Nov 5, 2007
$80 Oil Might Be a Great Incentive for Needed Change

I got a phone call recently from a man I hadn’t seen in 20 years, and it was delightful. “Remember me?” he asked. Nobody ever forgot him.

Now age 90, I knew he was retired (he denies it) and lives in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, gardening and loving life with his wife of 69 years.

This man is an optimist. When other people’s glasses are half full, he’s out watering the garden because his glass keeps running over.

He was famous during his career as a horticulturist. In the 1950s, he made the front page of The New York Times, standing on a stepladder looking over lettuce plants he’d treated with gibberellic acid. During those years, he also discovered the profound effects of fertilizing greenhouse air with carbon dioxide, which later became a common practice.

Not surprisingly, today he is a leading advocate in favor of global warming. What carbon dioxide does inside greenhouses has been extended, through human activities largely in burning fossil fuels, to the entire atmosphere. What’s wrong with the world being warmer and growing more plants?

The man is Sylvan Wittwer. After making a name in horticulture in Michigan, he became the state’s long-serving director of the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station. He “retired” in 1984 to go on to write, with four Chinese co-authors, a fabulous book called “Feeding a Billion,” in which, in 1987, he made it clear why the Chinese were not going to starve like they were “supposed to” in more pessimistic worldviews.

During a banquet meeting at Michigan State University somewhere in the ’70s, I asked one of the better questions of my journalistic career. Wittwer was on the program as a speaker with Lester Brown, the founder and president of the World Watch Institute, an organization that monitors and reports on the state of the earth and its natural resources.

What a program! One of the world’s leading pessimists paired with the world’s most optimistic scientist.

My question: “How many people can the earth sustain?”

Brown said 6 billion. He explained that world resources could sustain that many and they would live reasonably well. On an optimistic note, he said he expected the population wouldn’t rise much above that, because people were becoming better educated, had better resources for family planning, and improving control of disease and access to food didn’t require people to have large families because fewer children died. His assessment turned out to be true, more or less.

Wittwer said 44 billion. He didn’t advocate that we have 44 billion, but using all the resources of modern agriculture, we could produce enough food for everybody.

Wittwer was famous for giving a slide show that paraded all the possibilities for increased food production. A scientist, he believed in progress. He had one slide of salt-tolerant tomatoes growing on a sandy ocean beach.

Wittwer lives what be believes. He sent me a signed copy of his latest book, which is a modest description of how to grow a garden in the desert. Pictures on the cover show him and wife Maurine looking tanned, trim and physically fit, and his phone call revealed a voice and mind to match.

While I enjoy Wittwer’s boundless optimistic enthusiasm, I wonder whether in the long run fertilizing the world’s atmosphere will turn out to be as beneficial as fertilizing the air in a greenhouse. The reports are still conflicting.

Yes, we’ve found the Northwest Passage! It was buried under the Arctic ice. This last September, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic receded to its lowest level ever recorded and it now looks as if shipping will be possible across the top of the world.

Also true, polar bears are not getting enough hunt time on firm ice, and neither are the Eskimos. Eskimo hunters are drowning as they fall through thinning ice.

The ocean is not going to rise 17 feet as the ice caps melt, as Al Gore said in his film “An Inconvenient Truth.” But they probably will rise 2 feet, and that’s enough to wipe out Indian Ocean and South Pacific islands and threaten coastlines worldwide.

Yes, it would be nice to have a shorter, warmer winter in Michigan, and grape growers here are looking at more tender varieties than they were able to grow just a few years ago. But will that offset the inconvenience of more and massively stronger hurricanes along the Gulf Coast?

There are just too many unknowns.

A little arithmetic and chemistry reveal the massive numbers involved. Just to burn one barrel of oil (weight about 300 pounds) pulls more than 1,000 pounds of oxygen from the air and converts the resulting mix into more than 900 pounds of carbon dioxide and 400 pounds of water. Not only does it add carbon dioxide, it depletes oxygen, magnifying the effect.

Rarely mentioned is the solubility of carbon dioxide in water. We’re fertilizing the ocean, too, growing more phytoplankton and thus more fish – but reducing the pH and dissolving calcium-containing shellfish and coral in the carbonic acid solution.

We may be recycling carbon and making oil. Billions of tons of carbon fall to the ocean floor each year from life at the surface, but who knows whether the sediments become methane hydrates or oil 100 million years from now?

It’s all very complicated – a huge experiment that could go right or wrong.

On the other side, $80-a-barrel oil seems to imply that things are going to change, no matter what. The 150-year oil experiment, in which we altered our atmosphere for eons to come, is coming to a halt, not because of rational planning but because of necessary reaction to the rising price. Despite the huge supply of oil – 84 million barrels a day produced worldwide – there is still not enough to go around, so demand and price is soaring.

It will be better for us all when we turn away from gorging on oil and find better ways of powering our lives. I am optimistic about that. Like Wittwer, I have faith in science.

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