BY MIKE MAGEE
A few weeks ago New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote, “We Are Opening The Lid On Two Giant Pandoras Boxes.” He was referring to 1) artificial Intelligence (AI) which most agree has the potential to go horribly wrong unless carefully regulated, and 2) global warming leading to water mediated flooding, drought, and vast human and planetary destruction.
Friedman argues that we must accept the risk of pursuing one (rapid fire progress in AI) to potentially uncover a solution to the other. But positioning science as savior quite misses the point that it is human behavior (a combination of greed and willful ignorance), rather than lack of scientific acumen, that has placed our planet and her inhabitants at risk.
The short and long term effects of fossil fuels and carbonization of our environment were well understood before Al Gore took “An Inconvenient Truth” on the road in 2006. So were the confounding factors including population growth, urbanization, and surface water degradation.
When I first published “Healthy Waters,” the global population was 6.5 billion with 49% urban, mostly situated on coastal plains. It is now 8 billion with 57% urban and slated to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 with 63% urban. 552 cities around the globe now contain populations exceeding 1 million citizens.
Under ideal circumstances, this urban migration could serve our human populations with jobs, clean air and water, transportation, housing and education, health care, safety and security. Without investment however, this could be a death trap.
Clean, safe water is fundamental to maintaining the health and productivity of these city dwellers. Investment in water infrastructure, according to the OCED, delivers a 3 to 1 return on investment. So the money should be easy to find. But it’s not. And it’s not for a lack of science or technology. It is an issue of priorities. For example, American citizens manage to find 16 billion a year to spend on bottled water, almost always no better, and occasionally worse, than common tap water.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her novel “Braiding Sweetgrass,” writes: “Among our Potawatomi people, women are the Keepers of Water. We carry the sacred water to ceremonies and act on its behalf. ‘Women have a natural bond with water, because we are both life bearers,’ my sister said. ‘We carry our babies in internal ponds and they come forth into the world on a wave of water. It is our responsibility to safeguard the water for all our relations.’”
When it comes to planetary health, that is the kind of respect, common sense, and imagination we need to yield quicker and better results than AI. Planetary health requires well ordered priorities and shifts in human behavior like the recent trend away from huge, dangerous and disruptive hydroelectric energy projects like the Three Gorges Dam in China. Humans now rely on hydroelectric projects for 16% of the world’s energy. That’s good in that it is renewable and lowers carbon emissions. But its’ effect on the environment, displacing humans and animals with dam construction, and playing a role in catastrophic disasters when dams fail, has drawn criticism.
In response, a simple solution called “pumped storage” is rapidly supplanting huge dam projects. The system is simple – two reservoirs, one high and one low. When energy use is low, water is pumped into the upper reservoir. When demand is high, water is allowed to flow into the lower reservoir through turbines that generate needed energy. Places like China, which has been all in on hydropower, has switched 80% of their future projects to “pumped storage” because it is fast, safe and effective, and can “provide a flexible backup for wind and solar.” The key insight is that the reservoir system acts as a battery, storing potential energy ready to go, on demand, without adding the additional cost of storage.
Knee-jerk over reliance on scientific inventiveness lets us all off the hook. Before we give a green light to the next batch of dot-come gazillionaires, we’d be smart to ask two questions: What makes sense? and What’s best for the health of all Americans?
In fairness to Tom Friedman, he warns about putting all our eggs in the scientific basket without tightening regulations that support “scaled sustainable values.” Yet his final words do little to encourage confidence based on past history and performance. As he puts it, “God save us if we acquire godlike powers to part the Red Sea but fail to scale the Ten Commandments.”
Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and author of “CODE BLUE: Inside the Medical-Industrial Complex.”