By David L. Brown
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, at least in Sir Isaac Newton’s view of the physical world as expressed in his Third Law. In the even more complex venues of politics and economics similar principals apply, and can often be best described by the application of another “law,” that of unexpected consequences.
Witness the worldwide threat to forests and the various ways in which nations are responding. For example, I have seen reports that China is decimating tropical forests in Indonesia in a frenzy of building to prepare for the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. Meanwhile, China itself has already deforested much of its own territory, and with serious environmental consequences.
Faced with erosion, dust storms, and a threatened agricultural base, as it sucks up Indonesia’s forests for its building boom, China is planting new trees, as described by geoscientist and environmental engineer Daniel Collins in his blog Down to Earth:
For some years now China has been engaged in a campaign to reduce erosion of its agricultural lands by planting trees. While this erosion has been exacerbated in the last century, it’s been going on for millennia. … The costs of both reduced agricultural productivity and flood control are high, and so China is planting trees, as well as reducing the number of trees cut down.
So far we have one nation (Indonesia) allowing its native forests to be cut down for the use of the Chinese, and on the other hand China itself seeking to increase the number of trees in its own territory. But it doesn’t stop there, for as Collins reports, China’s dedication to planting new forests [afforestation] has now affected the Japanese, who have heretofore obtained 97% of their wooden chopsticks from China.
To protect their growing new forests, the Chinese have placed a special export tax on chopsticks and exporters have added even more to the price, forcing the Japanese to seek other sources. That, in accordance with the law of unintended consequences, will mean that some other forests — probably in corrupt Third World countries where the scent of money outweighs any concern for the environment — will soon be providing Japan with its chopsticks. The result: more precious tropical forests will be falling before the voracious chainsaws.
But this story of action and reaction doesn’t even end there. As Collins says:
Another consequence of this afforestation program that China should be concerned with is water supply. More trees means more transpiration, and less water for growing crops. The first cases I think of come from South Africa and Argentina, though no doubt the problem is much more wide spread. Afforestation may seem green, but it’s not all roses. (Read the rest here.)
So now we have the circle of cause and effect going from China to Indonesia, back to China, thence to Japan, and then back to China once more, around and around like the proverbial dragon swallowing its own tail. And in the end, thanks to unintended consequences, by reducing the available water supply this particular chain of effects has the potential to initiate a new and even more serious chain of ecological effects in China, a nation that faces the requirement to feed a population that has passed the one billion mark and is zooming ever upward.
This chain of effects is an excellent example of how no action can stand alone, each decision leading to unanticipated results which in turn can lead to new decisions and further results, ad infinitum. A myriad of such decision…action…reaction…decision… chains form a twisted web of political and economic consequences that places constant and steadily growing pressure on Spaceship Earth.
Before we end our little story, there is one more law to be considered, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which has been discussed here on Star Phoenix Base by my associate Val Germann, as recently as this morning. In brief, the Second Law states that every action leads to greater disorganization (“entropy”). No process that consumes energy (and everything in Nature does) can do so without some of that energy being wasted, and thus entropy can be said always to increase.
Through billions of years of evolution, the ecology of our planet has “devised” intricate ways to keep the planetary environment in balance despite ever-present entropy (i.e., by utilizing and recycling solar heat through a variety of natural processes; without the energy provided by the Sun our planet would soon approach the average temperature of empty space, or about three degrees above absolute zero).
But even with the warmth of the Sun, balance can be maintained only as long as near status quo is maintained — without stability, significant changes can and will lead to environmental chaos (i.e., giant meteors causing massive extinctions; ancient climate changes turning the planet into a frozen “Iceball Earth”).
In the present that delicate balance of Nature is once again being tipped and disrupted, not by a natural event such as a meteor strike or sweeping climate change, but by those commercial, political, and economic webs of human activity. Just as surely as the dinosaurs are not alive today, those runaway forces have put entropy on a fast track and are leading us toward a global environmental disaster.
And thus, through human ignorance, greed and lack of caring, our Earth is becoming a lesser place and our own future is in serioius doubt.