselves. And by 1957, there were 1,350 reindeer on St. Matthew island. In 1963, that number had swelled to 6,000. It had grown by 200 times the original population. in less than 20 years, in 19 years.
But the young seemed less well cared for, less healthy than those of earlier years. And three years later, that herd had collapsed from 6,000 to 42, with no fawns that were visible and with only one male. And the next visit to the island in the 1980s recorded simply bleached reindeer bones all over the island. That was a population which simply overgrazed the world in which it lived. Parable number one.
Parable number two concerns the Cuyahoga River, which runs about 100 miles, winding its way through Cleveland, Ohio before moving out into the Great Lakes, into Lake Erie. That river became a national feature in June 1969. It became known as "the river that caught fire again." Because this was not the first time the Cuyahoga River had engulfed itself in flames.
It was a river that was said to ooze rather than flow its way into the Great Lakes. And the pollution that flowed into it resulted in part from agricultural pollution, in part from untreated sewage, in part from industrial waste of many different kinds. In fact, there were birth abnormalities, things like frogs with three legs and fish with tumors that became characteristic of that particular river.
But the fire in the Cuyahoga River led to a surge of legislation. The particular fire that I've described took place in '69. A year later, literally in 1970, the EPA came into existence or was created, and a flurry of state, and federal, and local legislation changed the whole situation. The results have been impressive, and much of that early pollution has now been removed and remedied.
But the problem that the Cuyahoga River raises remains a problem for us. That began the environmental movement. And the common slogan was "stop pollution." But what exactly is pollution, and how do we stop it? Pollution, presumably, is humans and other animals making a living off the planet. And we make a living off the planet literally by using whatever is at hand. That was the fate of the Cuyahoga River. That was a parable that had a legislative ending in the fact that pollution was brought under control.
And the third parable I want to describe is one that took place in South Wales, where I happened to be living and teaching at the time. It concerned an area known as the Lower Swansea Valley, which in the 18th century was a green and verdant, beautiful area. It comes at the mouth of the River Tawe, which widens its way through the sandstone hills down to the sea.
There were three things that were attractive to developers in that Lower Swansea Valley. First of all, it had a very deep water harbor. So ships could be brought in laden from various parts of the world and find safe, protected, adequate anchorage there.
Second, it had a skilled workforce. And third, it had abundant coal, because the hills behind it were hills of Pennsylvanian coal measures, which were rich anthracite seams. It went from that verdant valley, as imports of zinc and lead and nickel and iron, and later it became a center for the production of steel and tin plate. It went from being a verdant valley to being officially identified as the greatest area of industrial devastation on the whole continent of Europe. Literally not a blade of grass could be seen in the areas that surrounded the old smelters and forges of that area.
That was a story that had a happy ending, because a combination of the local university, the local civic leadership, industrial leadership from industries that had once been involved in the area, and local entrepreneurs and volunteers joined together and created a program that first of all analyzed the scene and quantified the problems, and then began the work of restoration and remediation, turning this into a valley that, once scarred and abused, is now a thriving example of what can be done by volunteer remediation.
There is an industrial park. There is a shopping area. There is a hotel. There are woodland trails. There is a museum. There are wonderful stores there. All this in an area which literally was unapproachable 30 years before.
I mention that because, in many ways, these three stories are the story of our civilization. We have produced a population which is now over-eating the planet we call home. We have in places created a wasteland, which is in need of remediation. But there are places which have been restored and give us encouragement with the prospect that we can do something about this.
I do not want to give the impression, when I talk about this devastation that we are creating, that we should be pessimistic. I believe at the end of it we should be optimistic, but there are things that need to be done. Let me talk about Earth from three different perspectives. And the first one I want to talk about briefly is Earth-Present, the Third Planet, the third planet out from the sun. All of us learned as we grew up, as you go outward from the sun you come to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars.
Venus, first out from the sun, is a remarkable planet. The same size, the same composition, the same density as Earth, but scorchingly hot. 842 degrees Fahrenheit, in fact, with a runaway greenhouse problem, with an atmosphere that is about 100 times denser than the atmosphere of Earth, an atmosphere of CO2 with droplets of hydronium sulfuric acid.
Far from being the benevolent goddess that its name implies, it is, as Carl Sagan once remarked, a picture of the average person's view of hell. The planet Venus, an uninhabitable planet, neighbor of the Earth.
The planet Mars, on the other side of Earth, is known to us because the recent exploration of Mars has revealed a planet very different from Earth. Curiosity Rover, with the wonderful pictures that are now coming in, shows a dead planet, essentially, in contrast to the searing planet, which is our neighbor in Venus, a dead planet that once had running water on it, that now has atmospheric icecaps of CO2, that is essentially one on which nothing could possibly grow. Which may have underground water, we don't yet know, but a planet very different from Earth.
So Earth, in many respects, is a remarkable planet, a Goldilocks planet, neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right, one in which humans and 2 million other named species of animals and plants find a home. It is a planet with liquid water. Without that there would be no existence for us. It has an atmosphere that doesn't crush us, but one that we can breathe.
It has a nickel-iron core. And that nickel-iron core shields us from harmful radiation coming into the upper atmosphere. It is a planet with a circular orbit and just the right rotation period for human beings, so that avoids the extreme temperatures that we might otherwise have and prolonged darkness during certain months.
It is a planet in which the crust is endlessly recycled. And that recycling not only produces the minerals on which we depend, but it provides, at the mid-ocean ridges, it provides new minerals which we now mine and recreates the land.
Is Earth, therefore, the only planet with this kind of characteristics? We don't know, but it seems in many ways unlikely that it is. There are now increasing numbers of stars known with planetary systems, and it seems wholly unlikely that life is restricted to Earth. And that raises profound issues which are worth discussion and worth some thought.
It also assumes, of course, that life depends on the kind of process of living that we observe most of the time here on Earth. But there may be entirely different ways of living that bear no relationship with water and atmospheric oxygen, on which our existence depends. If you go down to the hydrothermal vents of the mid-ocean ridges, you find creatures which live in total darkness and under great pressure and thrive on a diet of hydrogen sulfide, an entirely different pattern of life. All this, the planet Earth.
It's unfortunate, it seems to me, that Earth is known as "Earth." Why not "the ocean planet"? Why not planet Oceanus rather than planet Earth? After all, the oceans cover about 3/4, something between 2/3 and 3/4 of the total planet. They modify the climate and make it congenial. They produce the rainfall and the cloud on which we depend.
If you lopped off the whole of the land above sea level and tipped it into the oceans, the oceans would still be about 8,000 feet deep. They have the highest mountain ranges on Earth. They have the longest mountain ranges on Earth. Why not planet Oceanus rather than planet Earth? Why have we never put that to a vote?
Well, too, too late, you say. But we should at least acknowledge the fact that this is an oceanic planet. Lump all the continents together, and they would still be smaller in area than the Pacific Ocean. A blue planet, the ocean is the matrix of life. It was from the ocean that life originated. It regulates the climate on which we depend. It provides food for many of Earth's inhabitants, including us. It powers the water cycle. The blue planet, the ocean planet.
The third thing I want to mention is that Earth is a veiled planet. It's not simply a planet without an atmosphere. And that has enormous beneficial effects for we who are terrestrial creatures. It gives us not only the air we breathe, but it shields us from ultraviolet radiation. It provides part of the water cycle that allows rain to form on Earth. But we are now changing that atmosphere in which we live.
We are now repairing but have created a hole in the ozone layer, which allows harmful UV radiation, especially in areas around the polar regions. We are increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere, and so are increasing the rate of global warming. And we are releasing greenhouse gases, continuing to release them, which create a continuing problem for us.
So the veiled planet, the atmospheric envelope of the planet in which we live, is now literally under threat from those of us who happen to benefit from it. All this, if I may say so, means that we live on a finite planet. One of the characteristics of Earth is that, in spite of its great antiquity-- 3.65 billion years is the generally agreed figure-- it is in fact a finite planet in terms of the resources available to us.
And as population increases, those resources, the finitude of those resources, does not increase. So much for Earth-Present, the third planet.
Let me say a brief word about Earth-Past. I've mentioned already, the fact that we are witnessing a warming planet, and I want to spend a moment amplifying that. The best summary we have of climate change is the report of a UK commission called the Stern Commission, which made its report to Parliament about three years ago, something like that, three, four years ago.
That report has been widely regarded as the most comprehensive and authoritative report we have on climate change. Does it receive universal agreement and assent? No, there are some people who disagree and disagree sharply with it. But the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and those well-informed on the topic regard its results as broadly correct.
The Stern Commission concludes that since 1900 global temperature has risen by 0.7 degrees centigrade. It has not been a steady rise. At times, it has gone down. It has fluctuated. There have been cooling periods, but if you take the broad balance, that's the increase since 1900. And it concludes, the commission concludes, that that may now be a 400 year high for the planet on which we live.
That may not seem very much, but the danger with a continuing increase of that kind is that it may trigger global feedbacks and other results, which will follow from those global feedbacks. Just to give one example, it could well increase sea level. And there are certain areas of the Earth where sea level is already a problem. The Maldives is one example. And increasing sea level, even by a meter or so, is going to have catastrophic effects upon the local population.
The Stern Commission argues that the cost of remediation, if we do it now, is likely to be something like-- forgive me. Is likely to be something like 1% of gross domestic product. Not everyone agrees that that's exactly the right figure, but that's their estimate.
They then calculate that if you delay remediation, the cost is likely to rise to something between 5% and 20% of gross domestic product. Now, there is a question which we, I hope, can discuss. Balance between remediation, which the Stern Commission recommends, and adaptation, which is accepting a degree of temperature increase and adapting to it. And the balance between those two, it seems to me, is one of the big challenges that confronts us.
The second feature that we can use to characterize the planet, a warming planet, is one that I've already described. We live on a polluted planet. And the degree of pollution is steadily increasing. In the industrial world and in the non-industrial world, that's an increasing problem for us.
And the third one, which compounds and elevates the other two, is that we live on a crowded planet. 300 years ago, it is estimated that there were 600 people living on Earth. 150 years ago, we passed the first billion. And in 2012, as you know, we have just passed 7 billion. And the estimate is that by 2050, we shall go up to 9.6 billion as a high point, and then gradually birth rates will begin to decline to some more stable number.
So we have grown roughly 10 times in population in something like 300 years. Now, clearly that rate of growth is not sustainable. And it will not be sustainable. But the troubling fact is that 99 point something percent of the new growth is going to be in countries of the developing world. And those countries already face formidable problems of health and nutrition.
And yet how can that be a concern? Because even as we've grown 10 times in 300 years, we have continued to feed the population. Not evenly, but across most of the world, people are fed in spite of the problems of undernutrition and malnutrition.
It has come about largely because of the green revolution. But from 1985 onwards, the rate of increase of agricultural production has not kept pace with the rate of growth in human population. The green revolution depended on the use of fertilizers and pesticides on a massive scale. And we have not yet found a way in which we can develop a second green revolution.
The World Health Organization calculates that there are now 3 billion people of our 7 billion. 3 billion out of 7 billion who are undernourished. And the World Wildlife Federation calculates that, given existing numbers, it would take two Earth-sized planets to support our present population.
You may or may not agree with those particular numbers, but the clear implication is that feeding the future growth in population, as we go up to 9.6 billion, is going to be a challenge.
25,000 people die every day from hunger and malnutrition-related diseases. And the problem is, on this crowded planet that continuing deforestation and continuing soil degradation add to the problem that we face.
Well, let me talk a little bit, if I may, about Earth-Future. That's the sustainable planet. You remember that Woody Allen comment? Humankind faces a fork in the road. Along the one road lies frustration and despair. Along the other there lies extinction and annihilation. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose the right path. And that would be true, it seems to me, unless we can understand the situation in which we now find ourselves and take appropriate actions.
Let's talk, then, about the possibility of sustainability. The simplest definition of sustainability is "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising future generations." My colleague, Norm Scott, who is here has a much more comprehensive and adequate definition of sustainability, which I've quoted, but that's a working definition that will allow us, at least, to begin to think about it.
"Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations." The problem with applying that definition to our current situation is the problem of equity. Let me think of equity in terms of the footprint of one of us living here in the United States.
Suppose our footprint is one. Someone living in Europe has a footprint that is one half of ours. Our footprint is twice that of someone living in Europe. It is 12 times the footprint of someone living in India. And it is 24 times the footprint of someone living in Somalia.
So how do we talk about sustainability in terms of the base from which we start? And whose responsibility is it to figure out what that sustainability is going to involve? Both of the populations I've talked about, Europe, let's say, or the US, or Somalia, all those populations have an impact on Earth. But the degree of inequality is increasing.
The basic requirements for survival on Earth are 400 liters of water a day, 300 kilograms of food, mostly from grain, and clothing, and shelter per person per annum. In the US, instead of 400 liters of water a day, we use 100,000 liters of water a day. Instead of 300 kilograms of food per annum, we consume 1,000 kilograms of food per annum, not mostly from grain but mostly from meat, as well as clothing and shelter.
And to take just one typical community, Rhode Island is the figures that I happen to have, the use we make in the US is not only 100,000 liters of water and 1,000 kilograms of food, but also 500 to 1,000 liters of gas for transport, another one to 2,000 equivalent liters of gas for power, and literally tons of metal, and plastics, and chemicals, and other things.
And so the baseline question that I posed a moment ago is it the US, or is it Europe, or is it India, or is it Somalia? Who pays? How do we establish what the baseline is as we think of this future planning? What are the issues? What are the shortages that we have to deal with as a planet?
Well, first water. Water is not being created anymore. The total quantity of water available to us is the quantity that we have, but water use has tripled in the last 50 years. From 1950 to the year 2000, water use has tripled. But the supply of water has not increased. In fact, the problem we face is that water tables are now subsiding in many parts of the world, dangerously so in some areas, worryingly so along the whole Eastern Seaboard, from New Jersey to Florida, where saline waters, as a result of the falling water table, are now making their way into the groundwater.
So first of all, water remains a concern. And second, atmosphere, as I mentioned a moment ago, is something on which we're consciously continuing to degrade our way as we exist. Food continues to be a problem, because from 1985 to 2000 and onwards, we are now not keeping up with the rate of population growth.
Our colleague David Pimentel estimates, as far as soil is concerned for growing food, that 80%-- 80% of the world's soil bank is now impoverished. Moderate or severe erosion has affected 80% of the total soil bank. And he also estimates that hunger and malnutrition kill one person every five seconds. That's an astonishing figure. 10 million people a year.
And the remaining question is energy. How do we provide not just for food, which is challenge enough, but how do we provide energy for 50% more of the population than we now have? Well, energy can come, as we know and we can talk about this, from a variety of sources. But energy is basic, absolutely basic to everything else we do.
From agriculture to heating to manufacturing, everything depends on an adequate supply of energy. We have roughly, if we break them down, 35% of our total energy coming from liquid petroleum. We have roughly 23%, in round figures, coming from natural gas. We have roughly 20% coming from coal in one form or another. We have roughly 8% or 9% coming from nuclear, and we have about 8% coming from renewable.
How do we stretch that energy supply into a meaningful program for the future? It now looks as though we're at or very near the peak for oil production for liquid oil. If we're not actually there, we're within a decade or two. That's the general opinion.
As far as gas goes, there is perhaps another 100 or 200 years available, but not beyond that. Third, renewables? Well, the use of renewables will grow, but it's not at all clear that we can build them up rapidly enough to depend to a greater degree on renewables. Nuclear? Well, nuclear for many is off-limits. And Fukushima Daiichi has been a terrible example of the dangers of nuclear fuel. But can we rule it off-limits?
So what should we do? Are there options? Coal is an attractive one, but coal-burning plants, of which many are now being built in China at the rate of two a week, also create their own problems. So future energy supply is clearly one of our major challenges as we attempt to feed and care for 50% more people on Earth.
I think three questions arise as we talk about this. First of all, is the picture that I've drawn a reasonably accurate diagnosis? Second, if it is, what should we do? And third, who should do it? Who decides these things? Is it local communities? Is it state governments? Is it national governments? Is it UNESCO or the UN or somewhere else?
But I ended by suggesting at the end of the book that there are really half a dozen things. I've actually put 10, but Moses issued 10 commandments, and I'm very conscious that they are honored more in the breach than the observance. So let me suggest some headings of half a dozen that I think we do have to think about, debate as we talk about confronting the issues that we now have.
First of all, we have to reduce consumption. We use twice as much per capita of everything as our friends in Europe. And there are reasons for that. Certainly, it's a much bigger country. We're more widely dispersed, and so we don't have the public transport systems and so on that Europe has. But twice as much? You can live a satisfying life in many parts of Europe on less than we now use. Do we have the possibility of really reducing the level of consumption that we now enjoy?
The second one is, how can we redesign everything, from buildings to communities to manufacturing processes, to reduce energy use and to control emissions, the joint target both those things?
Third, what can we do by way of reuse and recycling that we're not already doing? The world's supply of copper, for example, is very limited. And we cannot recycle all of it, but how can we begin to recycle the things that are most short in terms of supply in order to safeguard our future?
How can we replace things that we now use with materials that are less scarce? Let me give one example. and It was obviously everybody's experience, almost everybody is in this room, that we used to use phone wires that transmitted a phone message over copper cables strung across poles, and that involved the use of copper on a massive scale. Copper was replaced by fiber optics using quartz, Earth's most abundant mineral, and that in turn has now been replaced by the use of cell towers with messages that you can literally pluck out of the air around us.
That's an example of reducing the use of materials by the kind of creative research and discovery on which we're going to depend. That leads to my fourth point, which is the vital need for researching new materials and new methods, new techniques and new approaches. It seems to me that here the universities play a pivotal role, and that represents something that we should talk about together. Are we ready as a university community to assume a degree of responsibility for caring for the home planet?
I also want to come back to this question of rebalancing, restoring the balance between remediation and adaptation. Because it seems to me there is just no hope that we can remediate the atmosphere on the scale that we're now talking about, but adapting to some degree of temperature increase is likely to be a much more manageable prospect.
Well, that's my outline. And it's one person's view of a whole world's challenges. There's an old Native American proverb, which says "We do not inherit the earth from our parents. We borrow it from our children and grandchildren." And I believe that's profoundly wise, because the challenge we face is the challenge of how do we hand on a sustainable planet, a livable planet, to the next generation. And that's worth some discussion. Thank you.
I'm not sure what the drill is now, but--
MARY OCHS: You can take questions.
FRANK HT RHODES: Oh, OK, thank you. Yes, please?
AUDIENCE: Frank, you've convinced me totally that we live in nirvana now. And when the ocean goes up three feet, New York City will move here. I hope I am dead then.
FRANK HT RHODES: Rise in sea level is not just a threat to the Maldives. You're right. It's a threat to the Manhattan coastline. And of course, places have already begun to adapt to it. The Thames barrage in London, the barrier around New Orleans that's been tested recently are examples of the huge cost of adapting to rising sea level. But it isn't over, and it will continue, as you say. A big problem for us. Big question. I should escape now.
AUDIENCE: Is adaptation really an alternative to remediation? It sounds like that could draw people away from remediation that might be essential.
FRANK HT RHODES: I'm sorry, I'm having trouble hearing.
AUDIENCE: Do you consider adaptation alternative to remediation? It sounds like that could draw people away from remedial efforts that might be essential.
FRANK HT RHODES: Yeah. Yeah, the question as I understand it is, does the suggestion that we should balance adaptation with remediation increase the danger that we won't remediate at all? I think that that is a question, and one that we've got to debate as a community. It's not an easy one, and it may not be a one for which there's a universal answer. It may depend to some extent on regional communities, but it's a very significant question.
I did a little program earlier this week on WSKG, which was a call in show. And I must confess, some of the questions that came on that one were very interesting questions for which no degree of preparation is likely to prepare you.
MARY OCHS: Are there any other questions?
AUDIENCE: Frank, do you have any thoughts about a lot of the disinformation that seems to becoming a popular way to attack the science on global warming? A lot of media, it seems to me, for example, the Weather Channel, I believe, has a policy against mentioning in climate change or global warming, because they're afraid they may lose advertising revenue if they enter an area that's deemed by some people to be controversial.
And it seems to me that if the science is strong. we're playing along with people who are not playing fairly. In other words, they're not telling the truth.
FRANK HT RHODES: I think it's very difficult for those of us who do accept global warming to find much common ground with those who deny it. Because even though, I don't know, 97% of climate scientists would agree with you, we've had just recently an example of a professional paper, not a professional paper, but public statements from a climate scientist which went in exactly the opposite direction.
And I'm sympathetic that the public doesn't quite know what to make of this division. Nothing, of course, is ever subject to 100% agreement. There are still people who believe in a flat Earth, and can prove it. And it's very difficult to debate those individuals. But I think we do the best we can. You know, we live in a democratic country and an increasingly democratic world, and simply trying to point out patiently and slowly that these are the facts of the case is going to help.
I feel some understanding for the people who still are uncertain about global warming. For a while, I myself was one of them, but I've become fully persuaded by the evidence. But I tended to take the long geological view and say, oh, well, you know, we're in an interglacial or a post-glacial. If it's post-glacial, it'll go on warming. If it's an interglacial, it'll change in a different direction.
But I think the evidence is now convincing, fully convincing. And we have to keep on describing that message. Yes, please?
AUDIENCE: One of the suggestions that you mentioned earlier is for us to reduce our consumption. I was wondering what some concrete steps that we can take to do that, given that we live, at least in America, in a sociotechnical system, I would call, that makes it hard for us to do so.
FRANK HT RHODES: Yes. Well, let me give two very simple examples. One is that most of us grew up with just throwing everything into the garbage. Now, we recycle. And we do that willingly, more or less, and very carefully. And the result are significant. The recycling of paper, for example, the recycling of plastic and cans, are significant contributions to reducing consumption.
Secondly, there is a study recently that suggests that in our country, in this country, 40% of the food produced is wasted, is thrown away in one fashion or another. I don't know how that can be, but that was a figure I read recently. What can we really do as a society to reduce waste of something as precious as food when a significant portion of the people in the world are without it?
I think that a public discussion of, let's say, that narrow point, what can we do to reduce food waste in this country, would be a very significant contribution. Yes, please?
AUDIENCE: We have an example of recycling success right here on campus. We've gone from a rate of 10% recycling 25 years ago to over 62% of our solid waste today at Cornell.
FRANK HT RHODES: That's impressive. That's very impressive. And of course, you know, with something like-- coming back to the campus for a moment, with something like lake source cooling, in spite of the fact that there's still opposition to it, that's been a real contribution to reduction of greenhouse gases. One little example of one particular university doing something about it. And that's why I think you don't have to have an international agreement on this. Communities can do something about this and still make a difference.
AUDIENCE: Mr. Rhodes, the energy use by country is very strongly correlated with GDP. And with developing countries, such as China and India, trying to increase their production and a better lifestyle for those individuals, has anyone ever, that you know of, is there any way of predicting how much energy they will be using if they come anywhere near a European type of lifestyle?
FRANK HT RHODES: Yeah, it's a very important question, and I don't know the answer to it. When I projected that we'd need 50% more, I based it solely on the increase in population, which won't be quite 50% but will approach that. But the increasing prosperity of India and China in particular, with their huge populations, is not factored in. And that's an added question.
And you know, this question of what energy supply we're going to rely on is really a huge part of the discussion about the future. Japan, I noticed just this week, which had decided to ban the construction of any future nuclear power stations, has decided to reconsider that. And that's interesting in a country that suffered so much from recent events. Yes, please?
AUDIENCE: You suggested that overcrowding is one of our big problems, and I absolutely agree with you. The other problems are somewhat amenable to technological solutions, energy, recycling, all the rest. But this is one that seems like a very, very difficult problem, the overcrowding. Are there any solutions being talked about, or do you have any ideas about how we'll manage that problem?
FRANK HT RHODES: Yeah. I wish I thought that it was possible to control human nature. I don't. I think that's the problem, you know? I have four daughters. We have four daughters, my wife and I, before it became fashionable to have such families. And they're precious, each of them. But I think the problem there is, without imposing on people's choice, how do we really get to this new balance we have to face of feeding 50% more people?
I don't think that's undoable. I'm not pessimistic as I look at the future. I think Woody Allen was wrong in that sense. But working together to do it is the problem, and then how we begin to work together. Universities, I think, can play a huge role in this. Suppose Cornell committed itself to a major program in sustainability, cutting across all the boundaries and division, where everybody, Engineering and Ag, for example, were in a college which has to be worried about feeding that number of people.
How could we get together and make this one of the leading objectives of a great university such as this one? That would be an enormous Contribution we've got the Atkinson Center, and that's started. But can we bring in even more people to work cooperatively on what's really the biggest challenge that our society is going to face?
Well, you've been very patient, and I thank you very much.
MARY OCHS: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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In "Earth: A Tenant's Manual," distinguished geologist Frank H. T. Rhodes, President Emeritus of Cornell University, provides a sweeping, accessible, and informed guide to the home we all share, showing us how we might best preserve the Earth's livability for ourselves and future generations. The book is a comprehensive look at the structure of the planet, an analysis of how it is being depleted, and a road map for sustainability.
In this "Chat in the Stacks" book talk, Dr. Rhodes discusses how new resources, new priorities and policies, and most of all, new knowledge, can lead us to a sustainable future.